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Varla Ventura

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Things That Go Bump in the Night-Before-Christmas

Posted: 12/20/11 12:20 PM ET

Riding with the devil at midnight. Dancing with witches under the ripening moon. Rattling chains and moaning ghosts. When you really get down to it, there are a startling number of traditions that are far more sinister than your usual red-suit wearing, welcome-lapped (don't go there) Santas. I'm not talking about those known "helper" elves or magical flying deer. I'm talking about things that leap from roof to roof, beat your children with switches or steal the sweets from your cupboard. Take for example the mythical Krampus. Traditionally he accompanies ol' St. Nick, dolling out the punishment that gracious jolly Klaus can't hack. If you are good, you get presents. If you are bad, Krampus will at best beat you with a bundle of birch branches. Or chains. If you are really, really bad you will be thrown in his sack and eaten for Christmas dinner. He is a nasty goat-like beast, with a long protruding tongue and a not-so-surprising likeness to Lucifer himself.

In Scandinavia, the dark of the night of Christmas Eve is certainly not a night to go wandering. Christmas trolls run wild, dancing around bonfires and drinking and cavorting with those ultimate and perpetual creatures of the night, the witches. And on the subject of witches, there is the Italian Befana -- a witch who leaps from roof to roof, leaving good children candies and sweets, and bad children rocks or stones or lumps of coal. She isn't so bad, though... sometimes she will sweep the floor before she departs -- to the delight of mothers everywhere.

One of the most terrifying creatures to parents and children alike is the Bavarian Berchte -- a wretched bogey who cuts open the stomachs of naughty children. There are also tricky Will o'the Wisps, sneering black dogs, howling wolves, and scores and scores of ghosts, roaming the countryside of the British Isles and the Norse countries. And don't forget that hideous half-human monster of Greek lore, the Kallikantzaroi.

Perhaps these cultural creeps exist to keep children safe and warm in the very darkest hours of winter, to protect those excitable little ones who, hopped up on Christmas candy, are certain they will spot Santa Claus. Or perhaps, like Santa's naughty list, it is a way of keeping kids in line all year round. Who needs a time-out when you have a rusty chain wielding beast to do the job for you?

It is also interesting to remember that many traditions pay tribute to the dead during the Yuletide times. Probably linked to the short days and long nights, and a natural pining for loved ones who have passed beyond, the tradition of a Dumb Supper, most often practiced on All Hallows' Eve was once (and in some places still is) a Christmas Eve tradition. The Twelve Days of Christmas, peaking on the 24th, are believed to be some of the most supernatural days of the entire year -- where the veil is absolutely thinnest between the land of the living and that of the dead, and where strange, strange things can take place. The magic of Christmas, you say? Try wells running thick with blood, or animals talking, or Death and his winter scythe roaming the snow-packed cobblestones!

And you thought your awkward family photos or ugly Christmas sweaters were the real horrors of the holidays.