Americans are used to Christmas stories usually being sweet tales of generosity and kindness. But in the rest of the world, the holiday is also populated by frightening figures. They may well be leftovers from earlier solstice traditions since it is, of course, the darkest time of the year. To many of us, however, these creatures who threaten punishment for bad behavior or who seem to inspire mischief and misrule often seem out of place. It’s important to remember, however, that these are fixtures of the season in other cultures, just as much as a jolly gift-giver.
Krampus is by far the most famous Christmas monster, and his origins are normally traced to Austria and southern Germany. He’s usually found traveling with St. Nicholas and threatening naughty children with a bundle of sticks or with his basket that he uses to carry the worst down to hell. He even has his own holiday now, Krampusnacht, or December 5. In the past, Krampus would always accompany St. Nicholas, whose actual saint day was December 6. As Nick was replaced by Santa Claus, the 5th and 6th belonged more to Krampus. On this night, many Austrian towns will have a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus Run” where troops of people dressed like the demon will parade through town and stage mock battles with each other.
2. Yule Cat
An old Icelandic tradition has it that children who finish all their chores before Christmas will get new clothes while the lazy children won’t. And if you think that new clothes aren’t enough to get lazy kids working, the catch is that kids with old, dirty clothes are the favorite meal of the Jólakötturinn, or Yule Cat, a giant black cat that roams Iceland during the Christmas season. The legend has it that If a child isn’t wearing at least one piece of new clothing at Christmas, he’d better stay indoors.
3. Mari Llwyd
In Wales, instead of carolers, you might find a group of revelers carrying a fancily decorated horse’s skull on a stick. The Mari Llwyd is a common Christmas tradition similar to wassailing where locals go house to house asking for food and drink. But instead of singing for you, the Mari Llwyd will challenge you to a battle of rhymes. If you win, the group moves on to the next house. But if you lose, you have to invite the group in and host them until they’re ready to move on to the next house. The tradition almost died out in the mid 20th century, but it’s become much more common throughout the UK.
The Tomten (or sometimes called Nisse) are Swedish house gnomes, and they’re incredibly popular among greeting cards in Scandinavia. Stories about them say that they’re usually tame and even love and care for the families of the homes they live in, leaving gifts for people around Christmas time. But they can be fickle. If they spot any rudeness during the season, they’re known to play mischievous tricks, even injuring people or killing farm animals if they feel offended or unappreciated. So be nice even when you’re behind closed doors, or you may find yourself bitten by a gnome in the middle of the night.
5. Christmas Werewolves
In Eastern Europe, there are still legends that say werewolves gather together on Christmas Eve and Christmas night to go rampaging through small, unprotected villages. No one knows exactly Werewolves became associated Christmas, but it likely has to do with the solstice being the longest night of the year. (Remember that the full moon brings out the wolf in the werewolf.) One story even tells that on Christmas night, a young boy who seems to be lame or injured will walk through small towns, and anyone who offers to help him will unwittingly follow him and be turned into a werewolf. There’s another legend that says any male child born on Christmas day will be cursed with lycanthropy, apparently because God doesn’t want anyone else having his son’s birthday.