Strange and spooky holiday traditions

by Jeana Coleman
Stripes Europe

 Halloween isn’t the only time of the year when you can really get your scare on. Christmas celebrations in Europe are jam-packed with strange and wicked folklore-based traditions that seem designed to elicit more nightmares than merriment. 

Santa’s Little Helper
In Europe, St. Nick’s sidekick is incredibly scary with one mission — to punish naughty children.

Krampus:  Well-known from Bavaria to Croatia, this horned, hairy and fanged half-goat, half-satyr sports chains, switches and a knapsack to haul away misbehaving kinder. He usually appears in Alpine villages around Krampusnacht (Dec. 5), the eve of St. Nicholas Day. Several towns also hold costume parades and fun runs, called Krampenlauf. One of the largest is in Klagenfurt, Austria; 50,000 onlookers cheer as 1,000 Krampen run through town, and a large party follows. Krampus fans can also visit the Krampus museum in Kitzbühel. Visit for details. Gruß vom Krampus!

Perchta:  Nicknamed the “belly-slitter,” this benevolent figure morphed into a terrifying monster similar to Krampus, popular in Austria, Switzerland and southern regions of Germany. She is said to appear during the 12 Days of Christmas (also called Rauhnächte, from Dec. 24-Jan. 5), sneaking into the bedrooms of naughty kids to slice open their bellies while they sleep and replace organs with sticks and stones. If you haven’t already fainted, then take part in one of the many fun runs in her honor, such as those in Salzburg and Tyrol, Austria. Or, join other Krampen, Perchten and creatures of the night at the large Rauhnächt festival, Jan. 5, in the Bavarian town of Waldkirchen.

Grýla:  Considered one of the oldest figures of Icelandic folklore, this menacing ogress with an insatiable appetite for naughty tots was once used to scare kids to go to sleep (and surely have nightmares!). Today, her legend lives on as one who seeks out bad kids at Christmas for a tasty treat.

Yule Cat: Another Icelandic monster and pet of Grýla is the Jólakottur, or Yule Cat, a ferocious feline who feasts on anyone not wearing new clothes at Christmas. As Iceland is known for its quality wool products, this tale promotes the long tradition that Icelanders complete the processing of the autumn wool before Yule. The tradition also promotes that children who finish their chores by Christmas Eve will receive new clothing for Christmas and stay safe from the Yule Cat. 

La Befana:  In Italy, Father Christmas isn’t the only one who comes bearing gifts. On Jan. 5, the eve of Epiphany, an old witch riding a broom comes down the chimney and leaves candy treats (including candy made to look like coal) for all of the little ones, symbolizing that every child is both naughty and nice. She’s also a neat freak and tidies up before she goes.

Carolers, diners & deco
Spiders, zombies and dead dinner guests are all part of the following holiday festivities.

Mari Lwyd & Mummers:  In Wales, the Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is a figure dressed in robes and a life-sized horse skull, traveling door to door with an entourage of wassailing carolers. The group entertains with traditional Welsh folksongs and challenges residents to a singing dual in hopes of gaining entrance for food, drink and merriment.

Popular across the U.K., Scandinavia and Latvia is mumming, or guising, where singers and dancers dress in wild costumes, such as animals, devils and zombies. They perform in street shows or door to door, helping to drive away evil spirits for the New Year. 

Consoada:  The most important meal of Portuguese Christmas is that of Consoada, held on Christmas Eve. Dinner includes codfish as the main course, and empty chairs and plates for the spirits of dead loved ones.

Spiders and webs:  In the Ukraine, the Christmas tree is decorated with beautiful, handmade spider web ornaments, called pavuchky. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale about spiders that secretly decorated the Christmas tree of a family too poor to afford decorations. As the sun shone into the room on Christmas morning, their tree sparkled as if covered in tinsel and crystal.

While these holiday traditions definitely rival those of Halloween, they’re all considered good quality fun. But if you’ve been naughty this year, beware ... Santa isn’t the only one who sees you when you’re sleeping.

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