5 Ghoulish Christmas Tales with Roots in Pagan Traditions
Our modern incarnation of Christmas involves joy, love, peace and a jolly Santa Claus – but that wasn’t always the case. Christmas has roots that go far back beyond Christianity, into early Pagan traditions. A few of these pleasant traditions were carried through to today, like the Yule log and Christmas tree, but others have (thankfully) been left for the edges and shadowy corners of the month of December. Below are 5 chilling tales and traditions from original Christmas-time celebrations.
This dark companion of Saint Nicholas hails from Central Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. He is a fearsome beast with the bottom half of a goat, the torso of a man, a horned head, sharp teeth and a tounge long enough to catch misbehaving children. He first appears in Germanic pre-Christain traditions, eventually becoming folded into Christmas as an incarnation of the devil. His role is the bad cop to St. Nick’s good cop – Krampus travels with St. Nick and punishes the bad children, while St. Nick gets to bestow gifts upon the good. The punishments for the “bad” children were terrifying in the early days – eaten right on the spot or thrown into a bag and taken to hell. The softer tales speak of a “rute”, or bundle of birch sticks that Krampus uses to beat the children. Today, it has been reduced to a simple threatening with the “rute”, or a lump of coal.
Saint Nicholas has had many evil companions over time and throughout the world, but Krampus is the only one with his own night. Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, is December 5th. Since it’s origins it has involved people dressing up as Krampus and running after the spectators, sometimes beating them with sticks. Today these celebrations/costume parades are on the rise, but the beatings, luckily, are not usually a part of it.
St. Lucia was one of the first Christian martyrs, killed in 304 CE for her faith. She became known as the bearer of light. In Scandanavia, a country dark for most of the day in the winter, she received her own festival day – December 13th. Her celebration marks the beginning of the Christmas season and is meant to bring light and joy into a cold and dark time of the year. It all sounds so warm and fuzzy, right? But wait. The same night of St. Lucia’s celebration is also known as Lussi’s Night.
Lussi is a powerful, fiendish Germanic witch with Norse origins. She was said to be the leader of the Lussiferda, a band of Norse gods and creatures that stirred up trouble and caused chaos in the black days before the Winter Solstice. During this ride of madness, which lasts until the Solstice, any human who sees her or the group will be pulled to the Underworld. Your spirit may also be stolen away while sleeping, never to return. The most powerful night for this is December 13th, Lussi’s night. Naughty children are particularly at risk for being taken away. If they are incredibly bad, Lussi herself will come down the chimney and abduct them. Lazy adults who have not completed their winter chores, like preparing wood for the winter and stocking the pantry, will also be taken by Lussi.
Once up on a time everyone would stay up all night to watch for Lussi and avoid abduction. Today, that has turned into a wild, all-night party.
Another Scandinavian pre-Christian tradition is the Midvinterblot, or Midwinter Sacrifice. Due to the difference in the old Julian calendar used in the BC era and the modern calendar, this sacrifice took place sometime between Christmas and the beginning of February. But to the people of the time, it firmly fell within the holiday of Yule (which then became Christmas).
Like its name, this was a bloody and violent tradition. Animals and humans were sacrificed in hopes that it would alter the course of the sun to allow more light and grant a mild, warmer winter. The most cohesive account of this tradition comes from an ancient city called Uppsala in Sweden. There, it is described, every 8 years 8 males from every species were collected and sacrificed – including humans. Their bodies were hung from trees in a sacred grove. On a slightly positive note, their bodies were now considered sacred, and nourished the trees around them with spirit and energy. Archaeological evidence from the site revealed the bones of humans, cows, oxen, roosters, pigs, rams, dogs and cats.
The sacrifice itself was called The Great Sacrifice, and it was folded into the Disting. This was an every-8-years event that encompassed the Great Sacrifice, a meeting of the Swedish provincial leaders and a giant market for the populace. It would begin on a New Moon to allow the most light for travel to Uppsala from the other provinces. The last Great Sacrifice occurred in 1084 AD.
All women beware, you had better finish spinning your wool and tidied up your house by the 12th Night of Christmas – January 6th – or risk facing Frau Perchta. She is a sorceress/witch/demon figure from Germany and Austria with loose ties to the Norse goddess Freya. She has a penchant for spinning and an absolute obsession with cleanliness. An old crone depicted with a beaked nose made of metal and dressed in rags, she visits your house on January 6th to check if you have finished making your yarn and wool over the course of the year. She also expects zero dust or clutter and a nice bowl of porridge set out for her.
If you have not finished your weaving, she will throw it on the ground and trample it to pieces, possibly setting it on fire. If you have also not tidied up or kept a clean house and forgotten her porridge, she will sneak into your bedroom, slit your stomach with a claw, remove your intestines and fill the hole with rocks and straw. This also happened if you had eaten anything besides her traditional meal of fish and gruel on January 6th.
She also has links to Lussi and Krampus: she is part of the Lussiferda and her personal servants are the Perchten, a group of demons who look identical to Krampus.
THE YULE CAT
An Icelandic figure of old, the Yule Cat stalks the snowy countryside during Yule/Christmas time, searching out children who did not receive new clothes for Christmas and eating them. Also called Jólakötturinn, the giant monster is the pet of Gryla, a fearsomely ugly, giant troll who hunted naughty children during Yule and dragged them back to her cave in a sack for snacking. Some sources believe the Yule Cat to be a Troll Cat, conjured up by Gryla from nasty and repellant ingredients.
Why clothes, you might ask? Because in Iceland, a common tradition is to reward finishing your chores before Christmas with new clothes. Therefore, lazy children who did not finish their chores did not receive clothes – and were ripe fruit for the Yule cat. As an extra insult, the Yule Cat will eat up all your dinner before eating you.
So maybe those socks from mom in the stocking aren’t so bad after all.