The Ideas Department of Commonplace Fun Facts suggested a series of stories during the month of December about Christmas traditions around the world. “Great,” replied the Research Department. “We’ll find some charming, heart-warming stories about the way Christmas unites humanity and instills feelings of goodwill and cheer!”
Imagine our surprise when we discovered how truly terrifying Christmas can be! We thought we were pushing the boundaries of terror when writing about the South African Christmas custom of eating fried caterpillars, or the Guatemalan practice of strapping explosives on the backs of young boys. Alas, these practices barely rise to the level of “mildly concerning” in comparison to Iceland’s terrifying Christmas elves, child-eating giantess, and human-devouring cat, or South Africa’s Christmas ghost of a boy who was bludgeoned to death by his grandma.
Just when we thought we had plumbed the depths of Christmas creepiness, we stumbled across Frau Perchta.
If children in southeast Germany (Bavaria) and Austria have difficulty sleeping in the days leading up to Christmas, don’t be too quick to assume it is due to the happy anticipation of a visit from Santa. There is a very real chance they are terrified of nodding off, out of fear they will get a visit from the official witch of Christmas: Frau Perchta.
Frau Perchta comes to us from Austrian and Bavarian tradition. She is known by several names, such as Frau Holle, Hulde, Holla, Holda, Perchta, Berchta, Berta, Bertha, or other variations thereof. Long before being popularized by the Brothers Grimm as Mother Holle, she was associated with Berchta the Germanic goddess of abundance who was demonized by the Catholic church and referred to as a witch.
Martin Luther was well familiar with the tradition. In 1522, in The Exposition of the Epistles at Basel, he wrote, “Here cometh up Dame Hulde with the snout, to wit, nature, and goeth about to gainstay her God and give him the lie, hangeth her old ragfair about her, the straw-harness; then falls to work and scrapes it featly on her fiddle.”
She is generally depicted as being dressed in rags with a beaked, iron nose. If that isn’t enough to identify her, take a look for the long, sharp knife that she always has on hand. The knife is an important thing to note because she makes ample use of it during the Christmas season.
It is during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany that the ugly, knife-wielding woman roams the countryside, looking for sleeping children. Upon finding them, she, like Santa, is able to discern who has been naughty and who has been nice. Nice children can expect to wake up the morning after the Frau’s visit, finding a small silver coin in a shoe or pail.
Naughty children do not fare quite as well. When Frau Perchta finds children who have misbehaved or been lazy throughout the year, she pulls out her sharp knife, slits their bellies open, removes their stomachs and intestines, and replaces their innards with straw and pebbles. She pays particular attention to whether young girls have spun their quota of flax or wool during their year. Those who have been less than productive can expect to receive a visit from her sharp knife.
She has also been known to perform her gastrointestinal surgery on anyone who ate anything other than fish or gruel during her feast day. Since her feast day is December 25 and fish and gruel aren’t big on most people’s holiday menu, she has her work cut out for her.
One way to avoid her wrath is to leave a bowl of porridge for her. Of course, you will want to keep the porridge separate from Santa’s cookies, so you don’t run the risk of suffering the same fate as Danny, the Christmas ghost of South Africa.
All things considered, we have decided we’ll probably just stay awake on Christmas Eve. There are just too many scary things that happen this time of year to those who slumber.