Beyond Krampus: The Dark Origins of Christmas

Chances are you've heard of Krampus, St. Nick's goat-demon companion from Germanic Europe who punishes naughty children during the holidays. There's a long, storied history behind this character and, now more than ever, people seem to be interested in his spooky retributions (did you catch last year's holiday blockbuster entitled Krampus?)

But Krampus isn't the only scary aspect of the holiday season, or even the most fearsome Christmas character, so we thought we'd take a peak into the dark side of the beloved holiday by compiling a list of the spookiest Christmas traditions, figures, and beliefs. Enjoy!

1. Perchta 

Although originally regarded as a goddess in Alpine Paganism, Frau Perchta eventually became known as the "the belly-splitter" in Austria. If you've been a naughty child, this sinister hag will arrive at your house during the 12 days of Christmas, cut open your stomach, remove your guts, and stuff you full of bricks and firewood. If that doesn't keep the kids tame, we don't know what will! 

2. Candles in the Window

Now a beautiful tradition in the winter and holiday seasons, placing a lit candle in each window of your house once had an otherworldly purpose; Ancient Celtic peoples believed that lit candles would help light the way for spirits to pass by peacefully... Let's just hope that they were all nice spirits! 

2. Holly and Ivy Wreath

In pre-Christian times, holly and ivy were believed to ward off evil spirits! While we still use holly and ivy in modern holiday decorating, their meaning has become slightly less spooky and more religious- as they are seen as representative of Christ's crown of thorns.

3. Grýla and her 13 Yule Lads 

Hailing from the mountains of Iceland, Grýla is a giant ogress who descends from her frigid lair every Christmas to snatch up and devour any misbehaving children. Sound familiar? It seems like people everywhere have had to think up horrifying stories to inspire good conduct in their kids. Grýla is often accompanied by her 13 sons, also known as the Yule Lads, who cause all sorts of mischief in the house. Kind of like Snow White and the 7 Dwarves.. Except there's more of them, and they're evil.

Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve

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In Victorian England, it was wildly popular to sit around a roaring fire and tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. As British humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote in 1891, “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories...Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” Remnants of this now-forgotten tradition are evident in the lyrics of the Christmas song "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and, of course, in Charles Dickens' still hugely popular ghost novel A Christmas Carol

Jólakötturinn (The Yule Cat) 

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The Yule Cat is not as furry and friendly as it sounds. In fact, it's a giant, vicious feline who, according to Icelandic folklore, lurks through the snowy countryside and eats up people who are not wearing new clothes before Christmas Eve! Sounds bizarre, right? Well, the legend stems back to farmers who would use the threat of the Yule Cat as incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. If you finished the work on time, you'd get a spankin' new set of clothes. If not, you'd be human cat nip. Yikes!

5. Belsnickel

Belsnickel is a crotchety, fur-clad old bearded man who roams the lands of southwestern Germany a few weeks before Christmas. Sort of like Santa, he brings candy and other goodies to nice little girls and boys. But if you've been behaving badly, he'll beat you with his painful wooden switch! Belsnickel also became a popular figure in early Pennsylvania, where German settlers brought much of their folk culture. 

What do you think of all this dark Christmas folklore and tradition? Let us know in the comment section below!

Author: Nate Morgan