It’s not just the weather outside that’s frightful…
Christmas cheer is real: smiles all around, a palpable kindness and warmth in the air. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it? Well, just as with many other major holidays (especially ones that have been seriously commercialized), it seems, there’s a darkness lurking just below the surface. So, let’s all gather around the Christmas tree and tell the tales of this season’s most terrifying legends.
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WHERE: Germany, Austria, Italy
Though the specific origins of this infamous beast are unknown, Krampus is…the opposite of St. Nick. Half goat, half straight-up-horned demon, this European legend loves to devour children around the holidays who have misbehaved. In a turn of additional terror, there are notable celebrations intended to honor (?) Krampus, such as the Krampus Run (though it’s been canceled this year due to COVID-19), where participants dress in elaborate, expensive costumes and descend upon the Munich Christmas Market.
Fun Fact: Krampus, a word of German origin, translates to “claw.”
Grýla (and Her Offspring)
Another terror to youngsters, ogre Grýla has been around since the 13th century and is said to have children (who are trolls) herself. Thirteen children, to be exact, each with creepy names like “Pot-Scraper” and “Door Slammer.” Anyway, these Yule Lads, as they’re called, emerge from their cavernous home to assist their mom, who also ventures out of said cave, in rounding up naughty children to eat and be annoying; they live up to their above-mentioned names like “Door Slammer” over the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
Fun Fact: One variation of Grýla’s tale mentions that she has a husband, Lepplaudi, who is lazy and just hangs back in the cave when she ventures out.
Maryi Lwyd is the textbook definition of nightmare fuel, and I’m sorry for providing that here. However, the iconic holiday tradition—which is said to be derived from some sort of religious rite (likely pagan) in the early 1800s—simply could not be left off of this list. The celebration takes place around Christmastime and involves Welsh residents donning horse skulls (or placing a horse skull on a stick) and heading door-to-door, singing to homeowners. There is a silver lining to this terror, though: if you encounter a horse skull on your doorstep, congratulations! You’re the receiver of good luck!
Ah, the classic tale of a man selling his soul to become rich in the 15th century. As legend has it this time around, once greedy M. Trapp did so, the Catholic Church got word of it, stripped him of his wealth, and exiled him from society. Lonely and mad, Trapp lived out the rest of his days at a cabin high in the mountains somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine. One day, a small boy came across the dwelling and a hungry, unstable Trapp cooked him for dinner. As fate would have it though, before he could dig in, Trapp was struck by lightning and killed. His story lives on in the form of a boogeyman-like tale that says he sometimes returns to civilization on Christmas, going door to door, in search of another meal…
WHERE: Eastern Europe
From late Christmas to early January, these werewolf-like creatures reportedly come out (or up, rather, as they spend the rest of the year underground) at night to play and generally cause trouble. After they’ve had their fill of above-ground mischief, they return to their home at the center of the Earth. Rumor has it that leaving a colander on your doorstep is a best practice to ward them off.
Fun Fact: Kallikantzaros can only count to two (2).
Yule Cat (aka Jólakötturinn)
Iceland seems to have no shortage of Christmas terrors, and Yule Cat is certainly a force on that list to be reckoned with. In short, Yule Cat is a giant cat who punishes people for not working hard. Legend has it that this palatial whiskered animal once roamed the Icelandic countryside, looking for those (especially children) around the holidays who had not received clothing or done their chores. For a little more context, kids who worked hard throughout the year were treated to fresh garments just before the New Year. Those who didn’t were deemed lazy. And Yule Cat feeds off of such laziness. Literally.
Fun Fact: Some tales specify that Jólakötturinn actually belonged to Grýla, who used it as a hunting pet of sorts. Additionally, Yule Cat was used as a driving force for employers to ensure that their workers made their quota.
WHERE: Austria, Germany
A witch who calls the Austrian mountains home, Frau Perchta goes on a little vacation, so to speak, every 12 days of Christmas to murder (via disembowelment) those who have been bad. Alternately, if they’re on the good list, people living in the area where Frau Perchta scours could wake up to a silver coin at some point in those 12 days. In a plot twist of sorts, Perchta is celebrated by fearless, fairytale fans in some villages who don masks (as part of festivals) and view her as a powerful figure whom other holiday demons like Krampus (or participants of the arguably cursed Santa Con) stand no chance against.