The Many Masks of Christmas

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By Chris Schliefert

It’s approaching that time of year again, loved by some, dreaded by others and as always; advertised far too early and over-commercialised by every retailer looking to make a quick buck. Christmas, that time of year when we look forward to a fat, bearded guy and his overworked animal team committing the largest known breaking and entering spree known to the modern world, all in the space of one night.

Christmas hasn’t always been solely the day for overweight geriatrics to revel in sneaking into people’s houses for fun though, there are many other characters who seek a share of the holiday spotlight (though they do still like to break into your house to leave you gifts).

One of my personal favourites is the Krampus. The Krampus is said to be the counterpart to jolly ol’ Saint Nick. Otherwise known as Ol’ Nick (aka the Devil), the Krampus usually appears as a hairy, demon looking, fellow with horns on his head and goat hooves instead of feet. He isn’t without a sense of style though, and is sometimes depicted as a rather sinister looking fellow in a snappy black suit. His job was to find all the naughty children and punish them, usually by dragging them from their beds and putting them into a sack on his back. What he did with them after that was ultimately up to his whims; sometimes he’d take them away to be eaten, other times, when he’d had his fill of young long pig, he’d merely take them and throw them into a fiery pit. Unfortunately he fell out of popularity in most places except Europe, leading to Santa having to pull double shifts and see to both good and naughty kids.

Italy has a figure known as the Befana. She’s technically not an alternative to Santa though as she doesn’t go around on Christmas to see the children, she visits children on the eve of a festival known as the Feast of the Epiphany. Depicted as an old woman, usually dressed in black and carrying a broom, she climbs in through the chimney, like Santa, to give the good children lollies and small gifts. Unlike Santa though, the Befana will actually go through your house and sweep the floors for you as well (if only all holiday figures were this accommodating!). She doesn’t like to be seen though and is known to whack people with her broom so that she can get about her work. It’s customary to leave a small amount of food and drink for her too, seeing as sweeping all those houses would be thirsty work. While Santa gets milk, the Befana is lucky enough to be left wine (probably because she doesn’t have to operate heavy machinery like Santa and his sleigh).

The countries of the former USSR have an entity known as Ded Moroz, or in English, Grandfather Frost. He’s been through some changes over the years though; originally starting out as a malicious old sorcerer who entertained himself by freezing children and then putting them in a sack before taking them away. Parents who loved their children would give him presents as a ransom to try and get their kids back, as to how successful this was, I can’t say, but either he wasn’t very good at stealing kids or he was easily appeased with gifts as the countries are still thriving today.

Orthodox traditions worked their magic upon him though and now he’s a kindly old gift giver that is a lot like Santa. However, Ded Moroz is now accompanied by his granddaughter and helper, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) in his three reindeer powered sleigh. Being the only holiday figure to have familial help makes him unique amongst holiday figures.

So this Christmas season, it might pay to think outside the box a little when planning the festivities, as there are many more wonderful variations of the holiday out there, waiting to be investigated.

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