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  • Writer's pictureEric Knowlson

The Supernatural Creatures Lurking in Your Christmas Tree

Updated: Dec 23, 2023



A Spooky Christmas?



Did you know that telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve used to be a tradition in Victorian England? That’s right, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the first work to incorporate ghosts into Christmas. During that time, the English thought ghosts and Christmas went hand-in-hand. I personally didn’t know this, but it made a lot of sense once I did. Winter has always felt a bit spooky to me; the air feels charged and crackles as if spirits dance around us, the hair on the back of my neck will bristle and on rare occasions I’ll feel like I’m being watched. All of this can (probably) be explained by natural phenomenon, but that doesn’t stop my imagination from conjuring up a variety of supernatural entities. The landscape of winter and fall, the gloom, increased darkness, skeletal trees, howling wind, snow storms and the eerie calm that follows all help to create the sense that something supernatural is afoot.
According to Norse and other pagan traditions the ‘veil’ between worlds is thinnest during Winter Solstice (the time that Yule and Christmas take place). This was another surprise. I, like many of you I’m sure, have always heard that it’s during late October and early November when the ‘veil’ is thinnest and spirits can come visit the physical world. It seems Christmas is another ghostly time of year that has a rich history of supernatural beliefs.
Since Christmas is somewhat of an amalgam and adaptation of other older holidays (I’ll get to that later), I was surprised that more of these supernatural elements hadn’t survived. Or at least that’s what I thought until I took a closer look. Some of our current Christmas traditions aren’t as warm and fuzzy as we previously thought. Take caroling for example —those teens from the church going door to door singing are actually participating in an older pre-Christian tradition called wassailing. Of course, the songs they sing now are Christian, but the tradition was originally pagan and was used to ward off evil spirits and spread good health. Then there’s the Holly and the Ivy, that’s all Christmas, right? Turns out Holly and Ivy are plant personifications of pagan deities, male and female respectively. And they also ward off evil spirits. It sure seems there’s a lot of evil spirits roaming around.
In this post I’d like to detail some of the supernatural spirits and creatures associated with Christmas, Yuletide, Winter Solstice and just winter in general. In order to properly do that I’d like to lay out a bit of information about the Winter Solstice traditions and the origins of Christmas. If you’re familiar with all this and/or just want to read about the creatures then you many skip this next section.


The Winter Solstice, Darkness and Christmas

Cultures all over the world celebrate some form of holiday during the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year, literally —this is when night lasts the longest. Since fall, the days have been growing shorter and shorter until Winter Solstice when all that darkness culminates into the shortest day of the year. After the Solstice, we’ve made it through half of winter and the days begin growing longer again. This is cause for celebration even if you’re an atheist. Making it through half of winter can be quite a feat, especially in the past when resources weren’t as plentiful and we had to rely on the food we grew and stored. As such, Winter Solstice celebrations are generally used to celebrate the return of the sun and making it through the darkest time of year. We can confidently say there are brighter days ahead.
All this darkness can be symbolic as well. Moods sour during the long winter months. The environment looks bleak. The wind howls outside. With such an eerie aesthetic it’s no wonder fears are heightened. This is part of the reason we hang Christmas lights and bring evergreen trees inside. We want to be reminded of the light and greenery of warmer months.
The feasting that accompanies this time has a symbolic function as well. It was more apparent when we had to rely on our stores of food to get us through the winter; if we miscalculated or spring came late, starvation was a real possibility. With that in mind, it seems risky to hold an extravagant feast in the dead of winter —even if it does brighten our moods. However, the feast often served as a statement of faith and a celebration of our God(s). We feasted in the name of our God and had faith they would be pleased and watch over us during the rest of winter. In this way, the feasts could be seen as sacrificial in nature. Nowadays many of us sacrifice our bank balances to celebrate each other and Jesus.
It's easy to see how Christianity could fit in with the tradition of sacrifice during winter solstice. After all, Christians believe Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice. However, that’s not really why Christmas takes place during the winter months.
Christmas isn’t a completely Christian holiday. Yes, it’s celebrating the birth of Christ, but it’s generally understood that Jesus wasn’t actually born in the winter. The Roman people had a raucous, gift-giving, celebration around the same time called Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn (mistletoe is actually a symbol for Saturn). When Christianity became the official Roman religion Saturnalia changed into Christmas. And it worked, in some senses. Jesus is often called the light of the world and if you’re Christian it would make sense to celebrate the ‘Light’ when it's the darkest. The contrast is what makes it important. Light doesn’t seem as important, or precious, during the summer months.
Like I said earlier, so many of our Christmas traditions are ‘leftovers’ from other pagan holidays. So much so that in early Puritan America Christmas was considered sacrilegious and banned. If you’re a Christian please don’t think this is an attack upon you or Christmas; almost every religion has incorporated other religions and folk-traditions into its canon. I’m writing this because I enjoy Christmas time. But I digress. Let’s get back to the supernatural, aye?


Supernatural Entities

Now that we are leaving behind the darkness and moving towards brighter days let’s review some of the creatures that we may have run into. While most of these creatures are associated with Christmas there are a few that are just associated with winter in general. Winter isn’t over and many of these creatures are still lingering, so be careful and watch out. Maybe leave those Christmas lights on a little longer.


Santa, Odin and The Wild Hunt
I suppose I should start with the obvious ones such as Santa Claus and his elves. How did a big fat man who flies through the sky become the symbol for Christmas? It’s debated and no one is quite sure (sans the creation of modern Santa by Coca-Cola). The older Santa is often said to be Saint Nick, the patron saint of children, prostitutes, and the poor. However, some believe Santa’s origins date even further back to Norse mythology, Odin and The Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt is a pre-Christian belief about a raucous hunting party of spirits that occurs during the winter months. People report hearing hoof beats, howls and otherworldly sounds before encountering a hunting party that gallops across the sky. There are many, many variations on The Wild Hunt —Johnny Cash even has a song about it called Ghost Riders in the Sky.
Odin (or one of his many other names or personas) is commonly depicted as the leader. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to get caught in the hunt’s path Odin will either gift you something, capture you, ask you to join the party or just kill you. It depends on his mood and/or which version of the story you’re told. The Wild Hunt is one of the most prolific of the supernatural legends surrounding winter solstice. It is very cool and definitely worth a deeper look that I can’t get into here. But know, it is usually accompanied by cold, foul weather and can happen any time during winter. So, if you start hearing other-worldly hoofbeats I’d duck for cover.
As for being inspiration for Santa Claus, Odin is often pictured with a long beard and is sometimes called The Yule Father. Santa is called Father Christmas. Odin flies through the sky on an eight-legged horse and Santa on eight reindeer. Then there are the elves which are taken from a mixture of Norse, Scandinavian and Celtic mythology. In Norse they are referred to as “the hidden folk”. Obviously, Odin isn’t a perfect fit for Santa, but one can see how some of the inspiration comes from the old one-eyed Yule Father.
With that said, Saint Nicholas is also the inspiration for Santa Claus and (these days) more celebrated than The Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a terrifying and scary occurrence that’s often seen as an ill omen, whereas the visit of Saint Nick is filled with cheer. That is, unless you’ve been bad. Which brings me to my next creature: Krampus.


Krampus
Krampus is a German and Austrian creature that’s increased in popularity during recent years. He’s usually depicted as a horned, hoofed creature wrapped in chains who also has a long red tongue. The recent movies versions have taken a bit of liberty with him and/or given him a new spin. But he’s historically been a companion of Saint Nick. Since Saint Nick can’t be seen punishing children, he brings along a chained Krampus to do the whipping and punishing. The chains symbolize Saint Nick’s power over the evil creature. Krampus and Saint Nick are said to come on December 5th, Saint Nick Day or Krampusnacht, but can come anytime during the season. Actors frequently dress as the pair, similar to how adults dress up as Santa in the states. Also, on Krampusnacht there is a festival where people dress up as Krampus, parade and scare children. It all seems like quite a bit of fun. The U.S. is finally starting to join in; there are Krampusnacht celebrations here, but they certainly aren’t super prevalent, yet.
Krampus is one of the creatures who doesn’t appear to have pre-Christian origins as his identity was tied up with Saint Nick. However, as legends often do, he’s taking on a life of his own and breaking free from Saint Nick’s shackles.


Witches
You thought witches were only reserved for Halloween? You thought wrong. There are a variety of witch-like creatures said to prowl around during the Christmas season. There is a degree of misogamy and negative female stereotypes to some of these myths, but they are interesting nonetheless.
The most benevolent of the witches I’ll discuss is La Befana (pictured above). She’s most commonly found in Italy, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is said that this old woman rides on a broom stick and visits houses all throughout January, but most often on January 5th, Epiphany Eve. She likes to hand out candy to well-behaved children and onions or coal to misbehavers. You can tell her apart from the other witches by her soot-covered appearance gained from traveling up and down chimneys.
Another Christmas Witch is Frau Perchta. She roams around Germany and Eastern Europe, but is much more terrifying than the previous. If you’ve been good, she’ll most likely pass you over, but if you’re a liar, been idle or greedy she’ll (happily) punish you, usually in a brutal way. One of her favorite punishments involves pulling out your entrails and filling you up with rocks. On her flights through the sky, she’s often accompanied by a host of demonic creatures called Straggele.
In Celtic folklore Beira, Cailleach or the Queen of Winter is sometimes seen as a winter goddess and sometimes as a supernatural ‘hag’. The hag terminology seems to be a comment on the harshness of winter. The name Cailleach translates to “veiled one” and in this form she’s depicted as being a hooded figure with a single eye that can see the truth in all things. She rules winter, controls the weather and can be cruel. However, she’s neither good nor evil, but some mixture of the two much like the winter weather she embodies. She does take part in the ending of winter which will sometimes have her turning into a young woman. She is said to care deeply for animals and often carries a staff that has magical properties. There’s a variety of literature associated with her “Hag of Beara” name. And like the name variations, there’s quite a bit of variation in her story.
Lussi is a demonic woman who rides through the air in Europe. She existed before Christianity, took part in The Wild Hunt and is said to snatch children by coming down the chimney. She has a benevolent counterpart (or variation), Saint Lucy, whose feast day is December 13th. The evil Lussi is said to punish those who are not prepared for Saint Lucy’s feast day or Yule. This is an instance of two different folklore traditions blurring and melding into one.
Then there is Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. She’s not really a witch, but I’m including her here for lack of a better place. She is sometimes the daughter (or granddaughter) or Ded Moroz (a Slavic Santa-type figure). She’ll accompany Ded to bring presents to houses during the winter, but also has her own independent folklore. She’s said to be made from snow and there is also a variety of literature about her (see The Snow Maiden opera or movie).
The last of the witches isn’t quite a witch, but an Icelandic giantess named Gryla that lives in a cave and eats children who disobey their parents. She is said to be able to smell disobedience and can catch children year-round. She is of interest because she is the mother of the 12 Yule Lads and the gigantic Yule Cat.


The 12 Yule Lads and the Yule Cat
These are quite fun. The Yule Lads are a group of mischievous Santa-like figures who visit Icelandic homes on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Each has a unique and mischievous trait; however, all are said to leave presents and treats for good children and potatoes for the bad. Some of traits are hilarious. For example, one of The Yule Lads is called The Spoon Licker and, you guessed it, he comes into your home and licks your spoons. Some others are called The Door Slammer, The Sausage Swiper, and The Bowl Licker. Each of these traits is supposed to teach children a lesson. For example, if you don’t finish your food The Bowl Licker will come and slurp up your leftovers.
Also, living in Iceland along with Gryla and the Yule Lads is their pet cat. The Yule Cat is a gigantic black cat that prowls the countryside and eats anyone who isn’t wearing a new item of clothing. This seems like a pretty classist and judgmental story to tell your children; however, this cat’s weird dietary preference has a historical basis. It’s related to wool processing. The people that helped would be gifted new clothes as a reward. I guess from this perspective it’s meant to teach the value of community and hard work, but that still feels like a stretch for me. If you’re poor or just didn’t get new clothing you’ll get eaten.


Mari Lwyd and the Yule Goat
Another animal, or rather undead animal is Mari Lwyd (pictured above). She comes from Welsh folklore and is a skeletal Christmas Pony who roams the streets with an entourage of other characters who attempt to get into houses. When Mari Lwyd comes to your house you are supposed to deny her entry and she’ll sing a song to try and convince you. This wassailing tradition is still acted out today by volunteers. They carry around a bleached horse head on a stick and other props. This is a pre-Christian tradition with murky origins. Although, now Mari Lwyd will sometimes be associated with nativity scenes and Christmas.
In addition to the Yule Cat and Mari Lwyd there is another animal called the Yule Goat. This one also has pre-Christian origins and is a celebration of the sun’s return to the Zodiac sign of Capricorn. There are many different variations of this legend and tradition.
You can find some more great pictures of both Mari Lwyd and the Yule Goat online. I recommend doing a search and seeing what comes up as there’s a lot to see and read on both these practices.


Christmas Beatings
In addition to all the creatures and beings we’ve discussed thus far there is a litany of differently named old men who drop by, with or without Saint Nick, to beat misbehaved children.
Belsnickel is the name of one of the old men who does this. He has German origins and wears tattered rags. He’ll sometimes give out treats to well behaved children, but always a beating to bad children. The modern Belsnickel actors (pictured above) no longer beat children, but attempt to scare them with a ‘crack’ sound.
Pere Fouettard is another of these old men that translates to “Father Whipper”. He wears a hooded cloak and, like Krampus, he is a companion of Saint Nick.
There are also more benign old men who’ll come by and (probably) won’t beat you. Knecht Rupprecht is one who accompanies Saint Nick to help hand out presents. Some speculate that he’s some sort of dark elf.
There’s also Ded Moraz who I previously mentioned. He is a Slavic Santa figure who comes and gives out presents on New Year’s Eve. He gained in popularity when the Soviet Union banned Christmas traditions.
Olentzero is another Santa-like figure from Basque traditions that drops off presents. He is said to be part of a race of giants and existed before Christianity.


Little Creatures
There are multiple little creatures like elves and goblins which are associated with this time of year. There are also Trolls from Norse Mythology which have connections to the winter-time.
There are also creatures called Kallikantzaroi who are basically underground goblins originating from Greece and the surrounding areas. They live underground all year except on the 12 days of Christmas. While they’re underground, they are diligently working to chop off the roots of the World Tree to kill it. Them coming up for Christmas is a relief to the tree, but a scourge to us humans. However, if they didn’t take this break to harass us, the World Tree would fall and we’d all perish. These creatures look like traditional goblins and it’s said that people born on Saturday can see these creatures. I was born on a Saturday, but didn’t see any this year. Maybe next Christmas.
There are only a few more creatures I’d like to touch on. These all look very similar to a garden gnome. There are the Nisser and the Tomte (pictured above) which are very similar and sometimes considered the same. They both are small, have long beards and big caps. They both live with people, help out, love animals and can have nasty tempers.
The last creatures are Lutins (pictured below) which are a type of festive hobgoblin that help Father Christmas. Despite being called a goblin they look more like a gnome as well.


Conclusion:

I started this as research for a spooky Christmas story (which I am currently writing), but learned so much that I figured I’d share some of the stuff I learned. I couldn’t get to nearly all the legends and folklore I uncovered. Consider this a very short and brief list on the Christmas Creatures.
I regret I wasn’t able to get to any of the non-European winter legends that exist. Since I’m not living in Europe and am living on Native land, I wanted to include some Native American winter legends and stories in this post, but I wasn’t able to fit it in. There are some terrific articles about how different tribes celebrate winter solstice. I’m hoping to make a post about the folklore and legends of America, but until I do I urge you to look into on your own.
Thanks for reading. I hope it was fun to learn about all these weird creatures.
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