There are ethereal visitors in many end of the year customs. Some are unpleasant and even violent. Others are benevolent gift-bearers. Most early gift-bearers brought New Years gifts. All seem to have a theme of rewarding good and punishing bad. Here are a handful of some lesser-known characters:
Woden/Wotan/Odin and his flying, white eight-legged horse led an army across the sky during Saturnalia. He had black birds that would act as lookouts during his journey. Children would leave hay, carrots and sugar for the horse. Public banquets that spanned days included masters serving their slaves and gifts exchanged including dolls, candles, caged birds. A king of the festivities was elected and would preside over the celebration.
St. Martin an adult male dressed as a bishop, complete with staff. He gives apples, nuts, and cakes to good children and rods to bad children. In some stories, he fills stockings. It has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden.
Befana-Grandmother Prior to Nicholas of Myrna (St. Nick) tossing coins down the chimneys of spinsters, Befana or Grandmother, was part of Italian folklore. Befana would visit children the night before the Feast of the Epiphany¹. She would come while the children were sleeping and fill their stockings with candy and presents or coal. Families would leave a glass of wine and some snacks for her. She may also sweep the house. Befana traditions are believed to have originated in Rome and spread from there. The followers of Nicholas of Myrna were able to grow their fervor and remade shrines to Befana to Nicholas of Myrna. However, Befana is still celebrated in Italy with festivals and celebrations.
Saint Nicholas of Myrna is best know for secretly gifting sacks of gold to three unmarried young women without dowries to save them from prostitution. He is celebrated as a patron saint of sailors and giving gifts in secret. His rise in popularity came from a small but devoted group who spread their devotion throughout the world. Even today, children put out stockings full of hay for his horse and receive candy and gifts in exchange. Also known as Sinterclaus in the Netherlands and surrounding areas,during the 16th century in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas would leave small gifts. These traditions grew and morphed in fits and starts. Also called Sinterclaus, some festivities geared toward helping the poor with anonymous gifts started during the middles ages. There was also a lot of partying.
Knecht Ruprecht often accompanied Saint Nicholas. He rewards children who say their prayers perfectly with small edible treats and punishes those who do not.
Christ Child, Christkind was a reaction by the church to turn Saint Nicholas traditions toward Jesus Christ. One bishop wrote: “[Saint Nicholas] is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon.” Christkind was developed and made popular by Martin Luther. Sometimes portrayed as a woman but most often a male, they bring gifts to many children in eastern and central europe as well as Central America. They are intended to symbolize Jesus Christ as a child.
Kolyáda, a maiden dressed all in white who goes from home to home on Christmas Eve in a sled with runners. Kolyáda is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear. Koyada was most common in pre-communist Russia.
Grandfather Frost (Ded Moraz) emerged in Russia and other slavic areas from a god of snow and ice called Morozko after Kolyada. Popularity varied until Stalin reinvigorated Grandfather Frost in the 1940s complete with a blue suit and new years gifts. His traditional Russian sled is pulled by three white horses, each horse symbolizing one month of winter.
I hope you enjoy these characters and that some are new to you as they were to me. If there is character I missed, please share in the comments. Next up, Celebrating with Light
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¹ The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by Catholics and Protestants since before they celebrated the birth of Jesus. It commemorates the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It also celebrates the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.