Santa Claus is just one incarnation of a complex, shape-shifting mythical figure whose origins are as hard to pin down as a bowlful of jelly: Odin, St. Nicholas (the Bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey), and a Siberian shaman on mushrooms, to name only three.
Other countries have their own Man in Red. Today is St. Nicholas Eve here in Holland, and tonight millions of children will put out their shoes in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave presents and a poem in them. Sinterklaas was a main ingredient of Santa, brought to U.S. shores by Dutch immigrants. He is such a good guy he rides a white horse. Dresses like a bishop, is the Patron Saint of Amsterdam.
In an eagerly anticipated event broadcast live every year -- my Dutch class tonight was canceled because of this -- Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam on a steamboat from Spain. Instead of elves, though, his "helpers" are a colorful group of bracingly un-P.C. characters in blackface, each of whom is called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).
Zwarte Piet is basically Sinterklaas's Moorish slave who punishes bad kids by thrashing them with a birch scourge, leaving them rocks instead of treats, and even going so far as kidnapping the worst brats and hauling them back to Spain to labor in the workshop.
If you're good, Zwarte Piet is cool with you. He helps Sinterklaas bring the presents. In fact, he seems to be more popular than Sinterklaas. And at the moment he is everywhere and has been for weeks and weeks, despite the fact that he doesn't technically arrive until tonight. You can hardly go outside without being accosted by outlandishly clad white people prancing around in blackface. He is all over the streets, the shops, the malls, television, ads, and so on. Sure he's controversial, and they debate his propriety every year, but as a cultural meme he's way too firmly entrenched. Piet's not going anywhere.
Zwarte Piet, in turn, sadly enough, appears to be connected to a tradition that Saint Nicholas was assisted by a devil, whom the Saint had defeated and made his helper/slave. And if you go a little farther east, Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose with sharper teeth. In particular, the Austrian version of the devil who helps St. Nicholas makes Zwarte Piet look like a Teletubby. I give you ... the ... freaking ... Krampus. The Krampus roams the streets in the dead of night looking for victims to beat with his switch -- something that actually happened to traca de broon's father.
From the Wiki page: "...over 1200 'Krampus' gather from all over Austria wearing goat-hair costumes and carved masks, carrying bundles of sticks used as switches, and swinging cowbells to warn of their approach. They are typically young men in their teens and early twenties and are generally intoxicated. They roam the streets of this typically quiet town and hit people with their switches. It is not considered wise for young women to go out on this night, as they are popular targets."