It’s that magical time of year again, when countless children wait for Santa Claus to drop down the chimney and leave the annual stash of gifts and goodies under the Christmas tree. Meanwhile, others may revel in the idea of his less friendly counterpart, Krampus. All across the world, there are many strange folkloric creatures that embody the spirit of the season – for good and for ill. With Christmas once again upon us, we decided to take a look at the legends and folklore behind five age-old Christmas beings, and the traditions that accompany them.
Christmas Folklore: Perchta
Perchta springs from the Celtic traditions of the German Alps, a guardian of animals and traditions who emerges during the Twelve Days of Christmas. While she can appear as either a beautiful young woman or an elderly one, Perchta can always be identified by her odd foot. Even when she’s in her human form, her foot remains that of a goose or a swan, and is said to reveal her true nature.
The earliest tales about Perchta reveal how she roamed the human world during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Stopping at homes as she travelled by, Perchta would make sure everyone was behaving and that no-one disrespected the season’s taboos and traditions. Spinning was forbidden, for instance, as were meals outside of the accepted ingredients of fish and gruel. Those who were good (particularly girls, children and servants) would find Perchta had left them a few coins. But a more sinister fate awaited the bad. Those who were lazy, disrespectful, or consumed inappropriate food on her feast day, would be disembowelled and stuffed with rocks and straw.
The Christmas legend of Perchta persists in some parts of Europe today, although she’s become a little more harmless over the years. In Italy, she leaves gifts for good children or coal for bad ones on the night of January 5 (Twelfth Night). Meanwhile, some regions of Austria still hold parades and festivals in her honour.
A nisse (also called the tomtenisse) is a small, gnome-like creature that appears during Scandinavia’s Christmas season. Only a few feet tall, clad in a red, pointed hat, and sporting a long white beard, his dress sense is reminiscent of 17th century rural life. But in some versions of the legend, the nisse are more sinister. They sometimes appear as shapeshifters or magical creatures that can become invisible at will. The modern nisse has been somewhat updated, clad in garments of red and grey wool.
For generations, the nisse has been the protector of the farm and its animals. Crass, rude or cruel behaviour was said to attract the unwanted attention of the small beings, who’d make farmers pay for their transgressions. It’s long been Scandinavian tradition to leave the nisse a bowl of porridge every Christmas Eve. Those who forget will supposedly fall victim to malicious pranks. One legend even tells that anyone foolish enough to eat the porridge themselves could land a vicious beating from the malevolent Christmas spirits.
Some stories claim that the nisse is the soul of the first person to work the land, the one who built the house and cleared the farm. But early Christian beliefs would turn him into a demonic figure. Over time, the legendary nisse gradually became more like Santa Claus, delivering presents and having a disposition more cheerful than threatening.
The Yule Goat
The nisse is commonly seen alongside the figure of the Yule goat, another age-old Scandinavian Christmas tradition. According to the folklore, Thor’s chariot was drawn by a pair of magical goats named Tanngnjostr and Tanngrisnir. They could travel all day, and when they arrived at their destination the goats could be killed, eaten, and then resurrected from their bones.
Since the goat was firmly entrenched in folklore, it’s filled a handful of different roles. Some Christmas traditions tell of the Yule goat being the first sign of the season, appearing when the time came to begin the Christmas festivities and rituals. The goat would make sure everything was done right, and by the 19th century the role of the Yule goat had shifted to that of gift-giver, suggesting a connection to Santa Claus and earlier medieval celebrations of Saint Nicholas.
(Image: Tony Nordin)
The Swedish city of Gävle pays annual homage to the Yule goat with a four-story-high hay-and-wood goat in the town square. Unfortunately, the goat has been the target of vandals since it was first built in 1966 (since 1986, two goats have been built by two local organizations.) Installed on the first day of the Advent, burning the Yule Goat has become such a spectacle that security guards have been posted to keep an eye on things. But even that isn’t enough to keep vandals away. The 2016 Gävle Goat stood for just a few hours before going up in flames.
While children wait for Father Christmas in all their wide-eyed innocence, many adults revel in the legend of his anthropomorphic counterpart, Krampus. Half goat and half demon, Krampus goes from door-to-door punishing those kids who made it onto the year’s naughty list. No-one is entirely certain where the legend of Krampus sprang from, but the figure is likely rooted deep in pre-Christian times.
Some anthropologists believe he’s a more modern incarnation of the Horned God of the Witches, and his image became incorporated into Christian beliefs about Satan. Christianity may have added chains to his appearance (symbolising the binding of the devil) although these could also be a hangover from pagan times. Depictions of Krampus are invariably terrifying, a creature of vaguely human form with the horns, hooves, tail, and ears of a goat. He comes armed with whips or birch branches, and carries a sack for abducting the most poorly-behaved children. Legend holds that those children are drowned or taken to Hell. Sometimes they just become dinner.
Offerings to Krampus are left out around Christmas time. His drink of choice is reputed to be schnapps. In some homes, Krampus leaves behind bundles of twigs painted gold, which are hung up in the house all year as a reminder of the punishments that await disobedient children.
Grýla and the Yule Lads
(Image: Salvor Gissurardottir)
Another Christmas legend speaks of Grýla, a giantess living in Iceland with her sons, the Yule Lads. Every year during the holiday season, she leaves her mountain home and goes in search of her favourite meal: naughty children. Stealing them away, she uses them as the main ingredient in her naughty children stew.
Meanwhile, Grýla’s 13 offspring visit other Icelandic children at Christmas time. Today, the Yule Lads are mostly associated with the benevolent idea of Santa Claus, but that wasn’t always the case. Early versions of the Yule Lads were cruel, and each one was given a name that reflected their ghoulish actions. There was Sheep-Cote Clod (the sheep harasser), Gully Gawk (the milk-stealer), Stubby (the pan-stealer), Spoon-Licker, Pot-Scraper, Bowl-Licker, Door-Slammer, Skyr-Gobbler, Sausage-Swiper, Window-Peeper, Doorway-Sniffer, Meat-Hook, and Candle-Stealer.
The Yule Lads come to town one day during the 13 days before Christmas, and leave, one at a time, over the course of the 13 days starting on December 25. While they were away from their mountain home, Grýla’s Yule Lads were said to cause all kinds of havoc.
But if Grýla and the Yule Lads weren’t terrifying enough during the Christmas season, they also had a ghastly pet called the Yule Cat. According to Icelandic Christmas legend, the terrifying feline would eat anyone who didn’t get new clothes for Christmas. It all sounds rather unfair to us today, though it’s understood that this 19th century addition to Christmas folklore was seen as a reason for people to be grateful for the new clothes they received during the season of goodwill.