In some Christian traditions, Advent is the time of preparation for Christmas. Christmas also falls around the time of other holidays, like Hanukkah and Yule. Since this series of Friday Folklore posts focus on the lore of more than one winter holiday but is a preparation for those holidays, it seemed appropriate to call it the Advent Edition. The word “advent” means “appearing”, after all.
This Christmas season, we’re being treated to two holiday movies about the same mythical character: Krampus. In the trailer for one movie, a grandmother figure says, “He is the shadow of St. Nicholas.” In other words, an anti-Santa Claus.
But who, or what, is Krampus? And are there others like him? And why are there stories about him?
That last question, perhaps, is an easy answer. When I was growing up, my parents would tell me that if I wasn’t good, then Santa would only give me switches for Christmas. I never believed them for two reasons.
One, Santa simply looks far too jolly and kind to put switches under the tree. I bet he doesn’t even say a mean word to his reindeer if they get ornery. I bet he just laughs and coaxes them to do what he wants. Secondly, I was a hellion as a child. I routinely disobeyed my parents, bullied my little brother, and had selfish fits in the classroom if I didn’t get my way. If anyone deserved switches, it was me, but I never received a single one.
Now, if my parents told me about a horned, half-goat monster who would punish me on Christmas Eve, or about a demonic cat that would swallow me whole, then I would have behaved right away. We use scary stories to keep children in line. But, also, the winter holidays celebrate a time when light breaks into the darkness. If we’re going to have stories about the light, shouldn’t we also have stories about the dark?
The story of Krampus goes like this: Santa Claus (or, Saint Nicholas) has a companion who he sends to punish bad children. On the night before St. Nicholas Day (Dec 6), Krampus arrives at the homes of bad children to beat them and take them to the underworld for one year. In some Germanic countries, the night before St. Nicholas Day is called Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night1.
No one is really sure where Krampus came from. His roots are most likely in pre-Christian Germany. Some people say Krampus is the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of the underworld.
For years, the Catholic Church and others have tried to suppress any Krampus related celebrations. However, his popularity is on the rise. While two movies about Krampus are hitting American theaters this year, there have been festivals and Christmas cards depicting Krampus in Europe ever since World War II2.
During Krampusnacht, young men will dress up as the “Christmas Devil” and chase people through the streets. Sometimes, either on or near Dec. 6, both Santa and Krampus will arrive at homes or businesses. Santa will hand out a present and Krampus will swat people with birch sticks.
So, kids, be good or a half-goat, half-man demon will beat the crap out of you and drag you to Hell for a year. Think about that before you nag Mom and Dad for that latest Xbox.
The Christmas Cat
Doesn’t that sound lovely? “Christmas Cat” sounds like a fluffy white kitty wearing a red bow who visits good little girls and leaves them the latest Barbie or something. Well, if that was the case, this cat, whose Icelandic name is Jólakötturinn, wouldn’t have made this list.
Written records of Jólakötturinn date back to the 19th century. He is a very big, very ferocious, very hungry cat who eats children (and some say adults, too). More specifically, he eats those who don’t have new clothes by Christmas3. That sounds weird but stay with me on this.
If the children or adults were lazy and didn’t do their work, then they wouldn’t receive new clothes because their failure meant there wasn’t enough money or materials for new clothing. The Christmas (or, Yule) Cat would come around and see the lack of new clothing as a sign of sloth and laziness. The answer to this? Eat them! Or, according to some versions of the tale, eat all their food and Christmas treats.
No wonder Iceland is home to the most people in Europe who clock in overtime. Also, the Christmas Cat spends the rest of the year in the same house as other Christmas-related delinquents, one of which is listed below. Cozy!
Another fearsome creature from Iceland, Grýla is an ogress who also has an appetite for human flesh. (Like owner, like housecat, I guess.) She existed in Icelandic legend long before she became associated with Christmas in the 17th century and is mentioned in the Edda4.
From the 1600s on, the story goes that she is the mother of the Yule Lads and provides a home to the Christmas Cat when he isn’t eating the impoverished. (The Yule Lads are 13 boys who range from the mischievous to the downright murderous.)
Essentially, Grýla eats naughty boys and girls4. She would send her Yule Lads to collect them and bring them to her, though some legends say she did it herself. By the 1740s, kids were so terrified of her, they refused to leave their homes and the government had to step in to stop the use of Grýla-as-scare-tactic. After that, she sent her Yule Lads to spread Christmas cheer rather than horror. Good children got presents while bad children got rotten vegetables5.
But Iceland never did anything about the Christmas Cat, which just goes to show that cats do what they want and you just live with it.
So, what sort of scare tactics did your parents use to keep you in line for the holidays? Do you have a favorite Christmas-esque legend you’d like to share?
1“Santa’s Horned Helper: The Fearsome Legend of Krampus, Christmas Punisher”, Ancient Origins, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/santa-s-horned-helper-fearsome-legend-krampus-christmas-punisher-004799
2“Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil”, National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/
3“The Christmas Cat”, Haukur S. Magnússon, http://grapevine.is/culture/art/2008/12/10/the-christmas-cat/
4“Grýla”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gr%C3%BDla
5“Iceland’s Terrifying Christmas Tradition”, Jennifer Jackson, http://www.the-line-up.com/the-yule-lads-gryla-iceland/