Gryla Alongside Yule Cat

9 Of The Most Terrifying Christmas Traditions From Around The World

Published December 21, 2022
Updated March 12, 2024

From a child-eating scarecrow to Krampus himself, these eerie Christmas folktales from around the world are bound to ensure you have at least one nightmare before Christmas.

Terrifying Christmas Legends

Matej Divizna/Getty ImagesKrampus, a demon-like creature from Central European and Alpine folklore who accompanied St. Nicholas.

The Christmas season is meant to be a time when people can come together to exchange gifts, be merry, and partake in a number of traditions, from the tree to Santa himself. But the modern Christmas celebrations in America are adaptations of more traditional folklore from pre-Christian cultures.

And some of these beliefs are much, much darker than the joyous traditions of today. Nowadays, misbehaving children worry that they’ll wind up with a lump of coal in their stockings above the fireplace — which is perhaps less terrifying than the Austro-German folktale of Frau Perchta, the malevolent old lady who was said to disembowel foolish children.

Explore eight terrifying Christmas legends as told in folklore from around the world.

Scary Christmas Legends
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Episode 99: The Most Disturbing Christmas Legends From Around The World
Discover the pre-Christian folklore that reveals the darker side of Christmas, from the scarecrow of Hans Trapp to the child-eating Yule Lads.

Mari Lwyd, The Gray Mare Of Welsh Folklore

In South Wales, old folk tales speak of a creature known as the Mari Lwyd, a shrouded being with the skeletal face of a horse and glowing eyes. The Mari Lwyd is said to have a propensity for rhyme schemes and ventured door to door during winter celebrations, inviting revelers to outwit it in a contest — and rewarding them with food and drink if they win.

Those who lose, however, must allow the Mari Lwyd to enter their homes and, in turn, supply it with food and drink.

Mari Lwyd Illustration

DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty ImagesThe origins of the tradition are murky, with some believing it is pagan and others offering a more Christian interpretation.

According to Hyperallergic the modern tradition sees a troupe of revelers led by someone dressed as the Mari Lwyd, traveling house to house and challenging their neighbors to games of call-and-response rhyming known as a “pwnco.”

Much like the folkloric contest, rewards for the winners typically involve food and beverages.

The Mari Lwyd celebration occurs sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, though there is no way of knowing which of those days it will appear at your door.

As for how this strange, terrifying tradition came to be, the origins are up for debate.

Atlas Obscura noted that the tradition of the Mari Lwyd seems to originate from pre-Christian pagan cultures, but over the years it has been adapted to support Christian interpretations as well.

In fact, though the Mari Lwyd is specific to Welsh culture, it shares many commonalities with other “white horse” characters in the ancient cultures of Europe, particularly the Celtic goddess Rhiannon.

Mari Lwyd

Alice Teeple/Getty ImagesA traditional Mari Lwyd costume worn during the winter festivities.

In translation, Mari Lwyd is often taken to mean “gray mare,” though it is difficult to ascertain why the symbol may have been important to ancient cultures as other religious scholars have interpreted the name to mean “Holy Mary,” a reference to Christian lore.

Supposedly, they say, Mari Lwyd was a pregnant horse, cast out of the stables when Mary gave birth to Jesus, who travels in search of a place to birth her foal.

The legend’s true origins may be unknown, but the modern interpretation of the festivities has existed sporadically since at least the 1800s. It was even commemorated by Welsh poet Vernon Watkins in his 1941 poem, “The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd,” which begins:

Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.
The Dead return.
Those Exiles carry her, they who seem holy and have put on corruption, they who seem corrupt and have put on holiness.
They strain against the door.
They strain towards the fire which fosters and warms the Living.

In any case, the vision of a spectral, skeletal horse prowling the streets on a cold winter night is enough to send shivers up the spine.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Harvey, Austin. "9 Of The Most Terrifying Christmas Traditions From Around The World.", December 21, 2022, Accessed June 21, 2024.