Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 245th installment in the series.
July 28, 1916: Russians Resume Brusilov Offensive
Perhaps the most stunning development of 1916, surpassing even Verdun and the Somme, was the massive success of the Russian offensive on the Eastern Front launched by General Alexei Brusilov, widely regarded as one of the most talented commanders of the First World War. A pioneer of “combined arms” tactics – in which artillery, shock troops, regular infantry, and aerial reconnaissance worked in close coordination to overwhelm enemy defenses – in June 1916 Brusilov was given authority over the entire Russian Southwest Front, with four armies under his command, and stunned the world by breaking through the Austrian defenses and pushing the demoralized Habsburg armies back over a hundred miles in places. After a pause to regroup and redeploy his forces (including the addition of the Third Army and a special Guards Army, drawn from elements drawn from other Russian armies, the latter not shown on the map below), on July 28, 1916, Brusilov resumed the offensive – but this time with only limited success.
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Simply bringing Brusilov’s armies to a state of readiness again was an impressive feat, given the incredible logistical difficulties the Russians faced in Galicia, Bukovina, and southeast Poland (now western Ukraine), served by some of the most primitive infrastructure in Europe, including narrow, unpaved roads – or no roads at all – and a glaring deficiency in motorized transport. Stanley Washburn, a war correspondent following the Russian armies, described the achingly slow progress of supply columns and reinforcements moving to the front in July:
Miles and miles of peasants’ carts bearing food, provender, huge loaves of bread, were succeeded by four-horse wagons piled high with regimental and staff baggage. These, in turn, turned aside to let the field telegraph outfit pass, with its innumerable little two-wheeled carts loaded with poles and coils of wire for communications. Perhaps behind them a long column of the two-wheeled, two-horse carts holding the small-arm ammunition for the infantry passed tumultuously over the rough cobbled stones… Wagons loaded with barbed wire wound on great spools were conspicuous in the procession… A dozen times a day the traffic must pull aside to permit the passage of troops going to the front. These came through, battalion after battalion, their copper-tinged faces now gray with the fine, white dust of the road.
Violent thunderstorms didn’t help matters much, although they did make for some surreally picturesque nighttime vignettes, as recorded by Washburn, who at least got to travel in one of the scarce automobiles:
… in two minutes we were wallowing through mud six inches deep, with wheels spinning and smoking tires filling the air with the smell of superheated rubber. One instant the entire landscape would be thrown into vivid relief by the flash of the lightning, and the next, with eyes half blinded by the glare, we would be staring into blackness... With the coming of the flashing lightning, with its illumination of the country for miles about, we could see that we were in the midst of the seething life of the army… For one instant one sees them stretching away ahead and behind on the road as far as the eye can reach, and then the return of the darkness shuts them out as utterly as the putting of a cap on the lens of a camera.
After several false starts, by late July Brusilov’s forces were ready to launch the next phase of the offensive. At 4 a.m. on July 28 the Russian artillery opened up along the entire front, stretching from near Czernowitz to the southern reaches of the Pripet marshes, followed just an hour later by the first infantry attacks by the Russian Eleventh Army against the hybrid Austro-German Südarmee (South Army). Although the Eleventh Army failed to make much progress here, it did succeed in pinning down the Südarmee, preventing the Germans and Austrians from sending reinforcements elsewhere.
This set the stage for more successful attacks further south, where the Russian Ninth Army’s artillery pounded the Austro-Hungarian Third Army and forced it to retreat towards the town of Stanislau (today Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine) and threatened to breach the juncture with the Südarmee, forcing the latter to pull back as well. Meanwhile further north the Russian Eighth Army inflicted a shattering defeat on the beleaguered Habsburg Fourth Army, led by swarms of Russian shock troops, who overwhelmed the first line of Austro-Hungarian defenses and captured the second line so quickly there was basically no time to react.
These breakthroughs were exploited by bands of Russian Cossacks, who excelled at their traditional mission of sowing chaos behind the lines and generally striking terror into the enemy, often armed with weapons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the medieval period (top, Cossacks in Galicia). Malcolm Grow, an American surgeon volunteering with the Russian Army, described seeing a Cossack unit in action around this time:
Each man was armed with a fourteen-foot lance with a knife-like steel point, a great curved sabre at his side with a blade like that of a razor, a short dagger with a nasty two-edge blade in the belt, and a carbine on a leather strap slung across the shoulder… After running the Austrians through with their long lances, the Cossacks would ride by and disengage their weapons with a strong pull. Occasionally, however, the lance would be torn from their grasp, and then out would flash their long keen sabres. I attended a number of Germans after this fight, which showed the deadly power of the Cossack cutting stroke… One man I attended had his entire arm and shoulder carried away by a single blow from a sabre. Another poor devil had been struck in the top of the head and he was split through to his breast-bone, the skull cut as clean as though the work had been done with a saw.
By the end of July 28 the Habsburg Fourth Army had lost 15,000 men, most of these taken prisoner after surrendering with little resistance.
However Brusilov’s main push, towards the town of Kovel, met with less success. After some initial victories by the Russian Third and Guards Armies, the German and Austrian commanders wisely withdrew a relatively short distance to safe defensive positions behind the Stokhod River, a tributary of the Pripet River (for which the Pripet Marshes are named). The Russians found it impossible to even reach the Stokhod, as thousands upon thousands of troops were mowed down by Central Powers artillery while approaching through the mud of the broad, open marshes lining the river (below, the Stokhod River today).
Despite very heavy losses, the Russians continued the offensive in the days that followed, keeping the pressure on the Austrians but making only gradual progress, in large part due to a lack of coordination between Brusilov’s army commanders. On July 30, Washburn described the strangely dispassionate attitude of Russian artillerymen shelling enemy positions behind the Stokhod:
As we came up, the whole operation was proceeding as methodically as a drill. An officer sitting on a stump, with a notebook, was directing the fire from instructions received every few minutes from an orderly at a telephone in a near-by bomb proof. All the directions were in figures denoting changes in elevation and deviation from the target, and not a man in the battery, the officer not excepted, knew what their target was. Their aiming point was a tree in the rear, and as long as the gunner had his sights on that he cared not whether he was shooting at a village, a trench, or an enemy battery. The man at the breech sat at his post with as little concern as though working a lathe in a machine shop. The war has become absolutely casual, as a matter of fact, and these people go about their work without excitement or confusion.
In early August Brusilov regrouped before mounting a new wave of attacks, which again achieved some notable successes – but the balance of forces was gradually beginning to turn against the Russians, as supply lines stretched out and artillery started to run low on ammunition, while the Germans rushed more divisions to shore up their helpless Austrian allies.
Overall the Brusilov Offensive had a major impact on the course of the war, but its effects were ambiguous. On one hand, along with the British and French attack at the Somme, it forced German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to withdraw troops from Verdun, ending the great German offensive of 1916 and leading to Falkenhayn’s removal and replacement by Paul von Hindenburg, the hero of Tannenberg. It also persuaded Romania to join the war on the side of the Allies (though this proved a mixed blessing, at best).
But Brusilov’s victories also came at an astronomical cost: from June to September 1916, when the offensive ended, Russia suffered an incredible 1.4 million casualties, bringing its total losses for the war to date to around eight million, including killed, wounded, prisoners, and missing. By the second half of 1916 it was becoming increasingly clear that Russia could no longer sustain these losses while maintaining loyalty to the autocratic and ever-more dysfunctional monarchy of Tsar Nicholas II. Something had to give.
There’s a difference between a Christmas movie and a movie that happens to be set at Christmastime. One evokes the spirit of the holiday—the atmosphere, the charity, the awkward family meals—while the other shows snow falling and the occasional Santa hat to set the mood. This key difference is why the debate surrounding Die Hard being “a Christmas movie” is always so heated. Is it solely a matter of the calendar or does a true Christmas movie need to reflect the soul of the season?
It’s also a genre that’s oversaturated with new, harmless movies every year seeking to thaw icy hearts and let them grow three sizes after a tub of popcorn. Which makes the enduring legacies of the very best Christmas movies that much more impressive.
We all have our own lineup of movies, old and more recent, that instantly leaps to mind when you think of Christmas. Movies that you watch on repeat without fail this time of year. Movies that have achieved Christmas immortality. Here are some of the best movies that, in our opinion, capture the heart of Christmas (listed in alphabetical order, as we love them all too much to play total favorites).
1. The Apartment (1960)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Shut up and deal, everyone. A sloppy Christmas party is the catalyst of this legendary dramatic comedy, featuring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon as office works who would fall in love if they could just get their lives together. Maybe the most melancholic of the holiday romps, few films capture both the loneliness of the holidays and the life-saving power of human connection as well.
2. Babes In Toyland (1961)
There were more than a few adaptations of Victor Herbert’s operetta before this one, but the Disneyfication of the fairy tale mash-up created a Technicolor jolt of Christmas adventure. Mouseketeer Annette Funicello shines as the secret heir to a fortune, but the movie’s best weapon is Ed Wynn as the Toymaker, pouring pure delight on everything he touches. (The movie is currently streaming on Disney+.)
Just as The Hangover II is just The Hangover but in Thailand, and the sadly never-filmed Beetlejuice 2: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian would have been Beetlejuice but in Hawaii, The Best Man Holiday takes the characters we loved hanging out with from the first film and puts them all together for Christmas. It’s got every emotion under the sun, including a lot of laughs and a lip sync dance number to “Can You Stand the Rain,” and the rest of the soundtrack is smart enough to include a Christmas tune from Mary J. Blige. It’s also further proof that Terrence Howard should be added to movies if only just to spout gruff one-liners, throw cell phones, and roll out.
4. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
This may be the only romantic comedy where a handsome young man helps a beautiful woman stay with her slightly cranky husband. Of course, Cary Grant is actually a handsome young angel whose mission is to help a Bishop (David Niven) in the midst of raising money for a new cathedral. Sometimes you pray for help and God sends the hottest actor in Hollywood to take your wife ice skating in order to remind you that kindness isn’t about funding a fancy new building.
Todd Haynes’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s romance takes some dark, personal turns while still reveling in Christmas cheer. In it, Cate Blanchett plays Carol, a woman who falls for the store clerk (Rooney Mara) who advises her to buy a train set for her daughter’s Christmas present. The intensity of their budding romance is set against Carol’s difficult divorce proceedings, creating a whirlwind story filmed with the lushness of a holiday department store display.
6. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
The shortest of the movies on this list, Charles M. Schulz’s holiday special left an indelible mark on pop culture in less than half an hour. The animated wonder simultaneously gave us the best Christmas monologue about the crappiest tree and a jazzy Christmas soundtrack courtesy of Vince Guaraldi.
7. Christmas In Connecticut (1945)
Warner Home Video
Elizabeth Lane lives an ideal WWII-era life of domestic bliss on a picturesque farm with an adoring husband, sweet baby, and a host of pleasing recipes she shares with her magazine readers. Unfortunately, that’s the lie she’s living in order to keep her job as a writer. Her reality is as a single, city-dweller which is all well and good until her boss suggests she host a war hero for Christmas at the totally real and not-at-all made up Connecticut farm she’s always writing about. Cue the mad scramble. Barbara Stanwyck is fantastically charming as Lane, double life and all, and the holiday setting allows her to both search for love and discover the power of being herself.
8. A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video
There’s a reason TBS plays this on a loop for a full 24 hours heading into the big day. Endlessly quotable, the youthful memoir is stacked with iconic moments involving tongues on flagpoles, risqué leg lamps, a sadistic Santa, and a super safe BB gun. Go ahead and shout out all your favorite lines right now. Just don’t shoot your eye out.
9. The Christmas Toy (1986)
Long before Buzz and Woody, Jim Henson produced a movie about an overconfident toy tiger who puts a playroom full of toys at risk because he can’t handle being supplanted by a new favorite toy. They all come to life when people aren’t around, and flop down when the playroom door opens, but they get frozen forever if a human touches them out of their original place. It’s a funny, imaginative gem, and I wore out the VHS when I was a kid.
10. Christmas Vacation (1989)
Warner Home Video
The blessing! More outright embarrassing and less sardonic than A Christmas Story, the Griswold family’s suburban misadventures lovingly devolve into the kind of chaos that requires a SWAT team. If you’re hosting your whole family, a flaming, flying set of plastic reindeer may just be the best symbol for the season. Fun fact: Mae Questel (who stole scenes as Aunt Bethany) sounds familiar because she was the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop.
11. Die Hard (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Yup, it’s on the list. Not merely set during Christmastime, John McClane’s harrowing rescue of his wife’s office mates is a bit like an action version of Ebenezer Scrooge. He starts off cranky and hateful of the season but remembers the true value of love and kindness after being visited by multiple people with guns who teach him to share what he has with others and give selflessly to those in need.
12. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
The first film in Tim Burton’s Christmas Trilogy, this Gothic love story set in the artificial snow challenges a suburban wonderland when an unfinished Frankenstein’s monster descends from the castle at the top of the hill. Another assault on commercialism, Edward Scissorhands is the misunderstood, gentle creature thrust into a harsh world of neighborly envy and hormonal bullying. Burton followed it up by subverting Christmas with Batman Returns and celebrating more misunderstood holiday creatures by writing and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas.
13. Elf (2003)
Warner Home Video
There is no tamping down Buddy the Elf’s enthusiasm. Like a retelling of Big with yellow tights and a green, pointy hat, Will Ferrell navigates the big city world of cynics to help them locate their inner child and believe in Christmas again. The main gag is how ridiculous Ferrell is as a giant elf, but the movie turns to magic because of its refusal to be even slightly mean-spirited. It’s like taking a big bite out of spaghetti topped with M&Ms, marshmallows, sprinkles, and chocolate syrup.
14. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
It’s “The Gift of the Magi” with singing river otters. That’s an automatic win on the adorability scale, but Jim Henson’s tale of family togetherness glides by on sheer sweetness and joy, revealing that you don’t have to have expensive equipment (or even a good band name) to create beautiful harmonies.
15. Frosty The Snowman (1969)
The tip top of children’s Christmas movies is dominated by Walt Disney, Jim Henson, and Rankin/Bass, who stepped away from stop-motion animation for this story based on the wildly popular holiday tune. It’s wondrous, but it’s also more harrowing than you remember. As soon as Frosty is given life, he’s aware of his own melting mortality, and the entire plot of the story is about figuring out how he can survive. It’s also impressive for having a mediocre children’s party magician as the villain.
16. The Holiday (2006)
The purity and heart are what make Nancy Meyers’s Christmas-set house-swapping romantic comedy an annual must-watch. Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet’s characters trade cities for the winter and both discover that new Google Map directions are exactly what they need to put them in the path of the right guy. It sticks to the formula, leaving its stars to swoon, act goofy, and proposition Jude Law for sex.
17. Home Alone (1990)
20th Century Fox
John Hughes must have suffered some kind of vacation-based trauma, because this and Christmas Vacation both focus on the hilarious worsts of time away from the office. For the Griswolds it’s living beyond their means and needing more lights. For Kevin McCallister, it’s about neglect that should demand a call to Child Protective Services. The lesson of every elementary schooler’s dream of independence is that it’s ok to order your own cheese pizza—as long as you also buy more toothpaste and fight off violent robbers. And if you love seeing Home Alone on this list but bristle at Die Hard’s inclusion, think twice, because they’re essentially the same movie.
18. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
Why they keep trying to improve on perfection is beyond comprehension. Keep Jim Carrey. Keep Benedict Cumberbatch. Give me Chuck Jones’s animation team featuring Boris Karloff and the legendary voice talent June Foray. It’s a madcap comic masterpiece with a message of kindness served up piping hot next to the roast beast. Sadly its sequel (which was written as a prequel), Halloween is Grinch Night, never quite caught on.
19. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Like most of you, I often fantasize about what It’s a Wonderful Life would be like starring The Grinch. I mean, who’s The Grinch’s guardian angel? Obviously, Frank Capra’s classic tale of redemption is in the eternal top five of Christmas films thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s mournfully enthusiastic performance and its overall message that one life matters. It, more than just about any other movie, has come to represent Christmastime itself—a ubiquitous presence on TV screens everywhere throughout December.
20. Jingle All The Way (1996)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Tons of Christmas movies share the true meaning of the holiday with otherwise jaded individuals, but few punish their protagonists so thoroughly as this tale of a father who waits until the last minute to get his son the hottest toy of the year. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mattress-selling Howard Langston goes through consumerism hell to try to snag an elusive Turbo-Man doll. He fights with police, almost blows up, and has to dress up in spandex all over a piece of molded plastic. It should be required viewing on December 1 for every parent.
21. Joyeux Noel (2005)
Nord-Ouest Production, Senator Film Produktion, Joyeux Noel Ltd., Artemis Productions, MediaPro Pictures, TF1 Films Product
A prestigious epic chronicling the famous Christmas truce of 1914, wherein German, French, and British soldiers crossed into the No Man’s Land to stay the fighting and exchange gifts. The film is a sentimental melodrama that uses the perspectives of several different characters (both Allied, Central Powers, and civilian) to celebrate peace’s possible existence even in the hellish, frozen waste of war.
22. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Showcasing Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell crooning “Silver Bells” while strolling down a New York City street, this gem is the rare Christmas movie with a twist ending. It’s also the rare Christmas movie where a con artist abuses our natural affinity for charity during the season until he realizes that doing honest, good work is far more fulfilling. Who knew all you needed to set a bunch of misdemeanoring baddies straight is to stuff them in Santa suits and give them a bucket?
Surprisingly deft and sweet, Scrooge meets his maker in this film about Charles Dickens and the apparent parallels of personality he shared with one of his most famous characters. Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens really shines as Dickens, slapping on a charming presence even in the midst of an existential breakdown and every writer’s worse nightmare: a deadline. The strangest element is Christopher Plummer as Scrooge in direct communication with his author, but like a ghost of Christmas past, it works to stunning effect. The movie, the man, and the manuscript all hinge on whether Dickens can accept that people can change.
24. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
Judy Garland’s musical extravaganza ticks all kinds of holiday boxes. A great Halloween movie. A great World’s Fair movie (why isn’t this a subgenre?). An excellent Christmas movie. It chronicles a wealthy family’s eventful season as two daughters vie for romance with their respective suitors and burst into song at every opportunity. We have it to thank for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but no snowman is safe during the film.
25. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)
Not just one of the best Christmas movies, but one of the very best films of its release year, Miracle on 34th Street soars with a charismatic performance from Maureen O’Hara and precocious side eye from a young Natalie Wood. Is Santa real? And is he the old gentleman you helped get a job at the department store? Cynicism is incinerated by this infectiously warm movie—one of the only films in history where the US Postal Service acts as Deus Ex Machina.
26. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Walt Disney Studios
Undoubtedly controversial, everyone has their personal favorite version of Charles Dickens’s important treatise on humanity and self-inflicted loneliness. The 175-year-old story has been adapted more than 100 times counting movies, TV, radio, and graphic novels. Maybe 1951’s Scrooge is your favorite, maybe you like George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart best. The Muppets and Michael Caine, though, brought a fresh, playful flavor that allowed a rat to co-narrate.
27. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
What’s this? What’s this? It’s Henry Selick’s perfect stop-motion celebration of Christmas cheer through a Gothic lens. With so many Christmas movies, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is defiantly different. Mostly because it has werewolves, a singing sack filled with bugs, and a ghost dog who saves the day. So many movies focus on Christmas getting canceled because Santa gets detained, so it’s nice to see a movie about the ghouls who detain him.
28. Period Of Adjustment (1962)
Warner Home Video
Jane Fonda sporting a molasses-thick Southern accent stars with Jim Hutton as two newlyweds who fight about almost everything. The movie is about “that agonizing pause between the honeymoon and the marriage,” but it also takes its holiday setting to showcase the pause that Christmas often offers to reflect and talk and evolve. Based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, the quarreling lovers swap grievances with another couple while drinking heavily and absorbing fully the stress and release of the holiday season.
29. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Do you know the real origin of Santa Claus? If you said, “Giant goat beast buried a mile underground in Lapland,” consider yourself on the Nice List. This Finnish flick starts as a horror film, but evolves into a winter adventure featuring a bunch of naked old men, naughty children stolen from their homes, and a standing-ovation-worthy explanation for how every mall in America gets its own Santa.
30. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
The epic story of a misfit caribou who finds purpose because of what makes him unique, this Rankin/Bass tale is the longest continuously aired Christmas special of all time. It’s shown up on screens every year since 1964, thrilling young and young-at-heart viewers alike with vibrant animation, fun songs, and, for some awesome reason, an abominable snowman.
31. The Santa Clause (1994)
Walt Disney Pictures
So many great Christmas movies follow Dickens’s blueprint of transforming someone skeptical into a true believer, and this Tim Allen comedy goes one step further by converting the crank into Kris Kringle. It’s ostensibly an argument against growing up too soon (or at all), and it established the Highlander-esque rule that if Santa dies from falling off your roof, you become Santa.
32. Scrooged (1988)
Another stellar adaptation of Dickens, Richard Donner’s manic spree recasts Scrooge as a power-hungry television president played by a breathless Bill Murray. Beyond its intrinsic entertainment value and Carol Kane’s national treasure status, it also gives us all a break from a season of sentimental stories. It’s also a reminder that we should petition to make “Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas” a real thing.
33. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Warner Home Video
Jimmy Stewart is the secret ingredient for a great Christmas movie. He and Margaret Sullavan are naive romantic magic in this movie about two store clerks who despise each other but don’t know they’re secretly falling in love through anonymous letters. If that sounds familiar, it was the basis for the AOL-era You’ve Got Mail, right down to the cafe meeting where Stewart learns that his nemesis is also his love and bugs her with a healthy dose of espresso and dramatic irony as she waits for her real crush.
34. 3 Godfathers (1948)
There aren’t enough Christmas Westerns. Thankfully, John Ford crafted one that replaces the wise men with three cattle rustlers who help a young woman give birth just before she dies. With a promise to keep the baby safe no matter what, and considering the Biblical symbolism of their predicament, they make a harrowing journey across inhospitable land to New Jerusalem. John Wayne brings his John Wayneness to the picture as one of the cattle thieves, but faith even in the face of dehydration is the real star.
35. Trading Places (1983)
Paramount Home Video
One of the best comedies ever made is also one of the best Christmas films—one that is shot through with generosity while thumbing its nose at greed. It features two crusty stockbroker brothers who play God with the lives of a young, well-heeled gentleman and a poor hustler when they make a bet to see if nature wins out over nurture. They effectively switch their lives (tacitly proving that having money is a big help in making more money) but don’t count on their prince and pauper teaming up to fight back. The narcissistic brokers get what they earn, but you have to wait until their cameo appearance in 1988's Coming to America to see them back on top.
36. White Christmas (1954)
There’s just nothing better than opening those big stage doors to discover the snow you’ve waited months for has finally arrived on Christmas Eve while Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye croon about our days being merry and bright. The songs and dance routines are fantastic, the story is nostalgic and goofy, and the charm is on full blast. Even growing up in a place where it never snowed, this was the ideal.
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.
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 may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on the region and what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. 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. In recent years, the tradition has spread beyond Europe, and many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.
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 was 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.
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.
An interpreter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, portrays Belsnickel at the Landis Valley Farm Museum
gsheldon/iStock via Getty Images
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.
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, that is.
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.