6 Scary Christmas Legends

Krampus festivals, like this one in Austria, ring in the Christmas cheer with some spooky costumes. Calin Stan/Shutterstock

Christmas isn't all jingle bells and jolly old St. Nick. There are darker and creepier figures lurking about, and they don't come from the North Pole.

Many of these scary figures hail from pre-Christian traditions and folklore and have become enveloped in Christmas over time. Where Santa is about rewarding well-behaved children, some of these entities are focused on the naughty list. If threatening your kids about Santa won't get them to behave, perhaps a story about an ogre coming to cook them in a stew will.

Of course, not all these horrific holiday figures are evil. Some are more mischievous and benevolent, despite their more-appropriate-for-Halloween appearances. Still, if your kid cries upon meeting Santa, maybe don't tell them about the Krampus.


belsnickel print
Belsnickel is portrayed in folklore, like this image by Ralph Dunkleberger. Lucas [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

"Bels" roughly translates as "fur" in German and nickel here refers to jolly old St. Nikolas, so Belsnickel is St. Nick in furs or pelts. And this figure from German folklore does indeed dole out the occasional gift like Santa Claus. He even carries a sack filled with candy and nuts for good little children. That, however, is where the similarities end. Instead of a nice coat, Belsnickel's furs are grimy, or sometimes just outright dirty. And while St. Nick will just leave a lump of coal for naughty children, Belsnickel will whip them on their backs with a switch.

La Befana

A person dressed up as Befana poses with a small child at a mall
La Befana may be scary-looking, but she's a benevolent figure. antonio [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Just because someone is scary-looking doesn't mean they always are. La Befana may look like a hag, but this Italian witch is not a creature of Halloween. She is actually associated with the Epiphany, a post-Christmas observance that celebrates the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem. Legend has it that the Befana was asked by the wise men to join them, but she declined as she had too much work to do. Realizing her mistake, she tried to catch up to them, but she was unable to do so. Exhausted on the eve of their arrival in Bethlehem, she threw herself under a tree and a branch from that tree became a magical broomstick that allowed her to fly, looking for the baby Jesus. Today, the Befana appears during and just before Epiphany events, giving treats and small gifts to good children, or leaving the gifts at their houses, much like Santa Claus.


Figures of Grýla and folklore figure Leppalúði on the main street of Akureyri, Iceland.
Figures of Grýla, right, and her husband Leppalúði on the main street of Akureyri, Iceland. David Stanley [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, not all witches that appear at this time of year are good witches. Grýla hails from Icelandic folklore and is more interested in eating children than giving them things to eat. Come Christmas time, Grýla is said to come down from her mountain and seek out naughty children. She gathers them up in a sack and carries them back to her mountain in order to make them into a stew. While the Befana is often a kind-looking witch, Grýla is truly a hideous-looking one, with horns on her head, many tails, and a very large, wart-covered nose. This is one Christmastime visitor you don't want to see.


People dressed up as krampus in Bad Toelz, Germany
The krampuses are coming to town. FooTToo/Shutterstock

Perhaps the best known of scary Christmas figures is the Krampus. This creature hails from central European traditions. Though the exact origins are muddled, scholars agree Krampus dates back to a pre-Christian time. The name derives from the German word "krampen," which means "claw." An appropriate name given that Krampus is often a demonic-looking figure with claws, horns and a very long tongue. Like Grýla, the Krampus hauls off naughty children in a sack to use later as food.

People celebrate Krampus with festivals before Christmas, dressing up as scary figures as a way to balance the now very sweet traditions of Christmas. Though the festivals can occur through the month, they often begin on Krampus Night or Krampusnacht, which is in some European countries is the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6. "The Krampus is the yin to St. Nick's yang," Jeremy Seghers, organizer of the first Krampusnacht festival in Orlando, Florida, told Smithsonian Magazine in 2015. "You have the saint, you have the devil. It taps into a subconscious macabre desire that a lot of people have that is the opposite of the saccharine Christmas a lot of us grew up with."

Yule Cat

An illustration of a black cat wearing a Santa Claus hat
You'd better hope there are tacky Christmas sweaters in those boxes. vrjoyner/Shutterstock

Known as the jólakötturinn in its native Iceland, the yule cat is a very fashion-conscious Christmas monster. This not-so-festive feline towers over houses, peeking in to see if children have gotten new clothes since last Christmas or for the holiday this year. If they did, it was safe and the cat would move on to the next house. If not, the child would be gobbled up (provided Grýla didn't get there first, we suppose). So the next time you're bummed about getting socks for Christmas, just think that they helped to protect you from the yule cat.

Mari Lwyd

A Mari Lwyd in front of ivy
Sure, scary horse-headed spirit, I'll sing you a song. R. fiend [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

As if you weren't scared enough, here comes a Welsh skeletal horse spirit. Mari Lwyd, or Y Fari Lwyd in Welsh, is a custom in which revelers will visit your home while carrying a horse skull that's been decked during the holidays with ribbon, bells, and a sheet to give the whole affair a ghostly appearance. The Mari Lwyd troupe will engage the owner in a battle of verses and insults. If the troupe has the cleverest rhymes, they're allowed in for drinks and food while Mari Lwyd will scare away anything unwanted from the year. (Even if the owner wins the verse battle, they still let in the troupe for this reason.) Like many of the creatures on the list, Mari Lwyd's origins are lost, though there's a long history of white horses in British folklore, with horses themselves representing power and fertility.

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Kirkpatrick, Noel. "6 Scary Christmas Legends." Learn Religions, Jun. 23, 2021, learnreligions.com/scary-christmas-legends-around-world-4863575. Kirkpatrick, Noel. (2021, June 23). 6 Scary Christmas Legends. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/scary-christmas-legends-around-world-4863575 Kirkpatrick, Noel. "6 Scary Christmas Legends." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/scary-christmas-legends-around-world-4863575 (accessed July 25, 2021).