8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

10 Forgotten Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
A scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976).
Rankin/Bass Productions

If you're prone to picturing your favorite Christmas characters as stop-motion puppets, you can thank Rankin/Bass. The production company founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass found success in transforming holiday songs and myths into fully-developed television specials in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Their most popular specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, are still staples of holiday programming decades after they first aired.

But not every holiday film that played under the Rankin/Bass banner was an instant success. After adapting the most beloved Christmas stories, the company broadened its definition of holiday material, with varying degrees of success. Some films were forgettable, and others were so strange and unsettling that young viewers forced themselves to forget. Here are some Rankin/Bass specials that may be missing from holiday television marathons this year.

1. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Scene from Rudolph's Shiny New Year.
Rankin/Bass Productions

After the stressful events of his 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph deserved a vacation. In Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976), the red-nosed reindeer barely has a day to rest before being sent on his next adventure. When Santa Claus and his reindeer return home to the North Pole after delivering presents on Christmas, they learn that Happy the Baby New Year is missing. It’s up to Rudolph to bring him home before midnight on New Year’s Eve or else the calendar will be stuck at December 31. And because it wouldn’t be a Rankin/Bass cartoon without a terrifying villain, a vulture named Eon the Terrible is racing to catch Happy first so he can live forever. Thankfully, Rudolph has a caveman, a Medieval knight, and Benjamin Franklin on his side.

2. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

Scene from The Little Drummer Boy, Book II.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The Little Drummer Boy from 1968 ends with the birth of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the events of Christmas. This meant that Rankin/Bass’s most overtly religious Christmas special wasn’t an obvious choice for a follow-up, but the studio still released one in 1976. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II is inspired by "Silver Bells"—a song whose lyrics have nothing to do with the first Christmas at Bethlehem. In the sequel, the drummer boy Aaron and the wise man Melchior join forces to protect silver bells made for baby Jesus from the Roman soldiers plotting to steal them.

3. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

Scene from Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Rankin/Bass Productions

By the late 1970s, it was apparent that Rankin/Bass was running out of Christmas myths to expand into television specials. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, their 1977 stop motion film, tells the story of an outcast donkey who experiences a series of traumatic events during the Roman Empire. After being bullied by other animals, left for dead by his owner, and suffering the loss of his mother, Nestor becomes a hero by carrying a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where she gives birth to Jesus. Needless to say, Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey didn’t have the same cultural impact as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

4. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

Scene from The First Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

It may have a happy ending, but The First Christmas (1975) is the bleakest movie on this list. An orphaned shepherd named Lucas is taken in by a group of nuns after he’s blinded by lightning. When snow falls during the abbey’s Christmas pageant, Lucas miraculously regains his eyesight and sees snow for the first time. The story swaps Rankin/Bass's signature humor and fantasy for heavy-handed sentimentality, which may be why it didn’t land as well with kids as the company’s other holiday specials. One highlight is a voice performance by Angela Lansbury as the narrator.

5. Jack Frost (1979)

Scene from Jack Frost.
Rankin/Bass Productions

So this film from 1979 is technically a Groundhog Day special, but its connection to winter means it’s usually lumped in with the rest of Rankin/Bass’s Christmas programming. A groundhog named Pardon-Me-Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett) narrates the story of Jack Frost. After Jack Frost falls in love with a woman on Earth, Father Winter agrees to make him human, with the catch that Jack will turn back into a sprite if he fails to obtain a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife by the first sign of spring. The special is notable for its weird characters, including a villain with a clockwork horse and henchmen. And—spoiler alert!—because Jack doesn’t get the girl at the end, it’s one of the few Rankin/Bass films that doesn’t have a happy ending.

6. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)

Scene from Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1979, Rankin/Bass gave two of its most iconic Christmas characters—Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—their own movie. The studio was so confident in the product that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July even had a brief theatrical release overseas. But the film has failed to take the place of the original specials in the public consciousness—maybe because seeing snow snakes terrorize Rudolph and watching an evil wizard transform into a tree were too much for younger viewers to handle.

7. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)

Scene from Pinocchio's Christmas.
Rankin/Bass Productions

The story of Pinocchio may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but that didn’t stop Rankin/Bass from turning the classic Italian fairytale into a holiday special. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980) features many of the same themes and characters as The Adventures of Pinocchio—only this version of the tale centers around the puppet’s first Christmas. Santa Claus even makes a cameo appearance.

8. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

Scene from The Stingiest Man in Town.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of the most widely adapted stories of all time, so of course it shows up in Rankin/Bass’s filmography. An insect named B.A.H. Humbug narrates this musical retelling from 1978, with Walter Matthau starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Stingiest Man in Town joins Frosty the Snowman as one of the few Rankin/Bass Christmas productions made with traditional 2D animation instead of stop-motion.

9. The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981)

Scene from The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold.
Rankin/Bass Productions

Rankin/Bass’s streak of mashing up Christmas with other holidays reached peak weirdness in 1981. That’s when the studio released The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold—a story that follows a young Irish sailor who helps a clan of leprechauns protect their gold from an evil banshee named Old Mag the Hag. By trying to create a special that could air around Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, the filmmakers ended up with something that made little sense at any time of year.

10. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Scene from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.
Rankin/Bass Productions

In 1970, Rankin/Bass explored how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus with Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Fifteen years later, the studio produced a film that provided an alternate origin story for the character, based on L. Frank Baum's 1902 children's book of the same name. This second special wasn’t as well-received as the first. It starts with an antler-sporting sorcerer called the Great Ak finding an abandoned baby in the forest. The child is taken in and raised by wood nymphs, eventually growing up to become a jolly man who delivers toys to children—all while fighting monsters called Awgwas on the side. It ends with a council of mythical beings granting Santa Claus immortality. What was arguably Rankin/Bass’s most unusual Christmas special was also the last to use stop-motion animation.

What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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