It’s the holiday season, and for many this is a time of celebration, of being with family and enjoying the various fun festivities and gift giving that go with it all. For kids it is the time of the year when Santa comes around, bringing them presents and good cheer. It is for the most part a cheerful, upbeat time of the year, one which would not usually be associated with sinister forces and dark mayhem. Yet, in some Christmas traditions throughout the world there are evil forces afoot at this time of year, looking to upend and sabotage the good spirits and bring their own brand of grim tidings to it all.
Many of the dark and sinister entities of the Christmas season take the form of sort of evil twins of Santa Claus, anti-Santas so to speak, and by far the most well known of these is none other than a malevolent spirit known as Krampus, coming from the German word krampen, meaning “claw.” Originating in the folklore and myths of Central Europe, Krampus is most often seen in modern times as a devious and malignant counterpart to the benign and good Saint Nicolas, although the origins are thought to go back into pre-Christian times. Krampus is a foul and demonic hulking beast, and although his appearance shifts and varies depending on the region and its traditions, he most often is described as as a horned abomination, covered in hair and possessing cloven hooves, formidable fangs, and an obscenely long, pointed tongue. In most traditions he carries about thick clanking chains, often covered in bells, which he whips about to frighten and terrify, and he often carries a bundle of birch branches called a ruten with which to swat kids he sees as brats, as well as a large sack or bag in order to carry off the screaming children that he kidnaps. The typical image of Krampus is that of the malicious entity looming threateningly over children’s beds in darkened rooms, and all in all he’s not something most kids, or adults for that matter, would want to meet in the Christmas season. And that’s sort of the point.
The benevolent Saint Nicolas, who has evolved into the Santa Claus beloved by children today, is actually the patron Saint of children, with his Saint’s days actually falling in the beginning of December. He would then become associated with Chtistmas and giving gifts, but in the original lore not ever actually punishing. That would be left to someone else. Krampus has origins that are a bit murkier and misunderstood, but he was most likely originally a pagan god that perhaps even influenced the early Christian image of the Devil. Over the centuries he became more and more associated with the Christmas season when his visage was used in Christian pre-Christmas festivities during the 15th and 16th centuries, and Krampus began to take on a role in many areas as a sort of counterpoint to Saint Nicolas, used as a scary warning to misbehaving children who instead of receiving presents would be carried off by Krampus to be eaten or dragged kicking and screaming to Hell. Indeed, just as Saint Nicolas has his own celebrations on December 6, in some areas of Europe there is a festival the day before this called Krampusnacht, or “Krampus Night,” as well as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus Run,” during which boisterous, rowdy, and often very drunk people dress up in elaborate scary Krampus costumes and raucously parade around town scaring the living daylights out of kids. It’s all good fun.
In recent days Krampus has become a bit of a pop culture phenomenon, expanding past his original European birthplace to become known all over the world, and he has appeared in countless books, TV shows, and movies over the years, as well as igniting Krampus festivals and parades in other countries outside of Europe, including the United States. Although evil, Krampus has in many ways been commercialized almost as much as Santa Claus, and he may have lost his frightening edge a bit but is still not something any kid would want to see towering over their bed at night, so be good boys and girls.
Coming from the same region as Krampus, mainly from Germany and Austria, is another rather ominous anti-Santa known as Frau Perchta, also known as Berchta, Bertha, and Spinnstubenfrau, or “Spinning Room Lady.” Here we have what is typically described as an ugly old crone, a witch dressed in filthy rags and with a hooked nose fashioned of iron, who also is on a mission to punish badly behaved children during the 12 days of Christmas, spanning from December 25 to Epiphany, on January 6. Her origins are rather shrouded in mystery, but it is mostly thought that Frau Perchta began with the tales of a pagan alpine goddess, twisted and warped over time within lore to become the hideous and grumpy wretch she is today.
Somewhat different to Krampus, Frau Perchta is not always an evil presence, and will actually reward those who have not sinned or who are well-behaved, and she also demands that on her feast day, which lies on Epiphany, everyone stop working and enjoy a good meal with their families, as well as leave a bowl of porridge out for her. She also kind of likes it when people fulfill a quota of spinning yarn, of all things. She doesn’t sound so bad so far, but woe be to those who do not heed her wishes. On her active nights she is said to fly forth into the night looking for the wicked, dishonest, disobedient, or just those who haven’t spun enough, accompanied by a ghostly army of vile demon imps called the Perchten, among the ranks of which include the souls of unbaptized children. When she finds a target she is said to sit atop the victim, disembowel them, and then fill the empty body cavity with rocks and straw, or if one is lucky she might only cut out the tongue. So would you rather be visited by Krampus or Frau Perchta?
There are other evil versions of the Santa tradition as well. Also from Germany originates the figure known as Belsnickel, a fur-wearing, stick carrying entity from the lore of German speaking Europe and in particular the Palatinate region of southwestern Germany. According to the lore, Belsnickel appears as a decrepit, disheveled looking man decked out in ragged furs, pelts, and sometimes a creepy mask, and either carrying a stick or a switch. In the days before Christmas, he will appear at homes to check up on the behavior of the children dwelling within, and he is known to rap upon the windows or doors to capture the attention of these kids. He is then said to have them sing a song for him, after which he will throw out some pieces of candy. If the child reaches too greedily for it, they will be met with a sound beating with the entity’s stick or switch. Generally, Belsnickel will torment and beat naughty children, and conversely reward good children with candies and cake. The tradition of Belsnickel was brought by settlers to the United States in the 1800s, and over time has evolved somewhat into a figure that merely warns children to be good in the weeks before Christmas rather than just doling out such harsh punishment.
There is also the insidious evil anti-Santa called Hans Trapp, from the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. According to the lore, in the 15th century Trapp was a normal but very rich man, who over time devolved into a wicked, Satan worshiping miscreant, an unpleasant, heretical hermit practicing black magic, which got him excommunicated by the Church. He was further punished by having all of his wealth confiscated and being banished to the wilderness to live out the rest of his days alone amongst the cold, unforgiving trees. During his exile he became quite insane, and took to dressing like a scarecrow and standing motionless in fields waiting for children to approach, and if they got too close he would lash out to kill and eat them. One day he was struck down by lightning and killed, ending his reign of terror, at least in life. To this day he is said to wander about just before Christmas, still looking like a nightmare-inducing scarecrow and seeking out bad children to eat.
The country of Iceland also has its own spooky Christmas punisher of naughty children, in the form of the vile troll called Grýla, who is known to chop up, boil, and eat misbehaving kids during the Christmas season, along with her partner in crime and husband, the mighty troll Leppalúði. Grýla was not always associated with Christmas, but became linked to the holiday sometime in the 17th century. Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland, says of the nefarious Grýla:
Grýla is mentioned in various texts as being a troll, an ogress woman who roamed around the countryside. She wasn’t initially associated with Christmas, either. No one knew when exactly she was going to come. The name, in my mind, is associated with a word from the Danish dialect that means “growler,” which is quite a common name for trolls or giants. Their names come from the sounds you hear on the landscape from animals. We find more and more songs about Grýla as we get nearer to the 17th century, and she becomes quite a common figure in Christmas songs.
Together with her husband, they have quite the twisted family indeed, containing several other evil spirits of Christmas. For instance there is their pet, the demented creature known as Jólakötturinn, or also called the Yule Cat. This cat is described as being massive, more like a lion than a house cat, in some traditions looming above houses, and really seems to have a thing against the lazy, said to stalk and kill those who have not received any new clothes for working hard, a common reward at the time for hard work. If the cat finds a child or adult without new clothes they have earned, then it is said to eat their dinner, and then them as dessert. The cat does not target only children, but adults as well, and so terrified were cowering villagers of the Yule Cat in ages past that even those who did not work hard made sure to buy new clothes during this season to try and trick the beast into leaving them alone.
There are also the 13 evil offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði, called the Yule Lads, or the jólasveinar. These unrepentant tricksters are said to hide up in the mountains within their dank cave lair until December 12, after which one of them will come down each day to wreak some sort of havoc depending on their specialty or personal idea of deranged entertainment. Terry Gunnell says of these entities:
What’s different is that in other countries you have only one Santa. But here you have a bunch, coming down from the mountains one-by-one as Christmas approaches. They have different sorts of names that suggest they don’t give, but rather take. They lick out bowls. They steal sausages. They bang doors and peep through windows—things of this kind. They were first recorded in the 19th century, but you find similar stories in Norway as well, with The Christmas Lads. At first, the Yule Lads were called different sorts of names and were from different parts of Iceland, but many of the same names came up again and again.
In modern times the Yule Lads have come to be a more benevolent presence, giving gifts instead of taking, but they are still wrapped in dark and spooky lore. Speaking of mischievous evil Christmas trolls, Greece has its own similar tales, with the goblin-like creatures called the kallikantzaroi. Emerging in the 19th century, these grotesque and ugly goblins were mostly considered to be rather cute and playful at first, hairy little beings with goat legs often seen cavorting about and dancing in the moonlit woods, but it would seem that their true purpose was rather malevolent indeed. The kallikantzaroi were actually impish beings from the underworld, whose main goal was to cut down the tree that keeps the earth anchored. They are active during the 12 days beginning from Christmas to Epiphany on January 6, and luckily they usually don’t succeed with their task, and have to wait until the next year, upon which the tree has healed and the whole cycle begins anew, entrapping them in an endless cycle.
On occasion humans are said to become these creatures during these 12 days, losing their voices and becoming twisted, deformed versions of themselves, and the kallikantzaroi are also known to take humans as marriage partners. They are mostly known for their mischievous ways, entering homes during those 12 days and causing all sorts of mayhem, and this has spawned an array of ways to keep them at bay. One very common way is to etch in charcoal the sign of the Christmas cross on doors and windows just after Christmas Eve’s mass, and another is to leave a sieve at the doorstep, with the idea being that these creatures can’t resist counting all of the holes, despite the fact that the foolish wretches can barely count beyond two, keeping them there all night until the morning rays of sunshine cause them to flee.
In other areas food is to be left out for them, or to tidy up the place or to leave a fire burning. Traditions vary from place to place, but the main idea is that these things have to be kept out at all costs, and it was once not even considered safe to go outside after sunset, the only way to keep the prowling goblins away being a lit torch kept clutched close at all times. On the day after Epiphany, there is a celebration called Ta Phota, during which priests go about cleansing each home with Holy Water, and the creatures are said to flee while singing, “Fly, let us fly away! For here comes the fat priest with his holy water and his crook and he will sprinkle us, and so, defile us.”
Perhaps the most bizarre Christmas time spooky tradition is that of the Mari Lwyd of Wales. This entity is a skeletal zombie horse that rises each year during the holiday season to go to people’s homes and sings a hymn or whispers poetry through the door. The residents of the abode then have to engage it and beat it in a battle of wits, song, and poetry, a sort of rap battle so to speak, to keep it from entering and wreaking havoc. Although originally a pagan, pre-Christian tradition, the Mari Lwyd has become intertwined with Christmas and the New Year in more recent times. This spooky tale has become an ongoing tradition, in which a team of people carrying a skull on a pole as the nightmarish horse go door to door, usually at drinking establishments such as pubs, and challenge those within to their battle of lyrics. If the skeletal horse wins, they are invited in for food and drinks, and if they lose they waner off to the next place to try again. Although it has receded from popular practice in recent times, the idea of a skeletal zombie horse appearing out of the cold winter night is certainly a quirky and rather creepy Christmas tradition based in dark lore.
Here we have looked at just a few of the darker traditions and entities from around the world that sort of buck the trend of Christmas as a festive and happy time. From evil Santas, to man-eating trolls, marauding goblins, giant evil cats, and zombie horses, there are certainly some rather bizarre and macabre traditions and folklore to be found. So as you are sitting down to Christmas dinner and unwrapping your presents, no matter how much that relative is annoying you, no matter how much your kids are driving you nuts, just imagine it could be worse, you could have a horned demon at your door ready to eviscerate you.