Legendary Figures of Christmas and Yule
Winter is a time of darkening nights, colder days and gloomy skies. Despite the weather, there are still plenty of folkloric figures out and about. Though some bring cheer and gifts to brighten up the winter, others are there to make it worst – bringing threats of coal, kidnapping and even bodily harm to make sure that people are behaving themselves over the winter period.
The Icelandic giantess Grýla lives in a cave in the mountains with her lazy husband, Leppalúði. Predating Christmas, she is said to come down from the mountains during midwinter and Yule to snatch up disobedient children. She carries them home in her sack, killing them and cooking them up for dinner.
For a malicious harbinger of winter, Grýla is an unusually social creature. In addition to her husband, she has thirteen sons, each happy to cause mischief and – in modern interpretations – leave treats out for children. On different days during December, households are visited by a different son – each named for the type of mischief he causes, whether that’s stealing milk, harassing sheep or stealing food. As well as her sons, Grýla has a beloved cat, Jólakötturinn – or the Yule Cat – who stalks the streets at night eating any poor soul unfortunate enough to not receive new clothes in time for Christmas.
Half man, half man goat, Krampus is said to have originated in Germany – his name being taken from the German Krampen, meaning claw. Though he is originally said to have been the son of the Norse goddess, Hel, with the spread of Christianity he become associated with Christmas as the counterpart to St Nicholas. He is described as a hairy figure with cloven hooves and sharp horns.
Krampus, along with the friendlier St Nicholas are said to visit on 5th December. Where St Nicholas rewards the good children, Krampus is there to punish the bad. He carries with him a wooden switch – or in some versions, chains – which are used to beat the children who had been naughty. In some stories he may even snatch the unwary child away, stuffing them into his sack and carrying them off to his lair or, depending on how dark the story…hell.
Often characterized as a good witch who gives presents to children on the night of Epiphany (January 5th), La Befana is not originally a witch at all – although she does ride on a broomstick.
An Italian legends tells that La Befana was once an elderly woman who heard a knock on the door. Opening it, she found the three wise men, lost and looking for Bethlehem. Giving them a place to stay for the night, La Befana was told of their quest to follow the star and find the new-born king. They invited her to join them, but La Befana refused, saying she needed to sweep the floor and finish her chores. Shortly after the wise men left La Befana changed her mind, filing a basket with treats and sweets. Though she hurried, she was unable to catch up with the wise men, or to find the infant Jesus. Instead, she leaves treats for the children of the houses she visits – still looking for the holy child.
Tall and strong, with colourful robes, long white beard and horse drawn carriage, Ded Moroz – or Grandfather Frost – appears on New-Year’s-eve, to hide presents underneath the tree. He appears in legends across East Slavic countries, though not always by the same name. Ded Moroz’ home can be found in the Russian town of Veliky Ustyug, where it is open to visitors.
In Russia he is accompanied by his granddaughter (or by some accounts daughter), Snegurochka. The Snow Maiden. In addition to accompanying Ded Moroz, Snegurochka appears in several fairy tales – usually as a young girl, or woman made of snow, who tragically melts away.
A jolly fat man with a red suit and beard Father Christmas, or Santa, is associated with many things. Presents, reindeer, elves, milk and cookies and a supernatural ability to travel around the world in one night.
His origins are said to stem from St Nicholas, a man living in Turkey in the late 3rd century AD. With a reputation for good deeds and kindness there is one story in particular that links him to his role as a Christmas gift-giver. In his travels, St Nicholas came across a family who had fallen on hard times. The father, in desperation, planned to sell his three daughters into slavery. Wanting to help, St Nicholas waited until the household was sleeping and hid gold coins inside the girls’ stockings which had been laid out to dry. With their newfound wealth, the girls were able to escape slavery and pay dowries to secure good marriages. It is for this reason that people hang up stockings on Christmas Eve, in the hopes that Saint Christmas will visit.