Berchta

Berchta

Bertha, Frau Gaude, Hertha, Holda, Holde, Holle, Perchta

Several very similar female spirits once visited the peoples of northern Europe during the long midwinter nights. Many authors believe these figures to be the remnants of pagan Germanic goddesses. Associated with the home and hearth, spinning, children, and gift giving, these pagan goddesses may have been very early ancestors of Santa Claus. The coming of Christianity transformed these goddesses into minor magical figures and concentrated the season of their appearances during the Twelve Days of Christmas and, especially, Twelfth Night. Throughout this transformation, the German goddess Berchta retained the strongest associations with the Christmas season.

The Winter Goddess of Northern Europe

The winter goddesses of northern Europe, known as Berchta (or Perchta) and Holde (or Holda, Holle), shared many characteristics and are sometimes spoken of as variants of the same winter goddess. This sky goddess sailed the winds dressed in a mantle of snow. To the people of Alsace-Lorraine she sometimes appeared wearing a crown of fire, a trait that would later provide a tenuous connection to St. Lucy. In attending to the affairs of home and hearth, she acted as the patroness of those who spun thread, rewarding the industrious and punishing the lazy and sloppy. She also spun: not thread, but the fates of human beings. Motherhood and the fertility of the earth also concerned the goddess, who was known as a guardian of children and a protector of fields. Folklore often pictured the goddess flying through the night accompanied by the ghosts of children and other supernatural creatures, often phantom dogs, goats, or horses. She appeared most often during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some believed that she led the Wild Hunt, a riotous procession of ghosts who rode across the night skies during Yule.

Folklore Associated with Berchta

As Christianity established itself as the dominant religion in Europe, the image of this goddess shrank and changed, although elements of her old concerns and powers remained. In Christian times, people in many German-speaking lands expected the ambivalent figure of Berchta to visit during the winter holidays. Although Berchta herself appeared as ugly and disheveled, she inspected barns and homes for cleanliness. She rewarded the neat and industrious and punished the lazy.

Since Berchta was the patroness of spinners, one custom demanded that women cease their spinning work during the Twelve Days of Christmas out of respect for her (see also St. Distaff's Day). Another custom advised that each house consume a special food on Twelfth Night and leave the remains for Berchta. If a household did not offer food, Berchta would cut open the stomachs of the inhabitants and remove the contents. Although she would punish lazy or naughty children, Berchta rewarded well-behaved children with gifts or good luck, and enjoyed rocking babies' cradles when no one was looking. Mothers would sometimes threaten their children that if they didn't behave, Berchta would come for them. Her nighttime processions frightened those who witnessed them, but in passing she and her followers bestowed fertility on the fields below. The spirits and souls that followed in her train were called Perchten, and, in some German-speaking areas, the night when she was most likely to appear, Twelfth Night, was called Perchtennacht. Although it is difficult to trace the relationship of one mythological figure to another, Berchta may also be related to the Italian Befana and to another German spirit, Frau Gaude.

Folklore Associated with Holde

Most of the beliefs and practices associated with Berchta are also connected to Holde. Some differ, however. The people of northern Germany spoke more often of Holde than of Berchta. They often imagined Holde, whose name means "the kindly one," as a beautiful woman. When Holde shook out her feather bed in the sky, heavy snowfalls showered the lands below. In Christian times Holde acquired associations with witchcraft, and those thought to be witches were said to "ride with Holde."

Another Winter Goddess, Hertha

In pagan times, some Norse and Germanic-speaking peoples called their winter goddess Hertha or Bertha. This goddess shares many characteristics with Berchta and Holde, and may be related to them. Hertha was the patroness of home and hearth who visited her people around the time of the winter solstice. Householders decorated their dwellings with evergreens in order to entice her to visit (see Greenery). They also made flat stone altars for her and set fire to fir branches on top of them. It was believed that Hertha entered the home through the rising smoke, conferring upon the wise the ability to foretell the futures of those around the flames. At least one author suspects that Santa Claus's descent through the chimney at Christmas time echoes the descent of Hertha through the chimney smoke.

Further Reading

Hottes, Alfred Carl. 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies. 1946. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Motz, Lotte. "The Winter Goddess: Perchta, Holda, and Related Figures." Folklore 95, 2 (1984): 151-61.

Berchta

unkempt herself, demands cleanliness from others, especially children. [Ger. Folklore: Leach, 137]

Berchta

beady-eyed, hook-nosed crone with clubfoot and stringy hair. [Ger. Folklore: Leach, 137]
References in periodicals archive ?
It could be related to Latin albus ("white"), implying the original meaning of "a light-colored, white, good spirit," a notion characteristic of female beauty (44), and especially of female mythological beings, like the German goddess Berchta, whose name itself means "bright, white" (Grimm 272, 279-80), or the Irish banshi, in which ban ("white") and ben, bean ("woman") seem to be mixed (444).
The Christian figure of Saint Nicholas replaced or incorporated various pagan gift-giving figures such as the Roman Befana and the Germanic Berchta and Knecht Ruprecht.
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