Naughty American children have it pretty easy at Christmas. All they have to do to repent for a year of misdeeds is put up with a lump of coal, usually still mixed in with fantastic presents. Oftentimes said lump of coal is really a joke gift, slipped in by the “fun” uncle who comes around once a year to dispense noogies. Compare that to European kids, who have to contend with raggedy men with switches, devil worshippers, giant, child-eating felines, bloodhirty witches, and all manner of demons.
So, why do youngsters across the Atlantic have to contend with such terrors? It has to do with good old fashioned pagan motivation. Christmas borrows many of its traditions from ancient pagan observances that happened around midwinter. Things like the yule log, Christmas carols, and wreaths all have origins that date back to times before Jesus Christ.
Countries with rich, ancient histories like France, Germany, and Iceland have cultural holdovers from the distant past. Everything from food and how holidays are celebrated to clothing and common phrases have roots from long ago. Oftentimes, adults keep children in line using tried-and-true methods borrowed from these times.
Naturally, terrifying Christmas demons were a popular choice.
One of the most well-known yuletide monsters is Krampus. Half-goat, half-demon, this terrifying horned monster roams villages during Christmastime looking for children who have misbehaved. As a companion to St. Nicholas, he always knows the naughty kids from the nice ones. Beware if you’re one of the chosen ones — Krampus might drag you off to the bowels of hell.
Krampus has been scaring the pants off children for hundreds of years. It’s thought that his roots date back to pre-Germanic paganism, with his name deriving from the German word for claw, krampen. In quaint Alpine villages, children await St. Nicholas for their yearly boon of presents, and dread Krampus might arrive to dole out punishments instead. There’s even a day for it, called Krampusnacht (Krampus Night). On this night, adults might dress up as the goat demon to frighten their children, because who hasn’t wanted to scare their kids half to death from time to time?
Often, grownups use it as an excuse to blow off steam in what’s known as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus Run.” Basically, they get drunk and tear through the town, howling and being generally terrifying. These traditions continue to the present day, and have even crossed over into America.
Even if you’ve always been a cat person, you wouldn’t want to mess with Jólakötturinn, the Icelandic Yule cat. He stems from a longstanding Icelandic tradition, where hardworking children are rewarded at Christmas with new clothes while lazy ones are not.
To light a fire under the bums of their shiftless children, parents took to warning them about the Yule cat. They describe a monstrous feline who roams the countryside looking for ripe loafers to devour. Jólakötturinn always knows how to tell the industrious kids from the rest, because they’re the ones with brand new clothes.
Naturally, kids with fresh garb would be wearing it come Christmas to show off. God help the ones who aren’t wearing pristine aprons, shirts, or shoes — they must be sacrificed to the ever-hungry Jólakötturinn.
Many parents encourage their young ones to share their bounty with those who are less fortunate, lest they be mistakenly identified by the Yule cat and ripped into bite-sized shreds.
Coming from southern German and Austrian folklore (or the pits of hell, depending on who you ask), Frau Perchta is a witch who comes a-creeping every December to reward the generous and punish the naughty. She is tall and foreboding, and appears either beautiful and white as snow, or old and haggard.
Her interests include ensuring people don’t participate in cultural taboos, like spinning on holidays, and slitting open the bellies of adults and children who dare showcase a bad quality. The slovenly, the idle, and the greedy are high on her list.
Once she splits your stomach open, she rips your innards out. Not content to let you writhe around, sans intestines, she’ll fill you up garbage. If you’ve been good, then you’ll avoid this ordeal altogether. You might even find a lovely silver coin in your shoe or a bucket for your troubles.
Frau Perchta is thought to have originated in folklore as a goddess of nature who spent the year tending the forest and only visited humans at Christmas. Over time, her mysticism faded and she was transformed into a petrifying witch. That may explain why her punishments are so cruel, and her rewards so paltry. Hell hath no fury like a goddess demoted to a crone.
Belsnickel’s name is telling. It derives from belzen, German for “to wallop”, with nickel acting as a play on Nikolaus. Belsnickel is a crotchety old man who roams Southwestern Germany and is remembered in certain pockets of the United States where German immigrants formed communities hundreds of years ago.
A few nights before Christmas, families anticipate a rap at the door. In will come Belsnickel, clad in raggedy furs with a switch in one hand and a sack of candy and nuts in the other.
All the children of the house must come forward and answer Belsnickel’s questions. He might make you recite a poem, or else solve a math problem or recall a Bible verse. Get it right, and you won’t be punished. With a last warning to behave, Belsnickel will empty his satchel onto the floor. This is the final test.
Children who scramble to grab the sweets rolling on the floor — forgetting their manners in the process — will soon feel the smarting of a switch coming hard across their backs.
Hans Trapp hails from the French-German border region of Alsace-Lorraine. His origins are based on Hans von Trotha, a German knight and aristocrat from the 15th century with a less-than-stellar reputation. While he lived, von Trotha got into a feud with a local abbot named Henry of Weissenburg Abbey over a castle Hans believed to be his. Henry, on the other hand, claimed it belonged to the monastery.
To settle the score, Hans had a nearby river dammed to deprive the downstream town of Weissenburg of its water supply. The plan was to eventually tear the dam down and flood the town to devastate its economy. After that, Hans engaged in open warfare against the abbott. Eventually, Henry complained to the Pope about von Trotha’s wicked actions.
Hans was summoned to Rome to defend himself, but arrogantly refused to go. Instead he sent a letter accusing the Pope of immorality. Naturally, this did not go over well, and von Trotha was excommunicated. He died two years later in the contested castle that started the feud. Either Hans was not a good listener, or he didn’t know what excommunication meant.
Somehow von Trotha’s story of petulance, mischief, and belligerence got mixed up with Christmas lore. Legend tells of a greedy, wealthy man named Hans Trapp who sold his soul to Satan and was exiled to the forests. Beyond redemption, he disguised himself as a scarecrow and preyed on unwitting children. One day, when he was about to devour a small boy, God intervened and struck him down with a bolt of lightning.
Even God’s mighty smiting power wasn’t enough to end Hans Trapp, who continued to roam the Earth in search of innocent victims. In a twist of fate, he became a companion on Santa Claus, and was tasked with the job of convincing naughty children to be virtuous and good, else they wind up soulless like him.
Another curiously evil companion of jolly old St. Nick was Le Père Fouettard, French for “father whipper.” Le Père ventures out during the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6th, for those who want to mark their calendars) to do Santa’s dirty work, doling out lumps of coal and the occasional beating to naughty children. He appears as a sinister-looking old man with a scraggly beard and hair, dressed in dark robes and clutching a whip or a switch. Sometimes he brings a wicker backpack so he can stuff miscreants inside it and haul them away.
Père Fouettard’s origin story dates all the way back to 1150, and it is not a pretty tale. Then an unassuming butcher (or innkeeper, in some versions), he captured three unsuspecting, wealthy-looking boys who happened to pass by. His intent was to rob them, but he didn’t stop there. He also drugged the boys, slit their throats, and cut them into pieces, all with the help of his wife.
When St. Nicholas caught word of Fouettard’s gruesome crime, he promptly resurrected the children. To make the butcher repent, he forced him to work as his partner forever more. Apparently his punishment is to continue torturing children, so Santa might have missed a trick there.
Gryla might be the most haunting anti-Santa. An Icelandic figure who dates back to ancient pagan times, Gryla is a giantess with hooved feet and thirteen tails. Not the cheery type, she is constantly hangry due to her insatiable cravings for children.
On Christmas, she descends upon the towns surrounding her mountain dwelling in search of bad kids. She gathers them in a sack, and, once she has enough, hauls them to her cave where she boils them alive to make ne’er do well stew.
Gryla must have her charms, though, because she’s been married three times. Her first two husbands died at her hands for the simple crime of being too boring. She lives with her third husband and her thirteen children, the Yule Lads. Wondering what kind of housepet this wretched family keeps around? Why, it’s Jólakötturinn of course.
Et tu, Santa?
Many of us never realized that St. Nicholas had so many less-than-savory companions. On top of those detailed above, there are the menacing Yule Lads, the controversial Zwarte Piet, the limping farmhand Knecht Ruprecht, and more. If you’re judged by the company you keep, then Santa has some explaining to do.