The dark side of the wreath: Putting a terrifying new spin on the old holiday party
by Meaghan Baxter
This mythical creature makes getting a lump of coal seem like hitting the jackpot. Krampus is recognized in European Alpine countries and, according to legend, the creature accompanies jolly old St Nicholas during the Christmas season, punishing bad children.
In contrast to St Nick, Krampus is represented as a beastly figure, and quite frankly, a little demonic—covered head-to-toe with brown or black fur, complete with cloven hooves, a monstrous tongue and long, twisting horns. The roots of the Krampus legend are in German folklore and during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of the fifth—also known as Krampusnacht—young men in Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia would roam the streets with rusty chains and bells, scaring the bajeezus out of children.
Along with chains and bells, Krampus is said to carry a bundle of birch switches, also known as ruten, perfect for swatting bratty children. Ruten has significance in pre-Christian pagan initiation rites, but in some depictions of Krampus, which vary depending on the region, it is shown wielding a whip or with a basket or washtub attached to its back. If a naughty child got off with a swat, they should consider themselves lucky. The basket or washtub was ideal for carting off evil children for drowning, eating or even transporting them to hell. Being good all year doesn't sound so bad now, does it?
Krampus isn't the only figure in Christmas folklore known for devouring children. In Iceland, naughty children were told they would face the wrath of Grýla if they did not behave. The ogress dwells in a mountain cave, but comes out each year at Christmas time to teach misbehaving rug rats a thing or two. Grýla's dish of choice was a stew made of naughty children, and she had an insatiable appetite. However, it wasn't until the 17th century she was linked to Christmas, by which time she had become mother of the Yule Lads—13 figures who range from mischievous pranksters to slightly more evil characters. Ostensibly, children couldn't handle the legends of the ogress and in 1746 a public decree was issued prohibiting the use of Grýla and the Yule Lads to terrify children.
This character has reformed his ways, but back in the day he was not one to mess with. The story derives from Basque communities, and while the tale varies, a common version depicts Olentzaro as a jentillak—a mythological race of giants. However, he is also represented as a strong man and charcoal burner who crafted toys for children. Doesn't sound so bad, right? Think again. Children were often told that if they did not go to sleep and misbehaved, Olentzero would hurl a sickle down the chimney and slit their throats.
Around 1952, Olentzero traditions were revived in a much more child-friendly fashion, with the more gruesome elements of his mythology being conveniently removed. Modern depictions of Olentzero portray him as a much more lovable figure, varying by region depending on whether his pagan or Christian roots are being recognized. Generally, he is now portrayed as an overweight man dressed in traditional Basque farming attire, complete with a beret and pipe.