Marianne is a history graduate from Scotland. She is interested in cultural history and how myths have developed over time.
Most people think of Santa Claus as a jolly old man with a white beard and a red suit, but this has not always been the case. Santa can even be female. There are many different Santa figures who give out Christmas gifts around the world. Some of these Santas wear blue or green, and many look and act more like monsters than a jolly old man. The modern Santa Claus legend is an amalgamation of all of the different Christmas gift-giving figures. Most of these Christmas gift-givers are male, but some are female.
Here is an introduction to some of female Christmas gift-giving figures from cultures around the world.
7 Female Gift-Givers From Europe and Beyond
- La Befana
- Tante Arie
- Frau Holle
- Frau Gaude
- The Christkind
1. La Befana
In Italy, La Befana visits children on the eve of Epiphany (the 5th of January). She puts toys and sweets in the stockings of good children, but bad children get coal or a stick. She sometimes sweeps the floors of the houses she visits as well.
La Befana was a house-proud woman who spent lots of time cleaning and sweeping. One day, the three wise men visited her. They were looking for somewhere to stay for the night on their journey to give gifts to baby Jesus. The next morning, the three wise men invited Befana to join them. Befana refused because she was too busy with the housework.
However, soon after the three wise men left, Befana began to regret not going. She set off to try and catch up with the three men. Unfortunately, she was too late and she couldn’t figure out which way the men had gone. Instead, Befana handed out sweets and gifts to other families on her travels. She has continued to do so every Epiphany.
2. Tante Arie
Tante Arie is both a fairy and the reincarnation of a real person: the Countess of Montbéliard and Wurtemberg, Henriette de Montbéliard (1387-1444). Arie is a nickname for Henriette, and Tante means aunt in German.
As she neared the end of her life, Henriette showed the local people of Montbéliard great generosity. Since her death, her legend lives on in the story of Tante Arie.
An old woman with a youthful face, Arie lives in a cave in the mountains around the French/Swiss border. She has teeth made out of iron and feet like a goose (according to some, others just say she has buckled shoes).
On Christmas Eve, she rides down from the mountains on her donkey, Marion, to give good children presents like oranges, chestnuts or cakes. A bell around Marion's neck announces her arrival. The kids leave carrots and turnips for Marion.
3. Frau Holle
Frau Holle is a goddess of agriculture, spinning and weaving. She is best known in Hesse and Thuringia in Germany.
Frau Holle gives gifts to good children over the twelve nights of epiphany. Sometimes she also drives through villages in a carriage handing out presents where people have shown respect to her. She is obsessed with spinning and monitors whether spinners work hard enough. Hardworking spinners receive a gift of an extra spindle, but if someone is lazy she burns their spindle or breaks their thread. On Christmas day, before going to Church, everyone leaves a bowl of milk with spoons crossed over it out for Frau Holle. When they come back from church, Frau Holle has told everyone's fortune for the coming year according to the position of the spoons.
Frau Holle also has power over the weather. When it snows, it is because she is making her bed and feathers are flying out of it.
Traditionally, Frau Holle is a beautiful and young woman who wears white, although sometimes she is depicted as an old hag who rides with witches.
Frau Holle has also appeared in other areas of Germany but often has a different name. Her names include Frau Holda, Holde, Gaude, Gode, and Wode. Her legend is similar to that of the pre-Christian goddess Wode. Wode is linked to other female goddesses including the Roman Goddess Diana, Perchta and Scandinavian Frigga, the wife of Odin.
4. Frau Gaude
Frau Gaude is similar to Frau Holle, giving out gifts to those who do her service and good children.
Frau Gaude rides through the villages around Mecklenburg (North Eastern Germany) followed by the train of dogs during the twelve nights. If she finds a door to the street open Frau Gaude sends a little dog in. Once in your house the little dog will refuse to leave and whine a lot. If the dog is killed he will turn to stone by day, but continuously return and moan during the night bringing bad luck to the household for a year.
Perchta is mostly found further South around Austria. She is also closely associated with Epiphany like La Befana and similar to Frau Holle..
On the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, Perchta enters people's houses. If she finds the servants and children had worked hard that year she leaves a small silver coin in a shoe or bucket. If she finds the inhabitants have been lazy she slits their bellies open and stuffs them with straw.
Perchta also slits open bellies and stuffs them with straw when she finds that people haven't eaten the right food. In Orlagau she checks whether everyone has eaten zemmede, a sort of cake on the eve of Epiphany. In Thuringinia she expects people to eat dumplings and herring. In other parts of Germany fish and gruel is expected.
In Bavaria people came up with an idea to prevent her slitting open bellies! Greasy cakes are eaten because the grease means her knife will slide off when she attempts to cut open stomachs.
Sometimes known as Berchta, she is often said to have one strange foot that is larger than the others. Some think perhaps this is because she is a shape-shifter and able to turn into animal form.
She is still celebrated in parts of Austria, particularly around Salzburg. Processions of Perchta (Perchtenlauf in German) are held with different masks representing ugly and beautiful Perchta.
In some parts of Europe today presents are delivered by the Christkind (which in English means literally Christ child). The Christkind is sometimes a baby cherub, but the role of the Christkind is often played by a young or teenage girl with angel wings. In modern times the Christkind is the primary gift giver on Christmas Eve in many Catholic parts of Europe (St Nicholas comes on the 6th).
This was a tradition started by the religious leader Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. Luther did not want to encourage the celebration of St Nicholas on the 6th of December, or saints in General or any pagan seeming figures like Frau Holle, so he promoted the alternative idea that the much more dull Christkind would bring presents on Christmas Eve.
Grýla isn't a Christmas gift giver, as she doesn't bring gifts, just eats naughty children! This Icelandic goddess is the most scary female Christmas figures. She is a giant troll who hunts bad children for Christmas, takes them away in a sack and cooks them as stew. She is the mother of the thirteen Yule lads, who are mischievous Christmas gift givers, although she has many other children (numbers vary in according different sources, she possibly has over 100!).
Grýla is currently married to her third husband, Leppalúði. She murdered her first two husbands as they were boring. She and her husband own the Yule Cat. The Yule cat visits houses on Christmas Eve and eats people who don't get any clothes for Christmas presents.
If you would like to know more about some of these traditions, these are my main sources:
Clement A Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition (1912)
Stephen Morris, 'Perchta and the 12 Days of Christmas Part 2'
Al Ridenour, 'The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil' (2016)
Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, 'Grýla and Leppalúði - the Parents of the Icelandic Yule Lads'
Liz Westwood from UK on December 22, 2018:
I have learned a lot from this article about other gift-bearing characters.
Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on December 21, 2018:
Frau Holle is an interesting character.