Christmas Folk Friends and Fiends

With December well and truly upon us, I think it’s time to introduce ourselves to some more wonderfully weird yuletide folk beasts. 

We’ve already discussed our wonderful friends, Krampus and the Yule Goat, in depth, so today, let’s dive in to three more of Europe’s most fabulous festive friends. 

Iceland’s Festive Family

Who’s a scary cat? Via Unsplash

Iceland has some great folk beasts and cryptids, and Christmas time is full of them. 

Like most festive fiends, they are used to scare children into being good – because we all know the best way to get what we want is through threats of violence and mischief.  

The mountain dwelling family from Icelandic folklore consists of:

Grýla & Leppalúði

The giantess Grýla and her third husband, Leppalúði, have been around since at lease the 13th century, but they have been almost explicit linked to Christmas since the 17th century. 

Originally, Grýla was said to wander Iceland begging parents to give her their naughty children, presumably, to eat. Much like good old Krampus, she is said to whisk misbehaving children away in her sack and they are never seen again. She is known to be watching and waiting throughout the year but only makes an appearance at Christmas time. He husband, Leppalúði, occasionally accompanies her, but is most often found in the family’s cave home.

The Yule Lads

These mischievous lads are the children of Grýla & Leppalúðim and are known to harass locals on the thirteen consecutive nights before Christmas. Much like Santa, they leave children gifts (most often in their shoes), but if the children have misbehaved, they leave behind a rotten potato. Each of the lads are named after their physical attributes or mischievous nature, to call them by the English translations, consist of:

  • Sheep-Cote Clod
  • Gully Gawk
  • Stubby
  • Spoon Licker
  • Pot Scraper
  • Bowl Licker
  • Door Slammer
  • Skyr Gobbler
  • Sausage Swiper
  • Window Peeper
  • Doorway Sniffer
  • Meat Hook
  • Candle Stealer

Jólakötturinn or The Yule Cat 

The Yule Cat is the family’s  giant, malevolent cat who feats on people – particularly children – who have not received new clothes for Christmas. Jólakötturinn was also said to eat workers who had not finished their autumn wool processing before winter. Workers would be able to prove their completion by wearing newly made hats or gloves.

La Befana (Italy)

Much like the traditional Witch, La Befana sometimes rides a broomstick

This benevolent old woman is said to deliver gifts to Italy’s children on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). These gifts were placed in the socks of good children, whereas naught children could expect to receive coal, onions, garlic or sticks. It is sometimes customary to leave a glass of wine and a plate of food for La Befana.

The story of La Befana begins with the Three Wise Men. Tradition dictates that whilst following the Star to find the baby Jesus, the wise men (or Magi, or Kings) got lost and asked La Befana for help. She provided them shelter for the night, and was asked to join them the next morning, but she declined, saying she was “too busy with housework”. Later, she changed her mind and attempted to find her own way to the baby, but couldn’t so now gifts to the children Italy. In some traditions, La Befana is said to sweep the houses she visits to bring in luck for the new year.

A darker version of this tale claims that La Befana lost her only child, and was mad with grief. Once she heard of the baby Jesus, she set out to find him, convinced that he was her own child. Upon finding the baby, he was said to be so happy, that he granted La Befana  the gift of “being the mother or every child in Italy”, thus, like a happy La Lorona, she roams the towns and villages bringing gifts for children. 

Although there’s defiantly a patriarchal edge to this story, La Befana is a great example of how traditional folk beliefs intermingled with Christian storytelling. 

Mari Lwyd (Wales)

An example of the Mari Lwyd that I gone and done

How could I complete this case file without mentioning the rap-battling zombie horse from my homeland.

The Mari Lwyd is a wassailing custom preformed around Christmas and the new year, mostly found in South Wales. The custom involves a decorated horse skull carried on a pole, with its puppeteer disguised under a cloth or sack. 

The tradition as we see it was first recorded around the 1800s and the early twentieth century, although the origins were likely seen long before this. 

Around Christmas time, groups would travel with the horse and go from house to house. The horse and its posse would request entry through the medium of song, and the householders would deny them in a similar fashion. They’d continue to sing to each other until the household relented, and the horse came in to drink and make merry, before traveling to the next house, with the pervious homeowners in tow. 

Although the pandemic has put a stop to my local Mari Lwyd, you can bet it will be back again. If you fancy the darker side of this practice, check put these piece of Original Fiction from last year.


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