We all love Krampus, but it’s not just the Austrians that know how to have a creatively creepy Christmas! Regardless of how you choose to celebrate the season, you’re sure to find inspiration in these bizarre traditions. Pull up a chair, drizzle some peppermint-flavored fake blood over your hot chocolate, and decide how best to put your own touch on the holidays this year.
Tinsel is a staple for many Christmas trees, and at face value, is just a pretty way to add some sparkle to a tree that you murdered and drug into your living room. However, that fine, silvery, glisten was originally created to mimic a substance that many people would *not* like in their homes – spiderwebs.
The Ukrainian folk tale says that a poor widow living in a hut with her children managed to lovingly grow a Christmas tree from a pine cone inside the hut, but had no money to decorate it for Christmas. Where Cinderella had birds and mice to help her out of poverty-related predicaments, this family had spiders. In a scene that would make a better horror movie than Christmas flick, thousands of spiders swarm over the sleeping family and their tree to cover the little fir in webs.
When the children woke up on Christmas morning, they watched in amazement as the morning sun transformed the twinkling strands of silk into silver and gold. This obviously works out pretty well for the widow, so people still consider spiderwebs on a Christmas tree a sign of good luck and prosperity. In Poland and the Ukraine especially, spiderweb and spider ornaments are very common. We see no reason not to fully embrace the story and re-purpose your haunt’s spiderwebs as festive decorations – in the name of tradition, of course!
Image from hope.edu blog
Grýla and the Yule Cat
Krampus isn’t the only vicious character prowling around in December. According to Icelandic legend, there are 13 Yule Lads that deliver candy or rotten potatoes to the shoes of nice or naughty children, respectively. Their names show a level of creativity similar to those of Snow White’s dwarves: we’ve got Window Peeper that likes to stare in your windows, Meat Hook that will swipe any unattended meat, and 11 others with names that describe their preferred antics:
Image from Iceland.is
However, these Yule Lads are merely a diversion from the true horror lurking in the Icelandic mountains. Their mother, Grýla, is a fearsome ogress/giantess that can tell if you’ve been naughty or nice all year. Leaving trinkets in trainers is a trivial task she leaves to lesser characters like her sons and Santa – Grýla comes down in December to take the naughty children back to her lair to be eaten alive. Boiling them in a stew is her preferred ingestion method, but she has no qualms about munching on bad kids raw as she prowls the villages.
Both images from ihorror.com
In addition to her 13 mischievous sons, Gryla has another blood-thirsty companion. The Yule Cat (sometimes call the Christmas Cat), a name that may conjure images of a kitten curled up under a Christmas tree, is described as a huge black cat that eats people that are not wearing at least once piece of new clothing on Christmas Eve.
Black cats are referenced in many folk tales and are a fixture of Halloween, but the Yule Cat is by far the most terrifying and materialistic feline of any season. If you have a cat in the house, pay homage to his or her bloodthirsty tendencies by bringing home a new toy to chase rather than a silly hat to wear – the Yule Cat does not need to follow his own rules about new clothing!
They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but Greenlanders take it to a whole new level with kiviak, a delicacy commonly eaten on Christmas. The pungent food is created by finding small dead birds (literally hundreds of them), stitching them into a gutted seal carcass, burying the whole ordeal underground for a few months to allow the seal juices to ferment the birds into oblivion, then digging it up and chowing down. The seal fat tenderizes, ferments, and preserves the birds so thoroughly that they may be eaten raw and whole – bones and all.
Image from dailymail.co.uk
Now, while kiviak is nutrient dense and a traditional delicacy in some cultures, most of us can’t get away with bringing a bird-stuffed seal that we buried for several months to Aunt Sue’s annual Christmas dinner. Bringing a dish of anything-inside-anything, like a turducken or stuffed bell peppers, is a great way to segue right into a discussion about seal-fermented-bird, which is still safer than most family dinner conversations.
Any tradition that revolves around a skull mounted on a stick is sure to pique our interest. Combine that with dramatic skits and wassailing-equivalent of rap battles, and it’s hard to believe that hooded-horse traditions remain largely unknown and uncelebrated in the Americas.
Image from Wikipedia
Although the Welsh Mari Lwyd is the most commonly seen hooded horse, there are similar characters that appear in a variety of cultural traditions. All of these revolve around a horse’s skull with an actuate-able jaw that is mounted on a stick. An actor hides under a sheet that is also attached to the skull/stick combination and makes the horse dance, clack its teeth, and shake its head in response to questions. The horse is typically led about by other members of the group.
Image from WalesOnline.co.uk
The Mari Lwyd tradition is the most interactive of the hooded horse variations. Wassailers knock on a door and sing a verse to the homeowner about why they and their terrifying skeleton horse should be allowed inside. The homeowner may counter with a verse of their own regarding their objections to letting the group inside. This back and forth is supposed to continue until one side or the other runs out of ideas, but it is considered polite to welcome the carolers in for a warm drink after only a brief objection.
The Laare Vane, also a hooded skeleton horse, prefers a more direct approach. This character, initially played by a man, rushes into a house unannounced and attempts to capture a girl. Once he succeeds, the girl takes his place under the hood and sits in the corner while other performers act out a sword-fight to fiddle music. In the skit, the fiddler is “executed”, then blindfolded and led to the Laare Vane. With his head in her lap, the fiddler answers questions posed by audience members and his replies about upcoming events are taken to be valid predictions.
Given how many traditional caroling groups wander the streets in December, we think cultural education is an excellent excuse to put a skull on a stick, possibly frighten some people, and ideally get warm drinks and cookies from our victims neighbors! Real horse skulls are very expensive, but there are horse skull masks that can be used in a pinch:
Drape a white sheet over the skull, stick the whole setup on a pole, glue on some ribbons, and get ye wassailing!
We hope these strange traditions sparked a few ideas for your own holiday season.
As always, happy haunting!