Holiday Oddities from Around the World

Since Christmas is just around the corner I thought I’d remind everyone of some of the strange, and sometimes scary, holiday traditions that exist in other parts of the world.

Just a side note: None of this is my original work, I’ve tried to give source credit whenever possible.


Krampus – The Christmas Devil

Vintage holiday card

Krampus (whose name comes from the Germanic root for “claw”) dates back long before the time of Christ, but in the modern-day is more or less the ultimate Christmas demon, the companion and antithesis of Santa Claus.

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. (Ranker)

Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Today, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now, including the new Krampusfest in Los Angeles. Mental Floss

The Tomten

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

The Tomten is a creature from Scandinavian folklore who bears a resemblance to the more commonly known gnome. In some countries he has replaced the Yule Goat as gift bearer on Christmas night. It is believed that each home has a Tomten, who is the corporeal manifestation of the “soul” of the household. He lives among the dead in the burial mounds surrounding the home.

The Tomten acts as a caretaker, protector and helper of the household and it’s resident children and animals. That is, if you don’t anger him.

The Tomten has quite the temper and has been known to take revenge by killing livestock and playing nasty tricks on the home’s inhabitants. His choice of vengeful acts include breaking things around the house, hiding important objects, (car keys missing?), curdling the milk and tying the cows tails together. No cows? Your shoelaces will suffice. There are even some stories of Tomten driving people insane with their tricks or biting them. Their bites, being poisonous typically lead to death, as the only cure is by supernatural means, of course.

You would be well advised to leave a gift of food out on Christmas Eve for this fellow. A Scary Little Christmas


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat.

He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you.

This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores!

A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It’s no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans. Mental Floss

Christmas Bigfoot

In Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia there is a version of bigfoot called the Karakoncolos, who appears during the Christmas holidays.  He lurks in the shadows on street corners awaiting the arrival of passersby. When someone crosses The Karakoncolos’ path, the asks them a riddle. If  the word “black” is not incorporated into the answer, the unfortunate person receives a death blow from the monster.

If you think you can avoid the Karakoncolos by staying clear of street corners, you are sadly mistaken! At night, he waits outside of houses. Imitating the voice of a loved one in distress, or sometimes transforming into the guise of a little girl, he lures people outside and places them in a trance, rendering them immobile. In result, the Karakoncolos’ intended victim freezes to death.

In Serbia, the twelve holy days of Christmas were referred to as “unbaptized days.” During this time ghosts and demons ran rampant, the Karakoncolos among them. If he finds anyone outside  at night he will jump on the poor person’s back and demand to be carried around. This torment only ends with the rooster’s call at dawn when the Karakoncolos must retreat once again, into the shadows. A Scary Little Christmas

Caga Tió – Feeding the Christmas poop log

In English, Caga Tió is “the pooping log”. Really. The Catalan custom is still celebrated in Spain, where you can buy your own el Caga Tió. The log is hollowed out, with legs and a face added. You must “feed” him every day beginning on December 8th. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, put him in the fireplace and beat him with sticks until he poops out small candies, fruits, and nuts. When he is through, the final object dropped is a salt herring, a garlic bulb, or an onion. Oh yeah, there is a traditional song the family can sing to encourage the process. Mental Floss

poop log,
poop turrón,
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
poop log!


The Caganer is another interesting figure in Catalonian Christmas celebrations. His name translates to something like “The Crapper” and he is usually found tucked away in the corner of the manger scene taking care of business. Traditionally, the Caganer is depicted as wearing a traditional Catalonian red cap and white peasant shirt, although figures modeled to look like celebrities, politicians, and even the Pope are also popular.

The Caganer has graced Catalonia Christmas celebrations with his presence for over 200 years, but no one is really sure how he first showed up. For some people, the pooping figure symbolizes fertility and some legends in rural communities hold that a Nativity scene without a Caganer would lead to a bad growing season. Others say that the irreverent figure is meant to humble establishment figures or that it demonstrates that no one can be prepared for when Jesus will appear. And some even say that the poop was a birthday gift, of sorts.


The Yule Goat

In old Norse tradition the julebukk (yule goat) was originally the goat that was slaughtered during Romjul, the time between Christmas and New Years.

Originally a pagan symbol, it was a spiritual being that dwelled in the house during Christmas, overseeing the preparations and celebrations. It later became personified and during the darkest nights of the year, men from the community would dress in goat masks and fur capes to represent the ghosts of winter night. They travelled from door-to-door receiving gifts from the towns folk as a form of thanks for protection and for keeping the winter ghosts at bay.  They also gave warnings, especially to children, to be nice.

When Christianity appeared, the pagan rituals of julebukk were replaced by the children’s activity, also called, julebukk, which is very similar to Halloween.  Children walked from house-to-house singing carols at the doorsteps of friends and neighbours.  They wore costumes, particularly masks to hide their identity, and often gave gifts as well as receiving them.  Afterwards the tradition progressed into serving the poor children in the community.  They would dress in costumes and visit the wealthy, singing carols and receiving food or money, so they could also have a happy Christmas.

Today in Norway, the figure of the julebukk is used as a Christmas ornament.  It is often made out of straw with braided horns and a red ribbon around its neck.  Julebukk straw figures are usually placed under the Christmas tree.  A popular prank is to smuggle the julebukk into the house of a friend or neighbour and place it somewhere as a surprise.  Once found, the neighbour must do the same to the next family; and so the julebukk travels from house-to-house.  My Little Norway



Picture: Philipp Guelland/Getty Images

The Perchten is the ultimate schizoid. A dual-gendered spirit who comes out during the 12 days of Christmas (that is, December 25-January 5).

On one hand we have the female Schonperchten (“Beautiful Perchten”) and on the other we have the male, and uninspiringly – albeit aptly, named Schiachperchten (“Ugly Perchten”). The former is a giver of luck and gifts, while the other is an ugly beast who looks much like the Krampus, and similarly related to the Devil.  As can be expected, Schoneperchten gives treats to the good people of the world, while the Schiachperchten punishes the bad.

What is most terrifying about this character of Christmas mythology is that if it passes you, you can never be too sure which side you’ll be met with. On one hand you gave to the poor, on the other hand, you could have given more. Ranker

Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp by John Kenn Mortensen

Hans Trapp is another “anti-Santa” who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France.

The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God.

Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior. Mental Floss


Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht by Kevin Cornell

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.

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. Ranker

Frau Perchta

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta’s story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana,  but La Befana isn’t really a monster: she’s an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.  Mental Floss

Père Fouettard – The French Christmas cannibal

French Christmas card featuring Père Fouettard

Pere Fouettard is seen to this day during Christmas in Belgium and France. His name means “Whipping Father”, so you can already guess how he brings holiday cheer.

But that’s not the scary part of this story, that’s the happy part.

As the story goes, Le Pere Fouettard began his life as an innkeeper, kidnapper, and murderer. In that order. One day while keeping his inn, three rich boys on their way to a religious boarding school stopped to stay at his inn. Recognizing their wealth, Le Pere, along with his wife, decided to capture and murder the children (by slitting their throats) to take their money. While trying to make dead boy stew, Saint Nick shows up and resurrects the boys. Seeing his power, the innkeeper repents and becomes St. Nick’s partner by becoming the official whipping boy of bad boys and girls. Because that made sense to the French in the 12th century… Ranker


Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it.

The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts. Mental Floss

The Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out … if they are good boys and girls. Mental Floss

They are:

Sheep Cote Clog – A peg legged sheep fancier. His “fancy-ing” is impaired by his peg legs.

The Yule Lads by Brian Pilkington

Gully Gawk – Hides out in ditches or gullies and waits for an opportune moment to run into the cow shed and lick the foam off the milk in the milking buckets.

Stubby – His name denotes his stature as he is unusually short. If your pie pan is missing, you can bet Stubby has stolen it to eat whatever pie crust was left behind.

Spoon Licker – Licker and thief of spoons.

Pot Scraper – Petty thief of leftovers.

Bowl Licker – This one hides under your bed and waits for you to absent-mindedly put down your bowl so he can steal and yes, lick it.

Door Slammer – Oh, did you just fall asleep? Not for long! This guy plans on slamming doors all night.

Skyr Gobbler – There will be no skyr, a type of yogurt, left in your house on the night the Skyr Gobbler visits.

The Yule Lads by Brian Pilkington

Sausage Swiper – He’s going to steal your sausage. I hope its well hidden.

Window Peeper – He’s watching you right now. 

Doorway Sniffer – Uses his incredibly large nose to sniff through doors as a leaf bread, (a traditional Icelandic Christmas bread), locator.

Meat Hook – This fellow always brings a hook along with him so he can steal meat.

Candle Stealer – He follows children around so he can steal their candles, leaving them in the dark…

A Scary Little Christmas


Gryla but Brian Pilkington

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother.

One of Iceland’s most renowned figures, now associated with Christmas, made her first appearance in ancient Pagan times. An especially terrifying figure, Gryla is a giant troll with hooves for feet who sports an impressive thirteen tails. This lady-troll is in a perpetual bad mood due to her insatiable hunger…for children. Each Christmas, Gryla comes down from her mountain dwelling to hunt for bad children. She places them in a sack and drags them back to her cave where she boils them alive for her favorite stew.

She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn’t crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. A Scary Little Christmas

Mari Lwyd – The Zombie Christmas Horse

No Christmas tradition bears more resemblance to Halloween than that of the Welsh celebration of Mari Lwyd. There are costumes, trick or treating and a macabre skeleton mare that has risen from the dead and wanders the streets with her attendants with one goal in mind – to get into your house. To keep them out, you must engage in a battle of wits…in rhyme no less.

An ancient practice, Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare/Holy Mary is typically celebrated on New Year’s Eve. Since ancient times, people have celebrated festivals of light – signifying rebirth and hope in times of darkness. In the festival of Mari Lwyd, we have the rebirth of a dead horse. A horse skull is affixed to a pole with a white cloth to hide the puppeteer. Mari Lwyd is sometimes decorated with festive ribbons and bells or winter greens and accompanied by costumed, wassailing revelers, who are representative of the dead who have risen to remind the living of their existence.

Mari Lwyd and her group, knock on doors asking, in song, to be let in. The song is sung in Welsh and is pretty much the same with a few variations. You can listen to it here:

Once the traditional opening verses are sung, Mari Lwyd and company are answered by those inside with challenges and insults. A battle of wits known as a pwnco ensues, where riddles, challenges and insults must be exchanged in rhyme. If Mari’s party wins the pwnco, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties endures, the Mari party enters with another song and is given drinks and treats. A Scary Little Christmas


While Americans have their cute elves and parts of Europe have the Tomten, parts of Greece must contend with dim-witted goblins called Kallikantzari.

During the year Kallikantzari are forced to live underground. Here, they spend their time sawing away at the pagan World Tree in hopes of bringing it down, forcing the earth to collapse in on itself and basically killing us and everything we know. On Christmas morning the Kallikantzari are allowed to roam the earth, distracting them from their goal of bringing about the apocalypse. For the next twelve days they spend their time scaring humans, and being general annoyances.

Greeks take various forms of precaution against encounters with the Kallikantzari. The most popular is placing a colander out on your doorstep. The goblins get distracted counting the holes in the colander, but as they cannot count above the number two, they don’t make much headway. See, Kallikantzari can only count up to two because uttering the number three, a numeral which represents the holy trinity, would result in their immediate death. In result, Kallikantzari can stand there for days counting ‘One, two…one, two…” over and over again. Did I mention they weren’t very bright?

If a Kallikantzari does succeed in gaining entry into your home you can expect some aggravating and disgusting pranks. Putting out fires, rearranging furniture and defecating  in any open containers of food are sure signs you are dealing with one of these creatures.

Expectant mothers have an added worry this time of year, as it is believed that any child born over the Holy Nights risks turning into a Kallikantzari. So, what did mothers do to protect their infants from this terrible fate? BURNED THEIR BABIES TOES OVER AN OPEN FIRE.

If you didn’t have a baby and the smell of burning baby-flesh to worry about you could also try to keep the Kallikantzari out of your house by hanging a pig’s jawbone over your doorway. I’m sure you can make it more festive by adding some holly or tinsel or something.

No pig parts handy? Don’t fret! You can have a wedding for some logs. Yes, I really did just say that. If you fashion a log from a male named tree, and one from a female named tree (because, of course you name your tress, right?). Next, conduct a wedding ceremony between the two logs, then burn them in your fireplace. At least you don’t have to worry about the honeymoon.

Finally, on Epiphany, the Kallikantzari are forced back underground only to discover their entire year’s worth of work on the World Tree has been for naught. The tree has healed itself in their absence and they must begin their work all over again. A Scary Little Christmas

Zwarte Piet

Black Peter (known to natives of the Netherlands as Zwarte Piet) may appear rather tame in theory: he does, after all, give sweets and presents to good little boys and girls and is a companion of Sinterklaas (that is, Saint Nicoholas). The

Photo: Francois Lenoir, Reuters

insidiousness of Black Pete comes in the fact that he is a racial stereotype created by the natives of the Netherlands and Belgium. Although modern attempts to be politically correct have claimed that the reason for the naming of “black” in Peter’s name comes from his occupation as a chimney sweep, the physical appearance says otherwise. Black-face make up, exaggerated red lips, and thick, Brillo-y hair.

It should also be noted that Pete accompanies Sinterklaas on his journey from Spain, meaning he is likely a moor, as suggested by Jan Schenkaman in Saint Nicholas and His Servant.

Photo: ANP

In attempts to downplay the racist background of the character to foreign tourists, the Dutch have tried having the person playing Zwarte Piet paint himself in a variety of colors instead.

This didn’t set well with those rooted in the tradition, and he has since returned to his black face roots. In recent years, the backlash has returned (mainly from prominent figures from other cultures), which has forced the local governments to downplay and rethink Zwarte Piet’s role in the winter celebrations. Ranker

La Befana – The Christmas witch

Italy’s traditional holiday celebration includes the tale of a witch known as La Befana who arrives on her broomstick during the night of January 5th with toys and sweets for the good children and lumps of coal for the bad ones.

According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the Baby Jesus’ manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. A shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger.

Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus.

Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of ​La Befana. TripSavvy


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