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If you, like me, lost track of time this year, you might have forgotten that Christmas is right around the corner. This isn’t the first Christmas that will be celebrated in a pandemic, and it likely won’t be the last. While I only ever casually observed the socializing customs of the very broad category of Christmas celebrations, it feels strange and jarring to have to sit this one out indoors. To cope with this, I dove into the literal spirits of Christmas – monsters and witches, evil and cunning characters from Euro-American Winter Solstice folklore and mythologies involving end of the year gift-givers.
Turns out, Christmas origin stories and the associated cast of magical beings are far less cheery than the jolly old white-bearded man with hearty laughter, largely crafted by companies trying to sell Christmas to consumers through material objects and essential experiences. In fact, many of the traditional stories depict variations of child-eaters and abusive magicians who reward well-behaved children with gifts and terrify the unruly ones into submission, essentially serving as disciplinarians.
Beyond the biblical references of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for a Baby Jesus, Christmas also marks the end of the Winter Solstice period, a time when the air is thick with supernatural possibilities and earthly shifts. To give you a glimpse into these interconnected and dynamic universes, here’s a list of 7 characters associated with Christmas time folklore from around the world. You’re forgiven if you mistake this for a list of Halloween horror stories:
1. Père Noël and La Père Fouettard in France
Père Noël, also called Daddy Christmas, has several incarnations from Argentina and Brazil to Turkey. Over time this figure has become associated with the traditional English Father Christmas in the popular imagination, despite their differing origins. Père Noël is a typical Christmas figure bringing gifts for the well-behaved kids and responding to letters addressed to him. In fact, he is responsible for boosting the culture of children writing letters to Santa from around the world – apparently, a 1962 French law stipulates that a French child sending a letter to Père Noël by post must receive an answer! But the character who really stands out in this version is La Père Fouettard, the hot-tempered Father Whipper who beats naughty children and serves as a foil to the benevolent St. Nicholas. Father Whipper has been depicted as a cannibal, a flogger, sometimes dressed in shabby robes with an unkempt beard, and a once-evil butcher of children who is now duty-bound to serve Daddy Christmas deal with errant children. While Father Whipper has diverse counterparts across Europe, he has become linked to racist characters like the Dutch Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, caricatures rooted in colonial history that associate sinister and the proverbial evil monsters of Christmas with racialized images of colonized Black and Brown subjects. A heady concoction of thinly-veiled racial stereotypes and Euro-centric holiday fervor? Totally didn’t see that one coming.
2. Grýla of the mountains of Iceland
A terrifying character in Icelandic Christmas-time folk tales, Grýla is a cave-dwelling troll married to her third husband Leppalúði. With her mischief-making 13 troll children, the Yule Lads, Grýla descends upon the general population during Christmas time. Various descriptions of Grýla can be traced back to medieval Icelandic prose texts or Sagas and Old Norse texts. She is typically visualized as a giant troll who preys on misbehaving children, abducting them and cooking them in a cauldron, or in some versions of the story, carving up their stomachs with a knife. Grýla’s 13 children aren’t as dangerous as her, but they do leave behind rotten potatoes in the shoes of ill-behaved children. Even the family pet, the fierce Yule Cat, is known to devour people who do not receive clothes as presents for Christmas. While the public image of this bloodthirsty family has softened over the years, they were once infamous for making children shiver in fear. In 1746, families were banned from repeating these menacing stories to their children to keep them in check! While not all of us are quarantining for Christmas in Iceland, the best way to avoid any version of this very colorful family is to just stay indoors, wear a mask when going out for emergencies, and be a decent human being.
3. Frau Perchta of Alpine Austria and Southern Germany
Christmas witches fascinate me because of the long history of twisting and turning involved to obscure some of their Pagan roots, fierce goddesses and female spirits, sanitizing them to fit the version of Christmas established by the Protestant Reformation. One of the most terrifying of these is Frau Perchta, the half-demon associated with the 12 Days of Christmas who is infamous for entering homes and slitting open the bellies of the misbehaved, disemboweling, replacing their innards with straw and rocks and stitching them up again. Also known as the “Spinning Room Lady” obsessed with whether you’ve finished spinning flax and tending to your house by Twelfth Night, Frau Perchta is considered to be a descendant of Germanic Pagan goddess figures. She also sometimes flies through the night with a demon army in tow, leading the Wild Hunt and leaving mischief and disaster in her wake. Both impressive and dreadful.
4. La Befana: the Italian Christmas/Epiphany Witch
I’m going to cheat a little here: in most instances, La Befana isn’t really nightmare material and is probably just a chill and misunderstood old lady on a broomstick. But I love a good witchy story, and it particularly interesting to me how witches are almost always placed in a spectrum ranging from old, ugly and unpalatable to old, ugly, and matronly. Ageism? Sexism? The Protestant Reformation in the 1500s that deployed stereotypes to challenge people’s fixation with Pagan goddesses? We’ll never know! La Befana lies more towards the homely end of this spectrum: a character who has been part of Italian folklore at least since the medieval ages, she rides a broomstick, is great at housekeeping, and brings gifts for Italian children on the eve of the 6th of January or the Day of the Feast of Epiphany. She climbs down chimneys, leaves behind colorful candy and gifts in socks (or little dark candy in lieu of coal, if the children have been naughty), and hits those who gaze upon her. In some origin stories, she is closely associated with the Three Magi or Wise Men whom she either hosted or dismissed as they were on their way to Bethlehem. She is said to have later regretted her decision and followed after them, hopelessly searching for Baby Jesus and bringing gifts to all children she encountered. She is also sometimes depicted as a victim of a tragedy which left her childless, causing her to roam the skies in search of children to give gifts to. At other times, she’s also been portrayed as stealing naughty children for her husband to feast upon.
5. Tió de Nadal in Catalan mythology
I’m cheating again with this one but this is by far my favorite type of mythical character. In Catalonia and across different parts of Spain, an anthropomorphic Christmas Log, equipped with eyes, a nose, short legs and a hat, is a rather inexplicable gift-bringer. In the weeks before Christmas Eve, this hollow log is stuffed or “fed” with small presents, turróns or traditional Christmas nougat, and other candy. On Christmas Eve, this log is “beaten up” while families sing songs to implore it to defecate presents, until the contents of the log are “pooped” out (Caga tió or poo log) to reveal the gifts. The origin story here is quite hazy, and to an outsider without context, this might appear incomprehensible. But hey, what better way to bond during Christmas than making incessant poop jokes about a funny-looking piece of wood?
6. The Dutch Sinterklaas and the (problematic) Zwarte Piet
The Dutch Sinterklaas, based on the early Christian bishop Saint Nicholas, is one of the European figures closely related to the modern North American Santa Claus, the jolly gift-giver. But Sinterklaas has been a subject of controversy due to his companion and helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a character who has historically embodied racist stereotypes about colonial subjects and been portrayed by players in blackface, wearing exaggerated wigs and full lips. Recent protests have tried to challenge the place of such traditional portrayals within contemporary socio-political movements for racial justice. Zwarte Piet first came into prominence in the 19th Century. The Dutch benefited from the transatlantic slave trade, and Zwarte Piet is thought to be a victim of this trade, fashioned as a dark-skinned helper, said to be a reference to the Moors of Spain. He is depicted as intimidating or whipping naughty children. To gloss over the racist imagery, some have recently tried to explain Zwarte Piet’s dark skin as a result of climbing down a soot-covered chimney. Reforming tradition to accommodate contemporary cultural concerns? Some traditions are best forgotten.
7. … Capitalism?!
This might seem like a cop-out but hear me out! The biggest nightmare is obviously the kind of capitalism that locates the value of Christmas in overtly ostentatious material displays, encouraging unsustainable consumerist behavior over the values of socio-economic justice which the original Saint Nicholas of the poor and the destitute stood for. Since the late-19th Century, targeted advertisements for Christmas shopping appeared. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” and subsequent illustrations served as the direct inspirations of the modern Santa Claus in the U.S.A. Santa was later popularized through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and Coca-Cola advertisement campaigns. It’s interesting to note how much of the present imaginaries of Christmas figures have become dominated by this jolly Santa shaped by people who wanted to sell things during Christmas season. Truth be told, it feels a little anti-climatic after the horror stories of child-eaters and hell-raisers, but I suppose capitalism was the true enemy from the start.
From disembowelment to potential bankruptcy, there really is no middle ground when it comes to Christmas. The evolution of Christmas figures never truly stop (ever heard of Sexy Santa?), resulting in ever-entertaining stories for the holidays. I’ll be getting back to my Christmas horror stories and trying to imagine flying witches bewildered by a world already upended by the pandemic.
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