The Yule Lads
The Yuletide-lads, or Jólasveinarnir in Icelandic, are the 13 sons of the mountain trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, who both have a mythical reputation of scaring misbehaving children before Christmas, and sometimes, making them into stew in a large pot.
Mellowed down from their parents’ monstrosities, the 13 pranksters visit the children in Iceland, each on every night leading up to Christmas Day: from harassing herds of sheep, to stealing leftovers in pots, from slamming doors in the middle of the night to wake people up, to stealing meat using a hook.
Children would place their best shoes by the window from December 12 onwards, and the Yule Lads would leave gifts for the nice ones, and rotting potatoes for the naughty ones.
For centuries, dating back to Norse mythology, the Yule Goat has played a huge part in Scandinavian culture; in its folklore, Father Christmas rides a goat delivering presents, instead of reindeers.
Either it be an invisible spirit that watches over the community to make sure Yule preparations are well underway, or the showstopper of a popular Christmas prank in which the goat is sneaked into a neighbour’s house without them noticing – the Yule Goat has become part and parcel of the Christmas tradition for ages in various forms.
The most notable Yule Goat tradition to date is the Gävle Goat in Sweden, a traditional Christmas display in the shape of a Swedish Yule Goat made predominantly out of straw. Erected annually by the local community at the Slottstorget Castle Square in central Gävle in Sweden at the beginning of Advent since 1966, it has become a popular arson target in December; in the last 52 years, the Gävle Goat has been burned down 37 times, so much so that this year, authorities have reinforced the security around the display with additional fencing and security cameras.
This “half-goat, half-demon” creature is the total summation of “the nightmare before Christmas”; while St Nick rewards those in the nice list, Krampus instead captures the naughty ones and whisks them away in his sack.
Believed to be one of Saint Nicholas’ mythical posse, a group of sinister characters that act as foils to the Christmas gift-bringing, the Krampus tradition was banned under the Dollfuss regime in 1923 Austria, but the horned anthropomorphic figure made a comeback towards the end of the century.
In Bavaria, Krampus’ demonic features are hand-carved onto wooden masks, whereas in Austria, especially on Christmas Eve, young men would dress up as Krampus and scare the little ones with the clattering of chains and bells.
There are no lavish gifts sent from a true love for those who believe in the malevolent goblins, for during the 12 days of Christmas, they would emerge from their underground dwellings to terrorise the humans for days on end. The creatures can be warded off by simply burning logs and old shoes, or hanging sausages or sweetmeats in the chimney.
The Kallikantzaros are said to be working hard all year long sawing the world tree (a colossal tree that supports the heavens, and through its roots, the underworld), so that it would collapse, and the terrestrial world with it.
When Christmas dawns, its beauty lures the creatures out of its hiding. When they return underground 12 days later on Epiphany, the world tree has healed itself, and the Kallikantzaros has to start sawing all over again.
Besides the Krampus, Perchta is another mythical creature from the pre-Christian era, particularly in the central and eastern Alps of Europe, where it is rich with such folklore, and that have survived till this day, albeit the origins have become muddled over time.
Known as the “belly slitter”, this Christmas witch visits homes during the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany, in one of the two forms she is in: a beautiful maiden as white as snow like her name (in Old High German, it means “the bright one”), or as a haggard elderly with bright lively eyes and a long hooked nose, dressed in tattered garments. She makes sure families are spending quality time together during this festive season, and that they have all been behaving well throughout the year.
For the ones on the “nice” list, they might find a silver coin hidden in their shoes or pans, but for the “naughty” ones, she will slit their bellies open with the long knife she hides under her clothes, steal their insides, and replace the stolen organs with garbage, straw or rocks.