Whether it be waiting for the first star to shine before opening presents in Poland, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas dinner in Japan, or hiding a pickle in the tree in the US, there is no shortage of Christmas traditions ranging from the cute to the questionable. These traditions are often recognised in modern ways, but often have their roots in old stories and fables.
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Amongst the vast number of cultural Christmas rituals lurk some rather unusual and downright creepy traditions with their dark origins derived from folklore. Let’s take a look at 10 of the creepiest Christmas legends from around the globe.
1. Don’t Eat Santa’s Cookies Kids
We’ll kickstart things over in South Africa where just like other countries, families leave out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. As these things often go with kids, the cookies kept getting gobbled up whilst the parents weren’t looking and so the tale of Danny came to life.
Danny was a boy who ate all of Santa’s cookies and his grandmother was pissed. She flew into a rage and killed him. Bit of an overreaction but OK.
The tale seems to have done the trick though as the cookies are now left safely untouched, lest a child suffer the same fate as poor Danny. It is said the ghost of Danny now haunts the homes of naughty children during Christmas time. Spooky.
2. The Cannibal Scarecrow
Originating in the France-Germany border region of Alsace, Hans Trapp was said to be a rich man who was evil AF. Allegedly a devil-worshipper, Hans Trapp was eventually excommunicated by the Catholic Church and sold his soul to Satan. He went off to live in the forest where he became a cannibal.
On Christmas day, Hans Trapp would stuff his clothing with straw to disguise himself as a scarecrow and emerge from the woods to prey on children. It is said he would kidnap and eat the bad children and to this day the children of Alsace still fear him.
A sort of happy ending to the legend – Hans Trapp was killed by a lightning bolt after God got pissed off with his evil-doing. Now Hans Trapp is a companion of St Nicholas, urging children to amend their wicked ways or end up like him. All’s well that ends well I guess?
3. Goblins In Greece
This Christmas, Santa might not be the only one coming down your chimney. Kallikantzaroi are small goblins originating out of Greece that dwell underground throughout the year causing no bother to humans. During the 12 days of Christmas however, this is their time to shine and the goblins come out during this period to cause havoc.
The goblins will sneak into your home through the chimney or by slipping in the front door and are known to intimidate people, spoil food and piss in flowerbeds. Charming. Their antics have been described as similar to, “drunken yobs coming out of a pub”.
…overturn and break all the furniture, devour the Christmas pork, befoul all the water and wine and food which remains, and leave the occupants half dead with fright or violence.
Greek families will use black handled knives, the lower jaw of a pig, or a tangled string hung over the doorway to ward off the little monsters.
When the goblins are underground for the rest of the year, they spend this time sawing away at the ‘world tree’ so that it will collapse, taking Earth down with it. So effectively these goblins spend all year long trying to trigger the apocalypse. That’s quite the backstory.
But fear not! Unfortunately for the scamps, whilst they’re away causing mischief on the surface, the tree heals itself completely, making their entire years’ worth of work totally useless. Gutted.
4. Gryla And Her 13 Yule Lads
Off to Iceland for this one with Gryla and her 13 Yule Lads. The Yule Lads have names such as Gimpy, Bowl-Licker and Meat Hook and will leave gifts for good children. Similar to the Kallikantzaroi, the Yule Lads would cause mischief by stealing food and slamming doors as well. Nothing too heavy so far, although if the Yule Lads thought a child was bad then they would turn it up a notch and kidnap said child to bring to their horrifying mother.
Enter Gryla, a hideous giantess who was said to eat naughty children in her cave. Half-ogre, half-troll with two large horns and covered in warts, Gryla would gratefully accept the children snatched by her boys. She would then prep and cook the children up by using them as ingredients in a gruesome stew. Nothing like scaring kids into being good with an absolutely brutal fate if they don’t behave hey?
In fact, this story was scaring children so much that the Icelandic government actually had to ban the use of the story of Gryla and the Yule Lads as a way of getting children to behave. I thought that seemed a bit excessive but after doing some reading, the kids are legit petrified of the legend even now and several terrified kids had to leave the classroom after a teacher drew a picture of Gryla. To be fair, after seeing some of the costumes of Gryla and the Yule Lads that the locals don at Christmas, I’d be pretty scared of them too!
5. The Disemboweling Witch
Taking two-faced literally with this next one. This legend is a staple in the Alpine regions of southern Germany and Austria where children are told the delightful, heart-warming tale of Frau Perchta, the Christmas Witch. Frau Perchta has a nice face that she shows to nice children, and a scary face she shows to bad children. Ok, nothing too untoward so far.
Now we get a bit more hardcore. Frau Perchta appears as a haggard, terrifying woman with misshapen feet and carries a long knife under her skirt. The Christmas Witch absolutely hates the lazy and the greedy.
If Frau Perchta deemed a child to be naughty, she would slit their bellies open with her knife, take out their organs and replace their entrails with rocks and straw. Oh, and she also hates liars too and children caught fibbing would have their tongues scraped with glass. Pretty gnarly for a Christmas story.
6. Respect The Tomte
Introducing Jultomte, the Swedish Santa Clause. On the surface, Jultomte is a cheerful man who delivers gifts to children’s homes. More understated than the man in red, Jultomte more reflects the introverted nature of Swedes. Jultomte prefers porridge with butter to be left out rather than cookies and milk. Jultomte is shy and needs to be ‘tricked’ into appearing in public compared to Santa Claus parading himself around and sitting in shopping malls with kids on his lap.
So why is Jultomte on this list? Well, it’s the murky origins of this little Scandinavian chap that are a little less jovial. It comes from the legend of the tomte, or the nisse. These sprites were children-sized old men (creepy in itself), and they protected the home.
Tomten are sensitive and possess superhuman strength. They’re very helpful when treated with respect but they are proud creatures who are easily offended. Fail to leave cookies out for Santa and you may receive a lump of coal; fail to deliver a tomte’s porridge however, and he’ll murder you. Anyone noticing a theme of over excessive punishments in these Christmas stories?
In one tale a young girl eats the porridge herself and is danced to death whilst the tomte sings a mocking song. In another tale, a blacksmith eats the porridge and shits in the bowl (lol). This time, the tomte lays in wait for three days waiting for his moment to strike. When the blacksmith fires up his oven, the tomte leaps out and pushes the guy into the fire. He shoves the guy into the flames until all that remained was two severed feet wearing wooden clogs.
Goldilocks got off lightly for chowing down on porridge compared to these guys. Don’t forget the porridge basically.
7. Fear Jolakotturinn
Over in Iceland again and remember Gryla and her Yule Lads? Well they had a cat. The Yule Cat or Jolakotturinn was a monstrous, prowling feline rumoured to lurk in the snow. Children who didn’t receive new clothes by Christmas Eve would be in a spot of bother.
Naughty children who didn’t earn new clothes by completing their chores would have to face the Yule Cat when it turned up. It would come on Christmas Eve to eat its dinner – and then the child.
Interestingly, the tradition stems from farmers who used the myth as an incentive for their workers to finish processing wool before Christmas. The ones who cracked on and helped with the work were rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and would therefore be devoured by the angry cat. It sounds like it was a tough life back then hey?
8. Don’t Get The Sack
Made into a horror comedy in 2015, Krampus is the devilish companion to St. Nicholas. Originating from Germany with a name derived from the word ‘claw’, Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon monster with a disgustingly long tongue and one cloven and one human foot. Punishing where Santa rewards, he’s basically the anti-Claus and the opposite of the cheerful, merry red-coated fella we know so well.
We all know that Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice and worst case scenario you’ll be getting a lump of coal if you’re deemed to be naughty. But that’s not the case with ol’ Krampus, he punishes misbehaving children by swatting ‘wicked’ children, stuffing them into a sack, taking them off to his lair and eating them. That’s certainly an incentive to appear on the nice list, as if everything else we’ve mentioned hasn’t already convinced you.
9. Impish Or Admirable?
Germany clearly love their folklore as we’re over there again for this next one. If you watch the Office US, you’ll already be familiar with the Belsnickel after Dwight hilariously recreated him for the office Christmas party. He comes at night, dressed in dirty furs with a face blackened with charcoal and loudly raps on windows, shouting accusations of misdeeds at children.
Said to be the first Christmas tradition that distinguished between good and bad children, the Belsnickel’s sole purpose is to ensure children behave during Christmas. Often neighbours and family will dress as the Belsnickel and it’s not uncommon to be smacked with the Belsnickel’s switch made up of birch branches for jumping to take a Christmas treat too quickly.
Nowadays the Belsnickel is a light-hearted tradition, but some of the darker tales suggest that the Belsnickel would drag naughty children out of their beds and make them dance or sing to redeem themselves. If they didn’t impress him, they’d never get to go home and would be kept by him forever. Yikes – is that a fate worse than death that most of the tales are espousing?
10. The Whipping Father
Le Pere Fouettard means “The Whipping Father” and he is a French/Belgian character who like Krampus, has a penchant for the punishing aspect of Christmas. Children hear him before they see him from the sound of the slapping of his whip. Terrifying.
The Whipping Father wears dark robes, with a dirty face and scraggly hair and follows St Nicholas from house to house divvying out beatings to the naughty. Another tradition with darker origins, one popular story of Le Pere Fouettard tells the tale of when La Pere was an evil innkeeper. He and his wife kidnapped three boys as they travelled to a boarding school. Not only did they rob the boys of their money, they then slit each of their throats, cut the boys up and cooked them in a stew. Wonder who cooks it best, Gryla or La Pere?
St Nicholas clearly has some super powers as when he heard of the crime, he resurrected the children. This miracle caused La Pere to repent and become assistant to St Nicholas each Christmas, punishing the bad whilst the saint rewards the good. Great that the story has a happy ending?
Well it’s safe to say that most of these stories come from Europe and it’s no surprise as the concept of folklore emerged in Europe midway through the nineteenth century. Traditional tales often link to ethical or moral issues and in the case of these Christmas traditions, the general theme is that of good behaviour and what can happen when we are bad.
So let’s be grateful that these are all fictional tales and that we don’t have to worry about keeping any goblins out of the chimney this Christmas…
Even Santa’s not always nice himself as we saw when a shopping mall Santa made a kid cry by telling him he wouldn’t bring him a Nerf gun for Christmas. What a prick.