I was about five or six years old when I figured out that Santa Claus was a fictional character. (Although my family is Jewish, we used to celebrate Christmas with our half-Christian cousins, so my parents played along with the ruse.) When I told my mother I wanted something or other for Christmas, she slipped and said, “We can’t afford it.” She quickly caught herself and said, “I mean, that’s a little expensive for Santa Claus,” but I was on to her. Instead of being upset, I thought I was really clever.
I ran upstairs and bragged to my older brother that I had figured out that Santa was really just our parents. “Duh,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
If I had thought about it, there were plenty of other causes for skepticism. I mean, how does one guy in a sleigh—even one pulled by flying reindeer—deliver goodies to every household around the world? Does he outsource?
In a way, yes. Although tubby, red-suited Santa Claus is the gift delivery man in most of North America and other countries, many places have their own traditions about who—or what—is responsible for bringing Christmas candies and toys. It also helps that he spaces out the festivities so that in some countries, distribution happens on a night other than the one before Christmas.
Dutch children, for instance, leave out their shoes—those cute wooden ones, traditionally—on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. In the morning they find that Sinterklaas has filled them with chocolate coins, small toys and spice cookies called pepernoten. This Sinterklaas fellow has a similar name and appearance to the American Santa, but he dresses more like a bishop and arrives on a horse. Maybe the reindeer union doesn’t allow them to work more than one night a year? He also has a politically incorrect sidekick named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who wears blackface and metes out punishment to misbehavers.
In Italy, it’s La Befana who comes bearing sweets for good little girls and boys. La Befana is an old witch with a broom and raggedy, patched clothing; according to folklore, she declined an invitation to accompany the three wise men on their quest to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, then thought better of it and wandered the land looking for them. Now she comes down the chimney on the eve of Epiphany (January 6) to fill children’s stockings and shoes with caramelle—or coal, if they were naughty.
But I’d have to say the most colorful, and amusing, candy-bearing Christmas character is the tió de Nadal, or Christmas log—also called cagatió, or pooping log. Beginning on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, children in the autonomous Catalonia region of Spain “feed” their log; meanwhile, their parents discreetly make the food disappear. Come Christmas, the kiddies beat the log with a stick and order it, via catchy little songs, to poop candies for them. The parents then make it appear that the log has indeed eliminated treats such as turron, a type of nougat. When the log plops out an egg or a head of garlic, that means the party’s pooped till next year.
Strange? Yes. But is it really any less plausible than flying reindeer? And when you consider that this was also the land that produced Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, it all begins to make sense.