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.
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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
Hildur Hákonardóttir on December 24, 2017:
The Icelandic Grýla is to my mind an earlier Earth goddess turned into a ogress. Her lads are 13 or rather 12 and a 1/2 as one is short like the moons in one year. They come, one each day appearing 13 days before Christmas, and go likewise one each day and have all disappeared 13 days after. In an old children rhyme they are nine, which is the number of the "tripple" goddess. Behind the most hideous witch one can usually get a glimpse of an old powerful goddess. The more defamed - the more powerful she once was.
Alice on December 11, 2017:
Hi, just to let you know, in Italy we do have Father Christmas that brings presents to the children on the night before Christmas. Befana brings sweets to the good children on the night between 5th and 6th January or coal to the bad children and it's a secondary Christmas figure, as Father Christmas is much more important!
MAGic on December 13, 2015:
I've also heard of correspondence from Frau Holle/Perchta to Baba Yaga- have you?!
Michael Higgins from Michigan on December 19, 2014:
I am very impressed with all of your research, Carolyn. This is very informative, interesting, and well written. Great hub!
Carolyn Emerick (author) on December 14, 2014:
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! :-)
Abfalter on December 14, 2014:
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
Debra Allen from West Virginia on November 19, 2014:
Another excellent article and will be sharing it all over too.
Carolyn Emerick (author) on June 08, 2014:
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 :-)
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 08, 2014:
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.
Maria Ramos on January 04, 2014:
Carolyn Emerick (author) on December 30, 2013:
Thank you! So glad people are liking this :-)
Joe Poniatowskis from Mid-Michigan on December 30, 2013:
I'm bookmarking both this and the companion piece.
Mackenzie Sage Wright on December 28, 2013:
Really fascinating coverage. Very enjoyable.
Carolyn Emerick (author) on December 26, 2013:
Thank you so much! I've been absent from HP for a couple months, but I will be exploring your wonderful hubs also :-)
FlourishAnyway from USA on December 26, 2013:
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.
Kelleth on December 25, 2013:
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 from India on December 25, 2013:
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
Carolyn Emerick (author) on December 24, 2013:
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.
kelleth on December 24, 2013:
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.
Michaela on December 24, 2013:
THANK U !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!