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All the non-stop joy, mirth, mandatory parties, carols, cards, tinsel and holly can make the holidays unbearably irritating. So if you’re in the mood for a little menace this Yuletide, put away your copy of The Night Before Christmas and join us for some nightmares before Christmas (and we don’t mean the Tim Burton stop-motion musical) — a list of 20 Christmas monsters!
Between cannibalistic witches, goat demons and ritualistic child murderers, you’re sure to get a fright from them. Most of them come from old European myths and fairy tales that pre-date the Christian holiday, but some appear in more modern Christmas stories from pop-culture.
A fair warning for the faint of heart: These tales and images might scare the hell out of you; so if you’re sensitive to violence or squeamish at all, you might want to stick to some of our other Christmas articles.
This thrice-married Icelandic giantess lives in a mountain cave near the Dimmuborgir lava fields with her third husband and has extra-sensory powers that allow her to detect misbehaving children in nearby towns. She kidnaps the brats and then cooks them into delicious stew. (It’s her favorite food, always in high supply.) She’s also the owner of Jolakotturinn, the hellacious Yule Cat and mother to the mischievous Yule Lads (described below).
2. Jolakotturinn, the Yule Cat
Gryla’s monstrous feline stalks the countryside eating up anyone not wearing new clothes on Christmas Eve. That sounds rather classist, but legend has it that wool farmers used to invoke Jolakotturinn as a way to scare workers into quickly processing the autumn wool before the holidays; quick workers would get new clothes as gifts, slow ones would just get eaten. In alternate versions, the cat merely eats people’s food, which is totally something a cat would do.
3. The Yule Lads
You can think of the 13 Yule Lads as Santa’s Little Helpers back before Santa was a thing. Each Yule Lad had a nickname related to his particular brand of mischievousness: Stubby, the short one, steals pans to eat the fried bits stuck to them; Sausage-Swiper hides in the rafters and steals meat when no one’s looking; Sheep-Cote Clod plays in ravines and harasses sheep. When not stealing food or bothering livestock, the Yule Lads leave gifts or rotten potatoes in children’s shoes, depending on how good the kids have been. In other versions, they just kill the kids. Charming.
4. Père Fouettard
In French, Père Fouettard literally means “Father Whipper.” His gruesome origin story involves him drugging and slitting the throats of three wealthy children who stayed at his inn. He later dismembered and stewed them in large barrels until Saint Nicholas came around, discovered his deeds and resurrected the kids, compelling Fouettard to repent and become his “helper.” Now, dressed in dark robes, bound in chains, covered in soot and sporting a scraggly mess of hair and a beard, Fouettard helps out on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) by giving lumps of coal and severe whippings to naughty kids. He puts the extra bad ones in the wicker cage on his back, probably to slaughter them and turn them into stew.
Fouettard briefly appeared in the U.S. during the 1930s as “Father Flog” or “Spanky.” Alongside his wife, “Mother Flog,” he’d punish ill-behaved kiddies with contrapasso-style punishments like cutting out the tongues of lying children. We’d prefer a whipping, thank you very much.
5. Zwarte Piet
If you’ve ever heard of Zwarte Piet (aka “Black Peter”) it has probably been from modern-day blog posts expressing horror at Dutch folks dressing up in blackface as Black Pete. Zwarte Piet was originally conceived of as a chained devil that Saint Nicholas had tamed, tasked with whipping bad kids with birch rods; in the gentler version, he merely leaves bundles of sticks as “gifts”-slash-veiled threats for disobedient kiddos.
Eventually, a 19th century schoolteacher described Black Peter as St. Nick’s “frizzy haired Negro” servant, and that unfortunately stuck (though alternate versions refer to him as either a helpful chimney sweep or a slave freed by St. Nick). Though some Dutch citizens claim that Peter’s black skin comes from soot and not from his African or Moorish heritage, an increasing number have become aware of his offensiveness and have either re-imagined him as multi-racial (sans blackface) or abandoned him altogether. Bonus fun fact: there’s also an Iranian version of Zwarte Piet known as Hajji Firuz (or Sir Victor, in English).
Everyone’s favorite half-goat half-demon—with shaggy fur, phallic horns, a long curved tongue and fangs—hails from a pre-Christian pagan past; some scholars think he might even be an incarnation of the Devil or at least “the Horned God of the Witches.” Either way, he’s a lot like Zwarte Piet and Pere Fouettard in that he’s Santa’s evil sidekick: He wears chains, leaves coal as “gifts” and whips unruly children with birch reeds, carrying off the really bad ones in his wicker basket so he can drown, eat or literally send them to Hell. Field trip!!!
If you’re looking to get on Krampus’ good side, rumor is he likes big-breasted women and schnapps. He’s also become very popular, as many international cities now hold Krampus parades or parties near Krampusnacht (Krampus Night, Dec. 5). He also has his own 2015 Christmas horror comedy named after him where he punishes families who have lost their Christmas spirit.
In the film Krampus, Perchta is a demented angel doll, but her origins go waaaaay back to Germanic roots in the Early Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 900 A.D.). She has several names throughout Europe (like La Befana and Baboushka) and her reputation ranges from sweet to sadistic, but she’s always described as a domestic goddess—either a beautiful one with snow-white skin or a wrinkled hag with a hook nose and raggedy clothes. She also always has a giant foot that either comes from her endless days working the foot pedals of spinning wheels or from her ability to shapeshift into a goose; in fact, she’s actually the legendary inspiration behind Mother Goose, though she’s not all lullabies and fairy tales.
She’s apparently obsessed with cleanliness and good manners; so obsessed that she leaves obedient children and young servants silver coins in their pails. Bad kids, however, get disemboweled; have their innards replaced with garbage, straw and pebbles; and get sewn up to suffer alone in ungodly pain afterwards. Because she loves tidiness, she often carries a broom with her and can also fly. She’s basically a witch, and can be seen at various Christmas celebrations around Europe sharing candies or planning her next ritualistic torture.
She also employs horned demons to help her punish bad kids; these creatures are known as Straggele.
These shaggy horned beasts get their kicks by stealing from naughty children and occasionally tearing them to pieces. It’s said that you can avoid their wrath by leaving out some food so that they’ll feast on leftovers rather than your offspring.
9. Hans Trapp
Hans Trapp is basically an ultra-scary version of Zwarte Piet and Pere Fouettard from Alsace, France. He started off as a vain, cruel and thoroughly debauched rich man who practiced black magic and worshipped Satan just to increase his wealth and power. When the Catholic Church got wind of him, they brought him before the Pope and excommunicated him. Local townspeople hated and feared him so much that they seized all his money and lands while he was away and then banished him into the forest—a bad move, they’d soon realize.
In a shack made of sticks, he grew demented, became obsessed with cannibalism, stuffed his clothes with straw to appear like a scarecrow and then eventually stalked and stabbed a 10-year-old boy with a pointy stick. He carried the boy’s body back to his shack for some good eatin’, but The Good Lord struck Trapp dead with a lightning bolt before a single morsel touched his lips. Despite his death, some parents in northeastern France still use the child murderer’s name to get kids to finish their brussels sprouts.
10. Mari Lwyd
Also known as the Christmas Zombie Horse (or more plainly, “the Grey Horse”), Welsh revelers dress up as this creepy-ass pantomime by hoisting a horse skull upon a stick and covering its bearers with a white sheet. The wraith-like equine walks the dark streets with a costumed owner to bother neighbors for free grub and hooch. Traditionally the horse knocks on a door and sings a song requesting entry, the home owners refuse with a counter-song and they go back and forth until the homeowners eventually relent, though it’s not entirely clear why—perhaps it’s just to end the creepiness and public embarrassment of being panhandled by a dead, singing horse.
While soft-core types will use a paper horse head instead of an actual skull, others adorn their horse heads with ribbons, glass eyes and mouths that open and close, all the better for scaring children and adults as the wassail and cider flow.
11. Lumpy, Dumpy and Clumpy
Lumpy, Dumpy, and Clumpy (kinda like the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the baked goods world) are three psychotic, giggling gingerbread man who lure hungry unsuspecting kids into getting impaled on hooks and then dragged up the chimney. As a team, they’re also might handy with a nail gun — this Christmas, ginger snaps back!
12. Der Klown
Back to the Krampus film… you know how Jack-in-the-Boxes always play that creepy tinkling music before jump-scaring you? Yeah, well imagine if a giant demonic clown “with sharp fangs and a worm-like body” came out instead — you’d probably poop yourself in fear. At least Der Klown has some manners and a capacity for joy — he wipes his mouth after eating children and loves riding on Krampus’ sleigh.
Krampus’ other helpers include a worm-like snow beast; Tik Tok, the fearsome wind-up robot; Teddy Klaue, the razor-clawed teddy bear; and numerous Dark Elves, but this is a listicle, not a Wiki for Krampus. So if you’re really that curious about them, go rent the movie.
13. Knecht Ruprecht
Sometimes he’s depicted as looking like Krampus, while other times, he’s closer to The Man Behind the Winkies in Mulholland Dr. Knecht Ruprecht is Saint Nick’s most familiar attendant in German myth. Depending on the story you’ve heard, he either was originally a farmhand or — and this is our favorite — a feral child Santa discovered and raised from childhood. He’s a real stickler for prayer.
According to legend, he asks if children can pray; if they can, they get apples, nuts and gingerbread. But if they can’t — they get a whomp with his sack of ashes! But if you’re truly bad — look out. In the Austrian version of the myth, the worst children are beaten with birch branches, then stuffed in a sack and thrown into an icy river. (Fun fact — in the German version of The Simpsons, their pet greyhound Santa’s Little Helper is named after Knecht Ruprecht!)
Belsnickel’s another one of German Santa’s creepy friends. (Seriously, dude needs to hang out with a better crowd.) Scholars think the Belsnickel is based on the myth of Knecht Ruprecht, but there are a few differences. The Belsnickel visits alone rather than being Santa’s servant.
In some versions of the myth, Belsnickel brings Krampus with him. Unlike Knecht Ruprecht, though, he doesn’t particularly care whether or not you’ve been good. He has a sack of treats that he’ll spill out for the kids — but then as they scramble for the gifts, he whips them with a switch, naughty and nice alike.
15. La Befana (Baboushka if you’re
La Befana gets around. She comes from Italy, Russia and Eastern Europe. In Russia they call her “Baboushka,” but her MO is the same no matter what she’s called. She’s also known as the Christmas Witch, and like Belsnickel and Knecht Ruprecht, she’ll give both punishments and prizes. If you’re good, you’ll get cookies and gifts — but if you’re bad you’ll get coal. And if you stay up and catch a glimpse of her, she’ll whack you with her broom!
16. The Grinch
The ’50s count as old-timey, right? Sure, the Grinch was created by Dr. Seuss in 1957, but seriously. He’s the anti-Santa, who steals all the Christmas presents and trimmings in one night. Breaking and entering? Lying to children? Pretty monstrous. Of course, at the end of the book, his heart grows three sizes… so maybe he can use his amazing skills to help the Whos clean up after Christmas. After Dec. 26, we’re sick to death of Christmas and would appreciate someone making the tree, tinsel and all that jazz disappear.
17. The Tomten
Don’t let looks deceive you! He might look like a cute little gnome, but you will not want to mess with him. Not only does he possess immense strength, but he does not fuck around. He’s easily offended — and if you cross him, if you’re lucky you’ll get a hard strike to the ear. Otherwise he might kill your livestock, beat you half to death, drive you insane or kill you with his poisonous bite. But if you treat him well, he’ll protect your household. This is one guy you want on your side.
18. The Grither
If you’ve never seen “Seasons of Belief,” the Christmas-themed episode of the mid-‘80s TV horror series Tales from the Darkside, get prepared for a fright. In the episode, two bored kids want to hear a Christmas story, but not one about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer or Santa — they want an interesting story.
So the father in the episode decides to tell them a “scary and possibly dangerous” story about “the fiercest and most dangerous creature in the world,” The Grither.
The Grither lives in a mountain cave on the other side of Santa’s workshop, where there’s and old ship. It was born on that ship, a sailor ship in the Arctic Sea on which the sailors all got lost, died or committed suicide.
The creature now remains stuck in that ship, has “hands as big as basketballs and arms as long as boa constrictors.” It’s as tall as a poplar tree, and has white skin with red veins pumping rage and blue veins pumping fear through its body.
The Grither hates being cold and wet, and, most of all, it hates hearing its name. Every time it hears someone anywhere say its name, its ears double in size, eventually growing so large that it can fly around the world.
We won’t spoil how the episode ends, but when an unexpected guest shows up at the storyteller’s house, let’s just say, “It wasn’t Santa Claus.”
When struggling inventor Randall Peltzer wanders into Chinatown to buy his son Billy a Christmas gift, he ends up secretly purchasing a mogwai (a word that means “monster” in Cantonese). The mogwai is a furry teddy-bear-like creature with large eyes and ears. However, there are three rules for raising a mogwai: Don’t expose it to bright light (which will kill it), don’t get it wet and never feed it after midnight.
Naturally, Billy breaks up all the rules. (Kids!) First, he gets his mogwai wet, which causes it to asexually spawn a bunch of nearly identical but more mischievous offspring. Then, Billy feeds them after midnight, which causes them to cocoon into gross-looking alien pods. When the pods hatch, the creatures emerge as child-sized gremlins that smoke, drink, gamble, kill Billy’s black science teacher, attack Billy’s mother and murder a disabled old lady.
The worst gremlin, Stripe, takes a dip in the local YMCA pool, replicating and filling the town with destructive identical monsters. Luckily, Billy blows up most of them after he somehow lures them into a movie theatre to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. He also ends up killing Stripe by exposing him to bright, scalding light which makes Stripe’s flesh melt from his very bones — someone call PETA on this kid.
The Chinatown curios dealer ends up taking the original mogwai from Billy because, let’s face it, he’s a shitty pet owner. But in the film’s self-referential and parodical 1990 sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Billy gets a hold of his mogwai again and its evil offspring nearly take over New York City.
Ugh. Next time, just get your brat a goldfish, okay?
20. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Also known as The Ghost of Christmas Future, this non-speaking wraith is the fourth spirit to haunt joyless miser and money-lender Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ 1843 spooky yet heartwarming novella, A Christmas Carol.
If you recall, Scrooge acts like a real dick year round, the result of some childhood trauma and cold-hearted life choices that put profit above compassion. As a result, his deceased business partner Jacob Marley warns him that he’ll be visited by three ghosts who may help Scrooge avoid an afterlife similar to Marley’s, one spent hauling around heavy chains connected to money boxes.
The first two spirits are somewhat frightening — there’s the bright and angelic Ghost of Christmas Past who shows Scrooge his younger Christmas memories, and there’s the Ghost of Christmas Present, “a jolly giant” dressed in a green robe and holly wreath around his head who can change shape and who keeps two haggard children, a boy named Ignorance and a girl named Want, under his robes.
But the scariest of the ghosts is undoubtedly the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Just read how Dickens’ described him:
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently, approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. […] It thrilled [Scrooge] with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the mask there were eyes staring at him.
Yeesh. The ghost then shows Scrooge the cheap funeral of an unnamed man, a funeral that one man plans on attending in hopes of a free lunch. Three graveyard lurkers nearby split the dead man’s stolen possessions among them while another poor young couple nearby rejoices that the man’s death will finally give them a chance to sort out their finances.
The ghost also shows Scrooge the grave of Tiny Tim, a boy with disabilities who is also the son of his employee Bob Cratchit.
Naturally, when Scrooge asks who the unnamed dead man is, it’s Scrooge himself, at which point, Scrooge begins weeping and asking for a chance not to be a dick before he dies.
In various film and cartoon versions of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shoves Scrooge into a grave, buries him alive or sends flames to consume his body. In Billy Murray’s 1988 dramatic comedy Scrooged, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has a flickering television tube for a face, screaming souls living under its robe and puts Murray in a casket to be cremated alive.
An earlier version of this article first appeared Dec. 23, 2016.
Featured image by inhauscreative via iStock