8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

10 Saccharine Facts About Sweetest Day

Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images
Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images

Unless you live in certain parts of the United States, there's a good chance you've never heard of Sweetest Day. For others, however, it's a century-old celebration. Here's what you need to know about the semi-obscure holiday.

1. THERE'S A REASON IT'S THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER.

This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the holiday was founded in 1916, trick-or-treating hadn't become popular yet, so though Halloween existed, there was no autumn boost to the candy industry like there is now. That's why the National Confectioners Association invented a mid-season marketing gimmick to help increase sales before Christmas. Naturally, they tried to spin it otherwise, writing that the spirit of the day should be "interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation, and good fellowship."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS "CANDY DAY."

A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the National Confectioners Association wanted the celebration to appear as if it was about more than just candy sales, the name they gave the holiday belied their efforts. It didn't become the slightly more subtle "Sweetest Day" until the 1920s.

3. HERBERT HOOVER WAS NOT PLEASED ABOUT IT.

In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Of course the year the holiday was founded, 1916, was smack in the middle of World War I. By the time the second annual day rolled around, Herbert Hoover, who was then the director of the U.S. Food Administration, reminded the National Confectioners Association that their consumerism creation wasn't exactly in the best interests of America's wartime efforts to conserve sugar.

In 1917, an industry bulletin called The International Confectioner noted, "As Mr. Hoover had requested everyone, everywhere, to cut down as much as possible on their usings of sugar, he considered that Candy Day was an effort on the part of our industry in the very opposite direction."

4. CELEBRITIES AND CAUSE MARKETING FINALLY DID THE TRICK.

Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once it was safe to increase sugar production again, marketing efforts kicked back into high gear. In 1921, Cleveland Candy Day organizers got the bright idea to tie the promotion into charity, giving sweets to orphanages and the elderly. Actresses Theda Bara and Ann Pennington went to Cleveland to help distribute thousands of boxes of candy, which helped further popularize the celebration.

5. THERE'S ANOTHER TALE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE HOLIDAY.

A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Hallmark, Sweetest Day came about because a candy company employee named Herbert Kingston simply wanted to spread joy to others and "bring happiness to the lives of those who often were forgotten." But The Atlantic calls this happy little story a complete fabrication, so take it with a grain of salt.

6. HALLMARK WAS LATE TO THE PARTY.

A man mailing a letter in 1960s New York.
Keystone, Getty Images

Though it's often referred to as a "Hallmark Holiday," Hallmark didn't actually get in on those sweet Sweetest Day profits until the 1960s—nearly 50 years after it was founded.

7. MOST SWEETEST DAY CARDS ARE ROMANTICALLY INCLINED.

This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the fact that Sweetest Day started as a way to hawk candy to the downtrodden, it's now just another Valentine's Day for many people. Hallmark makes more than 70 Sweetest Day cards—and 80 percent of them are romantic.

8. FOR SOME, IT'S MORE POPULAR THAN MOTHER'S DAY.

A little boy gives his mother some flowers
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to Retail Confectioners International, some retailers say their sales for Sweetest Day are better than their sales for Mother's Day. (Sorry, mom.)

9. THESE DAYS, SWEETEST DAY ISN'T JUST ABOUT THE CANDY.

Two women laughing together.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Though those commemorating the holiday can certainly buy candy, that's just one of the ways people can express their appreciation for anyone who might not otherwise have a special day (a favorite aunt, a next-door neighbor, the pet sitter). Various ways to celebrate Sweetest Day include flowers, cards, gifts, or simply just doing good deeds for others.

10. NEVER HEARD OF SWEETEST DAY? YOU'RE NOT ALONE.

An ice cream vendor in New York hands a young girl an ice cream in the 1920s.
Elizabeth R. Hibbs, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sweetest Day never gained as much ground nationally as it did in the Great Lakes region. The main states that celebrate sweetness on the third Saturday of October are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, though it has also spread to areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California. The biggest Sweetest Day cities are Detroit, Buffalo, and of course, Cleveland.

This story first ran in 2016.

Today is National Necktie Day in Croatia—Birthplace of the Necktie

Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images
Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images

If you're wearing a necktie to work today, you can thank (or blame) the Croatians for this stylish invention. The necktie's predecessor, a short knotted garment called the cravat, is a source of pride in this Western Balkan nation—so much so that they celebrate Cravat Day each year on October 18.

It's unclear when exactly the necktie was invented, but Croatian soldiers wore red cravats as part of their uniform during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). According to The Atlantic, Croatian mercenaries carried it to Western Europe that same century, and the French borrowed the idea and dubbed it the cravate. It became even more stylish when Louis XIV of France started wearing a lace cravat in 1646 at the tender age of 7, according to The Dubrovnik Times. The English eventually helped spread the accessory around the world, and it morphed into the elongated form we're most familiar with today.

In 1997, a nonprofit organization called the Academia Cravatica was founded to promote the cravat as a symbol of Croatian ingenuity. "By spreading the truth about the cravat, we improve Croatia's image in the international public," the organization states. "The fact that Croats invented the Cravat makes us proud to be Croats." (According to Time Out, Croatia also invented the first MP3 player, the zeppelin, the parachute, and fingerprint identification.)

The cravat is also tied up with national identity. The words Croat and cravat are etymologically linked, and were once different spellings of the same word. One sample sentence by David Hume in 1752 reads, "The troops are filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, and Cossacs."

The holiday isn't normally a big to-do, but the county's capital city, Zagreb, occasionally gets pretty festive. In 2003, when the holiday first debuted in Croatia, the Academia Cravatica wrapped an oversized red necktie around Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater. It took two years to prepare and five days to install—and at 2650 feet long, it ended up being the largest necktie in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records.

Cravat Day was formally declared a holiday by Croatian Parliament in 2008, and it's been a hallmark of Croatian culture ever since. A few events were planned in Zagreb today, including a march featuring the "city's famous Cravat Regiment." So if you happen to be in the Croatian capital, now you know why more than 50 historic statues are looking dapper in their red cravats.

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