By Rachael Funk
‘Twas the month of the holidays when all through the world
Some creatures were stirring who were truly absurd,
The children all used their best manners and care,
In fear of the monsters that soon would be there.
And so late at night, all tucked into bed,
Dark visions of Belsnickel danced in their heads,
And Krampus and Grýla and Yule Lads and cats;
All kinds of cruel beasts who laid holiday traps.
If outside your window you hear a light tapping,
Or munching and crunching and howling and scratching,
You may have a visitor with intent to mistreat
So study this list to see who it might be.
Who’s lurking outside your window? Could it be…
A companion of Saint Nicholas, do not let your guard down based on the company Belsnickel keeps. Spotted in Germany and the Dutch communities of Pennsylvania (thanks, Dwight), he will be dressed in tattered furs and sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue. His pockets will be filled with cakes and candies, but beware his switch. He will come after dark, scatter the treats on the floor, then whip the scheisse out of bad German children with his branch. Then, after a thorough flogging, he will terrorize the town with vandalism, pranks, and occasionally some light home invasion.
With a name meaning “The Whipping Father,” Père Fouettard is synonymous with the Bogeyman in some parts of France. The most popular version of this story dates back to the year 1150, when Père Fouettard captured three rich boys, butchered them, and then stewed them in a barrel. When St. Nicholas discovered what happened, he resurrected the children and forced Père Fouettard to become his assistant to atone for his transgressions. Now, he and St. Nicholas travel together like buddy cops; St. Nick gives good children presents and Père Fouettard gives naughty children whippings.
Half goat, half demon, Krampus is another European counterpart of Saint Nicholas. You will know him by his horns, fangs, chains, and bells. If you’re not sure it’s really Krampus, push your least favorite child onto the porch and firmly shut the door. If the monster savagely beats the child then drags him to hell, it’s probably him. There is no way to thwart Krampus once he arrives; the only way to avoid him is to behave.
Another companion of St. Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas” in the Netherlands), Zwarte Piet is a controversial character, indeed. Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas live in Spain during the year and cross the ocean every year to give Dutch children presents. Coal is given to the ill-behaved as a warning, but if children continue their practice of bad behavior, Zwarte Piet will drag them back to Spain and force them to work in his coal mines forever. Due to the description of Zwarte Piet and his work in coal mines and chimneys, costumes generally involve people covering their skin in black makeup and donning large wigs. Since this costume is essentially blackface, many people in the Netherlands are pushing for a less-offensive update to Zwarte Piet’s image.
The scourge of Iceland, Grýla only leaves the mountains once a year to sate her hunger for disobedient children. An unstoppable huntress, the giantess steals into homes under the cover of night to kidnap the unruly kids who she will boil alive for her signature Christmas stew. She can be recognized by her horns, hooves for feet, and 13 swishing tails (or by the blood dripping from her chin – they’re all pretty telling signs). While American children picture reindeer clip-clopping around on their roofs, the sounds of cloven feet on Icelandic abodes likely conjure different emotions. Grýla also has 13 sons, which explains her terrible wrath.
Children of Grýla, the Yule Lads creep into town one by one to cause mayhem on each of the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Any child unlucky enough to be caught by a prowling Yule Lad might be snatched up and added to Grýla’s stew. Half monster and lacking torsos, these imps lost their edge in 1746, when a public decree prohibited parents from tormenting their children with tales of Grýla and the Yule Lads. Now, instead of brothers such as Lung Flapper (who would walk around with wet sheep lungs and beat people out of his way), Door-Slammer, Meat-Hook, and Sausage-Swiper pull merry pranks with their brothers and leave candy or rotten potatoes in children’s shoes.
Hungry as Grýla and her 13 sons, Yule Cat is the third monstrous danger from the Icelandic folklore. The cat is said to be bigger than a house and roams around the towns on Christmas, watching people open presents and waiting. If Jólakötturinn sees someone who did not receive a new piece of clothing, he gobbles them up. The story varies, but he is whispered to also eat folks who have not finished their work and children who have not finished their chores.
A gnome who protects the farm and cares for livestock, the nisse may not appear at first to be a threat, but don’t be fooled! He is easily offended and will dole out retribution for wrongdoings in the form of anything between a casual smack upside the head to murdering your livestock and destroying the farm. To please him, it is customary on Christmas night to leave him gifts of home-brewed beer and a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top. Do NOT forget the butter, or you may pay with the life of your best cow. Some stories say a bite from the nisse is poisonous and can’t be cured without magic.
In Eastern Europe, an ancient witch known as “The Belly-Slitter” awaits the holiday season. Descriptions of her vary from being a tall woman in white robes to appearing as a Krampus-like horror. Good children enjoy gifts of silver she leaves in their shoes. Awful children (and people who do not keep a tidy home or finish their spinning) do not receive gifts from Frau Perchta. Instead, Frau Perchta glides into their rooms at night, takes out the long knife hidden under her robes, and disembowels each of her offenders. She then replaces their guts with garbage, garland, or a mix of rocks and straw. Some say if she’s in a particularly sassy mood, the disemboweled may find their organs strung up on the tree the next morning.