Santa's Rivals around the World ...

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For most reading this article, the symbol of Christmas is Santa Claus. But for many people around the world, the jolly fat man in a red suit is behind a whole host of other characters in significance and meaning. Come with me on a journey to meet some very different Christmas characters.

1. Iceland Celebrates Christmas with Cats, Ogres and Yule Lads

Iceland Celebrates Christmas with Cats, Ogres and Yule Lads

Just like Britain and America have Santa Claus, elves and a bevy of reindeer to deliver gifts at Christmas, Iceland's children can look forward to a whole host of festive creatures: from Gryla, a horrible ogress and her 13 sons, the Yule Lads who descend from the mountains at Christmas, to an enormous black cat that prowls the country on Christmas Eve in search of anyone who hasn't received a new stitch of clothing. It will eat the poor sap, no matter what age! Naughty children falling into the claws of Gryla don't fare much better either, although they get to escape if they repent their naughty deeds. Everybody else gets boiled in Gryla's cauldron, while her young troll’s sons look for ways to cause mischief among humans.

2. Austrian and Bavarian Children Look out for Horned Krampus

Austrian and Bavarian Children Look out for Horned Krampus

Horned, hairy and sporting hooves, the Krampus demon descends from the Alps on 5th December to punish naughty kids. All over Austria and Germany Santa Claus is due to deliver small gifts into kids' shoes on 6th December, so Krampus makes sure no undeserving child gets a gift. Krampus typically appears armed with a birch branch that he uses as a whip to whack naughty kids. He also has a large sack or tub strapped to his back into which he stuffs badly behaved children to carry them off and up into his mountain lair for further punishment.

3. Catalonia in Spain Has Pooping Logs for Christmas

Catalonia in Spain Has Pooping Logs for Christmas

A mixture of a piñata and a Yule log best describes the Caga Tió or Tió de Nadal of north-eastern Spain, where Catalonians believe the log will poop out presents for good children on Christmas morning, but only if kids start fattening up the Yule log on 8th December. The pooping log favors candy and likes to be kept warm under a snuggle blanket. The log often has a face painted on it and is sometimes wearing a red hat. On Christmas morning, kids give him a good whack with a stick to prompt his gift-poop activity, while they're singing carols.

4. The Three Kings Reign Supreme at Christmas in Spain and Portugal

The Three Kings Reign Supreme at Christmas in Spain and Portugal

Across the Iberian Peninsula, the Three Kings or Three Wise Men are the official gift bringers at Christmas. While Balthazar is the representative of Africa, Caspar is a representative of Asia and Melchior represents Europe. In the period leading up to 6th January, Epiphany, kids are encouraged to hand-deliver their wish lists and letters to the king of their choice, usually stationed at shopping mall grottoes. On 5th January, children all over Spain and Portugal make sure they leave a drink for the kings and food for their camels, so that on 6th January they will be rewarded with small presents, which appear over night in shoes.

5. Greek Kids Look Forward to Visits from Saint Basil

Greek Kids Look Forward to Visits from Saint Basil

In Greece, it's not Saint Nicholas but Saint Basil who is the official gift-bringer. He traditionally leaves presents on 1st January, although this custom has slightly changed in favor of 24th and 25th December in recent years. On New Year's Day everyone wolves down quantities of Saint Basil cake, which is baked with a coin inside in memory of Saint Basil, who was born rich and gave his wealth to the poor.

6. Scandinavians Look out for Santa Lucia in the Holidays

Scandinavians Look out for Santa Lucia in the Holidays

On 13th December, young women all over Sweden and Norway dress up as Saint Lucia, when they appear in white gowns with red sashes and crowns of burning candles on their heads. They carry palm fronds, cookies and rolls when they join processions and sing carols about the long harsh winters and how they can be survived with the help of lots of light. In Swedish folklore, slender, blonde Santa Lucia was Adam's first wife. The saint is also honored in Calabria, on the coast of Croatia, and Sicily. At the end of the celebrations everybody eats a huge family meal.

7. Russian Kids Celebrate with Father Frost

Russian Kids Celebrate with Father Frost

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the icy temperatures and masses of snow that dominate Russian winters, the figure of Father Frost largely replaces Santa Claus as official gift-bringer. He appears on New Year's Day and is called Ded Moroz in Russian. Wearing a heel-length red, silver, gold or blue fur coat and semi-round fur hat, he has a long white beard and a magical staff. When he flits through the country with his horse-drawn troika (sleigh), he is accompanied by his granddaughter and helper, the lovely snow-maiden Snergurochka. She is dressed in long silvery robes with a furry hat or sometimes wears a snowflake-shaped crown.

Which Christmas character means most to you?