With the holiday season around the corner, we thought we would share our favorite holiday characters … with a twist. For centuries, adults have been attempting to shape the behavior of children. Some methods have been proved to be harsher than others, and have been abandoned in modern times. Other methods have simply been altered or changed to put an acceptable face on a medieval nightmare. The characters that we have chosen to share with you aren’t Santa Claus, Rudolph or Jack Frost. Here are 10 terrifying bits of holiday folklore to keep your kids in line…
10. The Whipfather, Assistant to Saint Nick
Country of Origin: France
Courtesy of the French, we have the legend of “The Whipfather,” Santa’s Child-Murdering Assistant. Folklore tells us the Whipfather was a desperate, broke innkeeper. One day, he met three young boys from wealthy families. The Whipfather then decided to slits their throats and chop the boys to bits, throwing the pieces into a barrel of brine (salt water). Hoping to further his profit on a slaughtered pig already stewing in the brine, the Whipfather was stopped by – you guessed it – ol’ Saint Nick. Santa is aware that the Whipfather has been overtaken by avarice and murdered the three young boys.
Of course, Santa being Santa, he restores the boys’ lives and binds the Whipfather to an eternity of servitude. The Whipfather is usually dressed in dark clothing and wears a length of rope or chain with unkempt hair and a long beard and a sinister scowl. Despite his fading relevance, children are still warned against getting on his bad side or else find themselves visited by the Whipfather, who leave coal or painful red marks on a child’s bottom. Like all children’s tales the French certainly had a message they wanted to impart to children: don’t succumb to greed.
Country of Origin: Japan
Not exactly a Christmas tale, but a foreboding folktale to scare children nonetheless. Suicide is highly prevalent in Japanese culture, coming from its historical function as an honorable death as opposed to failure or inevitable death on the battlefield. The theme has also extended to its urban legends. According to legend, Teke-Teke was a woman or young school girl, who either jumped or fell in the path of an oncoming subway train and was severed in half. Her horrible death gave rise to the myth of “Teke-Teke,” a woman filled with so much anger and pain that she roams throughout Japan in the form of a torso, dragging herself along with her claw-like hands. The origin of the name comes from the sound she makes while moving: “teke-teke-teke,” as she scrapes the ground and uses her elbows to chase after her victims.
When parents tell their children of Teke-Teke, it always begins with a young man or woman staying out past curfew. They see a beautiful young school girl standing by a windowsill; smiles are exchanged. Suddenly, the girl she jumps out of the window and reveals she is nothing but a torso. The young man or girl tries to get away, but it’s too late… Teke-Teke has produced a scythe, and has cut the child in half. Seems like a bit of an overreaction for staying out past dusk, but that’s just us.
8. Split Mouth Woman (Kuchisake-Onna)
Country of origin: Japan
A perfect character for our readers who would like to go with a little something extra for Halloween is the Split Mouth Woman. Another tale that warns children of traveling the streets at night while unaccompanied has even scarier repercussions. The legend of Kuchisake-Onna deems that a child walking alone may happen upon a tall, female figure in a trench-coat. She will have long, black hair with a surgical mask covering the bottom half of her face. A self-conscious woman, Kuchisake-Onna will ask the child if they think she is beautiful. Unfortunately for Japanese children there is no right answer.
If you reply “No,” a quick and grotesque death awaits you, as she will produce a pair of large scissors and remove your head. An answer of “yes” will lead to Kuschisake-Onna removing her mask and revealing her grotesque and mutilated face. Her smile sliced from ear to ear – she will ask again, “Am I beautiful?” For some reason, if you still answer in the affirmative, she will chase you down and slice you in half anyway. Same goes for if you reply, “no.” It seems the only escape is to be ambivalent and in her confusion, run away to safety.
Country of Origin: Austria
Getting back into the Christmas spirit, we must introduce Krampus, probably one of the more well-known figures on our list. Krampus’s exact origin is unknown, but he is said to have come from pagan traditions. His physical characteristics would bear this out. Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon” who punishes children who misbehave. Krampus is also hairy and has cloven hooves. His appearance is similar to the devil with his dark fangs, to boot.
The creation of Krampus might have been analogous to the advent of Christianity, with scholars arguing that his possession of chains, symbolizes the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church.
A direct foil to Santa Claus, Krampus is the stick to Santa’s carrot in shaping children’s behavior. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria, with men dressed in costumes walking the streets, looking to dole out punishment. Injuries have led to each Krampus being given an identification number to document any overly violent behavior. The Krampus tradition is spreading with more cities in Europe having parades to celebrate the half-goat, half-demon.
It is astonishing that the parades, which took place for generations in the Tyol Region, have even managed to travel to the United States, with parties and parades taking place in Los Angeles. Goes to show you that good news travels fast.
Country of Origin: Icleland
One of the most unique characters of folklore on our list is the Icelandic Yule Cat, or the Christmas Cat. Made to strike fear in the hearts of children and workers alike – legend has it that the Icelandic cat will eat all children and workers who did not finish their work on time. However, children who do finish their tasks will be rewarded with new clothes. Some parents even took it a step further, saying that Jólakötturinn would target lazy children. If children worked hard they would have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas. The lazy children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat.
Researchers believe the origins of the Yule Cat can be traced back to medieval times when land owners would pressure farmers to finish processing their wool before Christmas. The ones who finished their work would be rewarded with new clothing, while the others would be devoured by a monstrous cat. While we don’t necessarily have a monstrous cat threatening us to be efficient producers, unemployment and loss of healthcare has done the trick.
Country of Origin: Germany
Our first character from Germany, Belsnickel’s name is derivative of Saint Nicholas. Belzen is German for ‘to wallop’ or ‘to drub,’ while Nickel is a pet name for Nicholas. As his name would suggest, Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. He wears tattered old clothing and raggedy fur, and in some traditions, also has a mask. The tradition of Belsnickel made its way to the United States in the 19th century when German immigrants immigrated to the Pennsylvania area (you may recall Dwight Schrute dressing as Belsnickel in one episode of The Office).
In that small American community the traditional Belsnickel lived in, he showed up at houses 1-2 weeks before Christmas, scaring the children because he somehow knew exactly which of them misbehaved. Belsnickel would rap on the door or window with his switch and often the children would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. Well-behaved children, or those who would answer the question or sing a song, would be given candies. The other children were not so lucky: if they moved too quickly for the treats, they would get struck with Belsnickel’s switch. In modern times, the switch has been adapted to only be used as a noise generated device, and the legend of Belsnickel lives on.
4. Hans Trapp
Country of Origin: France
The legend of Hans Trapp comes from Alsace and Lorraine. The antithesis of Santa Claus, Hans Trapp delivers beatings to naughty children while Santa, on his worst day, delivers coal. According to legend, Trapp was, in fact, a real man who was profoundly evil. Rich, greedy, and a worshipper of Satan, Trapp was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Trapp was forced into exile and he fled into the forest. In his isolation, Trapp was driven mad and developed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
He eventually began to prey upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. In one particularly ghastly case, he was about to begin feasting on a young boy he’d just slaughtered when suddenly, God struck him down with a lightning bolt, killing him. The frightening figure is still a part of French tradition, where he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.
3. The Jólasveinar
Country of Origin: Iceland
Another example of traditions being merged or shaped as time passes is the changed identity of the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads. In their inception, they were 13 Icelandic trolls, who each had their own name and personality. The trolls’ activities ranged greatly, from leaving gifts to rotting potatoes, with some even described as homicidal murders who ate children. Generally, they were known as pranksters that stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime. The Yule Lads were used to scare children into behaving, just like the Yule Cat.
As time passed and cultures became intertwined, the benign Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus) rubbed off on the Icelandic traditions. Finally, in the 20th century, the formerly devilish Jólasveinar changed its ways and began leaving gifts more frequently. It eventually shed its medieval appearance and is now characterized in the simple costume worn by traditional Santa Claus.
2. Frau Perchta
Country of Origin: Germany or Austria
During medieval times, fear of a witch could be a very effective way to instill fear into a group of people. And Frau Perchta was a particularly frightening witch. According to German and Austrian tales, Perchta was generous in her rewards to the faithful and kind, but ruthless with the wicked. Very much a Christmas tradition, Perchta would visit homes during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). Children and even adults feared her gruesome punishment of the sinful, “rip(ing) out internal organs and replac(ing) them with garbage.”
Described as a tall, powerfully built woman, Perchata is thought to have been a goddess during Pagan times but transformed to a slovenly witch during the advent of Christianity. As German society progressed, Perchta began to be used more and more to punish and scare peasant women who became involved in the growing textile industry. During that period, “lazy” girls and women would be visited by Perchta … so they best finish their garments!
Country of Origin: Portugal
“Sleep little child, sleep now, or the Cuco will come and eat you.” It’s hard to imagine that a child would not have nightmares after that lullaby. The myth of the Cuco originated in Portugal and Galicia with etymology deriving from the Galician and Portuguese côco: a ghost with a pumpkin head. The Cuco is a child eater and a kidnapper; in some instances, it will simply devour the child, leaving no trace, or it may steal the child away to a place of no return. The caveat of course being that it only bestows this punishment on disobedient children.
Similar to Santa Claus, the Cuco uses the roof… only for more nefarious activities. It is on the lookout for a child’s misbehavior and can morph into the shape of any dark shadow so it can stay watching. The Cuco is supposed to represent the opposite of the guardian angel and is frequently compared to the devil.