Winter Folklore Traditions and Creepy Christmas Monsters A to Z
An A to Z compendium of winter folklore traditions, from magical midwinter spirits and beings of myth and legend to the creepiest Christmas monsters of all time.
A is for Apple Cider Wassailing and Årsgång (Yearwalking)
Apple cider wassail
The health of trees? Let’s drink to that! A wassail is a hot mulled cider. The medieval English tradition of wassailing involves toasting apple trees to ensure a good harvest the following year. Wassail is drunk, songs are sung, and libations are poured onto the roots of the trees. Nice for the trees, and fabulous for the wassailers.
Yearwalking is said to be a form of Swedish divination practised at Christmas or on New Year’s Eve. As recently as the 19th century, yearwalkers would head on quests and risk their body and soul (even meeting spirits) in order to see visions of the year ahead. Verifiable information on the subject is slim, but it is said that one method was to fast for a period of time without food or water, then head for a place of power (like a church) in the hope of seeing visions.
B is for Bookish gifts and Boreas and Barbegazi and Belsnickel
These dwarf-like creatures inhabit the Swiss Alps. They have huge flat feet, white beards and white fur all over their bodies. Their frozen hair looks like icicles. They hide underground until the first snow, then wander (and cross-country ski) through the white mountains on their huge flat feet. They’re benign beings who avoid humans, on the whole. However, they have been known to help shepherds find lost sheep, dig people out of avalanches and whistle to warn of danger. Apparently they quite like surfing on avalanches, too. It’s a happy-go-lucky life, being one of the barbegazi.
Belsnickel is a fictional old man from German folklore. Wearing ragged tatters and furs, he visits children before Christmas, with edible treats to give them if they are good, and a switch to frighten them into being good by Christmas if they are not. Belsnickel visits children to this day, but fortunately the switch is only cracked to make a loud noise, not to administer a beating.
Bookish gifts always warm the heart. It’s a Christmas tradition in Iceland to give each other books so that everyone can spend the night reading. This nation of around 300,000 people has more books published and read per head than anywhere else in the world.
Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind. He is the one who brings winter and all its chills to the land. His daughter, a nymph called Khione, is the Greek goddess of snow.
C is for Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve folklore
Folkloric traditions abound on Christmas Eve. It is said to be the very best day for cutting evergreens and bringing them into your home – if you cut them earlier, it will surely lead to quarrels!
It is whispered that animals gain the power of speech on Christmas Eve. Be warned – it’s bad luck to try to listen in on their conversations. For one thing, it’s said you’ll only hear them speaking ill of you. As you always suspected.
In Poland, Christmas Eve is when the Angel comes to deliver presents under the tree, waiting until evening when all are seated at the table.
D is for Ded Moroz
Ded Moroz (also known as Dzied Moroz and many other variations)
Ded Moroz is a Slavic fictional character akin to Father Christmas. His name translates as “Old Man Frost”. He was thought to be a pre-Christian wizard of winter (life goals, surely) and quite possibly the son of Slavic gods Mara and Veles. He wears long robes of pale blue, and his head is adorned with a furred hat or a crown with a snowflake motif. He brings presents to children on Christmas Eve, and often delivers them in person.
E is for Evergreen
Evergreen plants are a key element of winter folklore and festivity. The holly, the ivy, the mistletoe and pine… they are all brought over the threshold into the house as a symbol of eternity and life in the midst of cold and darkness.
F is for Frau Perchta
Frau Perchta is the Christmas Witch of Eastern Europe. She is often depicted as having a goose foot, and it’s believed that goose fat helped witches fly. She likes to reward the hard working and generous with gifts during the twelve days of Christmas. Equally, she loves to punish the idle and greedy. One of her favourite punishments involves ripping out your intestines to replace them with rocks, rubbish, and straw. Gruesome. Never cross a witch.
G is for Grýla and Glastonbury Thorn
Grýla is an Iceland giantess who lives in the mountains with three husbands, 72 children, and the Yule Cat. Icelandic legend paints her as an ogress who cooks and eats children who disobey their parents. In the 17th century she became the official mother of the Yule Lads and cemented her place as a Christmas icon.
The Glastonbury Holy Thorn is a common hawthorn with a notable difference – it flowers twice a year, first in winter, then in spring. It also bears flowers and berries at the same time. Legend has it that when Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain he visited the spiritual centre of Glastonbury, thrust his staff into the ground at Wearyall Hill, and it grew overnight into a blossoming thorn tree. The ‘original’ thorn was cut down during the English Civil War as a superstitious relic, and it’s said that one of its thorns blinded the wielder of the axe in one eye. Since the 17th century, a flowering branch of the Glastonbury Thorn has traditionally been sent to the reigning queen or king to adorn the table at their Christmas feast.
H is for Holly and Holming and Hans Trapp
“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”
-traditional British folk Christmas carol, Roud folk song index No.514
Holly and ivy are two evergreen plants that are traditionally paired in winter folklore. Holly is seen as male, and ivy is seen as female. One winter folklore custom has a boy wearing holly and a girl attired in ivy parade around the village to usher Nature through the dark days and re-emerge next year. In Christian symbolism, the prickly leaves echo Jesus’ crown of thorns and their red berries evoke the blood he shed for humanity’s salvation. In Celtic mythology it’s said that the Holly King rules over the six winter months, and the Oak King rules over the six months of summer.
Holming, or Holly-beating
The thankfully extinct old Welsh tradition of holming, or holly-beating, was carried out on the day after Christmas (St Stephens Day). It could refer to the practice of beating the last person out of bed in the morning with holly sprigs. Holming also referred to young men beating the arms or legs of girls with holly until they bled.
Legend paints Hans Trapp as a rich Satanist who was exiled by the Church. Exiled to the forest, he fed on children who couldn’t see through his scarecrow disguise. In the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France, Hans Trapp is a helper to Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas gives the good children their gifts, but Hans Trapp roams the countryside dressed as a scarecrow to seek out naughty children and scare them into good behaviour.
I is for Ivy
Winter folklore presents evergreen ivy as the female counterpart to male holly. A number of English Christmas carols dated 1400-1700 feature holly and ivy, and often use them as symbolism for men and women. Since ancient times, evergreens like ivy were brought into the house during the winter months to represent nature’s resurrection in the spring and eternal endurance.
J is for Jack Frost and Jólakötturinn the Yule cat and Joulupukki and the Julbock Yule Goat
“Look out! Look out! Jack Frost is about!”
Jack Frost is the personification of winter, stingy cold, and frost. Much of how we imagine him today comes from the ‘Jack Frost’ poem by 19th century poet Hannah Gould, although it wasn’t named thus at the time of publication. He’s often seen as a youthful counterpart to Old Man Winter, and has mischievous qualities. He nips at our noses to give them a chill. He leaves patterns like ferns on cold windows, and browns the leaves. As a personification he’s surprisingly recent, but feels like he’s been around forever…
Joulupukki and the Julbock Yule Goat
Joulupukki is the Finnish Santa and the name literally means “Christmas buck”. He used to be quite a horrible figure, definitely on the ‘naughty’ list. He covered his face with a mask, wore horns on his head, and kept his fur-lined coat turned inside-out. His older form is associated with the nuuttipukki, evil spirits who would demand gifts and leftovers from the Yule feast. Now he is much closer to what we typically think of as Father Christmas. He wears red robes and pulls a sleigh of reindeer, and his links with the Norse god Odin mean he is associated with the Wild Hunt that Odin would lead across the sky.
So what’s Joulupukki’s connection to the Julbock? These days, the Nordic Yule Goat is a goat decoration made from straw and tied with red ribbons. In the past, it was considered a fine Christmas prank to put a straw goat in someone’s house without them noticing, and they’d have to get rid of it in the same way. Swedish tradition hailed the Julbock as an invisible spirit who would help with Yule preparations, and this echoes Joulupukki’s older form as a Christmas spirit, too.
Jólakötturinn the Yule Cat
Jólakötturinn is a huge Yule Cat who lives with Grýla the Icelandic giantess in her mountain home. He is just awful, a vicious Christmas monster. A key element of his folklore is that he’ll eat anyone that doesn’t have new clothes for Christmas. There’s a historical basis to this meanery: workers who took part in processing the autumn wool before Christmas would receive new clothes in reward.
K is for Krampus and Kallikantzaroi
Like Hans Trapp, Krampus is another companion of Saint Nicholas, who hands out presents to German children at Christmas. Krampus is even better-known than Hans Trapp for his wicked ways. There is, if you look very closely, something devillish in his appearance. Could it be the horns? Or maybe it’s the cloven hoofs, the fangs, the huge lolling tongue, or the dark hair covering his whole body. It doesn’t help that he carries chains that he likes to thrash around, or a whip or bundle of birch branches with which to beat children. Finally, there’s the sack on his back. It’s filled not with presents but with ill-behaved children he plans to drown, eat or carry off to hell.
Kallikantzaroi are underground goblins originating in Greece. While they live underground, they saw away at the roots of the world tree in a bid to topple it. However, during the 12 days of Christmas they venture to the surface to cause chaos among us mortal folk instead. This is actually a good thing, because it means they forget about the tree, giving it time to heal in their absence! The only downside of their above-ground Christmas visit is that these creatures of the night can cause no end of earthly woe. One way to thwart them is to leave a colander outside your door. These Christmas goblins cannot count higher than two, and will waste their night away counting the holes of your colander again and again. If you burn a Yule log in your fireplace all night, this will prevent the Kallikantzaroi from entering through your chimney. According to legend, anyone born on a Saturday can see these creatures and talk to them.
L is for La Befana and Lord of Misrule
La Befana is yet another Christmas witch, most commonly found in Italy, Russia and areas of Eastern Europe (where she is known as Baboushka). Every January she climbs her broomstick and flies to each house to see if she can find the baby Jesus. If she finds a child in the house, she will leave them baked treats and gifts. Her shawl is often covered in soot as she spends so much time flying up and down chimneys.
Lord of Misrule
Until the rise of the Puritan party in England in the 17th century, there appeared to be a custom to appoint someone by lot to be in charge of Christmas revelries. They were given the title of Lord of Misrule.
John Stow’s Survey of London, published in the Tudor period, gives this account of the Lord of Misrule’s duties and privileges:
“In the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.”
M is for Mistletoe and Mummers and Mari Lwyd
Mari Lwyd is a skeleton mare of Welsh folklore, and she’s essentially a Christmas pony zombie.
She rises from the dead in winter and roams the streets with her undead entourage, her sole aim being to get into your home. This activity is acted out by volunteers who parade a horse skull on a pole draped in white cloth around the streets. On New Year’s Eve, you must engage her in a rhymed battle of wits to keep her at bay.
Winter folklore loves its evergreens, and mistletoe is no exception. It has strong links to fertility, which may be why folk are encouraged to kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas. Tradition has it that if anyone is not kissed under the mistletoe at Christmas, they will be sure to stay unmarried for another year. Mistletoe is meant to be cut, dried and kept all year, then burned before the new sprigs are put up to achieve luck in the year ahead. If the flame burns steady when the mistletoe is set alight, it is viewed as a good omen.
Mumming is the tradition of travelling around streets, pubs and houses to perform very special folk plays, usually at Christmas. They usually involve a broad comedy with a traditional assembly of characters, a staged fight, and a doctor character around to revive the hero with magic potion. Characters like Saint George the dragon-killer and Beelzebub often get a main role.
N is for Northern Lights
In Finland, the name given to the Northern Lights is revontulet, which is associated with the arctic fox. Folk tales depict the fox running north and brushing against the mountains with its fur, causing sparks (the Northern Lights) to fly into the air.
In Gaelic folklore, the Northern Lights are known as the Merry Dancers or the Nimble Men. They’re said to depict glorious fights among celestial warriors in the sky.
O is for Old Man Winter
Old Man Winter is, like his possibly-younger counterpart Jack Frost, a personification of winter. He is often portrayed as bent over and covered in rags or furs, his beard and hair long to show his great age. In Russia he is known as Morozko, and you can see a lovely 1964 Russian film of a Morozko fairytale here.
P is for Pine tree
Pine is the preferred tree for Christmas trees around the world. Their fragrance fills the room with life. Their branches are strong enough to hold all manner of ornaments. They are evergreens, making them a perfect symbol of eternal life and Nature holding it together even in the dark season. Pine cones represent the continuity of life (which is one reason why you’ll so often find pine trees planted in cemeteries). In terms of Christmas being a Christian celebration, pine trees point to Heaven (and in some cultures like Poland where you might find an upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling, the shape is said to represent Christ on the cross).
Q is for Queen of Winter
‘Queen of Winter’ is a name often given to Beira, the winter goddess of Scottish myth and folklore. She’s also known as the Cailleach, the ‘veiled one’. In some versions she’s portrayed as a blue one-eyed hag whose single eye allows her to see into the singularity of all things.
One Queen of Winter tale has her seeking a hero lover, and if the hero accepts her in hag-form she transforms into a beautiful young woman. This transformation echoes the seeds that lie dormant in winter but push through the earth as young shoots in spring.
Another version of the tale features Beira carrying a magical staff that can free the ground wherever she taps. When she throws the staff under her sacreed trees, the holly and the gorse bush, it’s a sign that winter has come to an end.
R is for Robin Redbreast
In northern climes you’re often likely to see a Robin Redbreast in the garden around Christmas time. Its plumage shows up fiery and warm against the greys, browns and whites of a winter landscape. The robin is said to represent the new sun in Irish folklore. The tale has it that he killed his father the wren (who represents the old sun) on the Winter Solstice (21st December) and thus got his red breast from the bloody act. The robin also has a Christian link to winter folklore: some say a brown robin scorched its feathers when trying to protect the baby Jesus from an overly blazing fire in the manger.
S is for Snegurochka and Saturnalia
Saturnalia is the name given to the Roman pagan midwinter festival celebrated from 17-23 Decemeber. It involved sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, exchanging gifts, banquets and parties. It all sounds a bit familiar.
Snegurochka the Snow Maiden is said to be the daughter (or, variously, granddaughter) of Ded Moroz, with ‘sneg’ being the Russian word for snow. She accompanies Ded Moroz on his mission to bring presents at winter time.
There is another, darker origin to Snegurochka. Some say she was a statue carved from snow by an old couple who could not have children. She went to play with the other local children as they jumped over a fire, but when it was Snegurochka’s turn to jump, she melted away.
In some parts of Russia there is still a tradition to drown a straw figure in the river or burn it on a bonfire to vanquish winter and help the world transition into spring.
T is for Tomte
The Tomte is a gnomish little creature from Sweden, around three feet tall with a white beard and a red cap. He often helps out in a family’s farm, protecting the children and animals. He may even take up residence in the farm, in a quiet corner where he will not be spotted. Then again, he may live among the dead in a nice cosy burial mound, and come down to the farm to help out when he is not asleep.
The Tomte expects to be treated well in return for his protection, and has a fierce temper if he doesn’t get his due. One should always leave a plate of porridge for him on Christmas Eve and burn a Julelog for him in winter. His revenge can take the form of endless tricks or even poisonous bites which can prove fatal.
U is for Unexpected Guest
It is traditional in Poland to lay an extra space at the table for the Unexpected Guest on Christmas Eve. It could be a family member or friend you never expected to show up at your door. It could be someone you don’t know. It’s a practice rooted in charitable goodwill… and a certain level of gambling spirit.
V is for Vanquishing
Much of winter folklore is dedicated to endurance and fertility (there has to be something to do on those long cold nights). However, winter is the harshest season in northern regions. That means that much folklore related to winter involves battles and challenges. You have the sky warriors fighting to create the Northern Lights, or the ritualised battles in the mummer plays, or the Wren (old sun) battling the Robin (young sun). And, of course, you have a lot of Christmas monsters who seem determined to eat naughty children, kidnap them or flay them within an inch of their lives. The best way to vanquish demons such as these is probably to be as good as you possibly can.
W is for Wren Day, Wild Hunt and Winter Solstice
Wren Day is celebrated in Ireland and elsewhere on 26 December, on St Stephen’s Day. The wren is a symbol of the old sun and the old year. The wren (once a live wren, but these days a fake one) must be hunted down and paraded through the town to symbolise the sacrifice of the old year so that the new year can come into being. Wrenboys and mummers dress up in motley costumes, masks and suits of straw to parade the ‘wren’ through the town.
There is a very old Norwegian belief that the dead walk among the living during Yule – no, Samhain isn’t the only time for such things to occur. The Wild Hunt taps into this. It’s a name given to gods or fierce spirits who lead their celestial comrades in a hunt across the sky. It’s most commonly associated with Norse mythology and the Wild Hunts led by Odin riding his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. The Wild Hunt can occur at any time (and often before times of trial and outbreaks of war). However, it is said to happen most frequently on winter nights, especially between Yule and Twelfth Night. During this time, ancestors are honoured and food is left out for them. Farmers may also leave harvested grain in the fields for the hunters’ horses. The Wild Hunt during this time is said to be linked to ancestors returning to collect their earthly gifts and tokens of respect in return for a good harvest next year.
In Germanic folklore, the leader of the Wild Hunt will shout “Midden in dem Weg!” (“Middle of the Road!) if they see you in their path. If you hear this call, it is best to lie down in the middle of the path immediately. This will save you from the worst of the trampling, though you may still feel the cold feet of the hunting dogs run along your spine. If you are very unlucky, you will be swept up in the Wild Hunt… and who knows when you will return to earth again, or in what condition?
The Winter Solstice, also known as midwinter, is the day filled with the least daylight and the longest night of the year. Following the night of the Winter Solstice, the sun grows stronger in the sky – so it’s actually a key turning point and a time of rebirth. Its old traditions and symbolism have influenced many winter traditions today. As an example, the Scandinavian Christian winter solstice festival of lights (St. Lucia’s Day) probably stemmed from earlier Norse solstice customs like lighting fires to ward off spirits in the longest night.
X is for Xmas customs with pagan roots
Let’s take a look!
- Christmas carols – wassailing
- Kissing under the mistletoe – fertility rituals
- Santa Claus – Joulupukki and La Befana
- Greenery indoors – Saturnalia
- Christmas elves – Tomte
- Christmas ornaments – trees decorated with food and lights for Odin during the solstice
There are so many more correlations between Christmas present and pagan past than one might expect…
Y is for Yule log and Yule lads
The first reference to a Yule Log was recorded in the 12th century, but it’s been going on for far longer. The Yule Log was a giant log – often an entire tree – that was carefully brought into a household in midwinter by someone with clean hands. Its largest end would be placed in the hearth and lit from what was left of last year’s log, if any remained. It was considered good luck to have some of the Yule Log remain after winter, as it could be stored to ward off misfortune like lighting, mildew or housefires in the coming year.
The custom appears to have originated in Germanic and Nordic countries, but has since spread throughout Europe with regional variations on folkloric customs. In Provence, the log should be carried around the house three times by the grandfather of the family then blessed with wine before being burned. In Burgundy, gifts would be stored beneadh the log. In Yorkshire, the candles for Christmas dinner would be lit from the Yule Log by the youngest person in the house. What is more, it was considered unlucky to have to relight a Yule Log once it had been first set alight.
The Yule Lads are 13 Icelandic troles who traditionally misbehaved and caused trouble around Christmas, so were used to scare children into behaving well. As Winter/Christmas figures became more benign in nature with the popularity of Santa Claus, the folklore surrounding the Yule Lads evolved. They were suddenly more magnanimous by nature, and might even choose to leave gifts in the shoes of well-behaved boys and girls.
Each of the 13 Yule Lads had a name and distinctive personality to match, much like Snow White’s seven dwarfs. There was Spoon Licker, a spoon-thief who liked to lick them as well as steal them. Sausage Swiper was, quite clearly, a passionate sausage-thief. Gully Hawk had a very niche penchant for lurking in ditches and gullies, waiting for his moment to lick the foam from cow’s milk as it rested in milking buckets. Basically, most of the Yule Lads were obssessed with licking and stealing, so make of that what you will.
In later years they were assigned Grýla the giantess as a mother. As she delighted in eating children, she probably wasn’t much by way of a good influence.
Z is for Zenith
We’ve reached the zenith of our compendium of winter folklore traditions, and our research has revealed nothing beginning with ‘Z’. No evergreens, no Yule festivities, no Christmas monsters bent on venting their ire on children. When we find a ‘Z’, we’ll be sure to include it. And yet… that’s the thing about folklore traditions. They’re organic, and live in the margins between shadow and light.
Folklore is full of life, and whoever said life had to be as tidy as a comprehensive A to Z?