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.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.