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When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to stay indoors, safely shut away from the dark paths and the wild heaths. Those who wander out by themselves during the Yule-nights may hear a sudden rustling through the tops of the treesーa rustling that might be the wind, though the rest of the wood is still.” Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson (Mountain Thunder)

The most wonderful time of the year is finally upon us. Christmas lights already decorate the town, the smell of our favorite Christmas dishes is in the air (at last!), and jolly old St. Nick will leave presents for all the nice children on the night of December 24. How exciting, right? Nevertheless, December is also one of the coldest, darkest months, and way before Christianity became the beacon of the holiday season, the tales that traditionally arose during winter were full of terrifying figures and harsh punishments. 

Perchta

Before the popularization of Santa Claus, Europeans spoke of the Celtic goddess Perchta. During the twelve days of Christmas, this half-demon, half-human figure would sneak into people’s homes and leave a small silver coin to all the children that behaved and worked hard all year. However, if they were naughty, Perchta would cut their bellies open, remove their guts, and stuff their bodies with straw and rocks. She would also disembowel citizens who weren’t upholding local traditions. Nowadays, Perchta is portrayed as a “rewarder of the generous, and the punisher of the bad,” and her legend is still commemorated in Austria in the ancient pagan festival Perchtenlauf. This event is meant to drive out the ‘devils of winter,’ and in it, residents dress as devil-like creatures and parade through town while making a lot of noise to scare the evil spirits away.

Krampus

In Europe, this half-man, half-goat demon was known as St. Nicholas’ evil counterpart. During the Winter Solstice, jolly St. Nick would visit good children to reward them for their behavior. Meanwhile, Krampus would visit the naughty children to beat them with birch branches or kidnap them. Since Krampus was traditionally known as the son of the Norse god of the underworld, some versions of the tale stated that he ate children or took them to Hell. Austrians still hold winter festivals to commemorate Krampus. The Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, is a century-old tradition, in which men dressed up as Krampus and ran around town scaring children and chasing evil spirits away. Nowadays, though, the Krampuslauf is a nocturnal procession, where citizens dress up in scary, demonic costumes and scare spectators.

The Nutcracker

While The Nutcracker is traditionally portrayed in ballet performances, this Christmas classic isn’t as innocent as it seems. Originally written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King tells the tale of Marie, a young girl who receives a nutcracker as a gift and decides to spend the night with it. As the clock strikes midnight, the seven-headed Mouse King leads an army of rats into the house and Marie is shrunken to their size. Luckily, dolls and toy soldiers also come to life, and they’re led by the Nutcracker in their battle against the rats. Eventually, the Nutcracker kills the seven-headed Mouse King; and Marie, who fell in love with the Nutcracker, remains doll-sized and spends the rest of her days living in the doll kingdom. 

The Pricolici

Since wolf packs majorly hunt during mid and late winter, this Romanian folklore was mostly recounted during the colder months. The Pricolici werewolves are the undead souls of evil, violent men that came back from the grave to continue harming others. Although these creatures are reanimated corpses, they possess wolf-like characteristics. Furthermore, once a pricolici dies, it won’t remain dead. Instead, it’ll resurrect as a vampire. 

There are many more tales and creatures who punish and frighten people around the world during the winter months. Although the western rituals we were taught for Christmas are filled with fun and laughter, other traditions around the world remind us that the cold and darkness that engulfs the winter months is real and can be truly frightening.

Andrea is currently majoring in Journalism at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. She’s an introverted empath who enjoys long drives while listening to good music. When it’s time to sit down and write, coffee and Led Zeppelin serve as her inspiration.
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