Europe’s diabolic folklore juxtaposes North American holiday legends and traditions
Christmas—a yearly reminder that we as a society allow a robust, bearded man in a red suit to break into our homes and deliver presents for the young’uns—is nearly upon us.
A North American Christmas is a time for whimsy, joy, and capitalism, where hills of presents are ushered underneath a pine tree and family comes from far and wide to be together for a few days while the environment is coated in sheets of white powder.
It’s what many, including Andy Williams and Harry Connick Jr., like to call, “the most wonderful time of the year.”
However, in other parts of the world, the holidays are a little more sinister and in some cases, nightmarish, leading to countless pieces of gothic-inspired art.
Devil-like goat beasts, trolls, and witches prowl the streets looking for naughty children to beat, scold, and sometimes devour whole.
Many have at least heard of Austria and Germany’s Krampus, an anthropomorphic bloodshot, half-goat, half-demon who takes pleasure in beating misbehaving children with birch sticks, throwing them in his sack of horrors, and hauling them off to his cavernous lair to be eaten.
In Europe, Krampus is a cultural tradition with its own festival, Krampusnacht. But in the last few years, he’s made his way to North America and submerged himself in our pop culture through art, music, film, video games, and mini Krampusnacht festivals.
But, Krampus is not the only European Christmas horror worth noting. Many countries have their own legends to scare their children.
“In the Slavic parts of the world there is Malanka, which can be a parade—like Krampus with ghost figures, the devil, and other scary and comical figures,” says University of Alberta professor and Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography, Natalie Kononenko. “It can also be a play where Malanka (sometimes a goat and sometimes a guy dressed as a woman) dies, to be ‘resurrected.’”
In Wales, there is the wassailing (door-to-door) custom called Mari Lwyd.
“This involves parading with a horse skull,” Kononenko says. “This is a festival of death and resurrection, sort of like the old and new year and it features a great deal of dark imagery.”
Iceland has its own heap of Christmas terrors, but the two that stand out are Jólaköttur (The Yule Cat) and Grýla (a giantess that lives in the Icelandic mountains).
The Yule Cat, sometimes called The Christmas Cat of Iceland, is an enormous demonic feline that consumes anyone who does not receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas. It is said to be the pet of Grýla who scoops up disorderly children and, you guessed it—eats them. Only she makes a nice children-filled stew.
Actually, many of these European legends involve eating or beating wicked children. It’s the more extreme version of gifting kids with lumps of coal.
Perhaps the most terrifying of these Christmas nightmares is Eastern Europe’s Christmas witch, Frau Perchta. She isn’t as well known as Krampus, which is a shame because this knife-wielding crone is much more malevolent. She pops up quite a bit in European folklore, but on Christmas, she seeks out lazy parents and bad children to disembowels them. Afterward, she replaces their organs with hay, rocks, and garbage—pleasant isn’t it?
So the next time you’re disappointed with the gift you received during the holidays, remember Frau Perchta is watching.