Christmas Witches: Berchta, La Befana & the Baker’s Dozen Witch
Deck the Halls With Bedknobs and Broomsticks! Before jolly ol’ Saint Nick, 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 modern society. Sadly, most children will never hear of Christmas witches like La Befana, Berchta and the Baker’s Dozen witch.
The Origin of Christmas Witches
Before the rise of the Church, people believed in multiple gods. These gods were demonized during the spread of Christianity, and now we’re left with remnants of the former folk’s religious beliefs and customs. Some goddesses were turned into fairies, witches, and mythological creatures by the Church to scare people from worship. The Christmas witches were once goddesses before being reduced to ugly hags. Why these witches visit on Christmas has to do with the old pagan tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice.
The Wild Hunt and Winter Solstice
The Germanic and Norse peoples celebrated (and still celebrate) Yule (Jul) or Yuletide, which is to mark the darkest time of the year. A procession of gods now known as the Wild Hunt paraded through the skies over the Winter months. Wodan (Odin), Freya, and Berchta are just a few of its leaders. In Medieval Times, people were taught to fear the Wild Hunt. That it was a group of evil spirits coming to take their souls away. But even in the darkness, there was hope the sun would rise again and bring warmer, longer days. Directly following the Winter Solstice, the sun begins to burn longer and longer each day. And so this was once a major concept and tradition for the Norse and Celts.
Our Germanic and Celtic ancestors both recognized the Winter Solstice as being a powerful time of year. The ancient Celts believed the dark half of the year was ruled by female energy, and therefore the Winter was in the Cailleach’s domain. Because the Winter is a dark time, it only makes sense that our ancestors also believed spirits were more prone to walking among the living. Dangers lurked in the dark cloak of the night. And, eventually, when the Germanic and Celtic people were converted, the Church capitalized on these old traditions.
Berchta: The Germanic Christmas Witch
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, Wodan and the Wild Hunt
Berchta is associated with Christmas, according to Grimm, because of her link to the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was a horde of spirits that rode on the winds, collecting souls and wreaking havoc in the skies. At one time, Wodan was the leader of the Wild Hunt along with his consort Berchta. One of the nights of the Wild Hunt was the Winter Solstice also called Yuletide around December 21st. Where Wodan and Berchta were once venerated during the holidays, they became mutated demonic creatures like Black Rupert (Odin) and the Christmas Hag (Berchta/Perchta). Offerings were once left for the Wild Hunt on the roofs of people’s homes to appease the spirits as they flew by. The seemingly simple tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus echoes this ancient tradition.
The Day of the Epiphany
In addition to her part in the Wild Hunt, Berchta’s name is prevalent in modern Germany when the people see the first snow of the season and say “Frau Holle is shaking her sheets.” January 5th, the Day of the Epiphany, was once Berchta’s sacred day. This day was a part of the Twelve Days of Christmas, a tradition celebrating the Winter Solstice that echoed the old traditions of welcoming the sun’s return.
The Kidnapping Christmas Witch and the Perchten
In some tales, Berchta stuffed bad children into her sack and ate them. Other tales say she slit people’s bellies open and filled them with straw and sticks. These stories circulated around the Night of the Epiphany – if Berchta wasn’t pleased with her offerings she became violent. Berchta leads a horde of evil spirits, the Perchten, that do her bidding. The Perchten are either evil spirits or were originally the spirits that drove away the evil ones. It’s a custom in Alpine regions for men to dress as Krampus-looking monsters and mimic the Perchten by parading through the streets and driving away Christmas ghosts. Want to learn more about Berchta the Alpine goddess?
Listen to our Podcast on The Dark Side of Yule:
La Befana: The Kind, Italian Christmas Witch
La Befana may be the same folkloric figure or ancient goddess 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 featured in the story of Jesus’ birth. There’s no Santa Claus in Italy because La Befana does the work. In fact, some believe the customs of Santa derive from La Befana.
The Christmas Witch Tradition
La Befana visits children with a bag of goodies on her back. She flies on a broomstick and enters houses through the chimney (sound familiar?) The Italian Christmas witch is covered in soot, remnants of her travels down Italy’s chimneys. If the children were good, they receive gifts or candy. If they were bad, they receive a lump of coal, sticks or inedible candy. To appease La Befana, leave out a plate of food and a cup of wine and never spy on her lest you be thumped by her broomstick! The tradition of La Befana has roots in ancient Rome and may correlate to a festival that celebrated two gods – Strenia and Ianus. The Romans exchanged gifts during their Winter holiday Saturnalia, just as we exchange gifts at Christmas.
Cailleach: The Winter Hag
The ancient Celts had many legends and beliefs in regards to the Winter season. First and foremost, the Winter season started after Samhain (Summer’s End – approx. November 1st) and lasted until May 1st (Beltane). The entire Winter season was ruled by the feminine divine forces. It was a woman’s time. So it comes as no surprise there’s an ancient-deity-turned-hag named Cailleach who hails over the Winter season as well. Cailleach is seen as the Old Woman of Winter and is responsible for the cold, the snow, and for the ever-growing darkness. A modern and sort of grisly tradition in Scotland involves carving the face of the Cailleach on a log and burning it to banish the Winter and potential hardships.
The Baker’s Dozen and the Christmas Witch
A baker’s dozen equals thirteen instead of the normal twelve. The story of the baker’s dozen dates to the early nineteenth century, but probably earlier, and was brought to the U.S. by Dutch immigrants. The story goes that a beggar-woman asks a baker for a dozen cookies, which she specifically tells him is thirteen. He turns her away a few times and in return he’s punished with bad luck. Cookies and baked goods don’t rise and other problems occur because of his greed and lack of compassion. The baker prays to Saint Nicholas for help and when he bakes another batch of cookies, they’re delicious!
The Christmas Witch Returns
The Christmas witch returns. The baker now knows she is a witch with magical powers, and again 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 today. So when you hear someone mention a baker’s dozen, be sure to tell them about the baker and the Christmas Witch!
Gryla: Iceland’s Christmas Witch
Gryla is Iceland’s version of the Christmas Witch, and she’s just as terrifying (if not moreso) than Perchta. And guess what? Gryla ALSO kidnaps naughty children in her burlap sack, carries them off, then eats them for dinner. Gryla was originally a troll-woman in the Sagas, but in the sixteen hundreds was somehow attached to the Yuletide holiday. She is accompanied by her deadly Yule Cat, whose known to eat people who aren’t wearing new clothes during Christmas. And the Yule Lads, who are her mischievous and frightening children. Learn more about her here.
More Tales of Witches:
- The Screecham Sisters AKA Pirate Witches
- Legends of the Bell Witch and Blair Witch (Truth and Terror)
- Marie Laveau: The Life of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans