by Sarah Elizabeth Troop

Many of the ancient pagan observances during midwinter have been transformed or forgotten by our modern society. If you look into the origins of traditions practiced around Christmas today, you might be surprised to discover that the Christmas pastimes you know so well are themselves teeming with the macabre and strange.

However, in some countries where people have held fast to these ancient traditions, Christmas brings with it unthinkable terrors. For some, Christmas is a season filled with supernatural goings-on, ghosts, witches, magic, and especially monsters.


article-imageall illustrations by Dylan Thuras

Santa's European counterpart and earliest incarnation — Saint Nicholas — brings something other than just presents to your house. He brings along a demonic sidekick, Krampus. While the good children get gifts from Saint Nicholas, Krampus is given leave to mercilessly beat the naughty ones, shove them into his sack, and carry them promptly to Hell.  



This macabre skeleton mare of Welsh tradition rises from the dead and wanders the streets with her attendants, who are also fresh from the grave, to remind the living of their existence. Mary Lwyd has only one goal in mind — to get into your house. To keep the zombie horse out, you must engage in a battle of wits… in rhyme no less, usually on New Year's Eve, where the undead mare is represented by a puppeteer parading a horse skull on a pole draped in white cloth. 



In Italy, Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe, we encounter witches rooted in the fairy tale figure of Mother Holle who doles out punishments for the lazy, and riches for the hard working. In Italy she is known as La Befana and in Russia, Baboushka. Each January 6, she packs up and sets off on a broomstick to join the three kings who are also seeking the Christ Child. She searches every house and if she finds a child there, she leaves cookies and gifts behind. 


On New Year's Eve, Perchta roams the earth rewarding those who are hard working and generous, and punishing the idle and greedy. Her punishment of choice involves slashing open your stomach so she may violently rip out your intestines, which are then replaced by straw, rocks, and garbage. The tradition of having goose for Christmas is sometimes linked to witches like Perchta, who is often depicted as having a goose foot, along with the belief that goose fat enabled witches to fly.



In many places, such as Switzerland, Perchta rides with a throng of demonic-looking helpers — known as Straggele — who love to partake of the feast offerings left out for them on Christmas by people hoping for Perchta’s blessings of wealth and health in the new year. In some places, Straggele get to dole out the punishments themselves and aren’t terribly discerning as they rob all bad children and tear them to pieces in the air.



A creature from Scandinavian folklore who bears a resemblance to a gnome and lives among the dead inside burial mounds, the Tomten acts as a caretaker, protector, and helper of the household, that is if you don't anger him. The Tomten has quite the temper and is known for driving people insane with his tricks or biting them. The bites — being poisonous — typically lead to death. You would be well advised to leave a gift of food out on Christmas Eve for this fellow. 



In some German and Pennsylvannia Dutch communities, Belsnickel shows up a couple weeks before Christmas, filthy and dressed in rags and furs to beat the children who have misbehaved. As an 1872 Philadelphia newspaper recounted: ”Mr. Belsnickel [makes] his personal appearance dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts; and either the cakes or the whip are bestowed upon those around…” Back in the 19th century it was popular for rowdy revelers to go "Belsnicking" and get drunk, vandalize the city, and play pranks. 


Pere Fouettard made his first appearance in 1150, when he and his wife lured a trio of young boys into their butcher shop so they could rob them. Fouettard slit their throats and butchered the children, placing their remains in a barrel. When Saint Nicholas discovered the crime, he resurrected the boys and punished Fouettard by forcing the butcher into his eternal service. Now, this villain appears alongside Saint Nicholas and dispenses coal and floggings to those who deserve them. 



One of Iceland’s most renowned figures associated with Christmas — Gryla — is a giant troll who is in a perpetual bad mood due to her insatiable hunger… for children. Each Christmas, Gryla comes down from her mountain dwelling to hunt for naughty children. She places them in a sack and drags them back to her cave where she boils them alive for her favorite stew. Oh, and she has thirteen sons —the Yule Lads. 



The thirteen sons of Gryla, the Yule lads are each known for a particular habit or characteristic, much like the Disney version of Snow White's seven dwarves. Most of them are depicted as mischievous pranksters and petty criminals. Icelandic children are visited each night on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas by a different Yule Lad, including such charmers as:

"Sheep Cote Clog," a peg-legged sheep fancier; "Gully Hawk" who hides out in ditches or gullies and waits for an opportune moment to run into the cow shed and lick the foam off the milk in the milking buckets; "Stubby" whose name denotes his stature as he is unusually short; "Spoon Licker," a licker and thief of spoons; "Pot Scraper" who is a petty thief of leftovers; "Bowl Licker" who hides under your bed and waits for you to absentmindedly put down your bowl so he can steal and yes, lick it; "Door Slammer" who slams doors all night; "Skyr Gobbler" who eats "skyr" yogurt; "Sausage Swiper" who steals sausage; "Window Peeper" who watches you from the windows; "Doorway Sniffer" who uses his incredibly large nose to sniff through doors to find bread; "Meat Hook" who always brings a hook along with him so he can steal meat; and "Candle Stealer" who follows children around so he can steal their candles, leaving them in the dark.



The pet of both Gryla and The Yule Lads, the Yule cat’s prey consists of both children and adults. Unlike the other Christmas monsters, this cat does not care about your misdeeds during the year. The only insurance against being torn apart and eaten by this giant feline is receiving an article of new clothing for Christmas. Shop wisely. 

Illustrations by Dylan Thuras. 

Find more about the horrors of Christmas on Sarah Elizabeth Troop's blog: A Scary Little Christmas.

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  • They are Matryoshka dolls,from the woman name Matryona...:)) tender,like kid's or pet name - Matryosha,or Matryoshka...mostly for plain,village people,actually,folk name...:))

  • I think,it is really only outside,because there is even no such name as "Babushka",- in Russian,it is plain synonym for "old woman",any old woman,and the second meaning is "grandmother"....Personally I have never met this fairy tale...:)) very nice,anyway,thank you,Toni...:)) 

    On another hand,- it just came to me,- It could be in special church collections,which were not in print at all,in Soviet you probably know (and I happily forgot),Christmas has never been celebrated in USSR,unlike now...So,it is normal,that I don't know it,no library have had such,especially,children,literature...interesting turn...:)

    • Yes I did think it might of been something to do with the Soviet Union.

      Aren't those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other called Babushka dolls, also called Matryoshka dolls I think!

  • Interesting,Mystic! But I've never hear about such Christmas "Baboushka" in Russia,though I know Russian folklore pretty well (studied it )...maybe,in other countries...

    • Babushka and the three Kings, or Babouchka as it is spelt here is, is one of the folktales in my book of Russian folklore and fairytales.....How very interesting that it is known as a Russian Folktale only outside of Russia.

      TELL ME A STORY: Babushka's Christmas (a Russian Christmas tale)

      Long ago, an old woman named Babushka lived in a tiny cottage far from the city. One snowy evening, just as she was preparing her meal, Babushka heard a knock at the door. She opened it to find three men standing before her. From their rich clothing and fine features, Babushka guessed that they were men of learning who had traveled from far away in the East. They were shivering in the cold, and little slivers of ice hung from their beards. In their arms they each carried packages, and these were dusted with snow.

      "Oh my," Babushka said, "you must be freezing out there. Please come in and warm yourselves by my fire."

      The three wise men bowed in thanks and followed the woman into her cottage. "Forgive us," one of the men said, "but we have been walking for a long, long time. Tonight our journey ends, for we are going to the place where the King of Kings will be born this very night. We are bringing Him gifts, and we wish only to stop for a while to warm ourselves."

      "Of course," Babushka said, "but you must eat something. I have prepared a nice hot soup. Please join me." She set a table for the four of them, filling bowls with steaming soup, placing crusty bread in the center.

      They sat down at the table to eat, and the men told Babushka of the joyous birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, about to occur. "We are waiting for the brightest star to rise," they said, "for we will follow its path. The star will guide us to the place where the King of Kings is to be born this very night."

      "How I wish I could join you and bring a gift myself," Babushka sighed.

      "Come with us, then," the men said heartily. "The King of Kings will welcome you, but we must be on our way soon. Will you come?"

      Babushka looked around and frowned. "I cannot leave just now," she said. "I must clean the house and prepare myself, but I will come as soon as I am ready."

      With that she bade the men farewell and watched from the cottage door as they set off, following the starlight's path. She waved until she could no longer see them.

      Inside, Babushka washed the dishes, swept the floor, dusted and tidied the cottage. She bathed and dressed in her finest clothes, and then, looking around, she began to gather gifts to take to the newborn king. Babushka was a poor, hardworking woman who owned little, but she managed to gather several small toys, some sweets and tiny candles to take with her.

      She walked to the door, tightly wrapped her coat and scarf around her to keep out the cold, and set off.

      Babushka looked up at the sky, searching for the star that would lead her to the birthplace of the King of Kings. "Oh my," she said, for no matter where she looked, she could not find the star. She had washed and scrubbed and readied herself for a long time, and as she worked, the stars had moved across the sky.

      Babushka tried one road. She walked for a while, but eventually she realized she must have taken the wrong turn. She tried a different road, and then another, and another, always searching the sky for the star the wise men had followed.

      People say Babushka never did find the right road, and that she is wandering still. And every year, at Christmastime, the children run downstairs to search for the gifts Babushka has left for them as she travels the world, searching for the King of Kings. In every house where a small child lives, the people say, Babushka leaves a gift in honor of each and every child and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born on Christmas Day.

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