Ah, Christmas. It’s a time dedicated to kindness, generosity, joy, and rampant consumerism. A time when people try to let their problems go and embrace the darkest days of the year by plugging in colored lights and keeping the hearth warm and welcoming. The tinsel-laden month of December offers a reprieve from the usual travails and an opportunity to see the hidden magic in everything. But what about the hidden danger? In many cultures, there is no light without darkness, no good without evil, no miracles without mischief, even at Christmas time.
Although often associated with the birth of Jesus, Old Saint Nick was a pre-Christian figure who first became popular in Germany during the 11th-century as a patron of children. In those days, children were more ignored than celebrated, making his annual feast in their honor a special occasion. And while many saw this as an opportunity to focus on the magic of youth, there were some who took a decidedly darker approach to the holiday.
Typically, Christmas was a time to forget the ugliness of the world—to see the beauty in everything—but for others, it was the perfect moment to remind children about the penalties of disobedience. Some cultures around the world used the holidays not as a chance to offer warm fuzzies, but as an excuse to scare the living piss out the innocent by letting them the know the world can be a downright terrifying place, no matter what Santa Claus says.
Originating in the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany, Belsnickel is described as a crotchety, fur-clad holiday reveler who brings with him gifts, goodies, and the likelihood of a punishment. He is said to wear tattered and dirty clothing despite the holiday mood and carries a hazel switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children. But he also carries pockets full of candy, nuts, and cakes which makes him at least somewhat intriguing. He is sometimes followed by his sidekick “Krampus” who is a horned figure akin to a devil.
Many immigrants from Germany living in the U.S. throughout the 19th-century did not hear of Santa—they knew instead of the strange Belsnickel who would sometimes dress as a woman and visit homes after dark. A few weeks before Christmas, he would appear disguised and masked at the door, and when you let him in, he would scatter goodies all about on the floor. When the children would rush to gather the treats, his wicked switch would come down upon the backs of those who had been naughty. And he was a tough judge. He was said to know exactly what children had done to misbehave and would question them thoroughly about their actions and perhaps even force them to sing him a song. For those children who were really bad, he might even leave a birch rod in their stocking lest they forget his warning.
This devilish horned figure is described as half goat, half demon who punishes naughty children during the holiday season. In contrast to Santa who rewards the good, Krampus guarantees the bad eggs will receive their just desserts. His eastern European origins are decidedly pagan supernatural, having blended with the image of the Christian devil over time and symbolizing the heathen elements associated with this morality. Krampus carries chains thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church and has been known to carry off evil children for drowning, eating, or transporting to Hell.
Some say these stories are so old, they may even relate the way the Moors raided Europe to abduct local people into slavery. Masked devils acting boisterously and mischievously during the holiday time have been present in Germany (and European folklore) since at least the 16th-century, and Krampus has been paired with Saint Nick through history as a way to offset the jovial with the impish.
In fact, Krampus was such a powerful symbol in the Germanic tradition, the Dollfuss regime of Austria and the Christian Social Party banned the tradition in 1923, calling Krampus an “evil man” who should be abolished. This lasted for some time until the end of the 20th century when Krampus made a comeback in Bavaria and parts of Europe as an undeniable fixture in their medieval heritage.
French for “Whipping Father,” Père Fouettard is reminiscent of a time when parents were less compassionate towards misbehaved youth. He is illustrated as a sinister man in dark robes with scraggly hair and a long, dirty beard, accompanying Saint Nick on his rounds traditionally held on December 6th for official Saint Nicholas Day. While the jovial Nick would hand out gifts and treats for kids, this character would dispense lumps of coal and /or floggings to those who didn’t deserve better.
His story originated from the north and eastern areas of France and southern Belgium—most popular in the 12th-century—and explains his gruesome journey from villain to sidekick. It’s said Le Père Fouettard once captured three wealthy boys on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school and with the help of his wife, drugged the children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stewed them in a barrel. In his goodness, Saint Nick discovered this crime and resurrects the children. At which point, Père Fouettard repented and became Sain Nick’s partner as a way to better himself.
This mythical giantess comes from the mountains of Iceland with the purpose (yet again) of frightening naughty youngsters. Although her story has been around for ages, she was only directly linked to Christmas during the 17th century. Not only does she have the unnerving ability to detect children who are misbehaving throughout the year, but she flies from her cave in the mountains at Christmas time to find human food, hunting for tasty children. If she finds them, she will devour them as a tasty snack, especially if they have been bad.
According to folklore, she has been married three times and lives in the cold mountains with her sons, the Yule Lads, and the big black Yule Cat. The stories of Grýla descending upon the innocents with her sons in tow became so terrifying in 1746, the government stepped in and put a stop to the myth.
These days, Grýla has a much cleaner image. She and her boys travel down the mountain before Christmas and look for shoes children have left on their windowsills, which they then fill with gifts. If the child has been good, they will receive a toy or a treat, but if the child has been bad, they will find a rotten potato instead. And while no one particularly wants rotten food for Christmas, it’s a lot better than ending up in Grýla’s stomach.
Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat)
Stemming from the dark ages, this frightful feline is a monster from Icelandic folklore who roams the snowy countryside at Christmas eating anyone who doesn’t look dapper enough for the occasion. If your clothes are not new and nice for the approach of Christmas Eve, this huge and vicious cat will put your out of your misery! The Yule Cat is said to live with Grýla and her sons.
Farmers who were trying to incent workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas would offer the threat of the Yule Cat, as those who finished would be rewarded with new clothes for the season. Those who did not work hard enough would get nothing and could be preyed upon by the monstrous cat. Clearly, the story of the Yule Cat speaks directly to the work ethic of a people (and its children) who were instilled with a strong sense of duty. It’s also said if someone did not work hard enough, this ginormous kitty would eat up their delicious Christmas dinner as well.
Otherwise known as the Christmas Witch, this pagan goddess stems from the ancient Germanic figure Holda and other female characters in that folklore tradition. She was thought to oversee the spinning of wool during the twelve days of Christmas and could be seen as quite beautiful and pale or elderly and haggard.
In many old depictions, she had one large foot, sometimes referred to as a goose foot, that symbolized her ability to shapeshift into animal form. She was known to uphold cultural taboos in Bavaria and Austria such as prohibition or working on holidays, roaming the countryside at midwinter, entering homes and looking for well-behaved children. If she found them, she might leave a small silver coin the next day or maybe a metal pail, but if they were bad, she would cut their bellies open, remove their innards, and stuff the bloody hole with straw and pebbles.
This malevolent goblin can be found in the ancient stories of Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Turkey, and Serbia. Kallikantzaroi are thought to dwell underground, where they are constantly sawing at a giant tree that will eventually fell the entire earth. When Christmas dawns, they are able to surface and forget the tree, bringing trouble to those who live above ground. On January 6th—the Christian feast day of Epiphany—the sun shifts its movement towards more light, and they must return to their underground lives. Because the world has been renewed by the joy of the holiday, so has the underground tree, and they must begin their sawing work all over again.
They are said to be predominantly male with protruding genitals, burning red eyes, black and hairy bodies, and lolling tongues—and they apparently smell horrible. Because they spend the majority of their time underground, they are mostly blind and enjoy eating worms and other small creatures.
Italian legend tells of an old woman who delivers presents to children on the night of January 5, otherwise known as Epiphany Eve. Although she appears haggard and somewhat frightful, she is essentially a more startling version of Saint Nick. Many suggest Befana is a descendant of the Roman goddess Strina who was the deity of the new year, purification, and well-being. Again, we see the tradition of shoes being left out by children, as Befana flies through the night and decides who has been good enough to warrant a treat. She may leave something tasty in the shoe or if someone has been naughty, a lump of coal. This is where the notion of coal in the stocking came from, and it’s fascinating to see the legend has lasted all these years.
Folklore suggests she is an excellent housekeeper and may even sweep your floor with her broom if you’ve been particularly well behaved. Instead of cookies, the family should leave out a glass of wine for old Befana and perhaps a few tasty morsels of local fare. Like Santa, she enters the home through the chimney and is often covered in soot. But she does carry a bag of candy and gifts which makes her a benevolent spirit despite her haggish appearance. She is the Christmas Witch, and most children love her rather than fear her.
And the rest is history.