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The Lost Female Figures of Christmas - Part II

Updated on December 14, 2015

Recap

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.

An old drawing of Perchta as White Goddess.
An old drawing of Perchta as White Goddess.

Perchta

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.

The Berchten monsters are similar in appearance to Krampus.
The Berchten monsters are similar in appearance to Krampus.
The two faces of Perchta
The two faces of Perchta

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.

La Befana, Italy's Christmas Witch
La Befana, Italy's Christmas Witch

Befana

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.

Witte Wieven, by Jan Toorop
Witte Wieven, by Jan Toorop

Good Witches

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.

Grýla carrying children off in her sack.
Grýla carrying children off in her sack.

Grýla

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.

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If you enjoyed this, read some more unusual Christmas history in "The Hidden History of Christmas Carols."

Icelandic Christmas Creatures - Live in Reykjavik

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    • profile image

      MAGic 20 months ago

      I've also heard of correspondence from Frau Holle/Perchta to Baba Yaga- have you?!

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      I am very impressed with all of your research, Carolyn. This is very informative, interesting, and well written. Great hub!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      Hi Abfalter, thank you so much for sharing your experiences! As a foreigner and non-native language speaker, I can only go with what's reported in English language media. However, also, I've found that traditions such as these had variations than differ not just by country or region, but also village by village. So what is observed/reported in one locale may be similar yet different to a tradition in a very close locale. Anyway, I thank you ver much for your input and if you have any English language resources on traditions from your region, I would love to read them! :-)

    • profile image

      Abfalter 2 years ago

      Hi, glad I ran into this and to see that others also try to keep old customs and lore from fading away.

      As one who grew up in Austria, I am of course rather familiar with Krampus and the Percht. I think, though, that the "monsters" in the picture are more likely Krampusse, for they only have one set of horns, the typical pointy face and ears, and the shoot made of twigs. Schiachperchten (ugly Perchtes) as the Perchten looking similar to Krampus are called specifically, usually have more sets of horns, broader faces, and horsetail whips. While the Krampus uses his shoot as punishment, the Perchten hit to ignite fertility.

      Since there are Ugly Perchten, there are in fact also Schönperchten (Beautiful Perchten.) By the way, for some reasons, traditionally only men dress up as Perchten, even if a though there are female characters (particularly witches) part of the “Passe,” the group dressing up as Perchten. The beautiful Perchten are usually not femal characters per se, just wearing really beautiful costumes.

      Often, the ugly ones storm into the house, scare away the spirits of the old year, and are then themselves driven out by the beautiful ones, who consecrate the house with song and dance. And then they all have a drink 

      BTW, we put a bowl of milk and some bread on the dining room table on the last night of that period, the Perchtlnacht, for then the Percht visits the home as the Goddess, accompanied by the souls of those who departed last year. So, as you write up there, we don’t seem to be sure ourselves any more what the Percht is, a scary monster or a beautiful spirit. Although, I am pretty clear about it myself 

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 2 years ago from West By God

      Another excellent article and will be sharing it all over too.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Hi Alan, thank you for stopping by! Yes, I think that makes some sense. Both deities have "two faces." Hel can be young and beautiful or the image of decay. Holle is associated with the underworld in association mainly with infants who died very young, they were thought to return to Holle. She is an enigmatic figure with many aspects. I would like to explore her in more depth at some point soon :-)

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I think 'Hoelle' in Saxon lore has to be something like the Norse 'Hel', one of Loki's offspring by the giantess Angrboda. The other two were Fenrir the wolf and Jormungand the world serpent that awaited Ragnarok. Hel was said to be a good-looking woman from the waist up, but putrid, rotting flesh below the belt-line. That was as a result of the curse brought on her by Odin/Oden.

      His southern (Saxon/German) counterpart was Wotan, the Angles to the south of Jutland having Woden as their equivalent, both having Thunor as their version of Thor.

      Nice piece here, Carolyn. Informative and well put.

    • profile image

      Maria Ramos 3 years ago

      very interesting!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you! So glad people are liking this :-)

    • jponiato profile image

      jponiato 3 years ago from Mid-Michigan

      I'm bookmarking both this and the companion piece.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Really fascinating coverage. Very enjoyable.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you so much! I've been absent from HP for a couple months, but I will be exploring your wonderful hubs also :-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Enthralling! Who knew that witches had anything to do with Christmas? I loved this hub and all of its cross-cultural references. Voted up and more and pinning.

    • profile image

      Kelleth 3 years ago

      Ah, thank you for clearing that up Carolyn! A merry Whomas to all (the clock will be hitting 12 very soon, time for one last bow)

    • M K Paul profile image

      M K Paul 3 years ago from India

      Carolyn thanks for sharing this hub.I really don't know much about all these.bt after reading ur article I realize that there are so many unknown thing in world

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you for your comment. The article never says Wieven means Wicce. I said that Witte Wieven were related to White Women, and thought to be the souls of Wise Women, which is another term for Witch.

    • profile image

      kelleth 3 years ago

      The anglo word wicce is correct, But it has nothing to do with the old Dutch word wieven, as an Dutch person its clear that the word and name is old Dutch for wijf, which means woman or Vixen or schrew in English depending on the context of said person using it. Mostly by very rude famers of course.

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      Michaela 3 years ago

      THANK U !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!