Santa Claus is not alone in Christmastime activities. In fact, today, December 6, is St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas is the patron saint and protector of children and of sailors (or voyagers). December 6 is St. Nicholas' Feast Day, and is the main gift-giving day in some parts of Europe. As was discussed earlier on the blog, St. Nicholas' day is also celebrated on the eve of the day, December 5. St. Nicholas' day is celebrated in various ways - by sharing candies or small gifts, and in the Netherlands, children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping the horse-food will be exchanged for a gift. This practice is quite similar to the American practice of leaving out cookies for Santa Claus, and perhaps some carrots for his reindeer. (Of course the line can be drawn between "Old St. Nick" and our modern day Santa Claus). In our family, we awake on December 6 to the magical present of new socks on the front porch filled with walnuts and small oranges.
The Ladies of Winter: Frau Holle and Frau Berchta/Perchta
Frau Holle (meaning "kind lady") is a winter time character of Germanic heritage. Frau Holle dresses in glistening white and carries keys that unlock all doors. She makes her journey during the Twelve Nights to carry out her judgments and dispense gifts to the deserving. In days gone by, she was revered as the protector of children and the patron of spinning and other "women's work." The winter weather was equated with her daily activities: it rained on her washing day, thundered as she spun, and soft snow fell when she shook out her featherbed.
All spinning work had to be completed and the house spotlessly cleaned by Christmas Eve so that Frau Holle would not be displeased when she arrived on her rounds during the Twelve Nights. She would tangle the threads of any incomplete work but reward the industrious by filling empty spindles and leaving treats of her favorite apples and nuts for good children. Some might be especially fortunate and find a coin that dropped from her unfurled cape during her visit.
Frau Holle's counterpart in more southern alpine areas was Frau Berchta or Frau Perchta (meaning "bright, shining lady") who also roamed the countryside and entered homes during the Twelve Nights. She generally had the more frightening appearance of a witch and meted our harsher punishments to the lazy, but the old crone still had a soft spot for those who had been good during the year, leaving nuts and sugarplums or placing a small silver coin in the shoes before departing.
Image: Winter, 1896, by Alphonse Maria Mucha
In Nordic folklore, mischievous elves arrive before Christmas one by one and depart one by one each day beginning on December 25, with the last elf leaving on January 6. Although the elves may still try to play tricks on people, nowadays their main task is to leave a series of small gifts in children's shoes placed on the windowsill.
Over the centuries Odin changed from a fearsome war-lord to a charitable Santa Clause-esque fellow. Odin now might leave a loaf of bread at a poor family's home, based on information he gathered by eavesdropping from the shadows at the edge of the Yule fire (again, much like Santa, he knows what you are up to). Children began to look forward to Odin's visits during the Twelve Nights, leaving straw in their shoes for his magic eight-legged horse (perhaps a precursor to Santa's eight reindeer) in the hopes of finding small gifts and treats as rewards for their good behavior during the past year.
Image: Odin the Wanderer, 1896, by George von Rosen
The Three Kings
On the night of January 5, the Twelfth Night of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany, the Three Kings astride their camel, horse and elephant, leave presents in the straw-filled shoes of children and adults across Spain, Mexico, Latin America and other parts of the spanish-speaking world.
Image: The Adoration of the Magi, 1674, by Jan de Bray
On the same night that the Three Kings are visiting spanish-speaking children, Italian children are visited by La Befana, a benevolent old woman with magical powers. Legend says she helped the Wise Men during their journey but only belatedly decided to follow them after she finished her sweeping. She flies with a straw broom, enters homes through the chimney, and leaves gifts of candied fruit, sweets, and toys in children's socks even if they are not the one holy child she seeks.
A similar story is told about the grandmotherly Russian Babushka, who delays accompanying the Three Kings until the tidies her house. She sets off with her gifts but also never catches up, tenderly leaving a gift for each sleeping child she finds, ever hopeful.
Apparently there is an award winning children's book on Babushka (or Baboushka) by Ruth Robbins. Its available on Amazon