It’s all fun and games until someone gets eaten, beaten, or sacrificed.
Christmas is a time that should inspire togetherness and, if we consult the traditional Christmas myths… well, absolute terror. Depending on which stories you credit, the holiday is less a joyous celebration and more the reign of cannibals, monsters, and blood sacrifice (oh my!).
A lot of the horrific aspects were likely designed to elicit good behavior. There are rewards — Santa will bring toys to all the good kids! — but the punishments go so much further than the familiar coal in the stockings.
For instance, there’s the holiday goat-demon Krampus.
This charming fellow is both a looker and a stickler for discipline:
Krampus isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams: Bearing horns, dark hair, and fangs, the anti-St. Nicholas comes with a chain and bells that he lashes about, along with a bundle of birch sticks meant to swat naughty children. He then hauls the bad kids down to the underworld.
Krampus was created as a counterpart to kindly St. Nicholas, who rewarded children with sweets. Krampus, in contrast, would swat “wicked” children and take them away to his lair.
According to folklore, Krampus purportedly shows up in towns the night before December 6, known as Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night. December 6 also happens to be Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, when German children look outside their door to see if the shoe or boot they’d left out the night before contains either presents (a reward for good behavior) or a rod (bad behavior).
Krampus isn’t the only grim Christmas figure who resorts to unorthodox means to punish the wayward, though. Iceland’s Grýla is credited with some hair raising behaviors of her own:
Her story goes back to pagan times, but in more recent centuries she has become part of Christmas — making the trip down to the towns and cities, searching for naughty children.
She returns to her cave with a bag stuffed full of crying youngsters, whom she boils alive and gobbles up.
She has 13 sons, the Yule Lads, who also do their bit to harass Icelandic families in the 13 days up to Christmas — although recently they have become a little better behaved, and leave gifts in shoes too.
Gryla has hooves and horns on her head, 13 tails and a very big nose complete with warts.
Icelandic lore provides another vigilante Christmas monster in the Yule Cat, who shares an appetite for wayward children with his mistress Grýla. This gigantic monster cat lives with Grýla and the Yule lads (and you thought spending the holidays with your family was bad…) but prowls the countryside looking for victims to devour.
Compared to all that, the story of the birth of Christ sounds downright wholesome, right? Not exactly. It has its grisly aspects, too. Even the reason for Jesus’ birth is a curious one — God created man with deep flaws; He hated those flaws; and He loved mankind so much that He wanted to save us from what He’d have to do to us otherwise. The only, or best, way to do this was to impregnate a virgin, be born as a man, and then sacrifice Himself (in the form of God the Son) to Himself in order to appease Himself.
Christmas is the day that all of this supposedly kicked off with the birth of Christ. Though it tends to be overshadowed by talks of miracles and whatnot, the story is ultimately about blood sacrifice: the atonement of sins through the shedding of blood. 1 Peter 1 refers to Jesus as the sacrificial “lamb without blemish or defect,” and it was his death that is supposed to have redeemed everyone else from God the Father.
But it’s just not the part where God the Son sacrifices himself to God the Father where this is grisly. Jesus’ death is only one examples in which the blood sacrifice takes place. It featured pretty heavily in the Old Testament. It was a key part of the ordination of the priests, like Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons:
“Bring the bull to the front of the tent of meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. Then take all the fat on the internal organs, the long lobe of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its intestines outside the camp. It is a sin offering.
“Take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it and take the blood and splash it against the sides of the altar. Cut the ram into pieces and wash the internal organs and the legs, putting them with the head and the other pieces. Then burn the entire ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma, a food offering presented to the Lord.
“Take the other ram, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it, take some of its blood and put it on the lobes of the right ears of Aaron and his sons, on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet. Then splash blood against the sides of the altar. And take some blood from the altar and some of the anointing oil and sprinkle it on Aaron and his garments and on his sons and their garments. Then he and his sons and their garments will be consecrated.
There were careful rules for what would and what would not please God in sacrifices:
You are to slaughter the young bull before the Lord, and then Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and splash it against the sides of the altar at the entrance to the tent of meeting. You are to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.
And they covered everything from bovine to fowl:
“‘If the offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, you are to offer a dove or a young pigeon. The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off the head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. He is to remove the crop and the feathers and throw them down east of the altar where the ashes are. He shall tear it open by the wings, not dividing it completely, and then the priest shall burn it on the wood that is burning on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.
Burnt offerings might be the template, but there were a number of specific kinds of blood sacrifice available — and sometimes required. There were fellowship offerings, where cooking food aromas were sent up to please God. And sin offerings, too, where people had to atone for their wrongdoing with the blood of an animal. And the guilt offering. There were also specific rules for the priests and how the various animal sacrifices were to be handled.
Which brings us back to Jesus and the “Christmas miracle” so many celebrate: the sacrifice to end all sacrifice, where the blood sacrifice of animals to God the Father was superseded by the blood sacrifice of God the Son. (It’s an event that is still commemorated with communion, where the wafer and wine — symbolically or otherwise, depending on which sect you consult — become the body and blood of Jesus). Human sacrifice is not without precedent in the Bible (Jephthah’s daughter, for instance, was sacrificed as a burnt offering of thanks following a battle against the Ammonites), but it’s by no means common, either. So the sacrifice of Jesus — God in human form — is a big deal (so big that zombies rose in Jerusalem following it).
We see it so often romanticized (or, in the case of Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ, practically fetishized) that we’ve become all but immune to them, but the grim aspects are undeniable.
Also, like so many other Christmas myths, the reward/punishment aspects of the story are there: Good Guy Jesus was born to reward us with eternal life if we’re good and believe in him. Bad Guy Satan will torture us forever if we’re not and don’t. It’s a carrot/stick Christmas story with less immediate implications than Krampus or Grýla; but it’s certainly not lacking the grim aspects, both in regards to the carrot, which was bought through blood sacrifice, and the stick, which is an eternity of gruesome torture.
Personally, I find the Christmas myths pretty fascinating. But I can’t say that I’m sorry that they’ve opened the door to family time and gift giving. We recognize that kids don’t need the threat of Krampus or Grýla to be good, nor do we need the promise of a stocking full of treats. There are better reasons to be decent than scary stories or bribes.
But time for family and friends? Time to spend with those we cherish? Well, we all need that.
After all, even Grýla the child-eating Christmas monster makes time for her pet and her sons.
(Top image via Shutterstock)