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

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


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.


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.