As we discuss in our episode “Carrot and Stick: A Genetic Santa Story,” the holidays encompass both positive and negative reinforcement — and our genes play a role in how the promise of gifts or the threat of bodily harm affects our behavior.
For some of you out there, negative reinforcement around the holidays amounts to the threat of empty stockings or a lump of coal. But Christmas is a far darker time. The nights are long, food is scarce and who knows if spring will come at all? As such, monsters inevitably creep into holiday traditions as well.
Now some belief systems merely allow that humans such as Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht, Père Fouettard, Zwarte Piet or Saint Nicholas’ personal slaves beat and/or kidnap naughty children.
When it comes to inhuman threats, the Alpine demon Krampus tends to take the cake. For more on him, visit my Krampus Gallery of Holiday Doom. But let’s talk about other seasonal monsters intent on maiming, killing and kidnapping misbehavior and nonbelievers.
Grýla the Ogress
Don’t let all the Bjork cuteness fool you; Icelanders do not mess around.
Most of their signature dishes are survival foods and, as is befitting of the harsh North Atlantic climate, they have a Christmas ogress named Grýla, who stomps down from the mountains to hunt down naughty children and feast on their flesh.
According to Iceland Review Online, Grýla is mother to the 13 Yule Lads who drop by the 13 days before Christmas to steal food, play tricks and inexplicably leave presents in children’s shoes. Mom’s a different case, however. According to BBC News, the 13-tailed Grýla stuffs her sack full of bad children and later boils them alive for her dinner. Oh, and she also has a Yule Cat that will gobble you up if you fail to get some new clothes before Christmas. Figure that one out.
Why is Grýla so mean-spirited? You can chalk it up to seasonal depression, or perhaps this hold-over from pagan times resents getting shoehorned into Christian tradition.
The Science of Grýla?
Aside from the aforementioned podcast episode, there’s not much to say about the science behind a child-eating Christmas ogress. At the very least, however, we shouldn’t judge monsters too harshly for preying on our unruly young. Predators routinely target young prey animals that wander too far from their parents. That’s the first law of predation: Always go for the easiest meal.
None of these creatures played a role in my own childhood Christmas celebrations, but I do hold a special place in my nightmares for the Grither. I somehow managed to watch a lot of “Tales From the Darkside” at a very young age and the season 3 episode “Seasons of Belief” introduced a monstrous giant with “fists as big as basketballs” and “arms as long as boa constrictors.”
The Grither, we’re told, makes its home in an old sailing ship lost in the Arctic Sea — not far from Santa’s domain. If the creature hears its name spoken allowed anywhere in the world, it sets out to “grither” them in with its massive hands. In the “Tales From the Darkside” episode, we get to see this happen to a pair of grandparents in a rather traumatizing scene. Let’s watch:
Poor E.G. Marshall! The episode was based on a short story by Michael Bishop, and you can read a thorough comparison of the text and TV episode right here. In retrospect, it’s amazing how the episode is so simultaneously boring and unsettling.
At any rate, the Grither disturbed the Hell out of me as a child. How dare anyone so tarnish the sanctity of Christmas! Little did I know how keeping with Christmas traditions such a monster really was.
Monster of the Week is a — you guessed it — regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we’ll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we’ll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend.
About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.