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Bad Santas: The Dark Side of Christmas Lore

You thought "he sees you when you're sleeping" was scary? Try these traditions on for size.

author

Dr. Katie Spalding

author

Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

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Krampus in the flames

Krampus: the big daddy of Yuletide horror. Image credit: Nicola Simeoni/Shutterstock.com

Who doesn’t love the holiday season? With its festive cheer, gifts and merrymaking, and frankly unnecessary amounts of drunken grandma farts, you’d have to be a real Scrooge to resist society’s grand tradition of going just a little bit bonkers for about a week at the end of each calendar year.

But as objectively weird as it is to tell your kids tales of an elderly man breaking into your home at night and leaving gifts for them underneath the decorated corpse of an evergreen, there are some other traditions out there that make us Anglos look positively tame by comparison. Take, for example…

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The Yule Lads and their Terrifying Cat

For most of us, the worst thing Santa ever threatened us with was a lump of coal in our stocking. That’s not exactly on every child’s wishlist, but at least it’s the kind of thing you could sell, or at the very least hold onto until summer and use for a belated Christmas barbecue.

Not so for the children of Iceland, whose holiday season has traditionally been a time of existential dread. That’s because, instead of descending from a kindly old man who was later made patron saint of children, this Icelandic winter myth is based on … trolls.

“The Icelandic Yule Lads bear little similarity to the world-famous Santa Claus,” explains the National Museum of Iceland, where all 13 of the Lads are known to visit yearly. “Their original role was to strike fear in the hearts of children.”

That would not have been difficult: despite the image you may have in your head from a gang name that includes the word “Lads”, these fellas were pretty terrifying back in the day. They were “widely feared by children for their creepy and revolting behavior,” wrote Richard Chapman, a local guide to Icelandic culture and tourism. “They were enormous, filthy, unintelligent creatures, humanoid and bestial in equal measure, who could only operate in the hours of the night, should the sun cast them into stone.”

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Even more terrifying than these troll invaders, though, was their mother: a horrifying, child-eating giantess named Grýla. Understandably grouchy thanks to her lazy good-for-nothing third husband, Leppalúði, Grýla prowls the towns around her home in the lava fields of Dimmuborgir looking for naughty children to put into her stew.

As if that’s not bad enough, she’s helped on this holiday hunt by her pet cat, Jólakötturin. Oh, we know: a little kitty doesn’t sound too terrifying – but that’s not what Jólakötturin is. He is, like his owners, both enormous and bloodthirsty, and his favorite treat of all is – you guessed it – children. And unlike Grýla, you don’t even have to be naughty to get on Jólakötturin’s menu – all it takes is being a bit disheveled.

Jólakötturin “does not just seek out those who have misbehaved. It happily preys on any child that did not get new clothes to wear for Christmas,” explained Chapman. “The story … was likely created to ensure that everyone finished their weaving, knitting and sewing by the dead of winter.”

The Christmas cat, Iceland
Jólakötturin in all his glory. Image credit: Carolyne Parent/Shutterstock.com


Today, the Yule Lads and their murderous mother and moggy have become somewhat sanitized, with the gang presenting more as a family-friendly group of mischief-makers than a roving band of monsters. Rather than eating naughty children, the Lads are now better known for things like door slamming and theft of yogurt.

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“[The] Yule Lads… [were] of some concern to Icelandic authorities, [and] in 1746 a public decree was issued to prohibit parents from frightening their children with monsters and fiends like the Yule Lads,” notes the National Museum of Iceland. 

“Whether it was due to this decree or something else, the Yule Lads became increasingly benign,” it laments. “Over time they ceased to be a threat to children's lives… They began wearing red garments on special occasions, similar to Santa Claus and the Danish Christmas gnomes … [and] developed an unprecedented kindness towards children, to the point where they started depositing gifts in their shoes.”

Pathetic, if you ask us.

Krampus 

Not to be outdone by the Vikings, the residents of Germany, Austria, and other Alpine nations have their own terrifying Christmas traditions – scary bizzarro-world counterparts of Saint Nick, called things like Père Fouettard, or Belsnickel, or Knecht Ruprecht (fun fact: in the German The Simpsons, Santa’s Little Helper is called Knecht Ruprecht).

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But there’s one of these beasties that beats all the rest, becoming so famous as to have a whole raft of festive films in his honor. That’s right – we’re talking about the big daddy of Yuletide horror: Krampus.

Half goat, half demon, all terrifying, the origins of Krampus are fuzzy at best. Some experts say the legend predates Christianity, while others believe its creation was intrinsically connected to the spread of – and reaction against – Protestantism in the region. 

It was during this period, in the 16th century, that “the Jesuits start[ed] popularizing plays that involved St. Nicholas but also the devil,” Matthäus Rest, a social anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany, told Atlas Obscura. “It’s the first time in European iconography that the devil is impersonated in theatrical performances.”

Back in those days, you’d fall foul of the horny beast if you weren’t up to scratch on your catechism – that is, if you couldn’t pass an impromptu oral exam on the teachings of the Catholic church. But it wasn’t long before Krampus expanded his range, taking on the role of a sort of anti-Santa: not rewarding the good, but punishing the naughty.

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This little piece of psychological horror would be enthusiastically endorsed by parents and other grown-ups. Like Saint Nick, “Krampus… would also visit kids to punish them,” explains History.com. “In Alpine Austria and some parts of Germany, this day was known as Krampusnacht, or ‘Krampus night,’ when adults might dress up as Krampus to frighten children at their homes.”

“Children might have also seen Krampus running through the street during a Krampuslauf – literally, a ‘Krampus run,’” it continues. “If Krampusnacht was a way to scare kids into behaving themselves, the Krampuslauf, which isn’t tied to a specific day, was a way for grown men to blow off steam while probably still scaring kids.”

And what makes this caprine fella so scary? Well, apart from his Luciferian appearance, it’s his modus operandi: be a bad little boy or girl, and Krampus will turn up at your house and whip you with birch branches. That is, if he’s in a good mood – otherwise, he might just put you in a sack, take you to the nearest stream, and drown you. Other stories have Krampus eating naughty children, or just straight-up dragging them to Hell.

All of which might make you wonder: why has this tradition stayed so popular? After all, Krampus hasn’t just held on in his native Germany and Austria – he’s more popular than ever before, with Krampusläufe spreading as far as Milwaukee or Los Angeles.

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According to Rest, the answer’s simple: Krampus is just misunderstood. “The Krampus, by breaking the rules, is the most ethical being in the community,” he told Atlas Obscura. “He is there to smack things, throw things around, and hit people, but at the same time he is full of ethical substance, and through the Krampus the children are taught what is good and what is bad.”

Tió de Nadal

Slightly less terrifying, but scoring much higher on the “what the heck, people?” scale, is the Catalan tradition of Tió de Nadal: the log that sh*ts candy.

We’d say forgive our language, but we’re actually just embracing festive tradition here, since the song of the Tió de Nadal – yes, it has its own theme tune – goes like this:

Caga tió, avellanes i torró, no caguis arengades que són massa salades, caga torrons que són més bons.

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Caga tió, ametlles i torró, i, si no vols cagar, et donaré un cop de bastó! Caga tió!

Which, roughly translated, means:

Sh*t, tió, hazelnuts and nougats, do not sh*t herrings, they are too salty, sh*t nougats, they taste better.

Sh*t, tió, almonds and nougats, and if you don't want to sh*t I will hit you with a stick! Sh*t, tió!

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It’s a lovely little carol, and it tells you literally everything you need to know about this extremely strange tradition. It’s a log – originally it was just a log, but these days it tends to have a happy little face and hat attached, which doesn’t make the whole thing less weird – that children are encouraged to beat with sticks until it poops out little treats for them to eat. 

Such fecal celebrations are actually fairly normal for Catalonia and its surrounding areas. This is also the place that gave the world the Caganer, after all – that is, the little guy taking a dump in the middle of the nativity scene. 

What, your Christmas decorations didn’t include that character? That’s weird.

Nuuttipukki and Mari Lwyd

In medieval England, there was a holiday tradition known as wassailing, or mumming. Kind of a mix between Christmas caroling and trick-or-treating, this involved groups of people going door-to-door in identity-obscuring costumes, singing or reciting hymns, and partaking of a lot of alcohol throughout the night.

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Gradually, that tradition got tamed and tamped down into what we know today as normal, innocent caroling. But what if the exact opposite had happened? For that, we need to go back up to Scandinavia – specifically, Finland, where we find the tradition of the Nuuttipukki.

Technically more of a New Years tradition than a Christmas one, the Nuuttipukki is in fact a menacing goat – or, to be more accurate, some drunk person dressed up in fur and horns so as to resemble a goat – who comes to your door and demands to be let in under pain of getting a bad reputation among all the other goats.

“It used to be a bit scary, even,” explained Mari Jalava, director of Finland’s Uusikaupunki museum, back in 2012. “The Nuuttipukki would make a lot of noise and go from house to house looking for beer. Although they were feared, they could not be left without being allowed inside. It would have been a bad thing for the house if the information had spread that nuttibucks are not allowed inside the designated house.”

And as spooky and inconvenient as this is, at least it doesn’t involve much brain power. The unrelated yet suspiciously similar Welsh tradition of Mari Lwyd, however, sees a horse skull going from door to door challenging people to a battle of wits, only to then, yes, steal all your food and booze.

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“A Mari Lwyd troupe will sing out a challenge… before performing a sort of call-and-response called a ‘pwnco,’” explained Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura in 2017. “Anyone inside the house is then tasked with replying in a rhyme scheme even wittier than the creature’s. After the rhyme battle, the Mari Lwyd is allowed inside, where the players are given food and drink before heading out to darken someone else’s doorstep.”

Now, we love a good Christmas quiz, but this seems like it was invented purely to freak out people already hungover after the holiday festivities. Not cool, Wales. Not cool.

Mari Lwyd
A Mari Lwyd to fuel your nightmares. Image credit: R. fiend via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Zwarte Piet, the Racistest Christmas Elf 

Finally, we get to Zwarte Piet – a character not scary for his own antics, but for what he makes other people do. 

On paper, Zwarte Piet is pretty much just a Dutch version of your standard Christmas elf: he helps out Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa, by handing out presents to children and generally being a fun, jolly guy. There’s just one problem: he’s almost entirely played by white people in blackface, he looks like the kind of racist caricature that would be considered “a bit much” by the cast of Mad Men, and he may be largely based on an actual enslaved African person from the 19th century.

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For (hopefully) obvious reasons, the tradition of dressing up as Zwarte Piet has been the center of a lot of controversy in recent years. For many Black Dutch people, the continuation of the tradition is highly insulting: “We have every right to be seen as fully Dutch people – just like every other child born in this country,” anti-Zwarte Piet activist Jerry Afriyie told DW

“We deserve the same respect, the same opportunities, the same space to be able to be heard,” he said. “If the tradition is destroyed when we take out the racism, then it is a tradition we should have never handed over to our children.”

In response, activists and journalists opposed to the current incarnation of Zwarte Piet have received death threats and violent attacks against them from white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. 

Still, public perceptions are changing: in 2011, nine out of 10 Dutch people thought blacking up for Christmas was A-OK. Today, the country is split basically down the middle as to whether the character needs to be updated.

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Perhaps the answer will be in a compromise. Many pro-Zwarte Piet campaigners have argued that Piet’s skin is not Black, just black – that is, colored by soot and dirt. In that case, it’s not blacking up, they say, it’s just a representation of his messy face. Such campaigners will no doubt be happy to learn that one alternative, more likely to be seen today in schools and on TV, is Schoorsteen Piet, or “Chimney Pete”. Rather than painting their faces brown, with plump lips and afro wigs, these Piets simply have their faces dirtied with sooty black marks – a testament to their travels up and down chimneys to deliver presents.

Whew. Suddenly Elf on the Shelf doesn’t seem so creepy anymore, huh?


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