15 Female Mathematicians Whose Accomplishments Add Up

Katherine Johnson at NASA in 1966
Katherine Johnson at NASA in 1966
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In many periods of history, women have been discouraged from applying their minds to mathematics—but a few persevered. The world-altering contributions of these 15 notable female mathematicians include making hospitals safer, laying the groundwork for the computer, and advancing space flight.

1. HYPATIA

Hypatia (c.355–415) was the first woman known to have taught mathematics. Her father Theon was a famous mathematician in Alexandria who wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and works by Ptolemy. Theon taught his daughter math and astronomy, then sent her to Athens to study the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Father and daughter collaborated on several commentaries, but Hypatia also wrote commentaries of her own and lectured on math, astronomy, and philosophy. Sadly, she died at the hands of a mob of Christian zealots.

2. EMILIE DU CHATELET

Emilie Chatelet portrait by Latour
Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Wikipedia // Public Domain

Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749) was born in Paris in a home that entertained several scientists and mathematicians. Although her mother thought her interest in math was unladylike, her father was supportive. Chatalet initially employed her math skills to gamble, which financed the purchase of math books and lab equipment.

In 1725 she married an army officer, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatalet, and the couple eventually had three children. Her husband traveled frequently, an arrangement that provided ample time for her to study mathematics and write scientific articles (it also apparently gave her time to have an affair with Voltaire). From 1745 until her death, Chatalet worked on a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia. She added her own commentaries, including valuable clarification of the principles in the original work.

3. SOPHIE GERMAIN

Sophie Germain (1776–1831) was only 13 when she developed an interest in mathematics, one that could be blamed on the French Revolution. Since the fighting raged around her home, Germain could not explore the streets of Paris—instead she explored her father’s library, teaching herself Latin and Greek and reading respected mathematical works. Germain’s family also tried to discourage her academic leanings. Not wanting her to study at night, they denied her a fire in her room, but she lit candles and read anyway, bundled in blankets.

Since women’s educational opportunities were limited, Germain studied secretly at the Ecole Polytechnique, using the name of a previously enrolled male student. That worked until the teachers noticed the dramatic improvement in the student’s math skills.

Although Germain never worked as a mathematician, she studied independently and wrote about the subject. She is best known for her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, considered at the time to be one of the most challenging mathematical puzzles. A 17th century mathematician named Pierre de Fermat claimed he could prove that the equation x^n + y^n = z^n had no integer solution when n was greater than 2, but his proof was never written down. Germain proposed a new way of looking at the problem.

Germain also became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences, for writing about elasticity theory. Today that prize is known as the Sophie Germain Prize.

4. MARY SOMERVILLE

A portrait of Mary Somerville
Thomas Phillips, Wikipedia // Public Domain

Mary Somerville (1780–1872) was born in Scotland, and was not particularly interested in academics as a child—she only attended school for a year. However, when she encountered an algebra symbol in a puzzle at age 16, she became fascinated with math and began studying it on her own. Her parents tried to discourage her, worried that her intellectual preoccupations might drive her insane. (At the time, a popular theory held that difficult study could damage a woman’s mental health.) But Somerville continued to study, teaching herself Latin so she could read earlier versions of works by Euclid.

She also corresponded with William Wallace, a professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and solved mathematical problems posed in contests, winning a silver prize in 1811.

Somerville’s first husband did not encourage her interests, but when he died, she remarried. Her second husband, Dr. William Somerville, an inspector of the Army Medical Board, was proud of her work in mathematics and astronomy. For her work translating a book titled Celestial Mechanics and adding commentary, she was named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Physicist Sir David Brewster called her “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe—a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” When John Stuart Mill petitioned the British government for women’s votes, he filed his petition with Somerville’s signature first. She was proof that women were men’s intellectual equals.

5. ADA LOVELACE

A portrait of Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The next time you download some electronica, you may want to remember Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852). Lovelace was born during the brief marriage of poet George, Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, Lady Wentworth. Her mother did not want her to be a poet like her father and encouraged her interest in mathematics and music. As a teenager, Ada began to correspond with Charles Babbage, a professor at Cambridge. At the time, Babbage was working on his ideas for a calculating machine called the Analytical Engine, now considered a precursor to the computer. Babbage was solely focused on the calculating aspects, but Lovelace supplied notes that helped envision other possibilities, including the idea of computer-generated music.

Lovelace also translated an article about the Analytic Engine by French mathematician Louis Menebrea. Her notes include an algorithm showing how to calculate a sequence of numbers, which forms the basis for the design of the modern computer. It was the first algorithm created expressly for a machine to perform.

Lovelace was a countess after her marriage, but she preferred to describe herself as an analyst and a metaphysician. Babbage called her “the enchantress of numbers”—but she might also be called the world’s first computer programmer.

6. FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE

A black-and-white photograph of Florence Nightingale
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is best known as a nurse and social reformer, but a lesser-known contribution of hers continues to save lives. In her efforts to improve the survival rates of hospital patients, Nightingale became a statistician.

When the “lady with the lamp” returned from service during the Crimean War, she expressed sadness about how many soldiers had become sick and died while lying in the hospital. “Oh my poor men, who endured so patiently,” she wrote to a friend. “I feel I have been a bad mother to you to come home and leave you lying in your Crimean graves.”

As part of her plan to reform hospital care, Nightingale began gathering statistics. The figures she gathered indicated that a lack of sanitation was the primary reason for the high mortality rate. Efforts were instituted to make hospitals cleaner and thus safer.

Not only did Nightingale’s discovery save lives and change hospital protocol forever, but she also designed charts that were easy on the Queen’s eyes. Statistics had been presented with graphics only rarely before, and Nightingale’s work helped pioneer the field of applied statistics. She is particularly known for inventing a new kind of graph known as a coxcomb, which was a variation on a pie chart. She said that the graph was designed “to affect thro’ the Eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears.”

7. EMMY NOETHER

Portrait of Emmy Noether
Wikipedia // Public Domain

Like Hypatia, Emmy Noether (1882–1935) had a well-known mathematician for a dad. Her father, Max Noether, was a German math professor, but becoming a math teacher would be a longer process for her. After being certified to teach English and French, she also wanted a degree in mathematics, but she had to wait—the University of Erlangen in Bavaria did not let women officially enroll until 1904. Noether eventually received her doctorate in mathematics, but because her university had a policy against hiring female professors, she instead helped her father in his work at the Mathematics Institute in Erlangen (without being paid), researching and writing papers on the side.

In 1918 she proved two theorems, one of which is now known as "Noether's Theorem." After that she researched ring theory and number theory, both of which would later prove useful for physicists. Finally, in 1922, she became an associate professor and received a small stipend.

But her teaching career in Germany was short-lived. Because of growing anti-Semitism, she and other Jewish mathematicians had to flee the country in 1933. She moved to the United States, and taught at Bryn Mawr College until her death.

After her death in 1935, Albert Einstein described Noether in a letter to The New York Times with these words: "In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began."

8. MARY CARTWRIGHT

Mary Cartwright (1900–1998) achieved a few notable firsts: She was the first woman to receive the Sylvester Medal for mathematical research and the first to serve as president of the London Mathematical Society (1961–62).

In 1919 she was one of only five women studying mathematics at Oxford University. When she did not score well on her tests, she briefly considered giving up math. Fortunately, she chose to persevere, and went on to lecture at Cambridge University. She later earned a doctorate in philosophy and had her thesis published in the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics. After being awarded a research fellowship, she went on to publish more than 100 papers. One of her theorems, known as Cartwright's Theorem, is still frequently applied in signal processing. She also contributed to the study of chaos theory. In 1969 Queen Elizabeth II honored Cartwright’s accomplishments by proclaiming her Dame Mary Cartwright.

9. DOROTHY JOHNSON VAUGHAN


Dorothy Vaughan (left) at NACA
Beverly Golemba, Wikipedia // Public Domain

The excitement of space travel was made possible by years of painstaking work conducted by “human computers”—specifically, a group of mathematically proficient women who calculated a variety of scientific and mathematical data at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910–2008) was one of them, and her contributions are featured alongside those of several other African-American female mathematicians at NACA in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

After working as a math teacher, Vaughan took a job at NACA in 1943. In 1949, she was promoted to lead the division’s segregated work group West Area Computers, which was entirely composed of African-American female mathematicians. She became an expert in coding languages such as FORTRAN (now a popular language for high-performance computing). She described working in space research as being on “the cutting edge of something very exciting.”

10. MARJORIE LEE BROWNE

Mathematician and educator Marjorie Lee Browne (1914–1979) was one of the first African-American women to acquire a Ph.D. in math. Becoming a respected educator meant overcoming personal tragedy (the death of her mother at a young age), as well as race and gender discrimination. Fortunately, her mathematically gifted father and teacher stepmother encouraged her educational interests. She attended a private school, graduated Howard University cum laude and earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan.

Browne taught math at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), where she was named chair of the math department in 1951. She helped her school acquire grants, including a 1960 grant to set up a computer center, one of the first of its kind. Thanks in part to her work, the school became home to a National Science Foundation Institute for secondary education in mathematics. Browne also received the first W.W. Rankin Memorial Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education.

11. JULIA ROBINSON

Julia Robinson’s (1919–1985) early education was interrupted more than once by illness. One bout of rheumatic fever required a year of recuperation and would continue to affect her health. When Robinson returned to school in the ninth grade, she developed an interest in math. She graduated high school with honors in math and science classes, then eventually attended Berkeley, where she married an assistant professor named Raphael Robinson.

After being told she could not have children due to the residual effects of the rheumatic fever, she renewed her devotion to math, receiving her doctorate in 1948. That year she began to work on the mathematical problem known as David Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, which occupied her for decades. Her work toward solving the problem with an international team of other mathematicians is the subject of a one-hour documentary titled “Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem.” In 1975 Robinson was the first woman mathematician to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She also became the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society.

12. KATHERINE JOHNSON

Katherine Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015
NASA, Wikimedia // Public Domain

When Katherine Johnson (born 1918) wanted to study math, she faced a big obstacle. White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where she lived, did not offer schooling for black students past eighth grade. So, her father drove his family 120 miles so she could attend a high school in another town, leaving Katherine and her mother there while he continued to work in White Sulphur Springs. The math prodigy graduated by the age of 14. When she attended West Virginia State College, several professors recognized her unusual ability and mentored her. She graduated summa cum laude at the age of 18, with plans to teach. After doing so for a little while, she went to work for NACA as one of the mathematicians known as “computers who wore skirts.” Her knowledge of analytic geometry resulted in her assignment to the all-male flight research team, where she helped calculate the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s first trip into space. She was so good at her job that she stayed on the research team after Shepherd’s trip, working at Langley Research Center from 1953 to 1986.

“I went to work every day for 33 years happy,” she said. “Never did I get up and say I don’t want to go to work.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and her work is also celebrated in Hidden Figures.

13. MARY JACKSON

Photograph of Mary Winston Jackson
Wikipedia, NASA // Public Domain

Mary Jackson (1921–2005) grew up in Hampton, Virginia, graduating with honors from high school and receiving a bachelor’s degree from Hampton Institute in mathematics and physical science. She was hired as a research mathematician at the NACA campus in Langley, and was eventually promoted to aerospace engineer, specializing in aerodynamics.

“After five years of working in that department and taking additional courses at the Hampton Center of the University of Virginia I was invited to become an engineer-in-training through a special program and I’ve been an aerospace engineer ever since,” she said.

She later worked with flight engineers at NASA and was repeatedly promoted. After three decades, Jackson achieved the highest level of engineer, but then chose to focus on efforts to help women and minorities advance their careers. She is also featured in Hidden Figures.

14. CHRISTINE DARDEN

Color photograph of Dr. Christine Darden
NASA, Wikipedia // Public Domain

Dr. Christine Darden (born 1942) is a mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who spent her 25-year career at NASA researching sonic booms—the sound associated with the shock wave of an object traveling through air faster than the speed of sound. After a brief stint teaching and researching aerosol physics, she landed at the Langley Research Center. There she performed calculations for engineers, eventually writing computer programs to automate the process. She became one of the first female aerospace engineers at Langley, writing a computer program to measure sonic boom. After earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering, she became the leader of NASA's Sonic Boom Group. Darden conducted research on air traffic management, as well as other aeronautics programs, and has authored more than 50 publications. She is also featured in Hidden Figures.

15. MARYAM MIRZAKHANI

As a girl, Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) was not very interested in math, and dreamt of being a writer. “I never thought I would pursue mathematics until my last year in high school,” Mirzakhani told The Guardian.

The choice turned out to be a wise one: In 2014 she became the first woman and the first Iranian honored with the prestigious Fields Medal, awarded for her work on hyperbolic geometry—a non-Euclidean geometry used to explore concepts of space and time.

Mirzakhani taught math at Stanford University. Curtis McMullen, her doctoral advisor at Harvard, described her as having “a fearless ambition when it comes to mathematics.” 

This story first ran in 2017.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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