Discover the pre-Christian folklore that reveals the darker side of Christmas, from the scarecrow of Hans Trapp to the child-eating Yule Lads.
Each Christmas, millions of children around the world eagerly await the arrival of Santa Claus, the jolly old man in the bright red suit who carries a sack full of presents for all the good boys and girls. However, the iconic representation of Santa Claus is a relatively modern invention that largely originated with the well-known poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” written in 1823, as well as a famous illustration by cartoonist Thomas Nast inspired by that poem from 1863.
But the story of Santa Claus is far from the only Christmas legend told around the world to this day. In fact, there are countless folktales about Christmas that star other figures entirely, particularly in Europe, and many of them have origins that predate not only Santa Claus, but the spread of Christianity itself.
Many of these tales were born of pagan customs that were later adapted to fall in line with Christian values. The ancient roots of these tales still show, however, and they’re often far more sinister and terrifying than any modern Christmas story would dare be.
Take the infamous legend of Krampus, for example. Said to be a sort of “anti-Claus,” he’s a ghoulish, goat-hooved devil with a snake-like tongue who roams through the Tyrolean mountains in the Alps along with his perchten, an army of nasty, foul-tempered elves who delight in punishing children. On December 5, Krampusnacht, he visits the homes of naughty children, miscreants, and drunks to quite literally whip them into shape as punishment for their misdeeds.
But while the story of Krampus has become fairly well-known in recent years, it’s not the only such tale from the dark side of Christmas lore.
There’s also the story of Hans Trapp, the evil Christmas scarecrow said to terrorize parts of France. According to legend, Hans Trapp was once a man who achieved great wealth and power through a Faustian bargain, leading him to be excommunicated by the Pope and forced to live in the Bavarian mountains. Here, his evil desires festered, and eventually, he developed a longing for human flesh. Disguising himself as a scarecrow, he would wait for children to pass — then grab them, carry them away to his mountain home, and eat them.
Then, there’s the story of the Yule Cat, the Icelandic monster who devours naughty children on Christmas night. Even more terrifying is the Yule Cat’s master, Gryla, a witch, and her 13 giant, child-eating sons known as the Yule Lads.
Today, these stories are still told and celebrated in the regions where they originated, even if they’ve been all but overshadowed across the rest of the world by the cheerful, familiar tale of jolly old Saint Nick.
Learn more about the most terrifying Christmas legends from around the world.