Has commercialized holiday cheer got you down? Do you find yourself longing for the ghoulishness of the spooky season amid December decorations? You’ve come to the right place. In the darkest time of the year and in the spirit of traditional ghostly Christmas celebrations, enjoy our “12 Slays of Christmas” series. For twelve days leading up to Christmas day, we will thrill and chill you with analysis of Christmas-related horror films, lore, true crime, and more.
Ah, Christmastime—the most wonderful time of the year. And the most identifiable figure of the season, a jolly old man who brings gifts for good children all over. But what could be more terrifying for a child than knowing they’re on the naughty list? Imagine the fear, the anxiety, and the worry of what consequences could come from a man that can see when you are sleeping and breaks into your house once a year to judge you accordingly. On Christmas Eve, we dare to ask, what if we had the lore surrounding Santa Claus all wrong?
Finnish import, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is one film that paints this contrary version of the Santa Claus myth through the fear of young boy Pietari (Onni Tommila). Pietari, unlike his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää), still believes in Santa Claus and digs up some seriously ancient lore and myths surrounding the darker origins of Santa and his yearly sleigh-ride to the world over. When Pietari and Juuso cut open a chain-link fence to spy on an American research team, led by Brian Greene (Jonathan Hutchings), a man that undeniably perpetuates an Ebeneezer Scrooge vibe, the team is about to excavate an ancient evil turned wholesome by aggressive rebranding over the ages the film attributes to “images on Coca-Cola cans.”
Capitalism may be the best-unseen villain in Rare Exports, mostly in the film’s depiction of what we think Christmas should be and especially in more affluent countries like America. The ending alone gives a fun tongue-in-cheek approach to the way other countries view the holiday as the group puts Santa’s wild helpers through reeducation and ships them to malls all over the globe. There’s also good reason to consider why the American leader of the excavation looks like Scrooge, his name is Greene, why all of his men die on the mountain, and why more men show back up at the mountain with him at the end. People are expendable if you pay them enough, Scrooge was doing it with Bob Cratchit and his family in A Christmas Carol and Greene is an obvious stand-in character with his indelible need to collect the contents of the mountainside at any cost.
Greene certainly gets what he deserves in the end as does Pietri and his family. The whole film evokes those great ’80s PG adventure stories like The Goonies, Explorers, or E.T. where the kids are more informed of the situation than their parents, and Rare Exports likens itself to them fantastically. Pietari riding the helicopter cargo into the harsh northern Finland night, pumping his fist like he’s riding Falkor in The NeverEnding Story is a fantastic nostalgia bomb—even if the audience has to reconcile that the cargo is the potentially freezing bodies of the village’s children.
Pietari’s penchant for ancient lore and mythology, as well as some of those horrifying images within the tomes, is the reason he’s able to stay ahead of Santa’s helpers and save the day and it had me wondering if there were any such notions of Christmas evil. Could there be any malevolent Santas waiting to be unearthed? By now I’m sure you’ve heard all about Krampus to the extent that maybe an eight-foot-tall horned goat-demon that beats children with birch sticks isn’t new to your Christmas horror traditions, so I tried to find some mythology on alternative Christmas horrors that may not be as widely known but will certainly help with your nightmares and good-natured dispositions.
Our first holiday villain is something of a Christmas cannibal. Hans Trapp, also known as the Christmas Scarecrow, is widely known throughout the regions of Alsace and Lorraine in France. According to the story, Trapp was one of the most affluent people living in the region in the 1400s, having multiple properties in the area and his status in society only made him more power-hungry. Trapp is said to have made deals with the devil in order to gain greater wealth and more power. As word of this traveled back to the Pope, he had Trapp excommunicated, confiscating his wealth and landholdings.
Trapp was forced to make a home in the Bavaria mountains in Germany, whether Trapp went mad in those mountains is anyone’s guess, but he did develop an appetite for the taste for human flesh. Trapp developed a plan to get take-out by dressing in rags and straw and waiting in fields as a scarecrow for young victims to come through. The story says that a boy around the age of ten was passing by and Trapp stabbed him with a sharp stick. Trapp then brought the boy back to his cavernous mountainside abode to slice the boy into pieces and roast him, alas before Trapp could taste the flesh of his victim he was struck by a “divine lightning bolt” and died where he stood.
A fable ripe for the Grimm’s if there ever were one, the story of Hans Trapp may have actually been based on a real person. Though cannibalism and child murder don’t seem to enter into the actual tale, Hans von Trotha, a knight with multiple castles who, through a dispute with the abbot of Weisenberg regarding one of those properties, was summoned and then excommunicated by the Pope. Whether propaganda or just a campfire tale that got out of hand, Hans Trapp’s Christmas scarecrow may not be the only Christmas legend based around Trotha—the Black Knight, who sometimes rides with Santa, doling punishment to those children undeserving of presents.
In the far northern reaches of Iceland’s hinterlands, a cave exists housing the mother of all these strange Christmas Creatures. Grýla, the Christmas Witch, is an ogre who attacks nearby villages, kidnaps its children, and makes them into an irresistible stew. Other tales center around the witch eating her first husband because she became bored with him. There does seem to be a connection to folklore of those living in the mountains wanting to go cannibal…maybe it’s the altitude?
The tale of Grýla’s existence starts in written text as early as the 13th century as poems and folklore, with verbal accounts going back much further.
Down comes Grýla from the outer fields
With forty tails
A bag on her back, a sword
knife in her hand,
Coming to carve out the stomachs of the children
Who cry for meat during Lent.
Iceland’s much darker version of the Christmas we’ve come to know today was known as Jól, meaning Yule, and involved the gathering of loved ones, both alive and passed, as well as magical creatures like elves and trolls. Grýla is said to show up to events like this with a sack to toss children in, not unlike a scene in Rare Exports where all of Aimo’s (Tommi Korpela) potato sacks are stolen later to be found containing the village’s children.
Grýla’s myth was actually not tied to Christmas until the 19th century, originally placing her as more of a myth that lives in the mountains, the string-puller of the dark winter months of the year and the representation of the harsh winter landscapes where volcanos, earthquakes, and glaciers are regular issues. Grýla became the mythical matriarch of The Yule Lads—mischievous trolls that stole sausages and ate your leftovers—with her association to Christmas folklore, also finding herself the keeper of Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat.
The Christmas Witch and her Yule Lads family have also undergone a bit of that rebranding Pietari discusses in Rare Exports as well, making her troll family seem more Disney branded in an attempt to promote candy sales for the holiday, trying to wipe out the Grýla character altogether, and creating songs that promote her death. The National Museum of Iceland has worked in recent years to preserve Grýla’s place as a truly haunting character in a place where the children continue to fear her.
Jólakötturinn (The Yule Cat)
A tale originating in Middle Age Iceland, the Yule Cat is, as previously mentioned, Grýla’s pet. This tradition goes back to a time where employers in rural wool processing towns would reward their employees and their families with new clothes in an effort to keep them working hard straight on through Christmas. As these stories often become adapted to encourage good manners and behavior in children, so does that of the Yule Cat. Being that Jólakötturinn is the cat of a giant, it’s said to stand the height of buildings, able to peer into the windows and see that children have received new clothing. Those that do not receive new clothing before the new year are susceptible to being devoured by the cat.
The tale goes that Jólakötturinn could tell which children were lazy because they would not receive new clothing for Christmas, these children serve as a lesson to children to work hard. It should also be noted that some of the softer mythology says the Yule Cat only eats their Christmas dinners and presents instead of the actual children. Efforts recently have been taken to introduce Jólakötturinn into the mainstream with a version of the character being found in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles 2, going by the more modern name of Jola.
You can read the full Yule Cat Poem by Johannes ur Kotlum here, but here’s just a taste of it.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Literally interpreted from bels Nickel or fur-Nikolas, this German version of Santa is maybe most known thanks to The Office’s Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson). The character dresses in ripped, ragged, and dirty clothing along with a cloak made from assorted animal furs decorated with leaves, branches, deer antlers, and other nature-related decorations. Capping off this motif is long tangled hair and beard, up to this point looking like Hagrid from the Harry Potter series before, in some renderings, adding a mask with a long tongue to the outfit.
Belsnickel comes to the houses of children in wintertime without warning, tapping against their windows with his switch. Entering the home, he rounds up the scared, escaping children and forces confessions from them, asking them questions of their kind acts, determining their level of naughty or nice. If the child confesses to naughtiness outright, they might only earn a slight rap on the knuckles as punishment, but lying to Belsnickel would be to invoke his wrath. After such brutal interrogations, Belsnickel would leave gifts for the children and disappear until next year.
The Belsnickel myth is sometimes told alternatively as The Christmas Woman, given the appearance of the character’s long hair and furs. The Christmas woman is said to be a pale figure whose hazel switch has charms attached to it and would throw candy and treats on the ground for children to gather. When the kids begin falling for her trap and pick up the goodies, she beats their backs with brooms. A good reason to never eat candy off the floor.
Belsnickel traditions still exist in Switzerland, Germany, and the Pennsylvania Dutch region.
Does anyone this day and age actually go caroling anymore? I think I’ve done it one time, as a joke, for the entertainment of a friend, but other than that, I tend not to go a-wassailing, opting to send tracks via Spotify and save their eardrums from my tone-deaf vocals. Now used to describe a band of carolers, the definition of wassailing has changed over time. According to Atlas Obscura, wassail came from the Middle English wæs hæil meaning “be in health” the wassail was originally a sugared-and-spiced drink of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, and eggs. That stomach-churning concoction was thrown into a punch bowl and anyone partaking was “wassailing.” As the times changed, those “wassailing” would often be found singing songs in wealthier neighborhoods, carrying around their own punch bowls to be filled.
Mari Lwyd, which holds meanings from Gray Mary, Holy Mary, and Gray Mare, is a tradition started in the 1800s and nearly died out in the 1900s. Fortunately, it is still enacted today festively in South Wales. A caroling group would be accompanied by a horsehead skull propped up on poles and covered in sheeting, typically over a group member, glass pieces are put in the eye sockets of the skull, and the group goes from house-to-house a-wassailing. As the group approached a home, they’d begin to sing a song to the occupants. Those inside would need to respond with their own lyrical verse as to why the group could not enter and a rhyming back and forth known as pwnco would begin. Could you imagine having a rap battle with horsehead bearing carolers through your front door?
Sometimes the home’s inhabitants would win the lyrical competition and the Mari Lwyd would travel to the next house on their list, but other times the Mari Lwyd was allowed inside and the carolers would partake in food and drink. The theatrics of the Mari Lwyd in the house would include scaring and chasing children in the home by snapping the jaw of the horse skull towards them while the carolers attempted to restrain the spirit. It’s a strange but fun custom that really seems steeped in community, when departing the homes, the wassailers will enchant a blessing unto the house for joy and prosperity in the new year.
You can find sample songs and that prayer in Ronald Hutton’s book The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. And if you’re looking for an easy way to adopt this tradition without all the pain of harboring a horse skull in your house, there are kits available for purchase here.
The witches of Christmas got some serious game. Perchta hails from the Alpine region in southern Germany and Austria. Sometimes referred to as “Spinnstubenfrau” or “Spinning Room Lady,” Perchta is typically depicted wearing rags, with a cane, and a beaked nose providing the appearance of an elderly woman. Be warned if trying to help this grandma wannabe cross the street, however, she’s said to be packing a long knife hidden beneath those rags.
Perchta’s biggest beef? A messy house! Granted this witch lived during the days of spinning looms and warned young ladies of the dangers of having a messy room to work in around the holiday season. Children who behaved and worked hard were left a silver coin, but if the child’s room were found messy the child’s belly would be cut open, their insides removed, and Perchta would stuff the chasm with rocks and straw. She is said to have been a stickler for meals on Epiphany Day aka Perchta’s Day (Jan 6) as well, and children may suffer the same fate of disemboweling if they ate anything other than fish or gruel. Don’t forget to leave out a bowl of porridge for her too and heaven forbid you were caught not having spun all your flax or wool prior to the 6th because there are tales that Perchta would trample your half-spun fibers or set fire to them.
Perchta is more the symbol of domestic cleanliness being that many of us no longer keep a spinning room, but Perchta may have more concerns than just your weaving. This Christmas witch is also thought to fly through the sky commanding an army of lost souls, known as Perchten, who looks a hell of a lot like Krampuses… or is it Krampi? These horned-goat-looking demons along with the souls of unbaptized children may soar through your skies during one of the last three Thursdays before Christmas or Berchtl nights. Should you hear the sound of the thunder or wind rolling through the mountainside then that could be the sound of Perchta leading her army on the Wild Hunt. Join the hunt and be rewarded, attempt to fight the hunters, and be punished.
As with most folklore, there’s a lot of differences of opinion on the details, different regions have someone else leading the Wild Hunt, or insist that it has nothing to do with Perchta. Some of the lore also suggests Perchta is a beautiful woman who is as pale white as the snow and a similar tale is told in the Grimm Fairy Tales under the name Frau Holle. One thing’s for sure, my house will be spotless on January 6.
I was actually amazed in all of this research by all of the different folklore and traditions I was able to dig up—these Christmas traditions have some seriously notable monsters. There were some notable runners up with interesting legends like Wendigos, as well as The Kallikantzaroi, that I just couldn’t research in time, maybe a Christmas mythology part two is in the future. Now I, like Pietari in Rare Exports, will likely have to keep a bear trap in my chimney and a vigilant eye out for whatever may make its way into my home overnight. And if you haven’t seen Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, it’s currently playing on Shudder, Hulu, Prime Video, and more.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright!