Darcie is a graduate student who spends her free time writing and learning everything she can about cryptozoology, aliens, and the unusual.
In recent years, Krampus has enjoyed a lot of popularity in the United States, inspiring Krampus-themed festivals and parades and Michael Dougherty’s 2015 movie, Krampus. However, there are many other dark creatures across European folklore associated that are also associated with Christmas and the winter season but haven't yet enjoyed the same notoriety as Krampus or jolly old Saint Nick.
1. Grýla, the Yule Lads, and the Yule Cat
In a cave near the Dimmuborgir lava fields in Iceland, there lives an ogress named Grýla. She can sense when children are misbehaving and will kidnap those she finds to be disobedient and boil them up in a stew.
Legends of Grýla date back to at least the 13th century, as she is mentioned in Prose Edda, a work of literature attributed to Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Grýla would come to be associated with Christmas.
Grýla is known to have had three husbands and 72 children. 13 of these children are collectively known as the Yule Lads. Each of the Lads has a descriptive name and a distinct personality. Between December 12 and December 24, the Lads arrive to cause their own brands of mischief. Here is a list of the Lads (using English translations of their mostly self-explanatory names):
The 13 Yule Lads
- Sheep-Cote Clod: He has peg legs and is known to harass sheep.
- Gully Gawk: He hides in gullies and ditches, lurking until he can find the perfect opportunity to lick the cow milk foam from unattended milk buckets.
- Stubby: As the name might imply, he is very short. He likes to steal pans and eat any crust that has been left behind.
- Spoon-Licker: Big surprise—he likes to lick spoons. He is also thin and malnourished in appearance.
- Pot-Licker: He likes to steal leftover food from pots.
- Bowl-Licker: He hides under beds waiting for bowls to be put down near him. Then he steals them.
- Door-Slammer: He slams doors, particularly during the night.
- Skyr-Gobbler: This Lad really likes skyr, an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt.
- Sausage-Swiper: He hides in rafters near sausages in the process of being smoked, waiting for the opportunity to steal some.
- Window-Peeper: He looks through windows, looking for things to steal.
- Doorway-Sniffer: This Lad has a very large nose and a great sense of smell that he uses to locate laufabrauð (Icelandic leaf bread).
- Meat-Hook: He steals meat with a hook.
- Candle-Stealer: Not surprisingly, he steals candles from children. It’s worth noting that in the time that these legends originated, candles would have been made of tallow and therefore edible.
If children are well-behaved, the yule lads will leave gifts in their shoes. For misbehaving children, they sometimes leave a rotten potato instead. In older versions of the myth, the Yule Lads were more sinister, but likely due to the rise in the popularity of Santa Claus, they became less scary and more of a nuisance. It also wasn’t until around the 17th century that the Yule Lads became associated with Grýla. This was around the same time as when she became associated with Christmas.
Grýla also keeps a pet known as the Yule Cat. The Yule Cat is able to tell which children did and did not receive new clothes for Christmas. Those who had misbehaved and not received the reward of new clothing would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat, who would then devour them. However, there are some tamer versions of the story that say the Yule Cat will only eat the food of the punished children.
The story of the Yule Cat likely originates from the practice of workers processing wool in autumn receiving clothing as payment. It could also be used to teach children the value of giving gifts, as the gift of new clothing protects them from the Yule Cat.
2. Frau Perchta and the Straggele
During the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 to January 6), the people of Germany and Austria must be on their best behavior, lest they be punished by Frau Perchta. She can take the form of either a beautiful young woman or an old hag and has either a goose foot or simply one foot that is bigger than the other. According to Jacob Grimm, this difference in size could have indicated that she was a shapeshifter. The depiction of Frau Perchta with a goose foot could have been a reference to the belief that witches used goose fat to help them fly.
On the night of the Feast of Epiphany, children who had been well-behaved would receive a silver coin in their shoe. Those children and adults who were not well-behaved would receive Frau Perchta’s punishment: she would rip out their internal organs and replace them with various pieces of garbage.
Frau Perchta would also sometimes travel with horned demons known as Straggele, who helped her with punishing bad children. The Straggele would steal children in order to tear them apart and eat them. However, leaving out leftover food to distract the Straggele could prevent this fate for a misbehaving child.
Frau Perchta is often seen as the female counterpart to Krampus. In some alpine villages, she is actually the focus of festivals in which participants wear masks known as perchten. The masked festival-goers dance around fires in order to drive away any winter ghosts.
3. Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht
Saint Nicholas has several darker companions, among them Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht. Belsnickel arrives a few weeks before Christmas to check on who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. He reports back to Saint Nicholas, but he also hands out rewards and punishments himself. Belsnickel is clothed in tatters and raggedy fur and carries a switch used to frighten naughty children, though in more recent times it is only used to make a warning noise. Well-behaved children receive candy instead of a frightening noise.
In some alternate versions of the myth, Belsnickel travels with Krampus. In others, he does not distinguish between naughty and nice children, instead luring them in with candy and treats before whipping them all with his switch.
Belsnickel originates in the lore of southwestern Germany. In some parts of Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland, his traditions are still observed, which is a holdover from early 18th-century German settlers.
Knecht Ruprecht, also known as Rupert the Servant, wears a long, dark robe and carries a stick and a bag of ashes. In some versions of the story, he was originally a farmhand, and in others, he was a feral child raised by Santa. When children encounter him, they are asked if they pray. If they answer yes, Knecht Ruprecht will reward them with gingerbread, chocolate, fruit, or nuts. Children who answer no will be hit with his stick or bag. An Austrian variation on the story gets much darker, with especially bad children being beaten with branches, stuffed in a sack, and thrown into the river.
He is often associated with Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)—who I won’t be covering here—and Jacob Grimm believed that both were holdovers from pre-Christian pagan beliefs.
4. Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard
In the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France, there is the story of Hans Trapp, a rich, evil, and greedy man who was excommunicated from the Catholic church and permanently exiled to the woods for being a Satanist. While in the woods, he began disguising himself as a scarecrow and would attack and eat children who were unlucky enough to cross his path.
Once, while he was about to eat a boy, Hans Trapp was struck by lightning and killed. After his death, he became yet another companion to Saint Nicholas. As an act of redemption, he wanders in his scarecrow guise scaring children into being good so that they will not suffer his fate.
Since Saint Nicholas appears to enjoy collecting child-eating companions, we also have the story of Père Fouettard. Père Fouettard, meaning “Father Whipper,” was a butcher or an innkeeper (depending on the version you hear) who robbed and murdered three boys. He and his wife then chopped up their bodies and put them in a stew. Saint Nicholas discovered the crimes and revived the boys before punishing
Père Fouettard by forcing the man to be his servant. Père Fouettard joins Saint Nicholas every December 6 (also known as Saint Nicholas Day) to dole out punishments to naughty children.
I’ll finish this list with a less sinister creature of winter folklore. From Sweden, we have the Tomten, a gnome-like spirit who stands roughly three feet tall, has a white beard, and wears a red cap.
On family farms, the Tomten acts as a protector to children and animals. He will sometimes live in hiding somewhere on the farm itself but will often instead sleep in a nearby burial mound, coming back to the farm when he is awake.
The Tomten expects to be treated well for his services to the farm. In order to appease him, burn a Yule log throughout winter and make sure to leave him a plate of porridge on Christmas Eve. If he doesn’t receive these things, the Tomten may take revenge, ranging in severity from harmless tricks to venomous bites.
Move Over, Krampus!
There’s a wide range of winter holiday and Christmas traditions with a darker tone across European folklore, and the above list is just a small sampling. Left out of this are several additional interesting creatures, like the Mari Lwyd, the Welsh skeleton mare who engages in rhyming insult battles; and the Barbegazi, the dwarf-like creatures from the Swiss Alps who like to surf on avalanches. So, this winter, perhaps explore a new piece of seasonal folklore and find a new holiday tradition.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.