Exploring The Metal Monsters of Christmas Lore
It's safe to say that heavy metal doesn't have a healthy relationship with Christianity. Metal is hot for the church, yes, but more like on fire hot than anything romantic. Because of this, one would not expect many metal bands or their fans to be the most enthusiastic about Christmas every year. However, since celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ has consistently been knocked down in favor of crass commercialism and a fat guy in a garish red suit over the decades, there's really not much for metalheads to despise anymore. Besides, who really hates Christmas, anyway? We all like gifts, wearing pjs all day, and drinking cocoa, plus if Glen Benton is cool with the holiday, you should be too.
For the traditionalists out there, there's always Yule. Yule is the name used by modern neo-pagans and wiccans in order to differentiate their celebration of the winter solstice from Christian festivities. Many of Yule's supporters correctly point out that Christmas has less to do with the actual birth of Christ and more to do with Christianity's early attempts to co-opt pagan celebrations. Before the coming of Christmas, winter was associated with a litany of dark holidays, from the Celtic Samhain to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. In most of these festivals, revelers would eat, drink, and be merry. They would also occasionally build giant phalluses to ward off evil spirits. The whole point was to celebrate the return of the sun (see Lucia in Sweden) and to keep the crops healthy for another year.
Because pretty much every pagan culture of Europe saw late December as a time when malevolent spirits were particularly active, folkloric monsters have stayed alive in the imaginations of peasants, even after the overwhelming victory of Christianity north of Rome. Or at least that's the common misconception.
According to the excellent book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, the spooky celebrations that occur during December in places like South Tyrol, Austria, Switzerland, and Bavaria have less to do with residual pagan beliefs and more to do with folk Catholicism. As author Al Ridenour states, although it is a tempting impulse to see the many spectral figures of Christmas/Yule as somehow related to the pre-Christian world, most if not all are merely "amorphous and changeable bugaboos" that are "vague and shadowy boogeymen." Dream all you want about what Carlo Ginzburg found in his 1966 book The Night Battles (namely, that in the mountainous region of Friuli, certain peasant superstitions corresponded to the idea of an ancient and shared fertility cult in Central Europe), but most of the folkish Christmas customs of Europe do not go further back than the 17th century.
Still, don't let any of this keep you from enjoying a headbanging Christmas in 2016. For that purpose, let's look at some of the coolest and creepiest crawlies of Christmas. Choice musical accompaniment has been selected by yours truly.
Here he is–the mack daddy and OG of dark Christmas. Although he is known by many names in his native Austria and Bavaria, Krampus is the most well-known name for the mischievous helper of Saint Nicholas. Depicted as a goat-man hybrid in the same vein as Old Scratch, Krampus's main purpose is to frighten the beejeezus out of bad kids on Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th). With the bearded saint in toe, Krampus (or multiple krampusse) makes a habit out of visiting local families in their homes. Sometimes he carries a switch; sometimes he carries coal. On every occasion, Krampus is an ugly freak.
In certain villages in the German-speaking Alps, dressing up as Krampus is a time-honored tradition. Each region or town has their own speciality, too. In the Italian South Tyrol, it's not unheard of for costumed krampusse to get violent with civilians. For the most part, modern Krampuslaufen, or Krampus runs, are either family-friendly affairs featuring serious actors or an excuse for local boys to get drunk and play monster. Perchten, the goblin-like followers of the Germanic goddess Perchta/Holda, may connect Krampus to an older tradition of malevolent spirit helpers.
Werewolves aren't specific to Christmas, and yet, according to folklore, Christmas is a particularly active time for lycanthropes. It used to be a common belief throughout Europe that those children born on Christmas Day were doomed to become werewolves. Why? Because it was seen as the height of blasphemy for a mere mortal to be born on the same day as the Savior. This myth got picked up by the novelist and screenwriter Guy Endore, whose 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris became the 1961 Hammer film The Curse of the Werewolf.
Crying aloud "wolf" used to be more than just a silly expression–it could cause panic among peasants who thought it would bring down the lycanthrope menace on the village, especially around Christmas. This connection between werewolves and winter may trace back to Lupercalia. After all, the Roman celebration was named after the Lupercal, or the cave in Rome where Romulus and Remus suckled the teats of a she-wolf.
Now we go to the land of ice and snow. Grýla is a fearsome troll from Iceland who may or may not have some connections to the Viking past. Grýla has hooves and thirteen tails. She's also a perpetual sourpuss with an unquenchable appetite for bad children. That's right: Grýla is a baby-eating troll. As the story goes, every Christmas, Grýla comes down from her grim, frost-bitten kingdom…I mean mountains…and puts all the naughty Icelandic children in a sack. Her goal is to dump them in her favorite stew before the holiday is over.
Ever since the 17th century or so, Grýla has been the mother of the Yule Lads, otherwise known as Iceland's answer to Santa Claus. These thirteen trolls may be a little too Snow White for dour black metallers, but Grýla the Troll Cannibal is sure to make any morose woadie happy this Yule.
The Yule Cat
Sticking with Iceland, the Yule Cat (Jólaköttur) is a massive feline that stalks the snowy forests of the island during the Christmas season. Its goal is to snatch or gobble up those wayward souls who did not receive any new clothes during the holiday. Yes, you read that right. In Iceland, a pissed off pussy kills people because their selfish parents didn't buy them a new cloak or wool shirt.
Apparently, folklorists have concluded that the whole point of the Yule Cat is to keep Icelandic workers motivated throughout the year. After all, if you're not making money and tucking some away, then you won't have enough to keep your children from getting mauled.
It isn't just frigid, Germanic Europe that has terrifying Christmas creatures. In southern Europe, especially Greece, the kallikantzaroi are small, impish, black, and blind goblins from the center of the Earth who come above ground at night during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. Back in their usual abode, the Greek goblins busy themselves with sawing and hacking at the Tree of Life. By late December, they pester Uncle Spiros and Aunt Alethea by eating critters and generally practicing bad manners. Basically, the kallikantzaroi are drunk thrash metal fans.
As you can see, Christmas has its far share of ghoulies. The Yuletide is much more menacing than Coca-Cola commercials and football games. The ancients used to see winter as a time of evil and magic. You should too.