The Top 5 Scariest Christmas Monsters

And you thought Christmas was all fun and merriment?

If you were raised in England or America, you likely grew up thinking of Christmas as a warm, cheery affair culminating in the opening of presents delivered by a jolly, fat elf named Santa Claus. You may have also been told that Santa keeps a "naughty or nice" list and that misbehaving children get lumps of coal for Christmas instead of gifts, but you knew in your heart these were hollow threats. Santa, after all, is the nicest guy on earth. Christmas is no time for meting out punishment.

Not so if you grew up in certain parts of Europe where a considerably darker tradition holds sway. In the folklore of Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and other European countries, Santa is accompanied by Christmas monsters and scary henchmen whose sole mission is to punish unruly children and terrify them into submission. If you've been nice, there's nothing to worry about. If you've been naughty, you'd better be prepared for a whipping — or worse!

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Krampus Parade
Salzburg holds nighttime Krampus parade. Johannes Simon/Getty Images News/Getty Images

With his goat horns, cloven hooves, and snake-like tongue, Krampus resembles nothing so much as the devil himself, which is precisely how children in central and eastern European countries think of him. Described by one 19th-century source as "the terror of the nursery," Krampus is usually depicted carrying a bundle of switches, the better to flog misbehaving youngsters.

In Alpine countries the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) is known as (Krampus Night), on which the Christmas devil himself supposedly roams and drunken celebrants take to the streets wearing Krampus costumes and threatening passersby with whips and chains.

According to folklore, Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas as he goes from house to house with his bag of gifts. There is a knock at the door, and there stands kind "Nicolo." Behind him stands the not-so-kind Krampus. Each child in the house is called forward to account for his or her behavior:

Nicolo asks the most awkward questions, such as: 'Who stole his sister's sweets last week?' 'Who broke her brother's boat??' WHen all the questions are answer, the good children receive presents, but naughty boys and girls do not get anything from Nicolo; instead of a puzzle-box, a ball, a new knife, or a doll, they get a gift from the Krampus, and the Krampus only gives one kind of present — a birch-rod. (Chatterbox, 1905)

Are you ready for your Christmas interrogation?

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Le Père Fouettard

in French-speaking countries St. Nicholas is known as Père Noël (Father Christmas). His sinister opposite number is Père Fouettard (Father Whipper or Father Spanker), a shaggy wild man who beats naughty children on St. Nicholas' Day. He's usually depicted wearing a long, black beard and hooded robe, carrying a whip or a handful of birch rods.

According to legend, Père Fouettard was an unscrupulous innkeeper (or butcher, in some versions) who murdered three young children and planned to carve up their corpses to sell as meat. His plan was foiled by St. Nicholas, who resurrected the children and made Père Fouettard his minion. It may seem strange to assign the job of punishing the naughty to a known child killer, but such is the logic of folklore.

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Grýla, a giant ogress who is said to live in the mountains of Iceland, descends from her hideaway every Christmas to hunt down misbehaving children in the cities and towns and eat them. She's likely to be accompanied not only by her gargantuan feline companion, the Yule Cat -- who has a similar taste for the flesh of children, particularly those who weren't given new clothes for Christmas -- but also by her 13 sons, the mischievous Yule Lads.

Traditionally, Icelandic children place a shoe in their bedroom window each of the 13 nights before Christmas and check the next morning to see what each of the Yule Lads, consecutively has left in the shoe. If he or she was nice the previous day, the child receives a gift; if naughty, a rotten potato. Nobody wants to find a smelly potato in their shoe, but it's a better outcome than being eaten by an ogress, that's for sure.

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Knecht Ruprecht

"The custom is wide-spread among the country people throughout the whole north of Germany," Benjamin Thorpe's 1852 volume called Northern Mythology informs us, "of having a man on Christmas Eve to enter the apartment, disguised with a long beard, and enveloped either in fur or in pea-straw, who asks the children whether they can pray, and, if they stand the trial, rewards them with apples, nuts and gingerbread (pepper-cakes); and, on the other hand, punishes those that have learned nothing."

This character's name is Knecht Ruprecht. In the folktales told of him, Ruprecht carries a long staff and a bag of ashes with which he beats the reprobate children who haven't learned to pray.

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Frau Perchta

Frau Perchta (or Berchta), aka "the belly-splitter," is another character from Germanic mythology who may not have originally been associated with Christmas but who is now thought of by Austrian children as a Yuletide terror. Why? Because if you've misbehaved, this hideous witch will visit your house during the 12 days of Christmas, rip your guts out, and stuff your belly with bricks, firewood, or whatever else may be at hand.

True, the legends about Frau Perchta also say she can appear among mortals as a great beauty, and if you've been good she'll give you candy instead of cutting you open with her knife, but who among us is so well behaved we needn't fear the worst?