Santa who? 4 Gift givers from other cultures


18th Dec 2020 Christmas

Santa who? 4 Gift givers from other cultures

Taylor Hermerding, the editor in didactics at language learning app Babbel fills us in on gift-givers from around the world. 

It’s the holidays! A time when families across the world settle down to enjoy festive stories, fables, and traditions.

For many in the UK, we’re excitedly getting ready for a visit from Father Christmas and his reindeer. However, he isn’t every nation’s favourite Christmas character. Many cultures celebrate end-of-year with different traditions than ours. For example, the Spanish feel the most festive when beating a log (we know what you're thinking… but read on), while children in Scandinavia won’t be looking out for Santa—they’ll be trying to spot a giant goat.

To celebrate the sometimes bizarre and entertaining world of Christmas fables, and to help you freshen up your own festivities, the team at Babbel dug up some of the weirdest and most wonderful holiday gift-givers from around the world, to show you a different side of Christmas folklore this year!


1. A Pooping Present Log (Catalonia, Spain)

Caga Tió - a log with a smiley face beneath a red blanket

Children in Catalonia don’t get their Christmas presents from a stocking above the mantelpiece—they get them from a Christmas log called Caga Tió, which in English literally means “pooping uncle”.

These logs, complete with cartoon faces at one end, can be bought at Christmas markets across the region and are kept in the home from December 8th, when people in Catalonia celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Once Caga Tió has been welcomed into the home, children must keep him warm and well-fed, and parents will pop treats into a little hatch on his back every night before the family goes to sleep. On Christmas Day, Caga Tió is so full of treats he must relieve himself—and that is when the children of the household beat him with a stick until he "poops" them all out.

Caga Tió was likely born from the ancient custom of bringing in a large log for Christmas time, which was (and still is) practiced throughout Europe—otherwise known as a Yule Log, which symbolises warmth, nature, and the hope for a bright summer. In most places, the log would be burned throughout the Christmas season, with a bit left over to feed the log fire next year. In Catalonia and parts of Aragon, however, this morphed into a log that poops presents!


2. Julebukk And The Christmas Gnomes (Scandinavia)

Julebukk as imagined by the illustrator John Bauer

In Old Norse, Julebukk translates directly to “Yule goat,” and this character is as widely known in Scandanavian Christmas folklore as Santa is in the UK and US. The goat is thought to have pulled the chariot of Thor, the Norse God and later sacrificed its life to provide a feast for Thor and his friends.

In Scandinavian countries, the Julebukk comes in many shapes and sizes. He can be a gigantic goat-shaped figure made of straw with horns so long and curved they touch his hindquarters, or he can be a tiny goat-shaped Christmas decoration. Over time, Julebukk has changed roles and he is now believed to deliver the Christmas gnomes Tomten (Sweden), Nissen (Norway), and Tonttu (Finland) to the doors of children to drop off their presents.

This Yule goat has reached international levels of fame in recent years thanks to the Swedish town of Gävle and their gigantic Julebukk statue, which is, unfortunately, the victim of annual arson plots. Destroying the giant wicker goat has become a Christmas prank tradition in itself in Gävle, dating all the way back to 1956, with the 40-foot sculpture often winding up stolen, smashed to pieces, or, usually, burned to the ground. A bizarre Christmas tradition indeed! However, it should be noted that this goat isn’t left unprotected. In recent years, Gävle has gone all-out with their defenses, erecting a double fence, installing 24-hour CCTV, and hiring 24-hour guards together with a K9 unit. Maybe, against all the odds, Julebukk could survive in 2020… only time will tell.


3. The Italian Christmas Witch (Befana, Italy)

Befana ornament hangs from a christmas tree

Befana is the figure who delivers presents to the children of Italy, and her timing and general character is a little different to the Santa figure that people in the UK know and love. Befana comes to town on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany, and she holds the children to high standards. If they’ve been naughty that year, she’ll fill their stocking with coal, and in some parts of Italy, they’ll simply be left with a stick.

Befana’s story is linked to the nativity tale that many of us will be familiar with. It goes like this: when the Magi (the Three Kings) journeyed from far-off lands to bring gifts to the Holy Child, they gathered a large following from town to town as everyone rushed out of their houses to join this sacred present swap. Everyone except Befana who, as a house-proud woman, claimed she had too much sweeping to do. The next day she ran after the Magi, gifts clutched in her arms—but they were long gone. Now she is said to fly around on her broom, delivering presents to the world’s children. Talk about holding on to guilt! She’s been doing this for a very long time.

Befana probably isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as Santa, as she’s often depicted in a rather unflattering manner, as a hooded old hag. Still, Italian parents are big fans of the festive sorceress. To express their gratitude, parents leave a glass of wine out for her on the eve of her arrival—so if you spot an older woman wobbling around on a broomstick in early January who looks a few drinks deep, you may have spotted the witch herself!

4. The Yule Lads (Iceland)

iceland yule lads
The type of traditional bowl that would tempt Bowl-licker the elf

Iceland also has its own alternative to Santa—instead of the jolly old gent jumping down the chimney, 13 imps known as the Yule Lads take charge of the festivities. Although this may sound like a Christmas-themed stag do, this team of magical creatures is a rather wholesome bunch who are all about festive cheer and gifts. Icelandic children leave their shoes by the window, and the Yule Lads will deposit sweets or small presents inside.

The lads can cause a considerable amount of excitement amongst children—so much so that in 1746, Iceland banned parents from telling stories about the boys! On top of this, each Yule Lad has his own distinct personality, with strange but self-explanatory names such as Door Slammer, Bowl Licker, Door Sniffer, and Yogurt Gobbler. We can imagine why Iceland might have wanted to stop children from idolising such behaviours!

Although perhaps odd to us, the Yule Lads are generally thought of as kind fellows, unlike their fiendish counterpart (and mother) Grýla, a grumpy troll who comes down from the mountains at Christmas and boils children alive—a macabre Christmas tale for another time. We’re much bigger fans of the Yogurt Gobbler and his pals!


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