Sunday, December 16

The Christmas Witch





There are many aspects of the Christmas Witch throughout Europe and Slavic/Baltic regions.  Some are quaint, some bring gifts, some expect gifts, and some are terrifying!

Mother Berchta/Berta


Horned Goddess in white, Mother Berchta.
[source: TerrieSmith.com]
The name Berchta means "bright light".  Compiled from remnants of ancient Goddess' in German and Teutonic (Norse) mythology, Mother Berta is sometimes endearing and dressed in white, other times she is haggard and dressed in dark rags.  Some myths refer to her as a fairy, yet on other occasions she has horns or is even rumored to be triple-headed (probably a reference to her being a triple goddess).  Over time, the myth turned her into a temperamental hag who travels with a goat. 

A current take on Mother Berta is tells the story of an old, gnarled woman who rides a goat named Skeggie.  She comes into family's homes, with her sack across her back.  She would prepare a feast for the family and bring toys for children if she felt they deserved them.  Part of the feast included the cooking of Skeggie.  The family could eat as much as they wanted so long as they threw all the bones back into the sack.   When finished, Skeggie would magically climb back out of the sack good as new.  But sometimes a greedy child would break one of the bones to suck out the marrow and when Skeggie climbed out, his leg would be broken or missing.  At that point, Mother Berta would throw the bad child into her sack and disappear!

Steven Posch, a prominent member of the 'Paganistan' community of Minnesota, tells the story of Mother Berta and her sack; "Will she take presents and toys out?  Or will she stuff kids in?"

Triple Goddess


Some myths combine different notions of the Christmas Witch into a triple goddess, citing Holla or Holly as the maiden, Berchta/Berta as the mother, and Befana as the crone aspect. 

Unfortunately, I've found nothing to support this as an ancient mythos.  I find references to Holla as a mother goddess or even a crone who is related to Hecate.  Stories, however, do support the idea of Befana as a crone.  She is sometimes referred to as Grandmother Befana.

La Befana


Available at Barnes & Noble
Befana is an Italian tradition associated with the celebration of the Epiphany.  She leaves goodies in the stockings and shoes of children on January 6th.  In Italy, the Epiphany (sometimes referred to as The Befana festival) is a national holiday and children celebrate their holiday break from school from December 24th until January 7th.

Although she is probably a hold-over from ancient Pagan Saturnalia celebrations, Befana's story has been largely Christianized.  She is said to have been sweeping her home when the three kings (the Three Wise Men or Magi) came to her door, asking for help in locating the Christ-child.  Depending on which version of the story you hear, she was either too busy or thought herself too feeble to help and sent them away.  After awhile, she regretted this and left her home to help search.  To this day, she travels the world on the night of the Epiphany, leaving sweets for children and searching for the Christ-child.

For years, Befana was the primary holiday icon for Italians, however after World War II, Father Christmas (Babbo Natalle) and his mythology came upon the scene.  Befana moved into the background, becoming Santa Claus's helper in some places and disappearing all together in places like Sicily.

La Befana dolls [source: Stanko Mravljak]

Currently, she is celebrated as a kindly grandmother figure who rides a broom and is kin to Santa Claus.  She was featured in a French children's film titled "La Freccia Azzurra" (The Blue Arrow) which was later dubbed into English and retitled "How the Toys Saved Christmas" in 1997.  In it, the Befana character is named "Grandma Rose" and she is Santa's helper who runs a toy store.  She falls ill and the toys come to life and take a journey to deliver themselves to all the children of the village.

Named "Grandma Rose" in the English version, La Befana. 
The Befana festival is celebrated in a manor similar to Halloween in America; though creepy decorations are not used, it is common for people to dress up as witches and go door-to-door asking for sweets. 

Frau Holle


Sometimes referred to as Frau Perchta (a twist on Berchta for sure), she is a remnant of the Goddess Holda or Freya in Switzerland.  As the myth moves into Germany, she becomes a second name for Saint Lucia. 

Frau Holle roams the countryside on the twelve nights of Christmas.  She travels to the homes of children and if they've been good, leaves silver coins.  This idea is generalized from the older myths where she would check to be sure that all young girls had spun their assigned allotment of wool or flax.  If they had not, she didn't simply pass them by... she was rumored to either slit their bellies open and stuff them with straw or curse the remaining wool and flax to spoil and rot.  Stern stuff.


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