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.

Religion & Culture: Individual Vs. Cultural Behavior

During the 1994 World Cup, Heineken took center stage…and not in a good way.

In a bid of inclusion, Heineken printed the flag of every country participating in the Cup on its beer bottle.

Unfortunately, this included the flag of Saudi Arabia, which holds a holy creed, “There is no god but the God; Muhammad is the Messenger of the God.”

Islam, of course, forbids alcohol, so the blunder led to major hostilities in the Muslim world.

Heineken was forced to recall and discontinue this promotion, leading to loss of revenue and a bruised public image.

This is one example of what can happen when a business does not account for religious cultural norms.

Personal Faith Versus Cultural Behaviors

Religion influences both individuals and entire cultures.

Individual behavior is impacted by personal belief, while cultural behavior is often impacted by religious practices and norms.

A Christian attends mass every Sunday.

A Muslim prays in the direction of Mecca five times a day.

A Jew dons a Kipa.

All of these are religious behaviors based on individual convictions. That is, they may not impact an entire society or culture.

So, what types of behaviors do influence entire cultures?

One might differentiate between a cultural behavior and a personal one by identifying whether or not religious norms and values impact even non-believers..

Christmas & Easter

One glaring example of this is religious holidays.

Christmas and Easter are holidays that have become ingrained in Western culture; even those who are not of Christian faith celebrate said holidays.

In such cultures, holiday rituals – like decorating a Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, or even attending church – are often observed by those who do not practice religion.

Despite embracing these holiday rituals which are grounded in religion, those same celebrants may not necessarily routinely attend mass or celebrate any other elements of Christianity.

Particularly in Europe, attending church is often a personal conviction, rather than a cultural one.

The South

Visit the South in the U.S., and you might view mass attendance differently.

In some states or regions, going to church is a cultural expectation. It can improve both your social life, your professional life, and even your political life.

In this way, religious behavior is a cultural element in the South, meaning it is conditioned by the culture rather than by religion itself.

Why Must You Know This Distinction

When living and working in a foreign culture, this distinction between religious individual behavior and religious cultural behavior is an important one.

Behaviors based in personal belief can be disregarded without major repercussions; but those based in cultural belief simply cannot.

Preparing to accept, adapt, and adopt pervasive religious cultural beliefs is an important step in cultural integration.