13 Yule LadsThe sons of Gryla and her troll husband Leppalúði, the Yule Lads come in and run around the town in a backwards "12 days of Christmas". The Yule Lads show up one at a time on the 13 days building up to Christmas Day, each staying two weeks, so that the first Lad who arrived on December 12th is the first to depart on Christmas Day. The remaining brothers then leave one a day in the same order they arrived until festivities end on January 6th.
While in modern versions of the story, they are mostly just mischievous creatures, pulling harmless pranks, such as slamming doors and eating the towns yogurt supply (no joke), the original story of the lads was far more sinister (as you may have guessed given their presence on this list).
As in the modern story, they come down from dwellings in the mountains in the days leading up to Christmas day, however, rather than pulling the regular prank or trick, they--along with the Yuletide Cat--keep an eye on all the children, and kidnap those who did not receive any new clothes during the season so they can be eaten. So be grateful for those new socks!
BelsnickelHailing from Germany, Belsnickel is a creepy looking figure. Covered in patchworked rags to keep his identity secret, he also wears furs and carries a switch with which to threaten children. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Belsnickel stops by the doors of households with children and threatens the kids whom have been behaving poorly this year one last time that if they don't straighten up they'll not only not get presents, but a good beating from Belsnickel himself.
One of the few non-Germanic characters on this list is the Gryla, who comes from Icelandic mythology and is a terrifying lady ogre whose preferred diet was naughty children. Because nothing says "Merry Christmas!" quite like being fed to a horrifying crone. According to Jon Arnason, Gryla is described thusly:
“Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head ... Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.”
In 1746, a decree was issued prohibiting the use of Grýla and the Yule Lads, as they served no function other than to scare small children. This has lead to the crafting of a few songs which claim that she has died, however a few of them suggest that she could always return to the living, should the number of naughty children increase.
As you know, making sure all the children of the world get what's coming to them at the end of the year is quite an enterprise, which is no doubt why Santa has everyone from elves making toys for the good kids, to demons kidnapping the mean-spirited ones helping him out. But what about those kids who were neither particularly good, nor particularly bad? For them, the Germans (as always) give us Knech Ruprecht, also known as Farmhand Rupert. He more or less looks like a shepherd taken out of your neighborhood nativity who sports a long beard, brown cloak and a staff.
Basically his schtick is that he goes around asking kids if they can pray. If they can, they get some awesome gingerbread. If they can't, he gives them some useless junk, and if they refuse, he beats them with a bag of ashes. Like you do. So children better remember the "reason for the season" is the baby Jesus and not just the changes in the seasons, or else they'll either receive some crappy presents or get beaten with some ashes.
KrampusKrampus (whose name comes from the Germanic root for "claw") dates back long before the time of Christ, but in modern day is more or less the ultimate Christmas demon, the companion and antithesis of Santa Claus ("Old Nick" to "Saint Nick", as the good people of Krampus.com put it).
While American kids never feared a lack of shiny new presents no matter their behavioral tendencies, children of the Old World, especially Germany, knew something worse than a lump of coal was coming their way if they misbehaved (a lump of coal in snowy Germany might actually be a good gift, in fact). Rather, if you weren't well behaved you were beaten and tortured before being kidnapped and taken to the Krampus' lair, where I can only assume one was beaten and tortured some more.
In modern days, there appears to be two sides on how to handle the Krampus story.Since the 1950s Austrians have tried to put the creature on the back burner, claiming terrorizing small children with such tales isn't healthy. While in the Germanic city of Schlanders (Silandro, Italy), young men are even encouraged to dress up as the Krampus and terrorize small children, before having some Schnapps with the heads of the house. Because that's not messed up. Not at all. Elsewhere still, the Krampus is given his own holiday prior to the Feast of St. Nicholas known as Krampusnacht, and even appears on his own holiday greeting card, known as Krampuskarten
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