Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Eons before European folklore was Christianized, and then purified for commercialization (thanks to Macy's and Madison Avenue), and ultimately Disney-fied, the winter "holiday season" was that dark time of the year when witches, demons, death, and evil spirits ruled. From what was once a season ruled by the Wild Hunt, black dogs, Befana, and the Midwinter Witch or Winter's Bride, we've now sunken to a jolly old "elf" who poses for pictures with snotty wee ones in the mall while listening to Muzak. Let's step back from this modern abomination to those old days when the winter season had a bit more, shall we say, bite to it.
The traditional Christmas season began during the four weeks preceding Christmas with a period known collectively as Advent, which ends on December 24. It's followed by the 12 days of Christmas, which began on December 25 (Christmas) and ran through January 6 (the Epiphany) when the Christ Child was visited by the wise men. Of course, long before even the Christian theological calendar came to dominate European festivities, Yule was a 12-day festival centered on the winter solstice in December. To the Romans, this time of the year was Saturnalia, a period of merrymaking beginning mid-December in celebration of Saturn and the winter solstice.
Today, Yule is now associated with a good luck log blazing on the hearth, but it was once associated with the running of black riders and hounds searching for the dead, or those soon to be carried to the underworld. The Wild Hunt, called oskorei, comes from an Old Norse word meaning “terror.” Norwegians had plenty of other names for the wild hunt, including Jolorei or “Yule Host.” The yule goat or yule buck, for instance, once carried St. Nicholas. This is itself perhaps traced back to Norse mythology when the black yule buck pulled Thor and his chariot. And need we mention that Shub-Niggurath of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction was often associated with that haunting phrase "The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young." However, by 1000 AD yule had been absorbed into the celebration of Christmas and its feast days. Nevertheless, the darker aspects of the old ways remained for centuries, all mashed into strange bedfellows with Christian saints and allegory in a higgledy-piggledy fashion
Ancient stories told of Lussi Night, lussinata, when a dark winter witch came calling, flying through the air with her wild hunt. This was particularly dangerous from December 13 (lussinata) to yule, when the witch searched the human villages for bad children to take away and eat. If the children had done their chores, they received gifts of candy and fruit from Lussi. But if the floors were not swept and kitchenware was not burnished, if beds were not made and shoes were not polished -- well, then the children could be hauled away by the black witch of winter, never to be seen again. A similar character can be found in Befana, an Italian winter witch said to search the world for the Christ Child. Much like Lussi, Befana has in some tellings an evil quality, kidnapping and eating bad children. Once linked to Christian saints, however, the winter witches tended to lose their blacker aspects.
And it wasn't just witches who went about devouring bad children. There were male cannibals of Christmas, too. Perhaps the most famous these days is from the Austrian Alps, Krampus. This horned, hairy demon came calling on December 5 or 6 in the annual Krampusnacht, a drunken revelry which scared the children and let the young men cavort around the village in strange costumes. Krampus was the dark co-traveler of the light-aspected St. Nicholas. As Santa rewarded, so Krampus terrified, whipped, or simply kidnapped and devoured. Other midwinter monsters doled out punishment as well, such as Knecht Ruprecht, Belsnickel, and Le Père Fouettard -- the last known as Father Whipper. This one carries a scourge and a basket, ready to flog the children or cart them off for a snack.
These co-conspirators of Santa give a deeply disturbing meaning to song lyrics wherein the children are warned, "he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." Indeed!
For adventurers, these witches, ghosts, and monsters make perfect antagonists by which the party can investigate, hunt, and then defeat theses child-eating beasts. But what if these were simply messengers, couriers, taking the children back to a Big Bad? So, then an even bigger battle? Perhaps. But what if the Wild Hunt and its associated hangers-on were simply culling the villages of the sick children (or adults) who could not be saved by a hedge doctor, who was bound for agonizing deaths and thus the annual visits were a cold but necessary kindness meted out by the old gods? Or what if -- ala The Lottery or The Wickerman -- the price in souls was a levy for sparing the village even more death? In some cases, these winter visitors were associated with fertility rituals, and so it's not hard to imagine them as supernatural tax men, taking the fee for a harvest boon. But nevertheless, these Christmas cannibals were there back when the winter was darker and colder and spring seemed to be ages away.
So, if you are out in a dark forest in the Christmastide season, maybe looking for a Christmas tree or a bit of mistletoe, and you happen to hear a branch snap or see a horned shape out of the corner of your eye, you best keep a lookout. And ask yourself a simple question. Have you been, this year, naughty or nice?