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Tis the Season for Creepy Winter Folklore!

Gryla and Yule Lads and Mari Lwyd, OH MY!

horse skull celebrates christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and by that, I mean one of the creepiest when it comes to folklore and local customs and characters. While we often think of Yuletide as a time for cookies and lights and presents and decorations, we have to remember that we have so many celebrations in the literal darkest time of the year for a reason: to drive that darkness back.

But the dark is still there, and we can see that in some of the fantastic bits of lore celebrated in this very pagan season, many of which were showcased yesterday in the final Folklore Thursday celebration of the year on Twitter.

First up, our cover gal and one of my favorite strange winter traditions: The Mari Lwyd (Pronounced Merry Lood). This Welsh holiday tradition sees a person carrying a horse skull on a stick, decked with ribbons and a sheet, parading about a town singing, doing skits along (sometimes) with men dressed as Punch and Judy, and generally entertaining people. Because nothing says holidays like a horse skull!

The Mari Lwyd has seen a bit of a revival, in recent years especially among folklorists and even neo-pagans. It’s led to some beautiful art and even some fun memes!

The Mari Lwyd fits in with a much larger set of winter traditions known as wassailing, which is pretty a far more pagan and raucous version of Christmas caroling. It involves groups going singing from house to house, often demanding drinks or sharing winter blessings, and often time this would be done in some sort of costume, and many of them were of hooded animals. In Kent, it was called Hoodening. The traditions also have a lot in common with morris dancing, mumming, and other pseudo-pagan folk traditions.

And they aren’t just limited to Britain. These ancient folk practices are popular all over, and they tap into a much deeper part of winter: when we confront and interact with the archetypal, the primal, and the specter of death along with the promise of rebirth.

My favorite variation on this that I discovered just today in the Folklore Thursday celebration was the Schnabelperchten … a terrifying creature from Austria that’s seriously committed to cleanliness.

This is some Tim Burton-level Christmas horror right here. And we even have a video! Sound on to appreciate the terrifying quacking.

There are apparently lots of winter creatures and characters who are extremely into getting children to behave, stay clean, and generally terrify everyone. Yule hags and tule lads abound.

Gryla and her Yule lads, and also tales of the Icelandic Yule Cat, are especially fascinating. They definitely get around.

And finally, what Christmas would be complete without … uh, Christmas Spiders????

What’s your favorite creepy Christmas tradition? And if you’re wondering why we didn’t get into Krampus and all the other bad Santas, don’t worry … they’re coming to town very soon.

(image: R. Fiend, Wikimedia Commons)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.