FamilyHolidaysSan Francisco

Keeping Christmas Creepy, One Tradition at a Time

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Growing up, my mom collected nutcracker dolls. She had a couple that looked like Santas, some that looked like toy soldiers, one commemorating the 1988 winter Olympics, and two that were truly special. They were large. At four feet, they were about as tall as I was as a kid. These were papier-mâché monstrosities with teeth bared in an unsettling grimace and blood shot eyes filled with thoughts of murder. You know… for Christmas.

These things were good for a cheap scare. My brother and I (and I’d bet money that my dad was in on it too) started hiding these around the house, inside each other’s closets, outside bedroom doors, behind shower curtains. It didn’t matter that you were expecting to come across one. You would be minding your own business and to suddenly find one of these freaks was enough to make your heart stop, if only for a moment. Mom, of course, insisted the nutcrackers were “nice” and didn’t get it.

This cursed iPhone photo of a printed photo is the only evidence I have that these things existed.

Once, my brother rigged it so that when my dad had tucked me, turned the light off, and closed my bedroom door… my closet door creaked open in the darkness. I knew what I’d heard. I was almost too scared to turn on the light. When I did turn on the light and saw the nutcracker standing there amongst my clothes I screamed so loud our parents almost put a stop to the whole thing completely. I had to see the string tied from one door knob to the other before I could sleep again that night.

This particular tradition was probably unique to my family, but the practice of injecting creepy thrills into an otherwise cheery holiday go back centuries. While St. Nick comes once a year to reward good boys and girls, in folklore he’s often complemented by the darker figure of Krampus or one of a whole host of dark dwarves, witches, and imps who’d sooner put you in a sack and beat you half to death than give you anything as useful as coal. The Victorians would stay up on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories. M.R. James became so well known for his Christmas ghost stories, that his work is still considered horror classics.

But let’s not let Santa off the hook. This sees-you-when-you’re-sleeping old man is creepy as heck in his own right.

Even today where many of these older traditions have been sanitized or removed entirely to make the holiday more family friendly Christmas traditions are just a little creepy if you think about it. For one night a year, kids stay up late and eagerly anticipate a home invasion. The recent popularity of Elf on a Shelf (based on a the 2005 book by Carol Aebersold) encourages parents to hide a suspiciously cheerful looking doll in odd places around the house to convince their children they’re constantly being watched (see the hilarious Broke-Ass Stuart version here). The commercial success of this brand means the doll now comes with accessories like a fake surveillance cam. (Hey, it’s never too early to teach your kids the magic of a surveillance state, right?)

[Insert BART joke here]

Maybe there’s just something about the season — the colder weather, the early nights — that inspires this shared insanity. Or maybe it’s just a fun way of rebelling against a holiday that can be a bit too saccharine sweet at times.

While I grew up thinking my family were the weird ones, I’m older and wiser now. And I’m curious! How do you and your family embrace your inner Christmas creep? What’s your scary tradition for the holidays?

And do any of you know the story behind this one?

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Lisa Martin

Lisa Martin

Lisa Martin is a SF based writer, cocktail lush, short story enthusiast, reluctant bicyclist, and all-around lazy-time kind of gal.