In recent years, we have gone a bit overboard with presents for children [some very expensive ones] whether or not they have been well behaved during the year. I doubt that very many will find a lump of coal or a potato in their Christmas stocking.
In fact, some old world Christmas stories are very scary
and have been used to scare children into behaving.
SCARY CHRISTMAS STORIES FROM ICELAND
JÓLAKÖTTURINN, THE YULE CAT
Children in Iceland are warned that if they don’t finish their work on time or don’t behave, they will be stalked by Jólakötturinn, the enormous Yule Cat, who eats children [and sometimes adults] who don’t receive any new clothes before Christmas night.
Clothes? A big cat? That doesn’t sound too scary. “Besides,” you ask, “How could a cat eat a child?”
Image Source: boredpanda.com/icelandic-legend-yule-cat
This legend has its roots in a time in the middle ages when Iceland had established itself as a producer of wool cloth. First, it was common for households to have a large furry cat [probably to control rodents]. Second, everyone needed warm clothing due to the weather. Third, wool production was vital to the economy and everyone in the household had to work hard to make the wool production successful.
Christmas gifts during this period were sparse and usually consisted of a piece of wool clothing, and even that was possible only if everyone completed the work on time. Hence, the legend was born and has carried on through the centuries.
The fame of the Jólakötturinn was renewed in the 1930s when poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum, who wrote of the enormous Christmas Cat, “People know not where he came from / Nor to what place he went.” Written references to this legend date to the 18th century; before that it was passed by word of mouth.
THE THIRTEEN YULE LADS
The 13 Yule Lads are troll brothers from Icelandic folklore who were troublemakers and committed obnoxious or evil mayhem every night during the time they were in the town. Their pranks weren't totally evil, but they came from vary evil family. They were the sons of Grýla and her troll husband, Leppalúði.
Grýla, often depicted as an evil witch, is very bad news. Half troll and half ogre, she is a gross, massive giant. Being a creature of legend, her description varies, but she has horns, a huge nose, cloven feet, and at least fifteen tails, each of which holds 100 bags with 20 children in each. Spoiler Alert!
Image Source: pinterest.es/pin/138133913548763043/ Image Source: mentalfloss.com/gryla-christmas
The first lad, Stekkjastaur the Sheep Cote Clod, leaves twelve days before Christmas December 12, and each day another lad goes down to the town, until the 13th lad, Kertasmikir the Candle Beggar, arrives on Christmas day. The first lad then returns up the mountain with bags of misbehaving children. Each day, one of the brothers returns home until on January 6, they have all arrived with their bags of naughty children. [Presumably, the ogress and the cat have also been hunting during this time.]
Image Source: icelandwonder.com/the-13-yule-lads/
Then Grýla takes the children out of the bags and cooks them alive in a huge caldron, making a stew. The family eats the stew for the rest of the cold season.
Yuk! What an awful thing to tell children!
The tale got so scary that in 1746 the Icelandic government stepped in and parents were officially banned from frightening their children with tales of the Yule Lads and their gruesome family.
Since then the lads have gotten their act together and, in recent times, they are just mischievous creatures pulling harmless pranks, such a slamming door, eating all the yogurt in town, and other annoying but harmless antics. They go around visiting the children and bringing gifts and goodies to eat..
Even Grýla has been modified and is now presented as a witch who protects mistreated children. She's now depicted in statues and Christmas installations all over Iceland, but in many cases, she retains at least a little of her scary vibe.
THE EUROPEAN TRADITION
Another category of Scary Christmas Stories actually predates the birth of Christ ‒ apparently even then parents had to invent monsters to intimidate their children into good behavior ‒ but the original legend was subsumed by the Christian culture sometime in the middle ages, at least in the territories once held by the Holy Roman Empire and the other cultures affected by Roman occupancy. [Remember, the Holy Roman Empire is not the same as the Ancient Roman Empire -- which took in a much greater territory -- but Germany, Italy, and much of central Europe.]
They act as a foil to the benevolent Saint Nickolas who brings gift to good children, while the companion’s purpose is to punish naughty children. The name of the character varies depending on what part of the territory you are in and some are darker and more malicious than others. The Holy Roman Empire
Image Source: shutterstock.com/holy-roman-empire
Krampus [whose name comes “krampen” the Germanic root for "claw"] is one of the oldest and darkest companions of Saint Nicholas. Before Christianity spread, Krampus was thought to have been part of pagan rituals for the winter solstice. According to legend, he is son of the Norse god of the underworld, Hel.
Image Source ranker.com/terrifying-christmas-figures/ Image Source: terrorhousemag.com/krampus/
While St. Nicholas was out rewarding nice children by leaving presents, Krampus was beating the naughty ones with his birch branches. In some cases, he is said to drag them off to his lair and beat them again or eat them.
While originally a pagan legend, with the spread of Christianity, Krampus became associated with Christmas and Saint Nicholas despite efforts by the Catholic Church to squelch the connection. He became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and people sent Krampus Christmas Cards like those below.
In parts of Germany, the anti-St. Nick is Knech Ruprecht and, according to some references, is also known as Farmhand Rupert or Servant Robert [no explanation of where that came from].
He looks like a cross between a shepherd and a wild man with a long beard wearing a hooded brown cloak and carrying a big stick. And he just might have horns. There are stories about how Knech and St. Nick got together. One is that Knech was a rescued by St. Nicholas as foundling and was raised by him.
The most interesting myth is that one day, when Saint Nicholas arrived at an Inn, he found that the innkeeper had killed three boys and stuffed their bodies into a pickling barrel. St. Nick brought the boys back to life and punished the innkeeper by making him work beside him as Knecht Ruprecht for eternity. https://germangirlinamerica.com/who-is-knecht-ruprecht/
In Germany, Saint Nicholas comes around on December 5 and brings treats, and on Christmas Eve, the Christkind brings presents. On December 5, Knecht’s duty was to go around asking kids if they could pray. If they could, they got treats of fruit, candy, and gingerbread. Those who couldn’t, he beat with a bag of ashes so they would remember the reason for the celebration is the baby Jesus, not presents.
A variation on the theme is that Knecht and St. Nicholas went house to house together, and there checked in a big book whether or not the devil had written anything about the child. Then the child would have to recite h/her prayers for Knetcht. Those they knew their prayers got goodies from St. Nicholas. The children who didn’t, got a lump of coal or a switching from Knetcht, or worse, put in his sack and carried away.
There was a time when some parents actually acted this out and had someone come to the door dressed as Knecht and then carry the child away in a bag. Dark times!
The companion Belsnickel [also known as Belschnickel, Pelznickel, Bell Sniggle and a variety of other names] is, according to folklore, a crotchety, fur-clad figure in Southwestern Germany. He made it across the pond with the Dutch immigrants and continues to exist in the Pennsylvania Dutch and Brazilian-German communities.
On a scale ranging from Santa Claus as we know him today as the kindest and the child-eating Krampus as the worst, Belsnickel falls in the mid-range. Not too good but also not too bad.
He resembles Santa in looks and in some communities he is thought to be Saint Nicholas himself rather than a companion, despite his ragged furs cloak, dirty clothes, and mean demeanor. He is a more recent myth based on the older servant of St. Nicholas, none other than Knecht Ruprecht. He also carries switches to beat naughty children.
Unlike Krampus and Knecht, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits children by himself and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure. Even though he may be scary and his function is not specifically punishing bad behavior. If the children have been obedient, he gives them treats as rewards, and he is loved and feared in equal parts by children. As long as you behave, he is like the traditional Santa Claus.
THE PERCHTEN / PERCHTA THE WITCH
The Perchten is described as a dual-gendered spirit who appears during the 12 day of Christmas [December 25 thru January 5]. The female part if called Schonperchten [Beautiful Perchten] and on the other we have the male and aptly named Schiachperchten [Ugly Perchten]. The images are, presumably, the male part of the spirit because they certainly aren’t beautiful.
Image Source: fotocommunity.de/photo/perchten Image Credit: Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters]
Image Source: avax.news/pictures/114374
The terrifying part of this character is that, when it passes by you, you can never be sure which part of the spirit you will be facing.
However, when it comes to folklore, nothing is simple and the characters seem to merge and weave in and out of various myths and legends. According to Otherworldlyoracle.com/ the Perchten are either evil spirits or were originally the spirits that drove away the evil ones. It’s a custom in Alpine regions for men to dress as Krampus-looking monsters and mimic the Perchten by parading through the streets and driving away Christmas ghosts.
The spirit or spirits seem to be derived from an older belief, that of the greatly loved Germanic goddess Berchta [also called Perchta and other names] who was the leader of the Perchten and the goddess who protected babies, children, and women. Some historians believe she was worshiped by ancient Alpine celtic tribes before the time of the Germanic tribes.
As happened with many mythological creatures and ancient beliefs, Berchta, gift-giver, guide and protector of babes, domestic goddess of spinning and women, was nearly stomped out when the Church rose to power. One of the Church’s major tools of conversion was fear. Soon Berchta/Pertcha became an ugly, crooked-nosed, belly-slitting witch [whose consorts were the dreaded demons, the perchten] who captured children and ate them.
It didn’t take long before Perchta was turned into competition with Krampus as the worst Christmas demon around.
Image Source: bing.com/images/search?view=Berchta theloreyouknow.tumblr.com/perchta
PARTIAL LIST OF NAMES BY LOCATION
Dark and threatening companions include:
Knecht Rupecht in Germany
Krampus in Austria
Parkeji in Slovania
Friuli in Croatia,
Krampusz] in Hungary
Klaubauf in Bavaria
Pelzebock; Befana; Pelznickel; Belzeniggl; Belsnickel in the Palatinate [and also Pennsylvania, due to Pennsylvania Dutch influence]
Schmutzli in Switzerland
Rumpelklas; Bellzebub; Hans Muff; Drapp; and Buzebergt in Augsburg.
Less malicious companions include:
Zwarte Piet or Black Pete in Netherlands and Flanders -
Schmutzli in Swiss folklore - [schmutz meaning dirt]
čert [Devil] and anděl [Angel] in Czech Republic
Rubbels in part of France and German-speaking Lorraine and Hanstrapp
Père Fouettard in Northern and Eastern France [Father Slapper]
Let's be grateful for plain old Santa Claus!
JUST SAYIN’ !