It’s September..how do I know its September? Its because Mince pies and tinsel are for sale - yes folks Christmas is here…in four months time…4 MONTHS.
Don’t get me wrong, i’m not a Grinch, I quite like Christmas…but I prefer Halloween which is always given short shrift when it comes to celebration, in fact only the Bargain shops can truly be relied upon to having put their Halloween decor out for purchase as September rolls by. I honestly think Christmas would be more enjoyable if the commercial buildup around it didn’t take up FOUR MONTHS!
But you do know that Christmas has more in common with Halloween that you might think…right? You are aware that the fat, jovial figure of Saint Nick that we are all too familiar with was in fact created as a sales tool for Coke? Well it’s true, before 1931 there were many depictions of Santa Claus throughout the world, including a tall gaunt man, an elf and a great many more scarier incarnations.
But n 1932, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their Christmas advertising. Those painting established Santa as. Warm, happy individual with human features including rosy red cheeks, a big white beard, twinkling eyes and laughter lines.
Stand by my friends, because I am going to make you think of Christmas in a whole new way, the way it traditionally was, and trust me, you have far more to fear that a lump of coal in your stocking (though as the planet burns under the magnifying glass of climate change that comment may not age well)
Christmas might today be a time of joy and festivity, but a few centuries before Santa was a thing, much of Europe saw the midwinter as the time when the dead and demonic roamed the frosty countryside.
1. Krampus (Austria and Central Europe)
Krampus resembles an anthropomorphic, demonic goat who punishes misbehaving children. He rips out girls’ pigtails, beats children with birch branches and often carries a basket on his back so he can carry off a child of his choosing and consume them for Christmas dinner.
5 December is Krampusnacht – the night where men in homemade Krampus costumes charged around Alpine villages with pitchforks, demanding booze and threatening strangers.
Genuine monsters from the fires of Hell would probably have caused less destruction. These 'Krampus Runs' continue today and are a little more organised but still terrifying to witness.
Whilst many sinister Christmas characters peaked during the 15th and 16th centuries, interest in Krampus has grown over time. The 19th-century invention of Christmas cards saw an explosion of images of Krampus sent around the world.
Krampus Runs have spread to America too and, since 2013, there have been a series of Krampus-related Christmas films, presenting the character as an antidote to over-sentimental festive celebrations.
2. Lussi (Norway)
In Norway and Sweden, 13 December is St Lucia’s Day. St Lucia is represented as a beautiful young woman and nowadays the occasion is marked by a a young woman in a white sash representing the Saint roaming the streets with a Health and Safety Officer-baiting crown of candles on her head.
However, a few centuries ago Norway celebrated Lucia (or Lussi) in a very different form. For the night before 13 December – Lussi’s Night - was the night when evil spirits and demons rose up to wander the Earth. Children needed to be good and the adults warded off evil by protecting their homes with the sign of the cross.
Lussi was portrayed as a hideous demon with tyrannical powers. She rode through the skies on a broomstick accompanied by demons, evil spirits and trolls, spreading mayhem and chaos, destroying property, crops and livestock and kidnapping or killing anyone foolish enough to not be tucked up safely in bed.
3. The Karakoncolos (Bulgaria, Turkey and Serbia)
The Karakoncolos is generally portrayed as a cross between the Devil and a Sasquatch. In Turkey, he would stand at street corners on winter nights setting riddles for passers-by. If the traveller gave an answer that included the word ‘black’ they were free to go on their way. If not, he would strike them dead with a single blow.
Elsewhere the Karakoncolos’ favourite trick was to disguise their voice to pretend to be someone’s friend or relative and lure their intended victim out into the snow.
Sometimes the creature would set them in a trance and leave them to roam free but in Serbia, the Karakoncolos preferred to jump on the victim’s back and use them as a personal taxi service. The exhausted person was only released at dawn.
If you invited a Karakoncolos into your house, they would feel compelled to imitate their hosts’ behaviour. If you set fire to silk or thread, the Karakancolos would be tricked into setting fire to its own fur, and would run from the house screaming to find water.
4. The Kallikantzaroi (Greece)
In Greece a group of demons called the Kallikantzaroi were said to spend the year underground sawing through the tree of life that ran through the Earth.
Each December, when just a single thread held the tree together, the 12 days of Christmas would compel them to come overground and wander the Earth. By their return in January, the tree had repaired itself and they had to start again.
Once overground they caused mischief and chaos but, above all, sought to steal any child born over the 12 days of Christmas and turn them into fellow Kallikantzaroi. They could be kept at bay by binding newborn babies in straw and garlic.
You could also stop the creatures from getting into your house by placing a colander outside the door. The Kallikantzaroi would be compelled to count the holes but, because the number three is holy in Greek, they would fail to count that number and have to start again. This would occupy them until sunrise, when the house would be safe until darkness fell again.
5. Frau Perchta (Austria and parts of Germany and Italy)
In pre-Christian traditions, Perchta was an Alpine Goddess whose particular celebration day coincided with the Twelfth Night. After pre-Christian religions were displaced, she instead became a demonic witch who stalked villages, punishing anyone who dared to displease her.
Sometimes she appeared as a mischievous, dishevelled old woman. Alternatively, her appearance could depend on how you perceived her and whether you had pleased her.
If you were faithful, obedient and observed her rituals, Perchta would appear to you as a woman of divine beauty. If you angered her she would appear as a demonic, horned monster with a ferocious bloodlust.
Perchta would let you be as long as you followed her rituals on Perchta’s night, such as eating a traditional meal and special cakes baked in her honour.
Should you fail to do that, she would sneak into your room whilst you slept, slit your belly open and replace your innards with pebbles and straw. The following day, whoever discovered your corpse would assume you had simply died in your sleep.
6. The Yule Lads (Iceland)
Many of these creatures served as a metaphors for surviving the horrors of winter and, as Icelandic winters are tougher than most, it is unsurprising it has some of the most creative mythology.
The 13 Yule Lads visit houses – one Yule Lad a day – between 12 and 24 December. Nowadays they are depicted as tricksters, each with their own unique form of mischief. Spoon Licker steals wooden spoons to lick off the food residue, Door Slammer slams the doors of the house all night so nobody can rest, and you can probably guess what Sausage Swiper gets up to!
Historically, however, the Yule Lads were much more vicious and, in the 18th century, telling stories of the Yule Lads’ behaviour was e a competitive activity as each storyteller outdid the last with shocking tales of the gruesome brutality and gratuitous violence.
The tales got so out of hand that, in 1746, a public decree banned “the foolish custom of scaring children with the Yuletide lads and ghosts”.
7. Jólakötturinn or The Christmas Cat (Iceland)
If that was not enough, the Yule Lads also had a pet cat, who was perhaps the most terrifying creature of all. The name 'Christmas Cat' might conjure up images of a lovely kitten in a Santa hat but Jólakötturinn, who first appeared in the 19th century, was a huge, ferocious beast with razor-like whiskers, blazing eyes and terrible claws who consumed any child who did not receive new clothes on Christmas Day. So maybe you might want to think twice before complaining about getting socks for Christmas…because someone might just have saved your life!
In 1932 the Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum wrote a book of Christmas poems for children that - much like Clement Clarke-Moore’s A Visit From St Nicholas in the US or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the UK – enshrined Christmas traditions for future generations.
His telling of the Yule Lads became the 'official' version and his playful but macabre poem on the Christmas Cat captured the ferocity of the beast and the terror it inspired. In 1987 Björk did her own version of the poem, in one of her earliest solo recordings.
This thrice-married Icelandic giantess lives in a mountain cave near the Dimmuborgir lava fields with her third husband and has extra-sensory powers that allow her to detect misbehaving children in nearby towns. She kidnaps the brats and then cooks them into delicious stew. (It’s her favourite food, always in high supply.) She’s also the owner of Jolakotturinn, the hellacious Yule Cat and mother to the mischievous Yule Lads - both of which are detailed above. I guess terrorising people runs in that family.
In the film Krampus, Perchta is a demented angel doll, but her origins go waaaaay back to Germanic roots in the Early Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 900 A.D.). She has several names throughout Europe (like La Befana and Baboushka) and her reputation ranges from sweet to sadistic, but she’s always described as a domestic goddess—either a beautiful one with snow-white skin or a wrinkled hag with a hook nose and raggedy clothes. She also always has a giant foot that either comes from her endless days working the foot pedals of spinning wheels or from her ability to shapeshift into a goose; in fact, she’s actually the legendary inspiration behind Mother Goose, though she’s not all lullabies and fairy tales.
She’s apparently obsessed with cleanliness and good manners; so obsessed that she leaves obedient children and young servants silver coins in their pails. Bad kids, however, get disemboweled; have their innards replaced with garbage, straw and pebbles; and get sewn up to suffer alone in ungodly pain afterwards. Because she loves tidiness, she often carries a broom with her and can also fly. She’s basically a witch, and can be seen at various Christmas celebrations around Europe sharing candies or planning her next ritualistic torture.
She also employs horned demons to help her punish bad kids; these creatures are known as Straggele.
These shaggy horned beasts get their kicks by stealing from naughty children and occasionally tearing them to pieces. It’s said that you can avoid their wrath by leaving out some food so that they’ll feast on leftovers rather than your offspring
11. Zwarte Piet
If you’ve ever heard of Zwarte Piet (aka “Black Peter”) it has probably been from modern-day blog posts expressing horror at Dutch folks dressing up in blackface as Black Pete. Zwarte Piet was originally conceived of as a chained devil that Saint Nicholas had tamed, tasked with whipping bad kids with birch rods; in the gentler version, he merely leaves bundles of sticks as “gifts”-slash-veiled threats for disobedient kiddos.
Eventually, a 19th century schoolteacher described Black Peter as St. Nick’s “frizzy haired Negro” servant, and that unfortunately stuck (though alternate versions refer to him as either a helpful chimney sweep or a slave freed by St. Nick). Though some Dutch citizens claim that Peter’s black skin comes from soot and not from his African or Moorish heritage, an increasing number have become aware of his offensiveness and have either re-imagined him as multi-racial (sans blackface) or abandoned him altogether. Bonus fun fact: there’s also an Iranian version of Zwarte Piet known as Hajji Firuz (or Sir Victor, in English).
12. Hans Trapp
Hans Trapp is basically an ultra-scary version of Zwarte Piet and Pere Fouettard from Alsace, France. He started off as a vain, cruel and thoroughly debauched rich man who practiced black magic and worshipped Satan just to increase his wealth and power. When the Catholic Church got wind of him, they brought him before the Pope and excommunicated him. Local townspeople hated and feared him so much that they seized all his money and lands while he was away and then banished him into the forest—a bad move, they’d soon realise.
In a shack made of sticks, he grew demented, became obsessed with cannibalism, stuffed his clothes with straw to appear like a scarecrow and then eventually stalked and stabbed a 10-year-old boy with a pointy stick. He carried the boy’s body back to his shack for some good eatin’, but The God struck Trapp dead with a lightning bolt before a single morsel touched his lips. Despite his death, some parents in northeastern France still use the child murderer’s name to get kids to finish their brussels sprouts.
Belsnickel’s another one of German Santa’s creepy friends. (Seriously, dude needs to hang out with a better crowd.) Scholars think the Belsnickel is based on the myth of Knecht Ruprecht, but there are a few differences. The Belsnickel visits alone rather than being Santa’s servant.
In some versions of the myth, Belsnickel brings Krampus with him. Unlike Knecht Ruprecht, though, he doesn’t particularly care whether or not you’ve been good. He has a sack of treats that he’ll spill out for the kids — but then as they scramble for the gifts, he whips them with a switch, naughty and nice alike.
14. The Grinch
The ’50s count as old-timey, right? Sure, the Grinch was created by Dr. Seuss in 1957, and not perhaps steeped in such ancient lore as everything else on this list, but seriously. He’s the anti-Santa, who steals all the Christmas presents and trimmings in one night. Breaking and entering? Lying to children? I think he should get an honourable mention here.
16. The Tomten
Don’t let looks deceive you! He might look like a cute little gnome, but you will not want to mess with him. Not only does he possess immense strength, but he does not mess around. He’s a touch unstable and very easily offended — and if you cross him, if you’re lucky you’ll get a hard strike to the ear. Otherwise he might kill your livestock, beat you half to death, drive you insane or kill you with his poisonous bite. But if you treat him well, he’ll protect your household. This is one guy you want on your side. Kind of like a gnomish mafia protection racket.
17. Père Fouettard
In French, Père Fouettard literally means “Father Whipper.” His gruesome origin story involves him drugging and slitting the throats of three wealthy children who stayed at his inn. He later dismembered and stewed them in large barrels until Saint Nicholas came around, discovered his deeds and resurrected the kids, compelling Fouettard to repent and become his “helper.” Now, dressed in dark robes, bound in chains, covered in soot and sporting a scraggly mess of hair and a beard, Fouettard helps out on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) by giving lumps of coal and severe whippings to naughty kids. He puts the extra bad ones in the wicker cage on his back, probably to slaughter them and turn them into stew.
Fouettard briefly appeared in the U.S. during the 1930s as “Father Flog” or “Spanky.” Alongside his wife, “Mother Flog,” he’d punish ill-behaved kiddies with contrapasso-style punishments like cutting out the tongues of lying children.
Ah yes, I am beginning to think that it's a good thing to start celebrating the spooky Santa season early as their is so much to get your teeth into!