So the icy grip of Winter has taken a hold of the land here in the Northern Hemisphere. The days are short, the cold nights long. It is easy, sitting in our heated and lit homes that there ever was a time that humans were at the mercy of such a cruel and impartial time of year. However, there was, and still is, a kind of cheerful resolution to these months, the darkest times of the year. We are all well acquainted with Santa, or Father Christmas, and his elves, reindeer and big rosy cheeks, but all around the world, though we will be focusing on Europe for this episode, there are all different kinds of winter traditions and celebrations. From Kwanza to Yule and Lohri, which is a celebration in India of the sun changing course and marking the end of Winter, to Omisoka, the Japanese New Year, and the Chinese New Year, all of these celebrations are part of Winter for people all over the world. Like stated previously however we are staying well within European folklore for this episode and are going to be talking about the weird and wonderful world of Winter Cryptids from the nice, the dark, to the downright bizarre. This is the Squonk and the Hag’s Christmas special!
We start out with the “good” as in all things. This tradition springs from the sunny lands of Italy. La Befana, which means the witch in Italian, she is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney, and her dress is full of patches. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.
Her story is that the three Magi or the Three Wisemen from the biblical accounts come to her house and ask her for directions to the house where the new Messiah is. She says she doesnt know but has them stay in her house for the night as she has the best and cleanest house in the village. The next day the Wisemen ask her to join them in their journey but she says she cant because she hasnt finished cleaning. After they leave she has a change of heart and packs a bag of fruits and candies for baby Jesus but fails to find him or the Magi and she is still searching for the baby to this day. Another account is that she was a princess waiting for her prince to return from the Crusades, but he doesn’t, and she’s left childless. She retreats into the forest, where her pain transforms her into a witch. Jesus takes pity and offers her the chance to be the mother of all children by disciplining them with the promise of treats and threat of coal, which is always met with tears, according to people around Urbania. Scholars suggest La Befana is actually comes from the Roman goddess Strenia and her offerings were called Bastrina but of course this goddess and her festival associated with her, which was around the same time of year, was suppressed by the Catholic Church in Antiquity and so La Befana is what we have today.
Urbania itself is the self proclaimed home of La Befana and every year a crowd of 30 to 50 thousand people descend upon the small medieval village to see La Befana. There are about 100 Le Befana in the town, some hanging from church steeples “riding” a broom and throwing candies and treats to excited children, some go from storefront to store front and other just mill around with the crowds. It sounds like an amazing time ngl. Each Befana is dressed like the legends say, with soot, a dress, a shawl, and carrying a bag. Now, buckle up because we are going to the dark and weirder side of the Winter Holidays.
Ok, we cant talk about Winter Holiday cryptids without talkin about this guy. Who is Krampus? In Austria and across the German-speaking Alpine region, the demonic character is a crucial part of the holiday season. He’s a devilish figure, with long horns and a goaty beard, much like typical portrayals of Satan. You might see him posed harmlessly on a greeting card or reproduced in chocolates or figurines. But you might also encounter a procession of Krampuses stalking through the town, laden with bells and chains, intimidating onlookers or whipping them with bundles of sticks. December 5 belongs to Krampus. If you survive, you might get presents.
In the real world, people might attend Krampus balls, or young men from the local Krampusgruppe might don carved wooden masks, cowbells, chains, and elaborate costumes to run through town in a Krampuslauf (Krampus run), frightening and sometimes beating bystanders. According to legend, Krampus will spend the night visiting each house. He might leave bundles of sticks for bad children—or he might just hit them with the sticks instead. He might toss them into a sack or basket on his back and then throw it in a stream, or he might straight-up take them to hell. The next day, though, is Nikolastaug, St. Nicholas’ Day—the same St. Nicholas whose Dutch name, Sinterklass, evolved into “Santa Claus.” In other words, it’s time for presents for all the little girls and boys … that is, all the ones who haven’t already been beaten, damned, or drowned.
Originally, Krampus was a purely pagan creation, said to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology. But he got grafted onto Christian tradition as a sidekick of St. Nicholas and since the 17th century, the two have been linked in a sort of Christmasy yin-yang, with Krampus as St. Nick’s dark companion. Costumed figures of the two traditionally visit houses and businesses together on Krampusnacht.
So you could probably pick up some plastic horns at Target or a Spirit Halloween popup shop that is somehow still open, but that’s not really in the right spirit. Traditionally, the masks worn in a Krampus procession are made of wood and are hand-carved by specialist artisans. One such case is Ludwig Schnegg who makes the masks for all 80 members of the Haiming Krampus Gruppe and he’s been making them since 1981. Antique masks often wind up in museums; either folklore museums or ones explicitly devoted to Krampus. The towns of Kitzbühel and Stallhofen in Austria both feature Krampus museums that collect old costumes and masks.
Krampus has even made his way into America with Krampus parties and parades happening through the Christmas season! Apparently Las Vegas has a very large Krampus “walk” or parade. Sounds like the Spoopy season continues into Christmas! Now, moving on to other cryptids. This next one on the list we will continue talking about Germanic counterparts to the Old Jolly Elf.
Belsnickle is a being that is also a Germanic counterpart of St. Nick. While Ol Krampus is a companion of St. Nick it seems Belsnickle is separate from him by all accounts. Belsnickle is a dirty, cranky old man covered with furs, and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pockets full of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children. He is never seen with Santa, but seems to make his visits separate from Father Christmas.
Belsnickle made the journey to America as well with the Pennsylvania Dutch who came from Southern Germany. The first hint of his approach is the tapping on the outside of the windows by the switches carried by the Belsnickle as he slips through the darkness just outside the house. Then, suddenly, the door bursts open and he rushes into the house, instantly menacing the children with his gravelly voice, jerky movements and probing questions.He quizzes the children on their relative naughtiness or niceness. Have they been nice toward their brothers and sisters? Have they done their chores without complaint? Have they been respectful of their elders? Have they cleaned their rooms? What was something they did that was nice?
The children who can’t attest to their niceness are worried with the threat of a swat or two with the bundle of birch switches that the Belsnickel carries in one hand. On the other hand, those who felt confident in recounting their good acts could expect some treats from the bag the Belsnickel clutched in his other hand. Those treats generally included small cakes, candies and nuts.
Now you cant talk about Belsnickle without bringing up the Office. The Belsnickel, actually the character Dwight Schrute dressed as the Belsnickel, made an appearance in the long-running workplace comedy, “The Office.” In episode 9 of season 9 of the Scranton-based sitcom, titled “Dwight Christmas,” which first aired in 2012, Dwight included the Belsnickel in a Pennsylvania Dutch-themed Christmas party he planned but never pulled off for the office.
The Belsnickle by all accounts is just another version of Santa Claus albeit with more whipping, like our friend Krampus. THis next one takes us from the Alpine Forests of Germany and into the misterious (Heh, I combined 2 words to make a pun about the weather) shores of Wales, where we begin our dive into the more bizarre, and honestly some of my favorite, Winter Holiday cryptids.
The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a horse’s skull that is decorated with ribbons and affixed to a pole; to the back of the skull is attached a white sheet, which drapes down to conceal both the pole and the individual carrying this device. On occasion, the horse’s head was represented not by a skull but was instead made from wood or even paper. In some instances, the horse’s jaw was able to open and close as a result of string or lever attached to it, and there are accounts of pieces of glass being affixed into the eye sockets of some examples, representing eyes. An observer of the tradition as it was performed at Llangynwyd during the nineteenth century noted that preparation for the activity was a communal event, with many locals involving themselves in the decorating of the Mari Lwyd.
The Mari Lwyd custom was performed during winter festivities, specifically around the dates of Christmas and New Year. However, the precise date on which the custom was performed varied between villages, and in a number of cases the custom was carried out for several consecutive nights. There is a unique example provided by an account from Gower in which the head was kept buried throughout the year, only being dug up for use during the Christmas season.
The custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night. The Mari Lwyd party consisted of four to seven men, who often had coloured ribbons and rosettes attached to their clothes and sometimes wore a broad sash around the waist. There was usually a smartly dressed “Leader” who carried a staff, stick, or whip, and sometimes other stock characters, such as the “Merryman” who played music, and Punch and Judy (both played by men) with blackened faces; often brightly dressed, Punch carried a long metal fire iron and Judy had a besom.
The Mari Lwyd party would approach a house and sing a song in which they requested admittance. The inhabitants of the house would then offer excuses for why the team could not enter. The party would sing a second verse, and the debate between the two sides, known as the pwnco (a form of musical battle similar to flyting), would continue until the house’s inhabitants ran out of ideas, at which time they were obliged to allow the party entry and to provide them with ale and food. An account from Nantgarw described such a performance, in which the Punch and Judy characters would cause a noise, with Punch tapping the ground to the rhythm of the music and rapping on the door with a poker, while Judy brushed the ground, house walls, and windows with a broom. The householders had to make Punch promise that he would not touch their fireplace before he entered the building, otherwise it was the local custom that before he left he would rake out the fire with his poker. In the case from Llangynwyd, however, there was no interplay between the householders and troupe, but rather the latter were typically granted entry automatically after singing the first verse of their song.
Once inside, the entertainment continued with the Mari Lwyd running around neighing and snapping its jaws, creating havoc, frightening children (and perhaps even adults) while the Leader pretended to try to restrain it. The Merryman played music and entertained the householders. This one is honestly my favorite. I love the Mari Lwyd! So, from the Land of the Dragon to the Land of Trolls, Elves, and Vikings. Our final 2 on the list, but certainly not the least, take us to Iceland.
This one is a doozy. So imagine you’re a young Icelandic child from the 1800’s. While kids from other areas were looking forward to Father Christmas coming to town, Icelandic kids expected visits from the band of bearded wild men known as the Yule Lads. Every year, beginning on December 12, the 13 mountain men descend from their mountain homes. They come down singly, one each night, until Christmas Eve, which means 13 full days of fear-driven good behavior. The lads are said to be the sons of the child-eating trolls Grýla and Leppalúði. Like large, slightly unsettling versions of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, each lad has his own quirks, and his own silly name.
The Yule lads are:
Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds
Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk
Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans
Spoon Licker: He licks spoons
Pot Scraper, aka Pot Licker: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean
Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there…convenient for midnight snacking?)
Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake
Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr)
Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages
Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside
Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods
Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb
Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
These days children leave their shoes on the window, and if they’re good they’re filled with candy and toys, and if they’re bad they get a raw potato. They’re also to leave specific treats for each lad, corresponding to his personality. Sheep-Cote Clod, who gets milk, and Spoon Licker, who prefers spoons covered with batter. However, like alluded to previously these guys were bad news before they became more benign.The yule lads were rather mean guys who stole the Christmas food. They would be hanging by your window or sniffing around when you’re cooking smoked lamb and instead of kindly requesting a glass of milk, Sheep-Cote Clod would steal it from sheep, possibly leaving the family without nourishment. Candle Beggar would eat tallow candles, leaving the family without light or warmth in the endless Icelandic winters. So do not misbehave, children, or you will starve and freeze. Much worse than a potato. So much worse. However, these guys had a little companion that would come with them prowling the countryside during the winter. I think Mo will love this one!
Cats and Christmas seem like a couple perpetually entangled in a love-hate relationship. On one hand, there is almost nothing more adorable than have a cat lie cozily either on your lap, or next to the hearth, with a brightly lit Christmas tree standing by. On the other hand, cats simply cannot stay cool and aloof when a tree suddenly appears in the house; they destroy everything and can turn the holiday season into a very loud crash and even louder expletives, but gosh darn it they’re still so cute!
In terms of destructive powers, one cat perhaps tops all his feline kin. This is none other than Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, of Iceland. According to legends, the Yule Cat is a monstrously huge black cat that only appears at Christmas Eve, when little children are sound asleep, dreaming of the glitter of the Christmas Tree and what marvelous gifts lie under it. Unfortunately, if there are no colorful new clothes among these gifts the innocent little chillins, instead of feasting on the Christmas banquet the next day, will become feasted on by the Yule Cat. Though, in some versions of the story, the Yule cat doesn’t eat the people, only their food and presents, which still sounds like a cat if I’ve ever heard it.
Like I alluded to earlier, the Yule Cat is associated with a special group of supernatural beings. The central figure is Grýla, which I did not cover, who may be understood as a dark, twisted version of Santa Claus. In post-medieval Icelandic folklore, Grýla is a terrifying troll-woman who mothered the thirteen Yule Lads. She comes from her mountainous abode each Christmas Eve, and with the Yule Cat stealing down the mountainside beside her, devours naughty children. The origin of Grýla is almost as obscure as the Yule Cat’s, but it is apparently rooted in the Middle Ages and even beyond. Now as stated previously the Yule Lads have been made nicer throughout the years, but this doesn’t exactly seem true about the Yule Cat. As far as I’m aware this big kitty is still prowling around looking for people, or Christmas Turkey, to eat.
So thats it! We hope you liked this little exploration into the different cryptids surrounding the Holiday Season! As always you can contact us, and we wish you all a very merry and safe Holiday Season!
Researched by Ranger from The Squonk & The Hag