America is a Johnny Come Lately when it comes to cruel, wicked, frightening, and downright evil Christmas legends. Europeans have been at it for almost two millennium, and they have come up with more ways to frighten kids into behaving before the holidays than you could ever imagine.
On this side of the pond, parents resort to the usual “naughty or nice” warning and might even hint that Santa will not leave everything the kids want this holiday if they don’t behave. In the United States, the most extreme tale of Christmas woe we heard this year was one politically motivated department store Santa who gave a lecture on gun control to kids who asked for a toy pistol or rifle following the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
But in Europe, parents, religious figures, village elders, and children’s authors have been frightening the heck out of kids since time immemorial with tales that would ruin a good night’s sleep for a seasoned veteran of horror movies. Even if you have watched every single sequel to Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween ten times each, Krampus or Gryla will scare you into insomnia
Although it makes absolutely no sense to most sane human beings, poop and bowl movements seem to play a major role in two of the most unusual Christmas legends we have ever come across. From Catalonia comes the legend of The Caganer, based on the ancient tale of the evil man who has the bad taste to move his bowels while Christ was being born. He is graphically depicted as a peasant in a red hat, trousers to his knees, getting ready to go to the bathroom. When the city of Barcelona tried to join the 21st century in 2005 and ban The Caganer, riots ensued and the festival in his honor was restored.
Another strange Spanish Christmas legend is Tio de Nadal, the log that literally poops out gifts including nuts and dried fruit. Rumor has it that if you place the log on the fire and children sing the Tio de Nadal song, the burning yule log will give more useful presents. Here is a verse of the song, translated to English, just in case you are inclined to give this a try over the holidays.
Poop Log, poop turron
Hazelnuts and cottage cheese.
If you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
Leaving the world of bathroom humor behind us, we continue our journey to encounter trolls, demons, witches, and imps who are quite happy to eat bad little boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Austria gave us Krampus, a beast like monster who accompanies jolly Saint Nick on his rounds. Krampus has a wonderful job. He grabs any boy or girl who is bad and flings them straight into the pit of hell. Occasionally, he might save an especially plump youngster and eat him or her later.
Austrian kid are often spared a visits by Krampus because they may have already met up with Perchta on any of the traditional 12 nights that precede Christmas. Instead of flinging the misbehaving children to hell, Perchta has found a kinder and gentler way to deal with miscreants. She merely slits open the youngster’s belly and leaves the child to bleed to death.
Iceland is not quite Europe, but the country was settled by Europeans who brought their legends with them, including one nice old giantess named Grýla. She has a taste, literally, for naughty children, and, on Christmas, she just might pay a visit to an unlucky kid’s home and have the little tyke for a meal, preferably alive, kicking and raw.
From Germany comes Knecht Ruprecht, which translates to Farmhand Rupert or Servant Rupert. This delightful gentleman accompanies Santa on his yuletide journey, carrying a large bag of ashes. When the dynamic due encounters a bad boy or girl, good old Rupert gives the unlucky child a sound beating with his bag of ashes.
Rounding out the litany of strange European Christmas legends, we have a gaggle of witches, demons, imps, trolls, and other foul creatures who delight in beating children with sticks and brooms, stealing their presents, and tickling them mercilessly until the child is gasping for breath and pouring out the tears.
One might wonder why parents, priests, and town elders felt the need to tell tales like this to children in the first place. While we do understand the roots of fear during the dark ages, the Inquisition, and when the plague ravaged Europe, cruelty to children is inexcusable. Hopefully, these tales are now quaint legends to amuse adults and historians. It would be a shame if they were still in use today. That being said, we wish everyone a much kinder, gentler Christmas in 2012. Now, I must leave at once, my oldest child just used a stun gun on a guy named Krampus.