Updated: Feb 17
Many of us know about St. Nicholas (a.k.a., Santa Claus) and his cranky counterpart, Krampus, but did you know that Santa has several other “companions” that lurk around during the Christmas season? Many European cultures welcome good ole’ St. Nick, but they also fear the spirits who follow him to punish the people on the naughty list. From zombie horses to mean yule cats, some of us may have more to worry about than just Krampus.
Pretty much all we worry about now (if you celebrate Christmas) is if we’re going to get yellow snow candies or chocolate lumps of coal in our stockings, but there was a time when people feared the wrath of wickedness during the holiday season. Like we said earlier, many of us have heard of Krampus (especially after a rather disturbing movie with the same name came out in 2015). But let’s chat about him for just a moment for those who aren’t as familiar. Many consider Krampus to be the anti-Santa who comes out to look for people who have been bad. Sort of like he’s checking Santa’s list once for naughty kids, and then Santa comes along and checks it twice. Krampus is not a modern invention, and although many people around the world have heard of him, Krampus, in fact, hails from Germany and is over 1,500 years old.
Ancient Indo-Germanic fears tended to surround the cold and dark winter months, which, of course, were populated with and maybe even caused by demons and evil spirits. Originally, Krampus was part of these pagan traditions. One of which involved scaring away mountain spirits during the winter that people believed would come down and cause problems. They called them winter’s ghosts, and during the Winter Solstice, men would dress up and make a lot of noise to try to scare them away. When Christianity spread through Eastern Europe, Krampus, along with other pagan traditions, became used to assimilate the non-believers.
It all begins on December 5, or Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), when Krampus comes to the towns to get people ready for St. Nicholas. How does he do this? Well, if this half-goat, half-demon beast doesn’t frighten naughty people into submission with one look of his claws, fangs, horns and long tongue, he has a bundle of chains and sticks that he will beat you with. Afterward, he takes you on a nice long trip to the underworld. The next day is Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day), when St. Nick comes to give treats to kids who left their shoes outside. Here’s the catch: The good ones get treats, but if he finds that Krampus missed a bad one or two, they get wacked with a rod. Nineteenth century Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic saw men steering away from hitting people with chains and rods and toward dressing up as Krampus’s, drinking too much and chasing people through the streets. They called it Krampuslauf – sort of their version of a 5K zombie run. This didn’t last long, however, as by the 1930s Krampuslauf was banned by the conservative/nationalist parties of Germany and Austria.
Krampus isn’t the only creature that is a tad bit cranky during the holidays. A few nights before Christmas, if you hear knocking at your door and you open it, and you see a rather mad, angry-looking man wearing fur, beware! It could be Belsnickel. You’ll know for sure if he pushes his way in as if he owns the place – and of course if he has a hickory switch in one hand and a bag full of candy and nuts in the other. If this is the case, you better hope you get the bag of nuts. Belsnickel originated in the Rhine and came to America about 125 years ago when people from that area immigrated to Pennsylvania. Basically, Belsnickel is one of St. Nick’s friends, and it’s his job to remind the kids that even though it was almost Christmas, they still had a few days where they needed to be nice and not naughty. How did he remind them? Well, it was tricky. First, he’d get all the kids to come over to him and ask them to either recite a poem for him, say a Bible verse or – and this is where Melanie would fail every time – ask them to solve a math equation. Of course, the kids could all do at least one of those things, so he’d toss the candy and nuts on the floor, and whoever ran to it first without saying thank you to him would get swatted with the switch for bad manners. Of course, if you didn’t do what he asked, like Melanie with the math equation, then you’d get swatted, too. The Belsnickeling belief lasted through the Great Depression, and some children in the Shenandoah Valley area kept believing until the 1960s.
Still in Germany, in the Alpine region to be exact, people tell of a female pagan goddess named Frau Perchta who made her rounds during the Epiphany (January 6). She’s often characterized as having a large beak for a nose, dressed in rags and carrying a long knife under her skirts. Likes: a tidy home, porridge and disemboweling. Dislikes: laziness, messiness and weaving that’s not finished by the Epiphany. The source of her rage was in Christianity. You see, in the 6th century when the areas of today’s Austria became Christian, missionaries took pagan rituals and put them in a Christian context. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the church decided all of the pagan rituals needed to disappear completely, angering Frau Perchta. So she would go around looking for people who were no longer observing her rituals, disembowel them, and replace their intestines with rocks and straw. She would fly along the winter skies with a bunch of demons that resembled Krampus named Straggele, looking for people on her naughty list. Picture the exact opposite of Santa in his sleigh with his eight flying reindeer (well nine if you count Rudolph, which we do.). Yes, the Straggele were enthusiastic helpers who devoured the treats kids left out for them. Perchta was another one who travelled around with rewards for the good, but if she found you lazy, not following the pagan traditions or just generally a bad nut, you would get disemboweled on the spot or her Straggele would rip you apart mid-air.
Speaking of little helpers, Santa has his elves, Perchta has her Straggele, and a woman named Gryla has her trolls. We’re actually not in Germany anymore, believe it or not. Over in Iceland, before the adoption of Christianity by much of the population (about the 9th century), there existed an ogre wife and mother named Gryla who lived in a cave. She’s wasn’t exactly wife of the year, having killed and eaten husband number one and husband number two, but she did seem to dote on her 13 sons, maybe because they take after her so much, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Gryla left her cave home only when she was hungry – unfortunately she was always hungry – in search of naughty children. When she happened upon some, she picked them up and stuffed them into her bag, then went home to cook them up. Now her sons, the Yule Lads as they’re known, were mainly trouble during December 12-24. Other times during the year they just stayed around the cave and helped mom cook when she got home. But they loved going out at Christmastime! These boys were considered to be trolls among the Icelandic people who saw them when they came to town to scare the living daylights out of random passersby and rob people. That’s actually how people in the villages gave them their names: One would be called the Sausage Swiper, another would be the Door Slammer, the Spoon Licker, and so on.
To make things just a little more terrifying, the Yule Lads got a pet cat sometime in the 19th century. They called him Jólakötturinn. When you think of cats and kittens you usually get a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart, unless you are a dog person. But in Iceland, that feeling could just be your heart getting torn out of your chest and eaten by Jólakötturinn the Yule Cat, a larger-than-normal black cat with glowing yellow eyes, razor-like whiskers and sharp claws. Much like Germany’s Perchta, the Yule Cat hated laziness, and over in Iceland, kids had to make items of clothing during Yule. All the kids knew that if they didn’t finish their work by a certain day, they risked being eaten by this crazy cat. How would the cat know? It would inspect the kids, and if it didn’t see at least one new thing on them each winter, that was it for them.
[To read the rest, stay tuned for my book: The Unusual History of Every Thing coming soon!]