St Nicholas – Literally a Saint – who is thought to be the original ‘Santa Claus’ before Coca-Cola got their grubby hands on him…

Nicholas was born to wealthy parents on what is now the southern coast of Turkey in the 3rd Century. Alas, Nicholas’ parents died in an epidemic and the orphaned boy, being a devout Christian, took Jesus at his word and promptly sold his new-found inheritance and gave the money to the poor and needy. He became Bishop of Myra whilst still a young man and he became legend throughout the country (then part of Greece) for his generosity and benevolence.

There are many stories that make up the legend of St Nick but perhaps the most relevant to what became Christmas tradition is that of a local poor man and his three daughters who, without dowries, were destined to be sold into slavery. On three occasions, a bag of gold was mysteriously thrown through a window and landed in stockings put by the fire to dry – thus saving the daughters from servitude. The giver was said to be St Nicholas – hence the tradition of hanging your stockings over the fireplace to be filled with goodies.

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The Krampus – Christmas Goat Devils that prowl the streets punishing naughty children

In Slovenia they take it a bit further than ‘if you’re naughty Father Christmas won’t bring you any presents’ they have full-on fanged, fiery Goat Demons who prowl the streets in search of naughty children in order to punish them…by licking them with a snaked tongue and whipping them with a birch stick! Krampus derives from German tradition and shows up on the night of December 5th – Krampusnacht to punish the naughty children and drag them into the underworld. Fast forward to present day and Krampus has morphed into pissed up men dressed as devils running through the streets during Krampuslauf chasing people. If you fancy a run-in with the Krampus you’ll find them in varying forms in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic…

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Ded Moroz – Russia’s answer to Father Christmas

He may not sound like it but Ded Moroz is actually one of the nicer traditions of Christmas much along the lines of Father Christmas – altho’ round and jolly he ain’t! He’s thin and adorned in a long robe – there’s no Rudolph, Prancer et al either, he rides around in a troika pulled by three horses and delivers presents to boys and girls (who have been good of course…) and he’s not alone – his Granddaughter Snegurochka – a pig-tailed fairy also known as the Snow Maiden accompanies him to ensure the evil Baba Yaga doesn’t nick all the goods.

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Perchta – Half witch half-demon with a goose or swan’s foot – she’s not just ugly…she’s nasty…

Europe has a strong tradition of witches and witchcraft over the Christmas period and Perchta is the mother of all witches. Roaming the streets, she punishes young and old alike – her modus operandi is to slash open your stomach, pull out your intestines and fill the gap with straw and rubbish – she will then sew you back up and move on to her next victim, and she also doesn’t travel alone – she has a throng of demonic sidekicks; straggele who like to get in on the act too. She can have a nice side too, rewarding children with pieces of silver for good behaviour.

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La Befana – think Father Christmas but a witch…

If you look at her you wouldn’t think it – this Italian legend is portrayed as a witch complete with broomstick but who also has a bag of gifts on her back. The legend springs from a kind woman who allegedly offered food and shelter to the three wise men on their journey to see the baby Jesus. Like Father Christmas she comes down the chimney to leave gifts, but unlike Father Christmas, she sweeps the floor on her way out – how thoughtful!

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Grýla – Icelandic ogress and her scary-arsed sidekicks

Grýla lives in the mountains of Iceland and comes to the towns every Christmas to hunt down and eat naughty children! Her gigantic evil cat the Yule Cat accompanies her and her 13 sons – the Yule Lads who come to cause mayhem. Tradition has it that children would leave a shoe in their bedroom window each night for 13 nights before Christmas – if they had been good they would get a gift, if they had been bad they would get a rotten potato courtesy of the Yule Lads – better that than being eaten by Grýla and her feline friend.

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