In America, our Christmas traditions have been adapted from a variety of cultures. Thanks to the great movie that was released this year, most people have learned about my favorite tradition, Krampus. There are some traditions, however, that we have yet to adopt – and for good reason.
In Norway, the brooms in every household are hidden away on Christmas Eve to ensure they can’t be stolen used by witches because, of course, Christmas is a time of evil spirits.
The Gryla, who comes from Icelandic mythology, is a terrifying lady ogre whose preferred diet was naughty children. According to Jon Arnason, Gryla is described as a monster “that has three heads, each with three eyes, 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 because she served no function other than to scare small children.
In Germany a small pickle is hidden in the Christmas tree. The first child to find the pickle gets a small gift (is this why they sell pickle ornaments at Target?).
Ukrainians decorate their trees with artificial spider webs instead of tinsel. This seems creepy, but it is supposed to bring good luck because, according to the local folklore, there was a poor woman who could not afford to decorate her family’s Christmas tree. But the next morning, her children woke up to see the tree covered with webs and when the first light of Christmas morning touched the web threads, they turned into gold and silver and the family was never left for wanting again.
Wales – In some villages, on Christmas Eve one person is chosen for Mari Lwyd. They parade around holding a stick with a mare’s skull on the end of it.
In Iceland, people who don’t get new clothes before Christmas Eve will be stalked and killed by the Yule Cat, a creature said to roam the Icelandic hills.
Italian children don’t want for Santa. Instead, they watch for La Befana, a friendly witch who delivers sweets and toys on January 5.
In Guatemala, each house is cleaned and the dirt piled high, neighborhood by neighborhood, an effigy of the Devil is placed on top, and then each pile is burned.
The Kallikantzaroi – In Greece, these evil goblins, who live underground, supposedly surface during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25-January 5), wreaking havoc. During the rest of the year they stay underground sawing away at the World Tree so that it will collapse and the Earth along with it. When they are just about to make their final cuts, however, Christmas comes around and they forget their original mission as they surface to terrorize humanity. After Christmas, they return to their underground dwellings, only to find that the tree has healed itself. They must begin their sinister work again.
Children in South Africa are told the story of Danny, a little boy who ate the cookies his grandmother left out for Santa. She was so angry at this mischief that she killed him. Danny now haunts homes at Christmas. Who doesn’t love a good Christmas ghost?
Every year since 1966, the Swedish town of Gävle celebrates Christmas by placing a giant yule goat in the middle of the town square. However, arsonists have managed to set the massive straw animal on fire so many times that lighting the temporary monument has almost become a tradition of its own and you can even gamble on whether the goat will go up in flames each year.
In a custom dating back to pagan times, every year around Christmas a group of Bavarians dress up as “straw devils” and run through the city of Bischofswiesen, scaring the inhabitants.
Finally, in America, we do have one horrible Christmas tradition: Elf on the Shelf. That thing is just terrible.