Christmas is a Christian festival, and most of us are familiar with the story behind it. But that doesn’t mean we all celebrate this merry day the same way.
From a frightening witch to a vicious, man-eating cat, here are three lesser-known (and slightly morbid) Christmas legends from around the world.
Befana the witch
Picture a witch coming down your chimney instead of jolly old Santa Claus. According to Italian tradition, la Bafana is a scruffy old woman who visits homes on the night of January 5, leaving presents for children in their stockings.
Italians believe Befana turned away the Three Wise Men when they asked her for directions to baby Jesus’ manger. She realised her mistakes the next day and wanted to bring presents for the baby, but was unable to find him.
To this day, she flies around the world on her broomstick searching for the special child, and leaves gifts for every child just in case she misses him.
But just like Santa, only children on the nice list get sweets and presents, while those on the naughty list will wake up to find onions, garlic and coal in their stockings.
There’s even a poem dedicated to the friendly Christmas witch: “The Befana comes at night / In worn-out shoes / Dressed like a Roman / Long live the Befana! / She brings cinders and coals / To the naughty children / To the good children / She brings sweets and lots of gifts”.
The Yule Cat
Christmas time can be a really scary holiday for children in Iceland. In Icelandic folklore, each family member must put on new, warm clothing on Christmas day to ward off the Yule cat – a frightening feline with glowing eyes that roams the countryside preying on those without new clothes.
Those who don’t are at risk of being “devoured by the Christmas cat”, a popular phrase used to describe those who haven’t received new clothes as a gift.
Legend has it that farmers used to tell their workers that if they didn’t finish their work before Christmas, they would be eaten by the Yule Cat, and those who did were rewarded with new clothes.
This became a really effective way of motivating them to work hard, because those who didn’t became easy targets for the unpretty kitty.
Central Europe’s terrifying version of Santa is a half-goat, half-demon beast that beats naughty children and takes them away to his lair in the underworld, where they must stay for an entire year.
It is thought that this Christmas devil appears on December 5, also known as Krampus Night. On this night, children would traditionally check outside their door to see what had been placed there: a sweet, or a wooden stick.
A sweet meant they would be visited by St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, and rewarded with gifts the next day (Christmas comes early in some European countries like Austria), while a stick meant they were about to get a beating.
There are different versions to this legend. In some of them, Krampus accompanies St Nicholas to homes, and the pair work together in a “good cop, bad cop” manner to make sure children behave themselves throughout the year.
While this may seem like a menacing legend, it has become popular in many parts of Europe, where young men dress as the devil on Krampus Night and race through the streets as children scream and run away in terror.