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Christmas Witches: Berchta, La Befana, and the Baker's Dozen Witch
Deck the Halls With Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Before jolly ol' Saint Nick and his happy elves, there were other mythical beings associated with Christmas. Some were nice, and some were naughty. Christmas today is celebrated all over the world, and many of the oldest customs have been forgotten or evolved to fit a more modern, technological society. In the United States, children who have been good will receive presents on Christmas morning by Santa Claus and their moms and dads. They might have their stocking stuffed with candy and other small goodies. They might even leave out a plate of cookies and a cup of milk for Santa, while he passes through on Christmas Eve. But most children in the United States will never hear of the Christmas witches. They will only ever think of witches as a part of Halloween.
In Europe, before the rise of the Church, were people who believed in multiple gods connected closely with nature. These gods may have been demonized during the spread of Christianity, and now we are left with remnants of the former country folk's religious beliefs and customs. It is possible, and theorized by scholars, that some of those gods and goddesses were turned into fairies, witches, and mythological creatures by the Church to scare the people from worshiping them. The Christmas witches might have once been goddesses before being reduced to ugly hags who visit on Christmas. Why these witches were thought to visit on Christmas might have to do with the old pagan tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice (which is typically a few days before Christmas).
Berchta: The Germanic Christmas Hag
Berchta is a prominent figure in Germanic folklore dating back to at least the early Middle Ages, but most likely she's been around since ancient times. She is known by many names, including: Frau Percht, Perchta, Frau Holle, Berta, and Bertha. Her origins aren't exactly clear, but Jacob Grimm theorizes she was either an ancient Celtic Alpine or Germanic goddess before she became a feared Christmas Hag in modern alpine regions. She's not just a figure in Germanic folklore, but is spoken of in Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia too.
Berchta is associated with Christmas, according to Grimm, because of her link with the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was a horde of spirits thought to fly through the air on certain nights collecting souls and wreaking havoc in the skies. At one time, Wodan (the Germanic version of the Norse god Odin), was said to be the leader of the Wild Hunt along with his consort Berchta. One of the famous nights of the Wild Hunt was the Winter Solstice also called Yuletide typically dated around December 21st. When the Church rose to power in Europe, the story of Wodan leading the Wild Hunt became distorted and demonized, and people became afraid of this old pagan legend. While Wodan and Berchta might have once been venerated during the Christmas season, they became mutated demonic creatures like Black Rupert (Odin) and the Christmas Hag (Berchta/Perchta). Offerings were once left for the Wild Hunt and for Berchta on the roofs of people's homes to appease the gods and spirits as they flew by. The seemingly simple tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus echoes the tradition of offerings for Berchta.
In addition to her part in the Wild Hunt on Christmas, Berchta's name is prevalent in modern day Germany when the people see the first snow of the season and say "Frau Holle is shaking out her sheets."
January 5th, which is the Day of the Epiphany, was once Berchta's sacred day. This day was a part of the Twelve Days of Christmas, a tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice that echoed the old pagan traditions of welcoming the sun's return to the sky and the oncoming warmth of spring.
Berchta was once a goddess of children and women but was turned into an ugly Christmas hag who, in some tales, would stuff bad children into her sack and then eat them. Other tales say she would slit people's bellies open and fill them with straw and sticks. These tales circulated mostly around the Night of the Epiphany - if Berchta wasn't pleased with her offerings she would become violent. Berchta also has a horde of evil spirits that do her bidding known as the Perchten. The Perchten were thought to either be evil spirits or were originally spirits that drove away the evil ones. It has been a custom in some Alpine regions for men to dress as evil Krampus-looking monsters and mimic the Perchten by parading through the streets and driving away Christmas ghosts.
La Befana: The Italian Christmas Witch
La Befana may be the same folkloric figure as Berchta. She is the Italian Christmas witch who delivers presents to children on the Night of the Epiphany. In opposition to Berchta, La Befana has no violent tendencies and has even been figured into the story of Jesus Christ's birth. In Italy, there is no Santa Claus because La Befana does all his work in her own way. In fact, some people believe the customs of Santa derive from the traditions of La Befana.
La Befana visits children with a bag of goodies on her back. She flies through the air on a broomstick and enters the houses through the chimney (sound familiar?). When spotted, she is covered in soot, remnants of her travels down the chimneys of the families in Italy. If the children were good, they would receive gifts or candy. If they were bad, they would receive a lump of coal or a piece of inedible candy. To appease La Befana, one must leave out a plate of food and a cup of wine and also never try to spy on her lest you be thumped by her broomstick. The tradition of La Befana most likely has its roots in ancient Roman times and may correlate to a festival that celebrated two gods - Strenia and Ianus. The Romans would exchange gifts at this celebration, just as we exchange gifts at Christmas in modern times.
A tradition of dressing in hideous masks and taking part in parades around the Christmas holidays still happens in modern times in places in Germany (not surprisingly in Berchtesgaden), Switzerland, Austria, etc. They are often seen along with Krampus during the Perchten parades, and the people say they are an old folk tradition to scare away the winter ghosts.— Nicole Canfield
The Witch and the Baker's Dozen
Most people don't have any idea where the concept of the "baker's dozen" originated. A baker's dozen equals thirteen, instead of the normal dozen which is twelve. Why do baker's use thirteen as a dozen? The story goes back to at least the nineteenth century, but probably earlier, and was brought to the United States by Dutch immigrants. The story goes that a baker is asked by a poor beggar-woman for a dozen cookies, which she specifically tells him is thirteen. He turns her away a few times and in return is punished with bad luck at his bakery. Cookies and baked goods don't rise and other problems occur because of his greed and lack of compassion. The baker decides to pray to Saint Nicholas for help and when he bakes another batch of cookies, they turn out right.
The old woman returns, and at this point the baker knows she is a witch with magical powers, and she asks him for a dozen cookies. He gladly gives her thirteen, and she tells him the curse has been lifted. The baker's business thrives once more. The witch has a clear connection with Saint Nicholas in this story, and therefore can be called a Christmas witch. Unfortunately, this story has mostly been forgotten by Americans today. So when you hear someone mention a baker's dozen, be sure to tell them about the Christmas Witch!
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© 2018 Nicole Canfield