On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus flies around the planet in a sleigh with eight reindeer (or nine, depending on whether they’re being a jerk to Rudolph that year). He goes down the chimneys of all the good boys and girls, dropping off toys and other gifts. Kids leave milk and cookies for him to snack on before he goes on his way to the next house. On Christmas morning, all the children wake up to find beautiful presents from the jolly man in the red suit with the long white beard.
That’s the legend that most of us grew up hearing and believing. However, in different parts of the world, there are several other myths and legends that children believe in. And to much surprise, a lot of them are extremely frightening. This article will detail 10 of the most unusual – and sometimes creepy – Christmas myths from around the world. If these myths don’t make you want to be good boys and girls this year, nothing will.
The myth of Belsnickel originated in Europe during the middle-ages. While he would separate the good children from the ones who were bad all year, he allowed the naughty ones to redeem themselves back to the good side. For the children who were good all year, he would leave toys and candies, while the naughty children received switches. Unlike Santa Claus, Belsnickel would actually announce his presence by knocking on doors and windows so the children could see him. He is described as a thin person who wears fur clothing with bells attached and wears a mask. In one hand, he carries a bag of presents for the good kids, and in the other a switch or whip for the naughty ones.
While there are different versions of the legend, some of the more frightening stories claim that he would bring the naughty children into the forest and punish them for their bad behavior. He was said to also kidnap bad children from their beds, but he would offer them the opportunity to redeem themselves by doing tricks, dancing, or singing for him.
9. Knecht Ruprecht
The legend of Knecht Ruprecht has two different beginnings – the first one is that he was a wild child but was found and raised by Saint Nicholas; the second version is that he was a farmhand prior to becoming Saint Nicholas’ assistant. Just like Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht would also carry around a switch. He helped out Saint Nicholas by going to each child’s house and asking their parents if they were good or bad that year. If their parents said that they were bad, Knecht Ruprecht would use the switch on them as punishment.
Knecht Ruprecht is described as wearing a brown or black robe with a pointed hood. He is also seen carrying a staff and a bag of ashes.
8. Père Fouettard
The story of Père Fouettard originated in France and southern Belgium in the year 1150. He was a butcher who lived in a small French village with his very greedy wife. They lived near a boarding school where the children of the wealthy families would attend.
One day, Fouettard and his wife saw three boys walking toward the school when they decided they wanted to rob them for the gold they believed was in their pockets. So the Fouettards offered the young boys sweets that were secretly poisoned, killing all three children. Père Fouettard slit the boys’ throats, chopped them up into pieces, and kept their remains inside of a barrel.
As legend has it, he would accompany Saint Nicholas. However, when the Jolly One found out about the awful act Père Fouettard had committed, his punishment was to spend the remainder of his life following Saint Nicholas as his sidekick. In fact, Fouettard is said to be the one who delivers coal to the naughty children.
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. Sinterklaas looks more similar to the Pope (hat and robe) rather than a fat man in a red suit.
Sinterklaas season begins in the Netherlands in November, with the annual parade on the last Sunday of the month. Sinterklaas, along with his white horse and his helper Zwarte Piet, arrive by boat before joining the parade. 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.
In Iceland, there is a very frightening myth of Grýla who is said to be a mountain troll with hooves for feet, and has 13 tails. Every Christmas when she leaves the mountain, she looks for children who have been naughty. When she finds them, she kidnaps them by stuffing them into a bag, and brings them back to her cave, boils them alive, and eats them in a stew. She is always in a bad mood because she is constantly hungry for children.
The legend of Grýla dates back to the ancient Pagan time period. It is also believed that her sinister ways are not only felt by children, but also by men. She had three husbands, and two of them she killed just because she was bored with them. And that’s not all: she also has 13 children – all boys – who are just as frightening as she is. They are known as the “Yule lads” and… well, just keep reading…
5. Yule lads
The Yule lads are the 13 sons of Grýla, and each have their own unique characteristics – much like the beloved Seven Dwarves of Snow White fame, but substantially creepier. Every night during the 13 days before Christmas, the Yule lads visit the children of Iceland. If the children have been good, each lad leaves a small gift, but if they were naughty, the lads will leave behind a rotten potato.
These 13 sons are: Sheep Cote Clog (a peg-legged sheep fancier), Gully Gawk (he hides in ditches and enjoys milk from cows), Stubby (very short and enjoys pie crust), Spoon Licker (steals and licks spoons… duh), Pot Scraper (steals leftovers), Bowl Licker (he hides under your bed and steals your bowls), Door Slammer (he slams doors all night… double duh), Skyr Gobbler (he loves yogurt), Sausage Swiper (he steals sausages… these names are pretty on the nose, right?), Window Peeper (he watches you through your window… they weren’t even trying at this point, were they), Doorway Sniffer (has a huge nose and sniffs through doors looking for Christmas bread), Meat Hook (steals meat with his hook… you probably guessed that), Candle Stealer (he steals children’s candles so that they are in the dark… which is a real jerk move).
Another myth from Iceland is the Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat. He’s also, in fact, the family pet of Grýla and the Yule lads. The myth of this Christmas cat has been around since the 19th century (at least, as far as written records go). He is said to be a large cat that wanders the streets during Christmas and eats people who are not wearing new clothes. While it is believed that the Jólakötturinn likes to eat humans, other versions of the legend have him eating all the food belonging to the people who were so poor they couldn’t afford new clothing. At one point, it was illegal to use the story of the Jólakötturinn to scare children, but the ban was lifted shortly after.
Some people believe that this myth was made up in order to make people work harder during the holiday season, since the only way to make sure that this huge cat doesn’t eat you is if you get a new piece of clothing for Christmas, so obviously, you’re gonna want to put in the extra hours to earn that cheddar. Although this is only a myth, it seems as though people from Iceland take it quite seriously, as the good folks there tend to put in a lot of hours at work.
3. La Befana
La Befana is an Italian Christmas witch that has quite a few similarities to Santa Claus. On Epiphany Eve, the old woman carries a large bag and flies around on a broomstick visiting boys and girls to see if they have been good or bad. She will leave the children candy and gifts if they have been good, but if they have been bad, she will leave them dark lumps of coal. And instead of leaving out cookies and milk, a glass of wine is often left for the witch to enjoy before going on to the next house.
It is believed that the myth of La Befana dates as far back as the 13th century. Legend has it that the Three Magi were on their way to present gifts to little eight pound, six ounce 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 new-born King, but she refused. After much thought, she decided she wanted to join them, but 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.
Most of us have heard of Santa’s evil and terrifying sidekick Krampus. The name Krampus comes from the German word “krampen,” which translates to “claw.” The legend of this long-horned, furry, goat-like beast with a long tail and a forked tongue has terrified children for many years, making them afraid that, if they were bad during the year, Krampus would beat them with a bunch of sticks, kidnap them, and bring them down to Hell for an entire year to punish them.
Although it is uncertain when the legend of Krampus actually began, it is believed that it originated in Germany, even before Christianity. On Krampus Night, which is the evening of December 5, children in Germany were very careful not to get his attention by being on their best behavior. If they were good boys and girls, Saint Nicholas would bring them gifts on December 6.
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.
1. Frau Perchta
The legend of Frau Perchta is well-known, specifically in Germany and Austria. This Christmas witch is also known as the “belly slitter” because if a person is lazy or committed too many bad deeds during the year, she will slit their belly open and steal their insides with the long knife she hides under her clothes. She will then replace the stolen organs with garbage, straw, or rocks. She has also been said to cut out the tongues of children who lie, and if she found a spinner’s work half finished, she would set fire to it. She is followed by a pack of demons who torture people who are bad; however, she is also said to protect good people from those evil spirits.
In some folktales, she is described as a beautiful woman wearing all white, but in other darker versions, she is said to be an ugly old woman with a long, curved nose, and dressed in rags. She is said to visit homes during the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany to check on families to make sure they are spending quality time together. Families often leave out porridge for her as an offering, and if she thinks that a person was kind and generous throughout the year, she will leave them a silver coin in their shoe.