Holiday Cheer and Fear: Santa, St. Nicholas, Odin, Sinterklaas, and Krampus

Here in the United States, I’ve become accustomed to a pretty specific set of criteria for Santa Claus and Holiday festivities.  Santa, the jolly old Elf with a red suit, white beard, and a jiggle in his belly; is certainly one of the most recognizable figures around the world, thanks to the innocent wonder of children and a generous helping of marketing genius.  But just where do these Santa myths and legends come from?

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The American Santa owes much of his identity to 1823’s  immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread…

Later, artists like Norman Rockwell used the poem as inspiration for their presentation of Santa, and by the 1920’s, he was pretty much standardized.  He’s the Merry man who lives at the North Pole, except for the few weeks per year when he lives at the mall.

St. Nicholas

While Santa’s earliest incarnation dates to well before the industrial revolution, and indeed well before America was conceived, I was still amazed to hear some stories of how Christmas is celebrated even today worldwide, and just who it is that delivers that Holiday cheer to boys and girls abroad.

Santa and his many counterparts across the globe are most often considered to have been inspired by St. Nicholas.  As the Bishop of Myra, Greece (in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey), he was known for his generosity, gift giving, and miracles. is the patron saint of Russia, of Aberdeen, of parish clerks, of scholars, of pawnbrokers (because of the three bags of gold that he gave to the daughters of a poor man to pay for their dowry, and to keep them from the fate of prostitution), of little boys (because he restored to life three little boys who had been kidnapped by a butcher, cut up and pickled in a tub to serve for ham), and is invoked by sailors (because he allayed a storm during a voyage to the Holy Land) and against fire.

St. Nicholas day is celebrated worldwide by the devout on December 6.  Due to his reputation for gift giving and generosity, as well as his fondness for children,  his Feast Day is often celebrated with the presentation of treats and gifts to children.  This in turn inspired the legends of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, and various other benevolent Holiday characters the world over.

In many parts of the world, St. Nicholas Day is far more important and more ardently observed than Christmas, although in some areas, both dates are enjoyed as holidays.  Children will often set their shoes out by the fire or in a main living area, and on the eve of St. Nicholas day, their shoes will be filled with treats.  St. Nick is usually depicted in his traditional Bishop’s garb, and while he is said to be kind and generous, he is also a firm believer in discipline.  Kids might be given presents, or they may find that St. Nick has left his parents a rod or branch to spank the children who’ve been naughty.

While traditions vary from region to region, the gift giving elements stay relatively consistent.  It’s the creative means of discipline that makes each Nation’s St. Nick story unique… and at times scary!  And while Santa Claus doesn’t really have a sidekick, unless you count his reindeer or his elves, some Countries have given their versions of St. Nick a helper or two… and no example is more bizarre than that of the Netherlands’ Sinterklaas.


In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas doesn’t look much different than the St. Nicholas depicted in other parts of the world.  He wears his Bishop’s garb, gives gifts to the children… has a big white beard, etc.  But it is important to point out that St. Nick isn’t the only inspiration for Sinterklaas.  This fascinating character also owes many of his attributes to an earlier, pre-Christian entity.  Namely, Odin. is a theory, and it is quite plausible, that Sinterklaas owes as much of his characteristics to the Norse god Odin as he does to Jolly Ole St. Nick.  Odin, a very popular god in Germanic regions pre-Christianity, was often depicted upon a horse (with 8 legs), that flies through the air.   Sinterklaas also has a flying horse.   Odin had a long flowing white beard, as does Sinterklaas.  And while children are now known to leave carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’ horse Amerigo, pagan children used to do the same thing for Odin’s steed, Sleipnir.

The similarities basically end there.  Sinterklaas looks more like a kindly old priest than a Norse god.  His colorful legend is as follows.

He’s the former Bishop of Turkey.  He now resides in Spain (reasons unknown).  Each year in early November, he boards a ship from Spain to the Netherland’s, and arrives at port to a crowd of anxious revelers.  Sinterklaas is attended by his companions, known as Zwarte Pieten (which means “Black Pete”).   Black Pete (usually several of them) accompany Sinterklaas as he wanders town determining if children are naughty or nice.

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Depicted with curly hair and black face, Black Pete has been the subject of debate in recent years because of the racist connotations.  Originally, Zwarte Pieten were the slaves of Sinterklaas, but now they are simply friends.  And the black face is explained by saying that the Zwarte Pieten are chimney sweeps.

Sinterklaas and his chimney sweeping helpers visit children on the nights leading up to December 6, leaving treats in their shoes.  But there is a caveat.

You see, for the children who have been naughty, it is said that they may get beaten, or a stick will be left for parents to discipline their children with.  Or, most terrifyingly, the Zwarte Pieten may put you in their sack, and take you back to Spain with them.  I would imagine that this is a fairly successful motivation for good behavior.

There is a hysterical bit by essay on war and peace in urdu about the tradition of Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten called “6 to 8 Black Men”.  You can hear him reading it in the video below.  It is an absolute riot. Listen to the whole thing because it all fits together.

But if the Zwarte Pieten aren’t strange enough for you… may I introduce you now to a Holiday figure so frightening…. he is sure to guarantee angelic behavior from even the most rambunctious merry-makers.


In some parts of the world, especially Austria and Hungary, St. Nicholas is accompanied by a malevolent minion known as the Krampus.   While St. Nick rewards good behavior with presents and treats, the Krampus gladly doles out punishment to the children who’ve been naughty.

Krampus is often depicted as a demonic figure with a furry body, horns, a forked tongue, hooves, and a tail. The Krampus always has a basket with him, to carry the naughtiest of youngsters off with him to certain doom.

Traditionally, young men dress up like the Krampus in the days leading up to St. Nicholas Day, roaming the streets and terrorizing children.

In Austria and other regions, the eve of St. Nicholas Day is known as Krampusnacht (Night of Krampus), and revelers dressed in demonic looking masks and costumes run the streets, causing general mischief and swatting at passers-by with sticks or whips.

Parades are held on Night of the Krampus, with people dressed up as St. Nick’s devilish sidekick, who do their best to tickle and terrify those in attendance. It is a tradition celebrated to this day… and worldwide, the Krampus is making a comeback.

Here is a great video of a Krampus Festival in Schladming, Austria.

So, as always, those of us living in the States are pretty spoiled.  The most fearful thing about Christmas that we have is the idea that Santa or his elves may be watching us in the days leading up to Christmas.  But, perhaps if we had the Zwarte Pieten or the Krampus to fear, American children would be much better behaved during the Holiday Season.

A man dressed as a Krampus, the companion of St. Nicholas and one of Austria’s unique Advent traditions, is seen during a traditional Krampus procession in the city of Unken in Salzburg province on Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)