The Christmas season has historically been about more than cute elves, flying reindeer, and Santa magically spreading cheer as he leaves presents to good little children. There are darker, malevolent creatures that stalk the holiday season, including Santa Claus’ other half, known as an Anti-Claus, Christmas Witches, Trolls, and even a Giant Cat!
Found in countries around the world, Anti-Claus traditions exist to teach us the consequences to our bad behaviours. They remind us that there is still darkness out there in the cold winter night despite how comfortable and safe we may feel as we roast chestnuts on an open fire. This list has cannibalism, split stomachs, and naughty children being dragged to hell…Merry Christmas?
If you are looking for more macabre facts from the Christmas Season, check out our article on Christmas Death Traditions. Still have that darker someone on your gift list? We got you covered with our 2019 Death Positive Holiday Gift Guide!
Anti-Claus Traditions and Christmas Witches, Oh My!
December 5th is the day he is known to come out and hunt down his victims.
Krampus is a demonic character from Austrian and Germanic countries who dates back to Norse mythology. He is the son of the goddess Hel, who rules over the realm of the dead. In the 17th century he was adapted into Christian tradition and became the dark partner to Santa Claus- an Anti-Claus. He is depicted as a fur covered monster with horns, a long tongue and dressed in chains and bells. He also carries around a bundle of sticks and a sack to beat and carry away naughty children.
December 5th is the day he is known to come out and hunt down his victims. This day is called Krampusnacht. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house looking for bad children. When he finds them he might leave a bundle of sticks, or, if they are lucky, he might only beat them. For the less lucky children, he will toss them into the sack or a basket on his back, and either throws them into a stream to drown, or drags their naughty souls down to hell!
These days, people dress up in elaborate Krampus costumes with carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains and go on a Krampus run, or Krampuslauf, where they will visit local businesses and have parades down streets beating bystanders with their sticks.
Père Fouettard, the Father Whipper or Old Man Whipper, is the French Anti-Claus. There are a few stories about his origins that involve the murder, and sometimes the eating, of children. The one thing these stories have in common was that Saint Nicholas came to the rescue to save the children, and punished Fouettard by making him his servant.
On December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, Père Fouettard accompanies St Nick on his rounds, but instead of giving gifts, he gives coal and beatings to the naughty children. He is often depicted as a dishevelled-looking sinister man in black robes, with either a black or red beard, and carries a whip to beat any naughty children.
Hans Trapp is a cannibal scarecrow Anti-Claus dating back to the 1500s from the French/German border region of Alsace Lorraine. The legend goes that Trapp was a wealthy man who earned his riches through demonic occult dealings and Satanism. He was eventually excommunicated from the church, and lost all his money. As revenge, he dressed up as a scarecrow and starting killing and eating children. God saw what he was doing and struck him down with lightning, but his ghost came back as a hooded scarecrow who would steal children into the woods, never to be seen again. Hans Trapp later teamed up with St Nicholas as a way to redeem his soul, and instead of eating, beating, or dragging children to hell, he tries to convince them not to be like him.
This legend is also believed to be based on a real person: Hans Von Trotha; a two meter high, late fifteenth-century German knight, with a terrible reputation.
Even More Anti-Clauses
For those of you die hard Anti-Christmas Folklore fans, we have a couple more Anti-Claus characters that are similar to the ones above, but with some slight variation. These Anti-Clauses may be a bit tamer— no kids being dragged to hell — but fret not, there are still beatings and intimidation to add to your holiday good cheer!
Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht
Belsnickel, who originated in 1800s Germany, is a man who is depicted dressed in furs and sometimes even wears a mask with a long tongue…sound familiar? He also appears ragged and disheveled carrying a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children. This is similar to our French Anti-Claus mentioned above, but he was not all beatings and intimidation; he also carried with him cakes, candies, and nuts for good children. Instead of accompanying St Nick, Belsnickel did his rounds during the weeks before Christmas. He can also appear in female form, and many people believe the character to be a mixture of both St Nick and Krampus.
Fun fact! This character was brought over to the United States and is still part of Christmas celebrations in Dutch communities. He is even featured in pop culture with the most notable reference appearing the the US version of The Office.
The legend of Belsnickel is based on the older German myth, from the 1700s, of Knecht Ruprecht, who is very similar to both Krampus and Père Fouettard with his dark robes and bells—and we can’t forget the beatings. He also walks with a limp and carries a cane. Unlike Belsnickel, Ruprecht does his rounds with St Nick during Christmas time, and only gives out punishment. In some versions of the legend he beats naughty children with sticks, and in others he beats them with a bag of ashes.
If she felt someone was naughty, or did not do their share of spinning, she would slit open their bellies, remove their internal organs, and replace them with straw and pebbles.
There are a few variations on this Christmas Witch, and her name changes depending on what time and region you research, but she always appears during the 12 days of Christmas. Perchta is either depicted as an old woman with a beaked nose made of iron, dressed in rags and carrying a cane, or as a beautiful woman dressed in a white gown.
The most common legend is from Bavaria and Austria where she is said to have entered homes during the 12 days of Christmas. Upon entering, Perchta would know who had behaved and worked hard all year—she was particularly concerned to see what the girls had spun. One of her names is Spinnstubenfrau or “Spinning Room Lady.” If she believed someone was naughty, or did not do their share of spinning, she would slit open their bellies, remove their internal organs, and replace them with straw and pebbles. She would also split you open if you ate the wrong food on the night of her feast day—talk about a situation escalating quickly!
In Icelandic lore, Gryla is a Christmas Witch who eats naughty children on Christmas. She lives in a cave in Iceland’s hinterlands and is the matriarch of a family of creatures. Her name translates loosely into “growler,” has a horned tail, and carries a sack to carry children away in. Oral history dates her back to the 1300s, and it was not until around the early 19th century when she became associated with Christmas. At this time, her family grew to include the Yule Lads and the Yule Cat. She is considered a true villain and the personification of winter with its darkness and coldness that takes over the land. She lives in the mountains, and is a threat to anyone who wanders there alone. To this day she is used to terrify children, with some people dressing the part around Christmas celebrations.
The Yule Cat
The Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, is another Icelandic Christmas myth, and is also part of Gryla’s family. But this is not your average house cat. No, this cat is larger than an average house, which turns out to be the purrfect size to eat naughty children.
The myth of the Yule Cat as a man-eating beast was partly popularized by poems by Jóhannes úr Kötlum. As the legend goes, the Yule Cat will come down from the mountains on Christmas night and peer into peoples houses to see if the children have received new clothes for presents—if they have not the Yule cat will eat them!
It is a Christmas tradition in Iceland to give well-behaved children new socks and clothes, but naughty children are not so lucky, leaving them vulnerable to the feline’s appetite. Parents would use this story to get their children to do their chores—lazy children beware for you shall be eaten by a giant cat if you don’t clean your room!
The Yule Lads are the 13 troll sons of Gryla, and are considered trickster Santa characters in Iceland. As legend has it, if a child leaves their shoe on a window sill during the 13 days before Christmas, a Lad will come and leave them candy. If the child is naughty, they will leave rotten potatoes instead, and get up to all sorts of mischievous behaviour around the house. They each have a unique name that reflects the kind of trouble they get into; Candle Beggar steals candles, Door Slammer slams doors, and so on. They used to be depicted as half monsters without torsos, but in the mid 1700s they were rebranded as jolly looking Santas and became kinder versions of their older darker selves.
The Kallikantzaroi are small black goblins that speak with lisps. They exist in Greek, Serbian, Anatolian, Bulgarian, and Albanian folklore. The story goes that they live underground and spend their time trying to saw down the world tree with the intent of destroying the earth. But, when they are about to finish the job, Christmas day dawns and they are able to roam the earth and turn their evil ways towards us mere mortals, and apparently this is enough time for the world tree to heal. Yay!
They can only be on earth for the 12 days of Christmas, but manage to get up to all sorts of mischief during this short time. This includes spoiling food, peeing in your grandmother’s flower bed, desecrating the Christmas wine, and destroying your furniture. Unlike the other creatures on this list, they are not considered evil (just dumb and annoying), and will attack anyone they come across without thought or judgement. They are basically tiny, smelly, horned-tailed Scoorges.
The good news is there are several ways to protect yourself from their mischief. These include hanging the lower jaw of a pig behind your front door or inside the chimney, marking your door with a black cross on Christmas Eve, or leaving your fire burning in the fireplace!
Anti-Claus Traditions – Conclusion
Many Christmas traditions we know and love today have their roots in Pagan celebrations of Yule from all over the world. As the days get shorter, and the nights get colder, it is no wonder we start thinking of fantastical monsters and witches to teach us how to behave!
These Anti-Claus traditions are a good reminder that when you hear those bells jiggle, they might not be jolly St Nick …