Christmas is built on a foundation of nightmares.
For centuries, cultures around the world have produced their own uniquely horrifying holiday interpretations, probably as a result of winter cabin fever combined with too many boozy eggnog products. (You, too, Canada. You produced that Michael Bublé “Santa Buddy” song.) Here are a few of the most confusing, ghoulish, and festive holiday traditions.
France gives us Père Fouettard, or “Father Whipper,” an unhinged cannibal that functions as a kind of roadie for Santa Claus. The roots of Père Fouettard are based in a 12th Century myth about a butcher who diced up three children and attempted to feed them to St. Nicholas, who promptly used his magical Christmas powers to resurrect the butchered children from the grave and send them home before offering the maniac a job. Rechristened as Père Fouettard, the unholy child murderer rebranded himself as a kind of Mean Santa who hung out with Santa and whipped naughty children in lieu of presents. His whole thing is still totally based around attacking children, though, so…
If you’ve ever said “I like Christmas carolers, but they’re not insulting enough and they never have any animal skulls,” Wales has you covered. Rooted in the ancient tradition of wassailing, the Mari Lwyd is like a really intense traveling rap battle in which a group of people travel door-to-door with a horse’s skull on a stick and insult people in their homes back-and-forth until being invited in for drinks. I’m not sure where one locates a horse skull for this purpose, but one Welsh man nonchalantly commented that “It is surprisingly easy to come by a horse’s skull – I have three.”
Hide Your Brooms From Joy-Riding Witches
In Norway, popular tradition holds that witches, demons, and all manner of ghouls prefer Christmas Eve to Halloween as the best time to ruin everyone’s night. One popular tradition is to hide the broomsticks in the home so that any marauding witches that might break into your house on Christmas Eve won’t be able to steal your housewares and fly off on them. Additionally, an old Norwegian tradition is “get a bunch of het-up Norwegian dudes with shotguns and have them shoot at the sky to scare off any grabby Christmas witches.” Protect the brooms at all costs.
Gryla The Troll
Iceland gives us Gryla the Christmas Troll, a hulking malcontent with thirteen tails and an insatiable bloodlust for naughty children. Gryla comes down from her home on the mountain to locate rude children on Christmas, cram them in a sack that I assume she has never washed, and drag them back up the mountain to be boiled alive and eaten in a grotesque child-stew. Although Gryla has worked her way through three husbands, two of which she straight-up murdered because they were boring, she had time to produce thirteen large adult troll sons, all of whom are into stuff like licking your dishware and licking foam off of your milk buckets. They’re all really into licking.
I’m noticing a hag motif for weird Christmas traditions. Frau Perchta, a Christmas legend hailing from Austria, does this cool thing where she finds naughty children sleeping in their beds and disembowels them, specifically, before replacing their internal organs with straw and small rocks and probably stuff she found in the couch. She’s frequently portrayed with one enormous club foot, two (or more!) faces, and decked out in a sweet white robe. She leaves pieces of silver for the nice kids, though, so the Disembowelment Fairy isn’t ALL bad, I guess.
Even if you’ve seen the Krampus movie, the one with all the evil toys and the St. Elsewhere ending, I promise you that the horror movie somehow undersold how terrifying Krampus is. He looks like a Todd McFarlane drawing given horrible breath, all horns and fangs, and an uncomfortable amount of hair, and he doesn’t just whip kids with birch sticks – lots of legends have it that he’ll drag bad children to hell to be tortured forever if they don’t straighten up and fly right. For what it’s worth, Krampus even creeped out Austrian fascists so badly in the 1930s that they banned any Krampus Stuff as a sign of moral decay. Which sounds like exactly the kind of thing you yell before being stuffed in a sack and dragged to hell.
The Gävle Goat
“We should build this enormous goat out of flammable straw,” thought the gentle denizens of Sweden in 1966. “We have never seen The Wicker Man, and live in a world of kindness and minimalist furniture.” Initially, the goat was meant to be a nod to European Yule traditions, which involved helpful gift-bearing goats, but the important thing is that they’ve built an enormous straw goat in Gävle, Sweden every year since 1966, and it’s been torched 37 times. What rage burns within those efficient Swedish hearts that they need to desecrate the enormous straw goat every year? Officials have covered the Goat in fireproof coating, but no dice – the dew makes the flame retardant slide off, leaving the Goat to its inevitable fate.
La Quema del Diablo
On December 7, families in Guatemala take part in the Christmas tradition of LIGHTING SATAN ON FIRE, A LOT. The ritual, La Quema del Diablo, is meant to symbolize cleaning out your house of any potential devil stuff, and to torch the evils of the previous year as you move into the new one. The streets are filled with Weird Devil Stuff, like kids in light-up devil horns and lots of things engulfed in flames, and the whole thing generally feels like if Slayer did a Christmas album. I was going to be like “Buh, this is a really weird and off-putting Christmas thing,” but here’s the thing: La Quema del Diablo rules, and every other Christmas celebration is lame.
Danny the Ghost
WHERE: South Africa
Infanticide is the international yuletide passport. In South Africa, a local Christmas tradition revolves around the ghost of a young boy named Danny who was beaten to death by his grandmother for eating the cookies she’d left out for Santa Claus. His ghost now hangs out between the veil of the living and the dead, but he’s still really into cookies – he’s said to haunt the homes of naughty children who are thinking of sneaking out of bed to make the same mistake he did. The details about what Danny will do to these kids if he catches them slipping are pretty hazy, but I feel like Ghost Cannibalism is probably on the menu, going by the previous entries on this listicle.
The Christmas Spiders
As a Halloween stalwart myself, my main beef with Christmas is that there are never enough spiders in the mix, and Ukrainians celebrate Christmas by covering everything in festive holiday spiders. The roots of the tradition are in a legend about crying children and an undecorated tree and a Christmas miracle (a bunch of spiders made their own analog tinsel from their horrible spider bodies), and the trees are decorated with fake spider webs. Apparently Easter in Ukraine also involves spider webs, so I wonder if the place is just lousy with spiders and they decided that they might as well incorporate them into everything. After all the cannibalism and child mutilation on this list, covering everything in spiders feels quaint and festive.