As in many countries these days, Christmas in the United States is mostly heralded by both religious celebrations and secular merriment. And hand in hand with the festivities come candy canes, snowmen, cute penguins, and more. Traditionally, the worst things that can happen to you around here at Christmastime are (a) you have an awkward encounter under the mistletoe or (b) you get a lump of coal in your stocking from Santa. Not so in Europe. With a long list of creepy Christmas characters, coal is the least of your worries. These five tales of Yule will give Halloween a run for its money.
The Rhineland figure of Belsnickel visits children around Christmastime, as does the traditional character of Santa Claus. But instead of being jolly with a twinkle in his eye, Belsnickel is hoary, cranky, and dressed in rags. He shows up a couple of weeks before Christmas to check on the behavior of children. He knows exactly who’s been bad or good, but he’s more concerned with the bad. Good children may get a few candies from him, but bad children will get a sound beating with a switch. If you’d like to catch a glimpse of him, you can head over to Pennsylvania, where he still makes a visit to Pennsylvania Dutch communities.
Krampus also has German origins, but he’s considerably more terrifying than Belsnickel. His name comes from the German word krampen, which means “claw.” He’s hairy, horned, and has a long, pointy tongue, which almost always is sticking out. He has pagan origins but evolved into a devil figure as he was incorporated into Christian Christmas celebrations. While Saint Nicholas is busying rewarding the good children with toys and sweets, Krampus is whipping the naughty ones, or worse, stuffing them into a sack to drag them off to the underworld. Krampus greeting cards have been popular in Europe since the 1800s, because nothing brings holiday cheer like a demonic beast that’s come to steal your children.
This giant cat prowls around Iceland around Christmastime, waiting to munch on people who haven’t received a new article of clothing to wear on Christmas Eve. If you’re thinking it sounds pretty harsh that the Yule Cat only eats poor people, consider that this tale comes from a time when those who helped with the fall wool harvest received wool clothing as reward. Thus, those who were idle during this time received nothing. So, no new wool clothing = lazy workers = a nice lunch for the Yule Cat.
In the mountains of Iceland lives a giant named Gryla. She comes down from her mountain home around Christmastime to harvest naughty children for her Christmas feast. She’s been around for a while; her name showed up in a thirteenth-century book of Old Norse poems. Around the seventeenth century, she became associated with Christmas because it was claimed that she was the mother of the Yule Lads and the owner of the Yule Cat. It is said that Gryla never goes hungry because there are always plenty of misbehaved children.
These Greek goblins stay underground all year but come to the surface from December 25 through January 6 to torment humans. According to one version of the legend, the sun stops its movement during winter solstice and begins moving again about two weeks later, at which point the Kallikantzaroi have to go back to their subterranean life. They do like human flesh, but they aren’t very smart, so as long as you keep a Yule log burning in the fireplace for the 12 days of Christmas, they can’t come in your house by way of chimney. And what about the front door? Just put a colander on the welcome mat; they can’t count above two, so they’ll be trying to count the holes all night. And when the sun comes up, back below they go.