Christmas Around the World: Interesting Cultural Christmas Characters & Traditions

In honor of the holiday, let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to visit different cultural Christmas characters and traditions from around the world.

We’ll stop off in Italy to sweep up with La Belfana, in the Netherlands to try on shoes with Sinterklaas and, of course, in Austria, to whip through the snowy streets with Krampus.

Hop on Sinterklaas’ trusty steed, Amerigo, and let’s admire the world of Christmas culture!

Belfana in Italy

Image Credit: Naturpuur

The folkloric La Befana is a Christmas witch that is said to have been invited by the Three Wise Men to deliver gifts to the Christ child.

After refusing the invitation, she had a change of heart and tried to follow the Magi in their journey but, unfortunately, couldn’t catch up.

She never did meet Jesus, but she gave all the gifts intended for him to other children, and her kindhearted nature is still celebrated in Italy today.

Instead of leaving out cookies for Santa, some leave out a glass of wine or panettone for La Befana to kick back after she fills their stockings.

The good witch even sweeps up the home before flying off on her broomstick.

Sinterklaas in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas may be the nearest on this list to most cultures’ traditional idea of Santa Claus. 

He is the Dutch depiction of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop on whom Santa Claus is based.

But unlike the American version, the Dutch Sinterklaas rides not a sleigh with reindeer but a white horse named Amerigo. And all his helpers are not called elves but rather “the Peters.”

Sinterklaas wears a red cape and miter and delivers gifts and treats to children’s shoes, which they place near the chimney or back door. 

Most of Sinterklaas’ gifts are of the sweet variety, including marzipan, spiced biscuits, and gingerbread men.

Krampus in Austria

What would a Christmas character list be without a cameo from Krampus?

While most of the world has Father Christmas or jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, Austria went another way.

Each year, the country scares the life out of children with St. Nick’s evil counterpart and accomplice, the ghoul that is Krampus.

The son of Norse goddess, Hel, Krampus is derived from the word for “claw” (krampen) in German.

Santa may have a list of children who are “naughty” or “nice,” offering only coal to the former, but Krampus acts on punishing bad behavior. 

Krampus is said to haunt the streets of Austria in search of bad children – and many actually don his fanged and horned mask, carrying birch tree branches to “whip” the naughty into shape.

The worst of these children, he carries back to his lair in the underworld.

So, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” because Krampus is coming to town.

Celebratory Food: How Dishes are Tied to History & Religion Through Sacred Stories

A soup of unleavened bread.

A crescent-shaped pastry.

A turnip harvested in the prairie.

What do these three foods have in common?

They’re celebratory foods made important through tradition and the stories we weave.

History, religion, and spirituality play a part in creating the lore and sacred stories behind our favorite holiday meals and treats, as well as our everyday gruel.

From Jewish passover to Viennese Christmas, let’s take a trip around the world with these celebratory dishes.

Jewish Matzo Ball Soup

Enjoyed during Passover, Matzo Ball Soup is presented at Seder supper.

In celebrating a holiday where the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, the symbolic meal represents this tale in the Biblical Exodus.

The Jews ate unleavened bread when fleeing, which is represented in the Matzo.

The dash of bitter horseradish symbolizes slavery’s bitterness.

Austrian Vanillekipferl

The Vanillekipferl is a pastry that’s shaped like a “kipferl” – or crescent moon.

Originating in Vienna around four centuries ago, the pastry’s lore says that the kipferl was developed by Austrians to symbolize their victory over the Ottoman Turks, whose banner held a crescent moon.

Funnily enough, the Vanillekipferl’s shape was developed into other pastries – specifically, the croissant which found its way to France.

The French adapted it with puffed pastry, creating a whole new spin on the tasty treat.

Blackfeet Indian Prairie Turnips

Various native tribes in America viewed certain foods as sacred and tied them to important lore.

Prairie turnips, for instance, were believed to come from the “Sky realm” by the Blackfeet Indians.

Feather Woman (Soatsaki) learned how to harvest prairie turnips from her mother-in-law, the Moon (Ko’komiki’somm).

She then returned to Earth to spread the word, making the prairie turnip a staple in Blackfeet cuisine.

Food + Stories = Tradition

Each of these foods has its lore, and its lore is what makes eat bite special.

From the symbolic nature of the Matzo Ball Soup to the celebratory nature of the crescent-shaped Vanillekipferl to sacred staples like maize to the Mayans or prairie turnips to the Blackfeet Indians, the rich stories that accompany such foods keep the oven hot.

And they keep our traditions cooking.