Christmas in the modern day has taken on a rather innocent tone. The common image of Santa Claus coming down chimneys, arms laden with presents, is a very modern one. Traditionally for many Christian cultures, this time of year was seen as a holiday which encouraged wanton depravity and the horror of sin.1 Such Yuletide debauchery was regarded as un-Christian by many Protestants, leading to widespread avoidance of the celebration. Indeed, the festive season was a time of Christmas monsters and demons.
5 – Krampus
Around the year 2000, on the Internet there began to circulate Christmas postcards from Alpine regions of Europe that depicted an odd tradition hitherto largely unknown to the English-speaking world. Such postcards portrayed a large, hairy, devil-like figure flogging children or stealing them away in a basket on his back. 2Many were shocked by such images, whose idea of Christmas was more in line with a jolly old father figure handing out presents to the pleasant tune of jingling bells. It was disturbing to think that anything so vile and demonic could be associated with so joyous a holiday.
Yet, Krampus – the horned devil creature – predates Christmas and Christianity. He is the son of Hel, the Norse Goddess who is said to rule over her domain, also called Hel.
As the Christian notion of Christmas spread across Europe, Krampus was not immediately associated with the celebration. In fact, the horned monster’s origins are dubious and hard to trace. It is believed that Krampus is a pagan remnant, that survived in the Alpine communities of Europe. More so than other parts of Europe, due to their geographical isolation, these mountainous communities syncretized their old pagan beliefs with Christianity. Thus, Krampus remained.
As winter darkened the night’s sky, Krampus night was celebrated. Traditionally, men in the village would cover themselves in sheepskins and wear elaborately made masks. Then, they would go to their neighbours’ houses and chase children, threatening to beat them with switches made of strong, flexible wood, as they rang bells to increase the torment. In some places, it is even said that children were made to run a Krampus gauntlet, a street lined with angry Krampuses eagerly trying to hit them with tree branches. 3
Despite the Inquisition’s attempts to root out these heretical celebrations, the locals seemed adamant in their pursuit to torment children each Christmas. As such, Krampus night was – and still is – celebrated on the 5th of December, the eve of Saint Nicholas’s Day. 4
In the seventeenth century, after the Inquisition had failed to bring the aggressive tradition to rest, Krampus was symbolically chained by Saint Nicholas. A form of compromise, Krampus was no longer regarded as a roaming monster, but as a necessary evil-doer who Saint Nicholas shackled to carry out his dirty work. In other words, the pagan Krampus had been co-opted into Christianity.
Krampus depicted in 20th century postcards
Folklore now depicted Krampus as punishing naughty children in a variety of ways. Covering the full spectrum of punishment, Krampus handed out discipline freely, from the tame – such as being left a lump of coal instead of a gift – to the brutal extreme of children begging for mercy, before being drowned in a barrel of ink, and having their lifeless corpses fished out by Krampus’ pitchfork so that he could then parade his trophy around the village. Some children would even be abducted, thrown into his basket to be taken down to Hell. 5
Throughout the centuries people and even governments have tried to suppress this macabre Christmas tradition. Even Hitler and the Nazi party found Krampus to be too evil for their liking. Yet, the psychopathic and brutal festive monster has survived the centuries, expanding out of Europe and across the sea to America.
On the night of the 5th of December, more streets than ever before are lined with people dressed as the horned Christmas monster.
4 – Frau Perchta
In German tradition, Perchta can be a kind and giving entity who takes the shape of a beautiful woman. She is believed to visit people’s homes during the Christmas season, and leave a silver coin for those inhabitants she judges to be good. In this way, Perchta is a figure akin to a benevolent goddess of nature.
However, folklore tells that there is another side to Frau Perchta. To those who have misbehaved, she appears old and haggard. In fact, she is evil incarnate. Before they are able to run away, naughty children are trapped. The last thing they see is an iron knife plunge into their soft bellies. Next, their innards are removed by Perchta’s savage hands. Straw and pebbles are stuffed into the empty cavity which was once a child’s stomach. Finally, Perchta sews up the corpse, so that whoever found the cadaver would not have realized what brutal event had taken place.
Such a nightmarish tale is meant to serve as warning to naughty children at Christmastime. Be good, or Frau Perchta will come for you.
There are said, however, to be some pleasant countermeasures to Perchta’s knife, that can be employed by anyone, regardless of whether they are naughty or nice. Traditionally, feasting on cakes, herring, dumplings and pancakes is said to repel this feminine fiend. If you eat enough of the right kinds of food, her knife will simply bounce off your belly.
German children are also told that it is important to eat a traditional meal on Perchta day, the 5th of January. With the feast held in her honour, leaving enough leftovers on the table is said to placate Perchta during her nocturnal visit.
However, this too carries danger. For if you do not celebrate with the right sorts of foods, namely those which Perchta likes, then she would still visit you as you sleep in your bed. Just like the naughty children, your innards will be gouged as repayment for the offense. And, if she catches you trying to go downstairs to spot her eating your food at night, this creepy Christmas character will blind you, a lesser, but nonetheless brutal punishment. 6
3 – Père Fouettard
Whilst other Christmas monsters are usually depicted as creatures akin to the Devil, Père Fouettard is the exception, for being an ordinary man. In fact, the now folkloric figure is reported to have been based on a real person.
Fouettard is said to have lived in the town of Myra, in what is now Turkey, working as an innkeeper. One day, he lured three children into his inn with the promise of meal. They, however, did not receive a meal, instead being served the icy hand of death. After the deed was done, the innkeeper chopped up the bodies. The children’s dismembered body parts were placed into barrels to pickle and be preserved. It is said that Fouettard enjoyed dining on the unfortunate children for days.
Before the barrels were emptied and the dreadful deed concealed forever, Fouettard received an unexpected visitor. The historic Saint Nicholas, who was working as a miracle-making bishop, discovered the innkeeper’s crimes. Fouettard was penitent in the face of the great saint, and pledged his life, and afterlife, to him. It may very well have been that the bishop Saint Nicholas punished Fouettard by means of incarceration. However, folklore remembers the heinous evil-doer as being chained to Saint Nicholas’ will for all eternity, whereby he would help dissuade children from being naughty.7
From then on, Père Fouettard was given free reign to fulfill his sadistic impulses, indentured to the saint who would later be known by the names Father Christmas and Santa Claus.
In Eastern France, Fouettard was known to have carried a whipping rod to beat children deemed to be naughty. On his back was the wicker basket he used to abduct those children who were deemed to be especially bad, presumably destined to be cooked and eaten.8
The legend of Père Fouettard has continued to evolve over time. In the 1930s he even managed to escape from Santa’s clutches, after which he moved to America and got married. He and his new wife changed their names to Madame and Father Flog, under which pseudonyms they would continue to beat children who had committed crimes. Only now, unshackled from Saint Nicholas, he would do so all year long… 9
2 – Kallikantzaroi
In South East Europe it is told that during the twelve nights of Christmas, from 25th December to 6th January, creatures usually hidden deep within the earth surface to wreak havoc on the living. Their descriptions are varied. In some areas they are described as being tiny goblin creatures, who go down people’s chimneys and cause destruction. In other areas they are giant, reptilian monsters with large claws. Sometimes they are depicted with bright red eyes. What is consistent in their descriptions throughout rural areas in the Balkans, is their malevolent nature.
Some Kallikantzaroi are said to enjoy pulling pranks, stealing and generally sowing discord in communities around Christmas. However, their most notorious acts are committed when they slide down chimneys into people’s homes. Furniture and household possessions are destroyed. People are savagely beaten, and intestines are indiscriminately ripped from bellies. Folklore also tells how Kallikantzaroi especially desire to kidnap newborn babies during the Christmas period. They regard it as their duty to cause trouble for surface-dwelling mortals.
There are, however, several easy ways to deter these vicious vandals.
Newborns can be bound in straw and garlic to keep these monsters away. An even simpler method to deter them is to leave a colander outside of your home. As bizarre as it sounds, tradition states that a simple kitchen colander will keep the Kallikantzaroi so occupied that they will not enter your home. For, these goblin creatures are incredibly stupid and cannot count beyond the number two. Thus, feeling the irresistible urge to count all the holes in the colander, these beings will end up spending the entire night counting from one to two repetitively. All thoughts of mayhem and brutality, kept at bay.
After the festive season ends, these malevolent imbeciles return underground to resume their evil work. For folklore says that Kallikantzaroi spend the whole year sawing the “world tree”, the mighty tree of legend which holds our world together. Yet, each year, just as they are about to destroy the world, Christmas arrives, and so the Kallikantzaroi must surface and cause mayhem once again. 10
1 – The Devil
Among the cornucopia of cannibals, psychopaths and demons that are said to be bound to Santa to help him punish bad children is the Devil himself.
In the Czech Republic and other European countries, people traditionally dress up as the Devil and Santa Claus and visit different homes. There, Old Saint Nick asks the parents, and children themselves, if they have been good that year. If both say yes, then gifts are joyfully handed to the children as a reward. If the children have been naughty, and confess to being so, Santa chides and tells them to be better behaved for next year.
If, however, the children lie to Santa, it is time for the Devil to step in. Knowing what it to come, the children usually act hysterically from fear at the mere sight of him, hiding under beds and cowering in corners.11
RELATED: 5 HISTORIC ENCOUNTERS WITH THE DEVIL
Once the Devil corners his prey, he slings the naughty children over his back and takes them to hell. At least that is what any other children watching are led to believe. In actuality, they are taken into another room of the house by the costumed disciplinarian and scolded, told that they will really go to hell next year if they do not start behaving.
Once this is over, all the children – regardless of whether they have been good are not – must sing and dance to appease the Devil. Without a doubt, gripped by nervous fear and racing hearts. 12
The inclusion of the devil in Christmas celebrations has become part of Christian tradition across the centuries. Nowhere is the traditional appearance of the devil during the Christmas season better illustrated than in Dewsbury in the United Kingdom.
For over 500 years, Dewsbury Parish Church has honoured the tradition known as the Devil’s Knell. For every year that has passed since the birth of Christ, the church bells are rung on Christmas Eve, with the last peal timed perfectly to sound on the stroke midnight. So, this year on Christmas Eve, the bells will ring an impressive 2,017 times. This tradition is taken very seriously: the best bell ringers from across the United Kingdom are brought to Dewsbury to ensure the success of the endeavor. Some say that the ringing of the Devil’s Knell is to commemorate the death of the Devil, who died when Christ was born. Others, however, state that if the bells are not rung precisely as instructed, the Devil will return on Christmas and bring all of Hell with him. 13
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