The Lost Female Figures of Christmas - Part II
In Part I we explored the historical background of old Germanic holidays that honored female ancestors at Yuletide, the importance that pre-Christian Northern European cultures placed on women, and some female Christmas figures with ancient pagan roots. I recommend reading Part I before continuing on to Part II.
Like so many of the figures discussed before, Perchta is multifaceted. She is considered to be related to, or even another form of the goddess Holle (who was discussed at the end of Part I).
Perchta is known all around the German speaking world and neighboring areas. She is sometimes seen as a beautiful lady in white, and sometimes seen as a hideous monster. Perchta also goes by many names. As Holle she is also known as Holda, Hulda. Perchta is sometimes called Berchta, Bertha, and many other variants.
In Part I it was mentioned that Holle is such an enigmatic figure that she can't be explained well by a short summary (I will be writing more on her in future, so stay tuned). But, for our purposes here, it should be said that Holle/Perchta appears to have been very wide-spread and greatly honored by the Germanic people of the continent. And, as such, a large scale campaign to halt her veneration seems to have been launched by the Church (not unlike Ostara and the campaign against her that still rages today).
While goddess Holle lived on in folklore as Frau Holle, Perchta lived on as a hideous monster who comes out of the forest to terrorize villagers at Christmas.
Conversion Demonized Pagan Figures
It should be noted that the Germans of the continent were converted by and large by force. Charlemagne made it his mission to unite the Germanic tribes under one banner. But, it is easier to unite a people if they worship only one God, one system of belief. During this campaign, Germanic indigenous culture was attacked with vigor. Ancient holy trees in sacred groves were chopped down, and pagan holidays and holy figures were banned. (I touched on this in my article on Externsteine. And here is another article on the conversion of Northern Europe).
Because of this history, it is difficult to know if Perchta would have had both of these faces in her original context. We know that pre-Christian supernatural beings were often twisted into demonic creatures by the Church. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that creatures we view as cute and harmless, such as fairies and elves, met the same fate. Fairies were even strongly associated with witchcraft and were often a key feature of witch trials (Please see my article "When Witches Communed with Fairies" for more on this).
In any case, the hideous Perchten creatures come out each year around Christmas and New Years to harass and frighten the good people who dwell in the Alps. The Perchten typically parade with another "demon" of Christmas known as Krampus, and are similar in appearance.
From Christmas demons to a Christmas witch! Children in Italy have little use for Santa Claus, it's la Befana who brings joy and presents.
Befana is said to have a possible connection to Perchta. In fact, Northern Italy has holiday creatures very similar to the Alpine Perchten, especially where Italy borders the Alps.
There are other connections as well. Perchta/Holle is thought to be related to the Witte Wieven. As mentioned above, the goddess Perchta was a lady dressed in white. The Witte Wieven are feminine spirits related to the "white women" of European folklore. These women and similar ones were known all around Europe in pre-Christian times, and are still a part of Dutch folklore today. It is thought that the origins Witte Wieven stem from the veneration of the spirits of dead wise women. And, as we know, the word "witch" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "wicce" meaning exactly that.
Witches remained very common in folklore all around Europe. Today we are most familiar with the demonized versions, the evil old hags. But, there were benevolent witches as well. La Befana is a great example of this. Good witches remained common in German folklore as well. To this day kitchen witches are found hanging on the walls of the kitchens of German women. Further, witches enjoyed their own holiday in Germany known as Walpurgisnacht, Night of the Witches, which takes place in the Spring.
Italy has its own history of traditional witchcraft as well. The Benandanti were a group of witches, both men and women, who met in secret during the 16th and 17th centuries. When interviewed, they admitted to going into trance to meet up with the souls of other witches to do battle against the forces of evil. Their purpose was to protect the crops from unseen malevolent forces.
La Vecchia Religione is Italian for "the Old Religion." It said by some to have survived underground in secret all of these years. Indeed, many Italians and Italian-Americans have had a superstitious grandmother who warned against such things as "the evil eye." The Old Religion in the Italian Tradition is being revived today under the name "Stregheria.
Befana the Christmas Witch, along with the many old Italian superstitious beliefs which remain prevalent today, demonstrate that even in seat of the Catholic Church, old beliefs die hard.
Another witchy figure associated with Christmas is Grýla - an Icelandic giantess. Although she was not known to be part of Christmas festivities until the 17th century, Grýla enjoys a long history of tradition among Icelanders. She mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in the poetic Edda, so she was possibly known to the Norse of previous eras as well.
In Icelandic tradition, Grýla is the mother of the Yule Lads, a group of mischievous gnomish creatures who descend from their mountain to wreak havoc in the towns below.
Grýla plays the role of the punisher of naughty children. Just as Krampus in Germany drags away bad children, Icelandic children who do not behave themselves may find themselves being carried away by the wicked Grýla.