10 Terrifying Traditional Christmas Legends


You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blizten … but do you recall the most terrifying Christmas characters of all? For some time now, Christmas has been a terrifying holiday masquerading as the “most wonderful time of the year.” As much as we may love Santa Claus and his predecessors for shelling out presents to good boys and girls during the yuletide season, we mostly ignore that it’s a reward system with traumatic consequences for a social contract none of us ever agreed to.

Yet, Santa is the least offensive (aside from being the de facto overlord) of these characters as he only deals with those who end up on his “Nice List”. But what happens to those who end up on his Naughty List–they get a lump of coal? Perhaps; in some traditions–ancient and modern–we bad boys and girls don’t get off so easy. Here we unveil some of the most scary and traumatizing characters who have haunted the most wonderful time of year throughout the Ages.

So what is the most scariest Christmas legend? This list will give you a foundation of how evil, scary and twisted the holidays can be.

  1. Belsnickel

    Hailing from Germany, Belsnickel is a creepy looking figure. Covered in patchworked rags to keep his identity secret, he also wears furs and carries a switch with which to threaten children. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Belsnickel stops by the doors of households with children and threatens the kids whom have been behaving poorly this year one last time that if they don’t straighten up they’ll not only not get presents, but a good beating from Belsnickel himself.

  2. The Elf on the Shelf

    Based on the book, The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bel, illustrated by Coë Steinwart. Now, aside from the fact you can’t call something new “a tradition”, The Elf on the Shelf is the latest trick for Parents to keep children well-behaved during the winter months (if not throughout the year). A mix of the yule lads and Belsnickel (only without the corporal punishment), the story goes that Santa sends out his little helpers–who apparently haven’t worked enough through the year making toys for all the good kinder of the world–to all the households of the world to keep an eye on the kids in the final days building up to Christmas. Each day, the elf appears in a different part of the house to monitor and report back to the jolly old fat man, in case Timmy and Tiffany aren’t really staying on their best behavior.

    Not to mention it’s creepy as all hell. LOOK AT IT.

    Part of the tradition of Elf on the Shelf, is that he pulls pranks and does cute and creative things. However, despite the fun and mischief he provides, children are forbidden from touching him. For if they do, he will lose all his magical powers and not be able to report back to Santa. On one hand, that seems like a great idea if you are naughty because then Santa can never truly know. On the other hand, it is rather damning circumstantial evidence.

    Here’s a blog dedicated to “creative” Elf in the Shelf ideas, but mostly it’s just a blog of creepy.

  3. Krampus

    Krampus (whose name comes from the Germanic root for “claw”) dates back long before the time of Christ, but in modern day is more or less the ultimate Christmas demon, the companion and antithesis of Santa Claus (“Old Nick” to “Saint Nick”, as the good people of Krampus.com put it).

    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.


    In modern days, there appears to be two sides on how to handle the Krampus story.Since the 1950s Austrians have tried to put the creature on the back burner, claiming terrorizing small children with such tales isn’t healthy. While in the Germanic city of Schlanders (Silandro, Italy), young men are even encouraged to dress up as the Krampus and terrorize small children, before having some Schnapps with the heads of the house. Because that’s not messed up. Not at all. Elsewhere still, the Krampus is given his own holiday prior to the Feast of St. Nicholas known as Krampusnacht, and even appears on his own holiday greeting card, known as Krampuskarten

  4. 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 insidiousness of Black Pete comes in the fact that he is a racial stereotype by the lily white 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 (you know, like that Othello guy from Shakespeare), as suggested by Jan Schenkaman inSaint Nicholas and His Servant.
    In attempts to downplay the racist background of the character to foreign tourists, the Dutch have tried having the person playing Zwarte Pieten instead paint himself in a variety of colors. 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 returned from figures from other cultures, which has forced the local governments to downplay and rethink Zwarte Piet’s role in the winter celebrations.
  5. 13 Yule Lads

    The sons of Gryla and her troll husband Leppalúði, the Yule Lads come in and run around the town in a backwards “12 days of Christmas”. The Yule Lads show up one at a time on the 13 days building up to Christmas Day, each staying two weeks, so that the first Lad who arrived on December 12th is the first to depart on Christmas Day. The remaining brothers then leave one a day in the same order they arrived until festivities end on January 6th.

    While in modern versions of the story, they are mostly just mischievous creatures, pulling harmless pranks, such as slamming doors and eating the towns yogurt supply (no joke), the original story of the lads was far more sinister (as you may have guessed given their presence on this list).
    As in the modern story, they come down from dwellings in the mountains in the days leading up to Christmas day, however, rather than pulling the regular prank or trick, they–along with the Yuletide Cat–keep an eye on all the children, and kidnap those who did not receive any new clothes during the season so they can be eaten. So be grateful for those new socks!
  6. Knecht Ruprecht

    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. Like you do. 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.
  7. Perchten


    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, whom is the most ugly of the Schiachperchten. As can be expected, Schoneperchten gives treats to the good people of the world, while the Schiachperchten punishes the bad. 

    What I believe 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.

  8. Werewolves

    Yes, werewolves. Although we typically try to limit the lycanthropes to Halloween, B-movies, and erotic fiction, Werewolves have been a part of the Yuletide horror fest since the Middle Ages.

    As you can see, they come in B-grade erotic holiday fiction as well!

    According to The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, Olaus Magnus, a Swedish folklorist, wrote that werewolves gathered on Christmas night to “rage with wondrous ferocity against human beings, [attacking their homes and devouring the inhabitants]” in Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania. But the Christmas-werewolf connection doesn’t stop there.

    In modernity, it has since been reduced, reused, and recycled to the claim that simply having the audacity to be born on Christmas Day is cause enough to make a person a werewolf, as well. The 1961 film The Curse of the Werewolf explains that being born on December 25th is mocking Jesus Christ and so you must be punished. Yeah, that Jesus; bringing the Christmas cheer by punishing not just a fetus for having the nerve to be born, but damning any who fall into his or her wake every year. What a diva.

  9. Gryla

    One of the few non-Germanic characters on this list is the Gryla, who comes from Icelandic mythology and is a terrifying lady ogre whose preferred diet was naughty children. Because nothing says “Merry Christmas!” quite like being fed to a horrifying crone. According to Jon Arnason, Gryla is described thusly:
    “Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head … Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.”
    In 1746, a decree was issued prohibiting the use of Grýla and the Yule Lads, as they served no function other than to scare small children. This has lead to the crafting of a few songs which claim that she has died, however a few of them suggest that she could always return to the living, should the number of naughty children increase.

  10. Le 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.

    The safeword is “Jingle Bells”

    But that’s not the scary part of this story, that’s the happy part (as some BDSM aficionados may have already knew, in their heart of hearts).

    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 stay at his inn. Recognizing their wealth, Le Pere, along with his wife, decides to capture and murder the children (by slitting their throats) to take their money. Because that somehow seemed like a better idea than ransoming them to their wealthier parents. 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.



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