This year, the creators of the gritty hit series Peaky Blinders have released their own dark version of one of the most famous ghost stories ever penned: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
As the days get darker quicker and the weather colder in many places, it was a tradition to gather around the fire during the Christmas and holiday season to spin ghostly tales.
Even when you look at some of the popular holiday traditions around the world that continue today, it is always fun to add a little creepiness to your Christmas magic. Here are some fun and sometimes geeky facts about the creepier side of Christmas traditions and holiday tales:
1. This version of A Christmas Carol is only the latest of dozens of film adaptations and parodies made for movies and television, ranging from the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged to the animated Mickey’s Christmas Carol, but one of the earliest film adaptations is the 1901 British silent film Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost. The first feature-length version was called The Right to Be Happy, made in 1916.
2. In addition to the countless versions of the book itself, several graphic novel versions of A Christmas Carol are available, including a Marvel Zombie’s Christmas Carol, DC’s Batman Noel, more than one Classics Illustrated version, and a young reader’s version by Harvey Kurtzman, Marley’s Ghost, that was the 2018 Eisner Award winner for Best Digital Comic.
3. One creepy Christmastime visitor in central Europe, Krampus, the half-goat, half-demon kidnapper of naughty children, is believed to have gotten his name from the German word Krampen, meaning claw.
4. Krampus Night (Krampusnacht) is on December 5 (the day before St. Nicholas Day), where bad kids are said to be beaten with branches, or in some cases… dragged to Hell. Yikes!
5. One of Krampus Night’s more festive aspects is the Krampus Run (Krampuslauf), most common in Austria and Germany, where people parade around the streets imbibing holiday “spirits” and participating in some darkly fun Christmastime cosplay.
5. Krampus may be gaining popularity thanks to the appeal of horror movies and comics, but he isn’t the only nasty visitor who comes around the Christmas season. In Iceland during the 13 nights before Christmas, beginning December 12, families are visited by one of 13 pranksters known as the Yule Lads, each with his own nasty trick. These boys do everything from harass sheep to steal leftovers, meat, milk, and bread. They are often found peeking eerily in windows, sniffing doors, or licking spoons in pursuit of their plunder.
6. These Yule Lads, who were first mentioned in the 17th-century poem Poem of Gryla, may be bad, but their parents, Gryla and Leppaluthi, are even worse, as they wander around town begging and asking human parents to hand over to them their naughty children.
7. Gryla has a giant pet, the Yule Cat, whose modus operandi is lurking around to find people and kids who have not received new clothes by Christmas Eve or have dirty shoes… then he eats them.
8. Mysterious Package Company, which creates mysterious story puzzles for people to solve, including some dark holiday tales, offers a set of “Dread Holiday Cards” depicting characters like Krampus, the Yule Lads and Yule Cat, and Pére Fouettard.
9. Who is Pére Fouettard? French for “Father Whipper,” he is another one of St. Nicholas’s partners, who travels with Santa handing out coal lumps or beatings to disobedient kids. There are several different versions of Pére Fouettard, including soot-covered Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) of Dutch lore.
10. Santa certainly has some eerie friends he likes to travel with for his “Good Cop/Bad Cop” routine, including Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht, who hands kids bags of ashes if they don’t know their prayers. One of the darkest of these cohorts is Hanstrapp in eastern France. According to legend, he was a rich and powerful man who began worshipping Satan and using black magic to gain more wealth. Long story short, he was excommunicated from the church, ostracized, and left broke. His wandering around in the wilderness for years, alone and poor, drove him crazy, and he began disguising himself as a scarecrow to trap and eat children. Today, he goes from house to house in his scarecrow disguise looking for his next tasty kid treat.
11. One of the most popular creepy Christmas tales today, now a Disney favorite, is The Nightmare Before Christmas. This Halloween/Christmas mash-up was once deemed by Walt Disney Studios as too dark and scary for kids. When the movie was first released, it was through the Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures instead. You can read more about this film from my posts on fun and geeky facts about Stop Motion Animation and Skeletons.
12. The voice of Santa Claus in Nightmare Before Christmas was originally going to be that of Vincent Price, but his wife died before he began reading for the part. Filmmakers felt Price’s grief could be heard in the voice and didn’t fit with the jolliness of Santa.
13. Christmas caroling is a little wilder in Wales, thanks to the custom known as Mari Lwyd (pronounced Mary Lloyd), where people go around with a large horse’s skull mounted on a pole (the Mari Lwyd), the holder of which is often hidden beneath a sackcloth or sheet. They go to homes and pubs seeking treats and spreading luck. This party can go on all night. This Celtic tradition is being revived by cultural groups in Wales, and people often make these “skulls” from paper maché or wood for a less morbid processional. Today, these big hobbyhorse skulls are made festive with ribbons, ornaments, and other holiday trimmings.
It takes “
14. There’s an old-world Christmas witch who is much more fearsome than even Krampus: Frau Perchta. This “Spinnstubenfrau” or “Spinning Room Lady” doesn’t just prey on the young ones. This fearsome witch carries a long knife under her skirts, and those who haven’t got all their spinning chores done by January 6 (Twelfth Night)—or if you haven’t got your home in order or haven’t left Perchta her traditional porridge treat—you’ll get the gift of being disemboweled and having your innards replaced with rocks and straw.
15. Countries like Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey have some creepy Christmas goblins known as “The Kallikantazari,” who live underground most of the year thinking of ways to bring on the apocalypse. Of course, it is during the 12 Days of Christmas that they surface to cause all sorts of chaos. Some folklore said you could keep them out of your home by burning a Yule log or incense. They also can’t count above two (three is a holy number), so placing a colander on the doorstep can trick them as they try to count the holes in it and eventually kill themselves.
16. Although Gremlins is now considered by many a Christmas movie (since it’s set during the holidays), it was released during the summer. It was originally going to be released at Christmas, but that would have put it up against Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
17. Gremlins originally was going to be a full-on horror. Before Steven Spielberg and director Joe Dante made sure the gore was toned down, some original story elements included Gremlins eating Billy’s dog and throwing his mom down the stairs… after they decapitated her. Even so, this film is pretty eerie, and one of the movies that helped create the PG-13 rating.
18. The Grinch, whose latest incarnation is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is now nearly synonymous with the joy Christmas can put in even the tiniest, iciest hearts. Fans of the original 1957 Chuck Jones adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas know he is voiced by one of the most famous “monsters” of all, Frankenstein’s monster Boris Karloff. However, Karloff did not provide the baritone sounds for the song “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.” That was voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft, who not only voiced Tony the Tiger for more than 50 years but can also be heard on several Disney attraction rides including the deep-voiced “singing bust” (the one often mistaken for Walt Disney) in the Haunted Mansion.
19. Horror movies fans can find several Christmas-based scary movies, and this year’s recently released Black Christmas is only the latest (and a remake of a ’70s film of the same name). Many of these movies include depictions of favorite holiday characters from elves to Santa to snowmen to Jack Frost to vengeful Christmas trees to the Gingerbread Man (voiced by Gary Busey). Many of these, of course, are direct to video releases.
20. In South Africa, one creepy ghost story meant to keep kids from stealing “cookies left out for Santa” involved the ghost of another child, Danny. According to the tale, Danny was caught stealing cookies and was killed by his grandpa. Now he looks for the homes of other naughty children to haunt during the holidays.
Here’s hoping everyone enjoys peace and kindness this holiday season with family and friends, and fear not: folktales are meant more to ignite imagination than to punish “wicked kids,” thankfully.
But, just in case you haven’t got all your flaxen spun or your shoes clean, I would sleep with one eye open.