Most of us have heard of, or are at least somewhat familiar with, the story of Santa Claus.
Popular in the US, Old Saint Nick is a jolly, red-suited fellow who’s belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly when he laughs, and on Christmas Eve night, flies around in a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, eating cookies and delivering gifts to the children of the world. For the children on his naughty list, however, nothing in their stockings but fat lumps of coal.
For all the gift giving and magic flying, there are darker sides to this popular holiday figure.
In some parts of the world, dark creatures come out in the winter—some hungry, some mischievous—and some ‘not so merry’ myths that give new meaning to the word ‘sleigh’ …
Hailing from Iceland, Grýla, is said to come out on Christmas and appears as a troll with 13 tails. She sniffs out naughty children, stuffs them into a bag, and takes them back to her mountain cave, where she boils them alive and eats them in a stew.
Grýla also comes with sons … 13 of them. Known as The Yule Boys, each son dons a name as unique as their mischiefs, the likes of which are: Spoon Licker, Sausage Swiper, and Meat Hook.
These pranksters spend the thirteen days leading up to Christmas getting up to no good. And if Grýla and the boys weren’t fun enough … they have a pet.
Jólakötturinn (aka the Yule Cat) … and he is not a nice kitty.
This mythical creature is part of an Icelandic tradition in which those who finish all their work on time are rewarded with new clothes for Christmas, while those who are lazy do not.
With his razor-like whiskers, blazing eyes, and terrible claws, Jólakötturinn is a giant cat that hunts children, consuming all those who did not receive new clothes on Christmas Day.
That’ll make you think twice before turning your nose up at that sweater grandma got you this year, huh?
This creature hails from Turkey and Bulgaria, and is a scarier, more winter oriented version of Bigfoot. It comes out every holiday season, often standing on street corners with riddles for unsuspecting passersby. It’s said if your answer includes the word ‘black’ (kara in Turkish), the Karakoncolos will let you go unharmed.
We shudder to think what it will do if you get the answer wrong!
In other parts of the word, one of this creature’s tricks is to disguise its voice, pretending to be a friend or loved one of yours, and lures you out into the snow.
It’s said legends of the boogeyman are derived from the the myths of this creature.
In Italy, they have a Christmas witch, who bears more than few similarities to Santa Claus.
It’s said she’s an old woman, who flies around on a broomstick, carrying a large bag. On Epiphany Eve she sets out to visit children, to see if they have been naughty or nice. If good, she’ll leave them candy and gifts, but if bad, she leave them large lumps of coal.
I can tell this lovely lady is Italian (and not just because she bears an uncanny resemblance to my own grandmother) because she prefers a glass of wine be left out instead of milk and cookies.
It’s believed tales of La Befana date as far back as the 13th century. Legend has it that the Three Magi were on their way to present gifts to the baby Jesus when they stopped at an old woman’s house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. Before they left, they invited the old woman to accompany them to see the newborn King. At first she refused, but after some thought, decided she wanted to join them. Alas, they were already gone, so she left sweets at every child’s door along her journey, hoping that one of those houses had Jesus inside.
The Dutch have their own version of Santa Claus, and while there are numerous similarities between the two, there are also a few notable differences. It’s said he looks more like the Pope in a hat and robe, instead of a fur-trimmed red suit.
Sinterklaas, along with his white horse and his helper Zwarte Piet, arrive by boat before joining the annual parade, held on the last Sunday of November. December 6 is marked as the feast day. The evening before is when families gather for a large meal and to exchange gifts. This is also the time that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet travel from rooftop to rooftop looking for children who have been good all year and reward them with candy and presents. Children leave out carrots or oats in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas and his horse. The next morning, children awaken to gifts and funny poems that were left by Sinterklaas as a reward for their good behavior.
This myth is said to have originated in Germany during the middle ages. Belsnickel is described as a tall, thin man who wears fur clothing with bells attached and wears a mask with a long tongue. In one hand, he carries a bag of cakes, candies, and nuts for the good kids, and in the other a switch or whip for the naughty ones.
One of the more popular figures of pop-culture holiday mayhem, the name Krampus comes from the German word krampen which translates to ‘claw’. This bad boy of Christmas is described as a half-goat, half-demon, with shaggy fur, curled horns, and a long curved tongue and fangs, and hails from parts of Central Europe and Austria.
While it’s unknown when the legend of Krampus actually began, some historians believe it originated in Germany, even before Christianity. On Krampus Night (December 5th and the eve of St. Nicholas Day), children were on their best behavior, careful not to catch the attention of Krampus who, known to carry a basket on his back for his ‘catch of the day’, would take children back to his lair and consume them for his Christmas dinner. If, however, the children were good boys and girls, the next day, on December 6th, Saint Nicholas would bring them treats and gifts.
The legend of Krampus is still going strong today, as people still exchange colorful greeting cards featuring the creepy beast. There are also annual parades where men dress up as Krampus and run around the streets, shaking chains, and snarling at spectators.