With Thanksgiving over, and Christmas right around the corner, I decided to take a break from my usual comic-related articles to touch on a more festive and holiday-related topic.
Christmas is a holiday that for most individuals brings peace, happiness, and joy. But for many other cultures, Christmas can also have a dark side that strikes fear into children and adults alike.
Krampus is probably one of the more common scary legends associated with Christmas. This figure is growing in popularity in America and has been featured in several forms of media in recent years, having appeared in an episode of American Dad! (2013), an episode of Grimm (2013), a comic series by Image Comics , and a horror/comedy movie coming out on December 4th (Krampus, staring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and David Koechner and directed by Michael Dougherty). However, the legend of Krampus originates from German culture and dates back hundreds of years. He is a large horned creature that works as the opposite of Santa Claus, punishing children who have misbehaved, and abducting and killing those children who were especially naughty.
The Jólakötturinn, also called the Yule Cat, is an Icelandic legend that dates back to the 19th century. The Yule Cat is very large in size and is said to roam the countryside praying on those who do not have new clothing for Christmas. According to the legend, if confronted by the demon cat, you are supposed to offer it a gift, specifically new clothing. If you are unable to do this, it eats you. In other versions of the story, the Yule Cat will just steal your food and gifts if you do not have new clothing. It is thought that this story was created to make people work harder before Christmas so they could afford to buy gifts for others. The Yule Cat is oftentimes associated with the Yule Lads.
The Yule Lads are also popular in Icelandic Culture. Throughout history, they have ranged in numbers and have ranged from being bloodthirsty killers, to mischievous pranksters. Originally there were 13 of them that would travel from the mountains to small rural towns on the days before Christmas to play pranks and scare unsuspecting victims. Each one had a name associated with the types of prank they would play. According to the legend, they are the sons of a giant mountain-dwelling troll named Grýla and are oftentimes associated with the Yule Cat. In modern times, they can be compared to Santa Claus. On the 13 days prior to Christmas, the children will leave their shoes on the window sill; each night, one Yule Lad will visit the children, leaving a small gift, or rotten potato in their shoes depending on whether they were naughty or nice!
Grýla is another popular creature in Icelandic folklore. She is a mountain giantess and is the mother of the Yule Lads. In Icelandic cultures, it is said that around Christmas time she travels from the mountains in search of naughty children. Once she finds the naughty children, she abducts them and eats them.
In Portugal, it is tradition that you wake up early on Christmas morning and partake in a large feast. This feast is known as Consoda. During Consoda, you take time to celebrate your ancestors, and invite dead relatives to join you in the feast. Families will even set out extra plates for their dead relatives. In some areas, crumbs will be left on the plates. This practice is thought to be derivative of the ancient practice of leaving seeds with the dead in hopes of having a good harvest.
In Bavarian and Austrian folklore, Frau Perchta was said to roam the countryside during the winter, and would enter homes between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th). When entering the homes, she would know whether or not the young children and servants had been good and worked hard. If they were good, she would leave a small silver coin for them. If the children were bad, she would cut open their abdomens, take out their organs and stuff them with straw. She was especially focused on whether or not young girls had reached their yearly quota of wool that they were instructed to spin. Frau Perchta is popular in many cultures and has many names based on the region (ex: Frau Faste in Switzerland and Slovenian areas, Percht in the upper alps). She likely originated from Celtic traditions and is often seen as the goddess of weaving. She can appear as a young, beautiful woman or an old dirty or tired woman.
Belsnickel is a Christmas character that originates from the middle-ages in Europe, primarily Germany. Historically speaking, he is actually one of the first to separate the naughty children from the nice children. The story of Belsnickel is very unique, due to the fact he allowed children to redeem themselves if they had misbehaved throughout the year. He is depicted as a masked figure who would bring nice children small gifts or candies throughout the year, leaving only switches for those who were naughty as a reminder to be good so they too can receive gifts. On Christmas Eve, Belsnickel would go to each house with a bag of gifts in one hand, and a switch in the other (he never actually spanked the children, he used the switches as a scare tactic), and knock on the windows. The good children would receive presents, and the naughty ones would get nothing. However, some darker versions of the story say that if they kids were naughty, he would abduct them and never let them go home, or would take them from their beds and drag them into the forest and punish them for their bad behavior.
Knecht Ruprecht is very similar to the mask-wearing, switch-wielding Belsnickel. His legend dates back to the middle-ages in Germany. Knecht Ruprecht was said to be a helper to Santa Claus, only he was not known for bringing gifts. In contrast to Santa Claus, Knecht Ruprecht went door to door on Saint Nicolas Day, asking parents of their children's behavior. If they were naughty, then he would use a switch to punish them. He traditionally wears a brown robe, sometimes made of fur, and has a long white beard and a brown pointed hat. He also carries a long staff, a bag of ashes, and a basket full of switches and treats such as candy or gingerbread.
Père Fouettard's origin comes from France and southern Belgium. Père Fouettard is a figure who accompanies Saint Nick on his journeys, and gives naughty children lumps of coal and beatings with a whip or switch. His story dates back to the 12th century, and has a very dark origin. According to the legend, Père Fouettard was a butcher, who came across three wealthy boys on their way to a Christian boarding school. He captured the boys to rob them, and later killed them and chopped their bodies up and put them in a barrel. Saint Nicholas later finds out about what has happened and resurrects the children. After this, as a punishment, Père Fouettard is forced to follow Saint Nicholas around as his partner, punishing children that have misbehaved. In appearance, Père Fouettard looks very similar to Knecht Ruprecht, but has a much darker, or coal black face.
Mari Lwyd was a tradition that was once carried out in South Wales. Around Christmas time, groups of men would carry around a prop horse, made up of a horse skull that was secured to a long stick, and covered with a blanket. The men would usually dress up as stock characters while going around town with their prop horse. The groups would go door to door, asking for entry into the house through the medium of song. The owners of the home would deny them access, also through song, and the group of men and the homeowners would go back and fourth arguing through song. If the homeowners stopped, this would grant the men entry into the house where they would be allowed food and drink, and would run around the house with the horse causing chaos and snapping the horses jaws (likely scaring children and adults). They would also play loud music and attempt to entertain the homeowners in other ways.
The Kallikantzaros are goblin-like creatures that originate from Greek mythology and are popular in southeastern European and Anatolian cultures. It is said that the Kallikantzaros live underground, but come out every night between Christmas and Epiphany (January 6th), causing mischief, playing pranks and scaring people.
La Befana may not be as frightening as the previous mythological beings, but she is fairly strange, nonetheless. Befana is popular in Italian folklore, and appears as an old woman riding a broomstick (very much like a witch) that visits children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). She acts very similar to Santa Claus in some ways, bringing gifts and candy to children that have been good, and bringing those that were naughty a lump of coal, dark candy, or a stick. She is often portrayed as wearing a black shawl, carrying a large bag and being covered in soot from traveling down chimneys.
It is always interesting to explore other cultures from around the world. While other regions have their own traditions, here in America we have some creepy holiday traditions of our own (Black Friday - which in my opinion is the scariest of all) and Elf on the Shelf, are both very popular among Americans). Are there any other scary holiday traditions that you'd like to mention? If so tell me in the comments below!