The holidays aren’t all candied yams and charades with the family. There is a lot of darkness between all the tinsel draping, ornament hanging, and hall decking; there can be darkness. Some of it is a product of the long winter nights, and others are a holdover from legends designed to keep societies in line. Not every holiday story has a happy ending, and even the most heartfelt belly laughs from a red-cheeked fellow in red fir may have had a decidedly creepier origin. Even the chimney creeper himself is offputting if you think about it too much. If any other stranger watched us while we were sleeping and awake, we would call them a stalker. There is a reason there is no shortage of Christmas-themed horror movies.
There is something terribly bleak about nights that go on forever, snow that blankets the ground in impenetrable layers of icy frigidness, and jolly old men who are designed to keep our children in line. Here are the scariest and creepiest facts about Christmas and the winter holidays.
Decorations are not all shiny or velvet
Wreaths and tree trimming might be your family’s holiday tradition, but things aren’t as common in other parts of the world. For example, in Gavle, Sweden, locals build a 40-foot goat made from straw. That’s slightly kooky, but what’s weirdest is nearly every year since 1966 when the tradition began, the goat has managed to be destroyed before the end of the month. Sometimes in fiery infernos, sometimes in auto accidents, and even once a helicopter was involved.
In Ukraine, the legend of a poor family who has their house spun in spider web doesn’t have the horrible ending you might think. Instead, the next morning, the web strands turn to gold and silver, and the family becomes rich. The tradition continues today where trees are decorated with artificial spider webs and spiders.
The Welsh have a rich history of myths and legends. From Lee Haven Jones’ recent The Feast’s Blodeuwedd to ghosts and gods, there is a lot to be wary of. On Christmas Eve, people parade through town with a horse head mounted on a stick and try to sing, argue, and trick their way into houses. The creature called the Mari Lwyd finds the lucky person draped in a white sheet for the duration of the strange spectacle.
Grandmas and Santas don’t play around
Parents lie to their children. Sometimes, small white lies perpetuate a holiday joy, while others are designed to trick kids into following the rules. There are countless stories about creatures in areas to be avoided from every country in the world. In South Africa, they take their cookies for Santa very seriously. There is a legend that one night a little boy named Danny ate the cookies left out for Santa, and when Grandma found out, she became so angry, she killed the child. Their ghosts haunt homes on Christmas Eve, looking for more greedy little boys and girls.
The story of Jultomte in Scandanavia is very similar to leaving cookies and milk for Santa. The Jultomte were child-sized older men who protected the home from evil spirits and delivered gifts to children. They only asked for butter and porridge as payment. Although this is a humble ask, they became vengeful if they didn’t get it. They would break into the barn of the homeowner and kill their cow.
Not every holiday meal is consumed the same
In Greenland, tiny birds called Auks are left to ferment in seal carcasses for three to eighteen months and are consumed alongside raw whale skin and fat. If that doesn’t sound yummy, how about South Africa’s traditional deep-fried Emperor Moths on Christmas Day? The holidays never tasted or smelled so good.
Don’t be afraid of the Yule Log worry about the Yule Cat
All those dog lovers out there will feel vindicated when they learn about Iceland’s Yule Cat. New clothes are apparently essential to Icelanders, and the Yule Cat hunts children who don’t receive new togs before Christmas Eve. The large kitty lives in the snow and pounces when midnight strikes. This tradition encouraged farmers who processed wool to work quickly before the cold months arrived. Workers got new clothes as a reward for getting the wool processed before Christmas Eve.
Dog lovers don’t get off that easy. Stemming from pagan beliefs that supernatural beings were more prevalent on and around the winter solstice, it is believed if you were born on Christmas Day, you would most likely be a werewolf. In Greece, tiny little goblins called Kallikantzaroi run amuck in towns during the twelve days of Christmas. They do nasty things like steal food and gifts and pee in flower gardens. Black knives, lower pig jaws, and tangled strings are hung from doorways to ward them off.
Iceland’s Yule Lads are trolls named Gimpy, Pot-Scraper, Bowl-Licker, and Meat Hook. Originally they were mean little monsters that stole food, slammed doors, and kidnapped kids to feed their mother. If they weren’t bad enough, their mother named Grýla is a horned, hooved, half-ogre who feasted on stewed children. The stories became so terrifying that the Icelandic government banned them as a form of child control. So now the Yule Lads deliver presents to good boys and girls.
Speaking of Yule Logs, in Guatemala, spring cleaning gets a twist when homes are meticulously cleaned on December 7th, and all the dust and debris from every house is piled and topped with a demon effigy. The burning of the dirt and the demon cleanse the village of unclean spirits for the coming year in La quema del diablo.
Santa isn’t always a fat old man with a sleigh full of gifts
In Italy, a Christmas witch named Befana brings toys to good children, and in the Netherlands, Kris Kringle’s sidekick is similar to something Dwight Schrute first introduced in The Office. Dwight’s Belsnickle judges everyone impish or admirable. In the legend, if children are impish, they are dragged from their beds and made to dance until they die. The episode, which has now had the offensive black face scene with Nate appearing as Black Pete, is the same Zwarte Piet who plays tricks and throws candy at kids. Similar to these anti-Santas is Le Père Fouettard. The French Belgian character often accompanies Saint Nicholas. He carries a whip, and when he finds rotten little kids, he whips them.
Germany’s Bad Santa Krampus is the source for more Christmas horror movies than should ever be made and can cause many sleepless nights for naughty children. The half-goat/half-demon creature kidnaps children misbehaving on December 6th and eats them. The Germans also have Knecht Ruprecht or Dark Santa. This bizarro version of the kindly gift giver carries around switches, ashes, and treats. But, of course, your behavior determines whether you get switched or a treat.
If that’s not scary enough, Frau Perchta is a dual-faced witch who shows a pleasant face to good children and a grotesque one to bad children. She leaves silver in the shoes of the good kiddies, and the bad ones get slit from stem to stern. She then rips out their guts and replaces them with stones.
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark may have had a frightening scarecrow, but Alsace and Lorraine have one even scarier. Legend has it Hans Trapp was a wealthy, rich devil worshipper. He sold his soul for more riches and power. As a result, he was shunned and forced to live in the forest, where he became a cannibal. He dressed up as a scarecrow on Christmas Day and ate naughty kids.
Literal ghosts of Christmas past
In Portugal, a Christmas morning feast called Consoda celebrates both the living and the dead. The table is set with place settings for the souls of the dead. In Finland, the dead are remembered on Christmas Eve by visiting their graves in a candlelit procession.
Even though the holidays are about family and gift-giving for most of us, there are plenty of traditions around the world that are less than pleasant. So the next time you kiss someone under the mistletoe or sing Santa Baby, think about what those things really mean. It puts a whole new spin on Up On The Rooftop.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.