Ah, Christmas time. A brief stretch in the year when we are compelled to focus on the more benevolent side of humanity—the kindness, the joy, the rampant consumerism—and celebrate a month when society gives us permission to forget our troubles and embrace one another with a renewed sense of decency. Suddenly people appear kinder, more generous, and willing to let a little light into their begrudging hearts. Plugging in holiday lights and tending to the hearth are just one piece of the age-old tradition, as tinsel-laden December offers a reprieve from the travails a world that has simply become too stark and uncontrollable to tolerate for more than eleven months in a row. It is a time to look for the magic in the little things. But of course, the Raven is here to remind us, it’s also time to remember the grim history that led us to this point, starting with traditions steeped in fear, violence, and the wisdom that life can never fully reside without evil—because there is always something to be afraid of, even in the brightest of times. Sure, modernity always seeks to whitewash our holidays, but there are still many cultures in the world who understand the truth—there can be no light without dark, no kindness without misdeed, no miracles without mischief, even at Christmas time.
When examined closely, many of the celebratory traditions associated with Christmas become decidedly less cheerful. In fact, a lot of the beloved customs we have come to know, like singing Christmas carols, stem from violent origins we have long forgotten. One popular song called “Good King Wenceslas” is a great example, as it tells the redemptive story of a kind king who offers protection to some struggling peasants during a snowstorm—but fails to mention how the king was mutilated on the steps of his own church.
Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winters rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.
King Wenceslaus, who was the Duke of Bohemia in 907 CE was the son of Vratislaus I and a pagan tribal chief named Drahomira. Although he was indeed known for his kindness, especially to children, as well as his efforts to end the persecution of Christians, he was also greatly disliked by the Czech nobles who didn’t care for his Jesus-loving ways. Their disdain for him grew so great, it was eventually bolstered by the king’s own brother Boleslav, who secretly plotted against him in September 935 CE. Boleslav invited the oblivious king to the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, where he was viciously attacked by three henchman and stabbed and torn repeatedly with a metal lance right until he lay gored and bloody in front of St. Vitus Cathedral of Prague. Now that’s a holiday story for you.
Most people know by now, Christmas isn’t really about baby Jesus—perhaps for some, but old Saint Nick was a pre-Christian figure who first became popular in Germany during the 11th century as a patron of children. Unlike today, youngsters tended to be more ignored than celebrated back then, which made this annual feast in their honor particularly special. Many folks saw this moment in time as an opportunity to appreciate the joy of youth, but of course, there were others who used it as an excuse to teach young people yet another important lesson about the dangers of disobedience. Dark history is here to remind us that people around the world once viewed Christmas not only as a way to spread good cheer among themselves, but as an opportunity to remind the children just how brutal the world can be when certain expectations are not met.
In an almost Shakespearean-type construct, the warm generosity of Santa Claus has been emphasized through the ages by the “companions of Saint Nicholas” who served as a foil for his benevolent character. A sort of good cop, bad cop scenario. As jolly St. Nick works to honor and delight children with his generosity, these creepier figures linger on the sidelines ready to thrash and terrify those who don’t deserve better. Much like a kobold elf, or house spirit from German folklore, these mischievous characters have existed in cultures around the world for centuries upon centuries, from Germany to Croatia to Hungary to Switzerland to France to Russia to America. These dark holiday companions have been seen less and less as modernity sets in, but it’s worth remembering how they once served as Santa’s nasty sidekicks, his horrible henchmen, if you will, who appeared as more sinister replicas of Nicholas and ready to dole out the nasty punishments to the wicked.
In the case of Knecht Ruprecht, who was one of the most familiar character in German folklore, his long beard, humble clothing, and old mannish appearance were not indicative of his potential for violence. Focusing primarily on the religious discipline of children, this 17th-century “Servant Rupert” became particularly irate at youngsters who had not properly memorized their prayers or somehow shirked their spiritual obligations. If he discovered children who had not met the expectation for observant Christians, he snatched away their gingerbread treats and beat them senseless with a bag of ashes.
His grimy face and darkened clothing suggested his fondness for the fireplace, which lends itself to the origin of “coal in the stocking” and other hearth-related imagery. Some say old Knecht Ruprecht may even be the story behind why St. Nick travels down the chimney on Christmas eve to deliver gifts. But watch out for this character—children who don’t sing and dance well enough—or don’t convince him of their moral worth—may be snatched up, stuffed in his oversized bag, and carried off to his home in the Black Forest, where they will be eaten later for his holiday meal.
Described as a crotchety, fur-clad holiday reveler who delivered gifts, goodies, and treats to children, this 19th-century German-made holiday grump was also likely to dole out some serious punishment to those who displeased him. Despite the elegance of the season, Belsnickel wore tattered, dirty clothing and carried a hazel switch with which he beat unruly youngsters. He also carried pockets full of candy, nuts, and cakes which made him at least somewhat intriguing to children, who were often willing to brave a conversation with him to win his favor. But Belsnickel was not easy to please and would just as soon give you a sweet as a whack on the head.
Historically speaking, the story of Belsnickel is believed to have come across the pond in a collection of essays written by Jacob Brown in the mid-19th century called Brown’s Miscellaneous Writings. 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, giving him the nickname “Christmas woman.” A few weeks before the holiday eve, he would appear disguised and masked at the door—and when let in, he would scatter goodies all about on the floor. As 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 as repentance. And for children who were really bad, he might even leave a birch rod in their stocking lest they forget his warning to behave. He was also known to hang out with his grizzled sidekick “Krampus,” a horned figure akin to a devil.
Arguably the most terrifying of all Santa’s dark companions, Krampus is described as half-goat, half-demon creature who punished naughty children during the holiday season. In contrast to Santa who rewards the good, Krampus—which translates into “claw”—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 meant to represent the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church and has been known to art off evil children for the purpose of drowning, eating, or transporting to Hell.
Some people say the pre-Christian Alpine tradition of Krampus is so old, it may even relate to 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—and frankly, terrifying. In reality, Krampus was such a powerful symbol in the Germanic tradition at one time, 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. In some Alpine regions, Krampus can still be seen out roaming the night, particularly on December 5th, when young men dress up in his garb and scare the bejesus out of women and children out shopping for the holiday.
French for “Whipping Father,” Père Fouettard is reminiscent of medieval times, when parents were less compassionate towards misbehaved youth and more concerned with instilling fear. This terrifying anti-Santa was 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. 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 explained 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 resurrected the children—at which point, Père Fouettard repented and became Saint Nick’s partner as a way to better himself. Another later variation of the story relates to the Siege of Metz, the 16th-century war between France’s Henry II and the Holy Roman Empire. Although the battle lasted eight years, locals would burn an effigy of the Emperor, Charles V, during festive times and drag it through the streets, essentially recreating the idea of the Father Whipper.
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. During their brief liberation, these ancient creatures wreak a wide range of havoc, from simple pranks to torture to straight up murder. Unlike most of Santa’s dark henchmen, the Kallikantzaroi don’t care if you’ve been bad or good—they want only to destroy you. But On January 6th—the Christian feast day of Epiphany—the sun shifts its movement towards more light, and they must return to their laborious existence underground. And 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. By definition, they are a bitter, resentful crew.
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. And because they spend the majority of their time underground, they are mostly blind and enjoy eating worms and other small creatures, which they consider the perfect holiday meal. People in the old country used to say the Kallikantzaroi were so obsessively stupid, they could be distracted from bothering you during the holidays if just you left out a colander on your front step that would confuse them with its many holes. Folks also believed a black cross on the door or the smell of burning clothes would ward them off.
Grýla and Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat)
As is the case with most traditions, some of the more frightening figures in history are reserved for women. One stand-alone villain, who’s more than just a grim Christmas companion, was Grýla and her naughty Yule Cat. Described as a mythical giantess from the mountains of Iceland, this holiday hag was tasked—yet again— with 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—because what’s scarier than an old woman who want to eat you? If she finds them, she will devour them as a tasty snack, especially if they have been bad.
According to folklore, Grýla has been married three times and lives in the cold mountains with her sons, the Yule Lads, and the big, black Yule Cat. Stemming from the dark ages, this frightful feline was a monster from Icelandic folklore who roamed the snowy countryside at Christmas, gobbling anyone who didn’t look dapper enough for the occasion. If your clothes were not crisp and newly prepared for the approach of Christmas Eve, this huge and vicious cat would put you out of your unfashionable misery with a quick swipe of his claws. Farmers trying to incent workers into finishing their autumn wool before the arrival of Christmas would use the Yule Cat as a threat and a reward. Those who didn’t work hard enough would get nothing to wear and would 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 without hesitation.
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.
La Befana (The Christmas Witch)
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 was represented with classic female duality—as quite pale and beautiful or as an elderly hag.
In many old depictions, she had one large foot, sometimes referred to as a goosefoot, 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 on the 12th night of Christmas, otherwise known as the Feast of the Epiphany, 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 naughty—apparently, quite naughty—she would cut their bellies open, remove their innards, and stuff the bloody hole with straw and pebbles. What she does with the gorey entrails, no one knows…
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 appeared haggard and somewhat frightful, she was essentially a more startling version of Saint Nick. Many suggest Befana was a descendant of the Roman goddess Strina, 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 Befana was an excellent housekeeper and would even sweep your floor with her broom if you’ve been particularly well behaved. Instead of milk and cookies, it was recommended families leave out a glass of wine for old Befana and perhaps a few tasty morsels of local fare. Like Santa, she entered the home through the chimney and was often covered in soot. But she did carry a bag of candy and gifts also, which made her a benevolent spirit despite her haggish appearance. She was the Christmas Witch, and like a somewhat spooky old grandmother, most children loved her rather than feared her.
And the rest is history.