Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills

Natasha sheldon - December 4, 2017

Today, we associate the Festive Season with peace and goodwill to all men. It’s a time to celebrate the turning of the year or the birth of Christ with presents, parties, and togetherness. Light and hope are its motifs, and for most children, Santa Clause – otherwise known as Father Christmas or St. Nicholas – lies at the center of the festivities.

However, there is a dark side to Christmas. A side where the elves are not Santa’s little helpers- or indeed anybody’s friends. Where in the shadows, cruel and frightful figures lurk, waiting to play tricks and do harm- especially to those who have been ‘naughty.’ Some of these figures accompany St. Nicholas on his rounds while others work alone. Some are even based in part on historical personas. All, one way or another, have one foot in a past where winter was a dangerous time, with hunger, darkness and want just waiting around the corner for the unwary or the unlucky.

Some of these figures survive today, as legends or as picturesque relics of Yuletides past, their threat dimmed by the bright lights of the modern Christmas. But they lurk in the shadows still, reminding us that, for our ancestors at least, Christmas time wasn’t always merry or bright. Here are ten of these curious – and terrifying – figures of Christmas past.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Kallikantzaros. Wikimedia Commons

The Kallikantzaros

According to the folklore of Greece and the Balkan states, between the Winter Solstice and Epiphany, the kallikantzaros emerge. For most of the year, these light fearing goblins lived underground, working their mischief on the world tree. Every day, they relentlessly sawed at the trees’ trunk- for once the tree was down, (or so they believed), the world will fall. However, at the winter solstice, the kallikantzaros were drawn by the darkness of the year above ground. And so they took a sixteen-day holiday, causing havoc for humanity instead.

Descriptions of the Kallikantzaros vary from region to region, but all agree that they were like little black devils: small, humanlike, but with long tails and a liking for frogs and worms. The kallikantzaros were also blind- probably as a result of their subterranean existence. However, this did not impede them from making mischief.

During the day, people were safe from the Kallikantzaros because daylight is deadly to them. However, at night, the little imps were at large, waiting for victims. Anyone out alone needed to beware, for if they encountered the kallikantzaros, they would be forced to carry them about until dawn. Nor were people safe indoors, for the kallikantzaros would attempt to draw them out by imitating the voices of dead loved ones.

If their victims did not come out, the kallikantzaros would break in, sneaking through cracks in windows or the keyholes of doors-or down the chimney. Once inside, they would smash up the furniture, eat all the food, drink all the drink- and urinate on any remaining provisions. If they encountered people, the Kallikantzaros would terrify them with their hideous red eyes and hysterical laughter and with spiteful bites and scratches.

However, it was possible to thwart the Kallikantzaros. A colander placed on the doorstep could distract them from breaking in for a whole night. The kallikantzaros would attempt to count the colanders’ holes- but they could never get past two for three is a sacred number and for a kallikantzaros to speak its name was to invite certain death. If a Kallikantzaros tried the chimney instead, a burning Yule log could block their way. Burning an old shoe, or salt and incense also warded them off. Failing that, a black cross on the door would do the trick.

On the 6th January, the Kallikantzaros departed for the underworld once more. Now, the increase in light, which had been growing discretely ever since the winter solstice was finally apparent. While the people celebrated the return of the sun and the hope of spring with bonfires, the Kallikantzaros returned to sawing the world tree. Sixteen days of respite from them had allowed the tree to heal itself completely- meaning the kallikantzaros had to begin, all over again.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
The Mari Lwyd. Google Images.

Mari Lwyd

The custom of Mari Lwyd was a regular Yuletide occurrence in South Wales until the early twentieth century- although it is currently enjoying something of a revival. J Evans first described the ritual in his work, “A Tour through Part of North Wales in the Year 1798 and other times.” The tradition is a strange one: part wassailing with menaces, part battle by song.

Every Christmastide, at some time after dusk, a group of local men, would take to the streets of South Wales’ towns. The men’s faces were blackened, and they dressed as mummers. Throughout the evening and into the night, they would move from house to house. They carried with them a sinister prop: an artificial horse constructed from a blanket draped over a stick and a real horses skull: the Mari Lwyd. This horses head was often kept buried throughout the year and only dug up at Christmas

Once a householder answered the door, a two-sided choral debate with the mummers began- a ritual known in Welsh as the pwnco. The mummers started by singing:

Wel Dyma ni’n dwad

Gy-feillion di-niwad

I ofyn am gennad

I ofyn am gennad

I ofyn am gennad I ganu

(Well here we come

Innocent friends

To ask leave

To ask leave

To ask leave to sing.)

The householder would then counter with a reason why the group should not enter. If the homeowner ran out of excuses, they had to let the Mari Lwyd in. Once inside, the mummers were offered food and drink while some of them carried the Mari Lwyd about the house, its jaws snapping at terrified children and adults.

The origins of the Mari Lwyd are as obscure as they are creepy. Some suggest the ritual has pre-Christian roots, based the horses’ similarity to similar figures in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Then there is the name. The folklorist E C Cawte believed it means ‘Grey Mare,’ as grey in Welsh is Llwyd and Mari could be a misspelling of the English ‘mare.’

Others, however, believe that Mari Lwyd is a derivative of ‘blessed Mary’, a Catholic reference to the mother of Christ riding on a donkey during the Feast of the Ass. This obsolete festival was held on January 14 and commemorated the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt. Most people today, however, accept that the Mari Lwyd is a hybrid of both a pagan ritual and a Christian feast.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
The Yule Cat. Google Images

Jolakotturinn or ‘The Yule Cat”

Cats often appear curled up contentedly on the Yuletide fireside scenes of some Christmas cards. However, Iceland’s’ Jolakotturinn is no sleepy fireside feline. According to folklore, the Yule Cat is a massive, vicious beast that hides amongst the ice and snow of the barren Christmas landscape- waiting for its prey.

Seeing the cat itself was bad enough. According to the poem, Jolakotturinn by Johannes ur Kotlum, one of Iceland’s’ best-loved poets:

“His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.”

Then there was what the cat did to his victims. These were the poor or specifically those without new clothes to wear on Christmas Eve. If they were lucky, the feline fiend just ate up all their food stores, leaving them without a Christmas feast. However, if they were unlucky, they became Christmas dinner for the cat.

Kotlum was drawing on the first written accounts of the legend, which date from the nineteenth century, and tradition that was undoubtedly much older. However, the fame of the Yule Cat seems to be down to Icelandic sheep farmers who used it as an incentive for their workers. The farmers were eager to have the autumn wool processed for Christmas. So they offered to reward any of their workers who worked overtime with new clothes. However, those who did not join in were branded as lazy- and told the story of the Jolakotturinn.

Whether or not the adult workers fell for the threat of the Yule cat is debatable. The lure of new clothes probably ensured most joined in with the extra work. However, pretty soon parents were finding Jolakotturinn a useful threat to use against children unwilling to do their chores. The cat would know they had been lazy, parents told their laid-back offspring, because they would not be given any new clothes for Christmas.

The threat seems to have worked. One Icelandic woman, in an oral history, recalled how “We were lazy doing this chore. Then we were reminded of the Yule Cat. We thought that was some terrible beast and the last thing we wanted was to be one of his offers”.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
The Yule Lads. Google Images

The Yule Lads

Johannes Ur Kotlum also immortalized another Icelandic Yuletide legend: that of the Jolasveinarnir or The Yule Lads. Following tradition, his 1932 poem, poem Jolin Koma, “or Christmas is Coming’, depicts the Yule Lads as the offspring of the mountain trolls Gryla and Lappaluoi. Their mother, Gyra was herself especially unpleasant. She sported hooves for feet, possessed thirteen tails, and had a particular liking for stewed children- especially at Christmas.

In the original legends, her thirteen sons were little better. Each had a particular personality- ranging from the mischievous, unpleasant to the downright psychotic. Every Christmas for thirteen days, one lad a day would leave their mountain cave to descend on the world of humans and create their kind of Christmas havoc. These days either fell before December 25 or after, depending on varying traditions.

First came Stekkjarstaur, who harassed the sheep. Gilijagaur, who hide in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk, followed him. Stufer, who was next, entered houses and took the food. Pvorusleikir, the spoon thief, followed him and then Pottaskefill who stole the leftovers from pots. Next came Askasleikir, who hid under the beds to steal from and frighten anyone sleeping. Huroaskellir was next, disturbing households with his nocturnal door slamming.

Skyrgamus and Bjugnakrakir were less noisy but just as disturbing to their human victims. Then, the nosy Gluggagaegir arrived, to terrify people by peering at them from the outside of their windows. The doors were attacked the next night by Gattaperfur, followed by Ketkrokur and his meat hook and finally Kertasnikir who stalked children in the dark.

Today, this merry band of mischief-making brothers has become much more cuddly. Swapping their medieval garments from cherry red Father Christmas suits, they have been transformed into the Icelandic version of Santa Claus and his Elves combined. Instead of appearing one by one, to rob, terrorize and intimidate humanity, they all team up to visit the homes of children, placing gifts in their shoes, which are set expectantly on windowsills on Christmas Eve. For good children, there will be presents. However, some of the Yule Lads’ ancient mischief is not entirely lost. For the bad ones can expect only a rotten potato or some similarly unpleasant surprise.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
A man disguised as one of the Perchten. Google Images

Frau Perchta and the Perchten

The Alpine areas of Germany and Austria, particularly the Tyrol and Salzburg are home to curious Yuletide customs surrounding a witch-like figure called Frau Perchta. Perchta is believed to be at large during the twelve days of Christmas when she and her posse of devils come down from the mountain forests to terrorize – and reward-humans. Perchtas’ dual purpose is represented by her duel image. In her benign aspect, Frau Perchta appears as a white-robed woman bearing gifts. However, she also manifests as crone-like figure-who rips out the guts of evildoers and discards them in the rubbish.

It is believed that Perchta began as an alpine nature goddess of the forests. For most of the year, this is where she stayed. However, when the year reached its cusp between the old cycle of the sun and the new, the goddess and her attendant spirits, the Perchen, would leave the forest and enter the world of men. Perchta would ensure that the spirits who attended her would bring no harm to good people. However, evil people were at the Perchens’ mercy.

In this way, Frau Perchta represents the ancient Indo-German fear of the season of cold and dark and the Perchen the uncompromising forces of nature. So people developed rituals to protect themselves, their homes and livestock from them. Special herbs were burnt around the winter solstice to safeguard homes, pens and food stores from these old spirits who could manifest as cold, hunger and blight. The herbs were also intended to wake the spirits of the new year or spring.

Records show that by at least the sixteenth century, if not earlier, young men had begun to dress up as spirits themselves to frighten off Frau Perchta and her gang. Wearing wooden masks, known as Schiachperchten, old rags, and ancient furs, these masked young men became known as the Perchten themselves. They roamed the countryside, attempting to scare off the real Perchten and so ward off evil.

Today, these rites of safeguarding and propitiation have become festive celebrations known as Raunachte or smoke nights, a great tourist draw in the alpine regions. Young men still dress as the Perchten, with their masks and costumes representing the good and evil they bring. The horns, tusks, and teeth represent the Perchtens’ ability to tear at the souls of their victims while their lack of ears is so they cannot hear their victims’ screams. The cow or horsetail whips carried by these human Perchten, however, are their gifts: ancient symbols of fertility or purification to bring hope for the coming year.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Krampus. Google Images

Krampus

In Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, and parts of eastern Europe, December 5th, is the time of the Kramostag-the festival of Krampus. Today, many towns in these areas hold festivities where people dress up and parade through the crowd as Krampus, a half goat, half demon. This modern festival has ancient origins and dates from a time when it was customary for men to dress in frightening costumes, moving from house to house, demanding alcohol from householders- or else a terrible retribution, emulating Krampus himself.

Krampus’ name derives from the mid-high German term for ‘Claw ‘ suggesting this Christmas demon gained his name sometime between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. He is best summarized in character as the anti-father Christmas, a frightening devil-like figure who punishes those children who misbehave, beating them or carrying them away for drowning, consumption or hell itself in a basket on his back. While Krampus disposes of the bad, Santa Claus or rather St. Nicholas himself, reward the good. This odd couple forms a team- but they work separately: St Nicholas on December 6th and Krampus the day before.

However, the concept of Krampus is much older than his name, which he was awarded when his association with St Nicholas began. Like Frau Perchta, many of his emblems, such as the oxtails and bundles of branches which he carries to switch naughty children are pagan in origin. In the twelfth century, the Catholic church tried to ban the Krampus celebrations because Krampus looked too much like the devil- and in some legends was the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld. However, his celebrations were hard to suppress. So a compromise was reached, and the son of Hel became the companion of a Saint.

In the early twentieth century, Austria’s Christian socialist party also tried to stamp Krampus out- with a similar lack of success. And so, Krampus continues to survive But as winters’ threat has diminished in modern times, so has the danger of Krampus. His frightening aspects are now watered down, and he appears on Austrian Christmas cards in a slightly kitsch or comical way. Instead of carrying children off to hell in his basket, or even beating them, he is likely just to give them a lump of coal.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Hans Trapp. Google Images.

Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp is another anti-Santa figure from French/German border region of Alsace Lorraine. Legend tells how Trap began as a wealthy man- but greedy and evil to boot. He was so rotten that he was excommunicated by the Catholic church and sold his soul to Satan. Now beyond redemption, Trapp was exiled to the forests. But still, his evil was felt. Disguising himself as a scarecrow by stuffing straw into his clothing, he began to prey on children.

One day, or so the legend says, Hans Trapp was about to eat a small boy he had captured when God, fed up of his evil-doing, killed him with a bolt of lightning. However, this was not the end of Hans Trapp. He continued to roam the earth, dressed as a scarecrow. Like Krampus, Hans Trapp teamed up with St Nicholas- but to earn redemption. While St Nicholas awarded presents to the virtuous- Hans Trapp tries to persuade naughty children to mend their ways and be virtuous- unlike him.

Unlike Krampus, Hans Trapp has his origins in a historical personage: Hans Von Troth; a two meter high, late fifteenth-century German knight, with a terrible reputation. Von Troth had lands and castles on the German side of the border with France and was a thorough nuisance to church and the laity alike.

Von Troth was involved in a land dispute with a local abbot. As part of the feud, he ordered the Wieslauter River blocked, depriving the nearby town of Weissenburg of its water supply. When the abbot complained, Von Troth petulantly tore down the damn, flooding Weissenburg and destroying its economy. In 1491, Von Troth even managed to get himself excommunicated after the same abbot complained about him to the Pope- and Von troth insolently refused to go to Rome to give an account of his behavior.

Von Troth’s sinister appearance, destructive behavior and excommunication from the church all became mixed up in myth and after his death led to the creation of Hans Trapp as a warning to children on how to not live their lives. However, the end of the real Hans Trapp was no gruesome mystery. For Hans Von Troth died quietly, at home of natural causes in his castle at Bergwartstein.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Le Pere Fouettard. Google Images

Le Pere Fouettard

Le Pere Fouettard is a French/Belgium Christmas bogeyman with one foot in history and the other in the pagan past. Like Krampus and the Perchen, he is linked to the purifying/ punishing aspect of whipping-hence his name “Father Whipper.” Dressed in dark robes, with a sooty face and unkempt hair and a beard, children can hear him coming from the sound of the slapping of his whip. Le Pere does not work alone; he also follows St Nicholas from house to house, acting as his punisher, dispensing coal and beatings to the naughty. His original pagan context is lost, so instead, he is given shape by various more historical legends and events.

The most popular story of Le Pere Fouettard dates from around 1150. In this tale, La Pere was either an innkeeper or butcher with particularly evil habits. One day, he and his wife captured three boys on their way to a religious boarding school. They robbed the boys of their money and then disposed of them most gruesomely, slitting their throats, cutting them up- and stewing them.

St Nicholas heard of the crime and resurrected the children. On seeing this miracle, the evil innkeeper repented. He either volunteered to help St Nicholas as penance- or else was forced by the saint to assist him every Christmas, punishing the bad while the Saint rewarded the good.

Other, more historically verifiable events explain La Peres’ dirty face. In 1552, the northeastern French city of Metz was under siege by the forces of Charles V, the Spanish King, and Holy Roman emperor. The anger of the citizens led them to make a likeness of the Emperor and drag it through the city streets and burn it. At the same time, the tanners of Metz had created a grotesque character who punishes children. The two separate effigies somehow married themselves together in the popular mind and became incorporated into the role of Le Pere Fouettard.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
La Befana. Google Images

La Befana

Other than having a crone-like appearance, the Italian La Befana isn’t as terrifying as some other European Christmas legends. She was first recorded historically in 1549, in verse by the Italian poet Agnolo Firenzuola. Here La Befana was portrayed as an old and ugly woman. She flew on her broom at night, sometime between January 5 and 6th. She would land on the roofs of houses and, rather like Father Christmas, entered them through the chimney, leaving candles and presents for the good children and coal for the bad. If they were wise, the householders would also have made La Befana an offering of cakes and wine.

This Italian Mother Christmas predates the advent of St Nicholas in Italy. Her name is derived from the Italian for Epiphany: January 6th, the last day of Christmas. This is the day the Magi visited Christ. It is also the traditional time for people to mark the end of the dark days of Winter times and to celebrate the growth of the light of the sun. Both of these aspects combine in the legend of La Befana.

The legend tells how La Befana was an elderly Italian widow at the time of the birth of Christ. While sweeping out her house, she was visited by the Magi who were on their way to find the Christ child. The Wisemen were lost, but La Befana was able to direct them by telling them to follow a large and unusual star. Grateful, the Magi invited the old lady to join them on their journey. However, La Befana refused as she said she had too much housework to do.

However, when she realized she had missed out on seeing the son of god, La Befana was full of regret. So, instead of using the broom to clean, she took to the sky on it and began to roam Italy. Every Epiphany, she imitated The Magi by bestowing her own gifts on good children- and punishing those who were bad with a lump of coal.

However, La Befana is older than Christ. She originates from the symbol of the ‘old lady’ burned in the squares of Italian towns and villages at the end of every Christmas. Her consolation prize of coal, like the whippings of Krampus and the Preschen, was not originally intended as a punishment, but instead representing the cleansing power of the Epiphany fire- the same symbolism imbued in her broom.

Ten Terrifying Christmas Customs and Legends From Around the World Will Give You Chills
Belsnickel. Google Images.

Belsnickel

Another whipping character from Germany that has taken root in the US state of Pennsylvania is that of Belsnickel. Masked, and dressed in tattered clothes and furs- very much like the alpine Christmas bogeymen-Belsnickel visits children in the early days of December. He comes equipped with a sack of sweets- and a whip. However, Belsnickels’ aim isn’t to punish the naughty and reward the good but to persuade all children to mend their behavior.

Belsnickels’ name matches his dual purpose. It comes from the German for a smack, suffixed with ‘nickel’ for St. Nicholas. This is because, unlike many of his other European counterparts, Belsnickle combines the benign gift-giving aspect of St Nicholas with a more feral festive presence.

Originally native of the Rhineland, Belsnickel accompanied German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century. The Belsnickel tradition began to be recorded soon afterward. On December 5th, just before St Nicholas day, groups of young men were observed dressing up in skins and furs to celebrate ‘Belsnickle Night.’ They roamed the streets of their settlements, rattling chains and bells and acting boisterously, in imitation of the rites of Krampus.

Elsewhere, Belsnickel, himself was at large. Jacob Brown of Maryland described a visit from Belsnickel sometime around 1830. Browns’ Belsnickel was also called Kriskinkle and sometimes even The Christmas Woman- because he often dressed in women’s clothes. He made his appearance one or two weeks before Christmas. The figure of Belsnickel was probably undertaken by the Father of the house, who had previously absented himself under the pretense of work.

According to Brown, sometime after dark, a mysterious figure in a long robe and hood arrived, bearing a sack crammed with goodies: cakes, fruit and nuts- and a long hazel stick. This character would rap on the window of the house and ask for admittance. The children of the house would only let him in if he answered a question or sang them a song. However, once inside, Belsnickel would scatter the contents of his sack, and the children would dive in to collect the goodies.

As the children fell upon the sweet treats, Belsnickel roamed amongst them, switching them on their backs. This ‘beating’ came to be seen as a warning towards good behavior, but like so many other Christmas switchings, Belsnickels’ beatings had an earlier significance. Like the whippings of the Krampus and the Perchen, it was initially administered as a good luck charm for the children’s well being.

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