Column: You Better Watch Out

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Pagan Perspectives

Today’s column comes to us from The Wild Hunt’s Editor-in-Chief, Manny Tejeda-Moreno.

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We’ve all likely heard the classic poem The Twelve Days of Christmas, which probably began as a children’s forfeit game played a couple of centuries ago near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The song commemorates the days that begin with the Feast of Stephen Protomartyr and end with the Feast of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The Twelve Days of Christmas commemorate the nativity of Jesus Christ. Most Christian faiths celebrate the twelve-day period as Christmastide, though the length has varied historically and by denomination.

The prior period is Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. It is during Advent when Krampus, the beloved anthropomorphic half-goat half-demon companion to St. Nicholas, makes his appearance. He used to terrify children only in central Europe, but now Krampus has affectionately expanded his service area. As our readers know, Krampus is quite frightening and has the singular task of putting misbehaving rugrats in their places. He has nothing to do with Christmastide, per se. One assumes he’s back at his palantir watching children – and hopefully adults and politicians – and taking notes for his next Krampuslauf. We must all wait a year for his return to wreak havoc again.

Well, not quite. Krampus has company, and she is bringing some heat to the game. Meet Frau Perchta. She is unleashed after Christmas – and on one of those twelve nights, she becomes preoccupied with laziness. With uncanny clairvoyance, she locates idling children and slits their bellies, filling them with all the garbage they haven’t cleaned up.

Perchtenlauf in Klagenfurt [WikiMedia Commons]

In other stories, Perchta refrains from belly-slitting (and one must admire her restraint). Instead, she merely opens the heads of lazy people and stuffs them with refuse. Sometimes, she just cuts feet or knees and rubs them with salt, one assumes because the offenders’ behavior caught her attention but did not rise to belly-slitting levels. “On the whole, Perchta is a sinister figure,John B. Smith writes in an article for the journal Folklore, “who punishes the slovenly, the idle, the greedy, the inquisitive. Refractory children, and even adults, are in danger of having their stomachs ripped open by her. She will then remove the contents, even the intestines, and replace them with refuse.” Charmed, I’m sure!

The legend of Perchta appears to originate in Austria, but it spread across the same Alpine region that Krampus dominates, from Baden-Württemberg to Slovenia and Tyrolian Italy to Slovakia, and her representations vary across them – as do, apparently, the origins of her name.

The Grimms (of the fairytales) knew of Perchta and suggested her as a correlate of the Germanic goddess Frau Holda. ”Old Mother Frost,” however, is quite kindly. In fact, her name suggests a connotation with the German huld, meaning “friendly.” Frau Perchta’s name may mean “shining one,” and as such may also have associations with moon goddesses like Selene or even Diana. “She is thought to have originally been a goddess,” writes Alison Jones in the Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore,like her northern counterpart Hulda, perhaps the earth-goddess Erda, but her mythical aspect declined with the advent of Christianity, and she was transformed into a witch or hobgoblin.”

Her name may also have something to do with the Christian feast of Epiphany, much like the Italian witch, La Befana. Frau Perchta, however, has developed a far more dangerous reputation.

In other legends, Grimm suggests that Perchta could shapeshift into an animal form, possibly a swan, because she seems to have one large foot; this detail is consistent across the stories in four languages of the regions where Perchta dominates.

At some point, Perchta’s friendliness seems to have seriously faded away. She now tolerates only industrious children, possibly through the demonization of the character as it was supplanted by Christianity: “The cult of Perchta was condemned in Bavaria by the Thesaurus pauperum (1468),” writes the author Stephen Morris. Perchta is clearly a powerful woman, a favorite target of the patriarchy – and there is no better way to subvert a benevolent woman than adding infanticide to list of pastimes.

Perchtenmaske aus Österreich eines unbekannten Bildhauers und Faßmalers um 1920 [Claus Ableiter: WikiMedia commons]

So where is Perchta today?

It turns out that just like the Krampus Runs, there are still some Perchtenlaufs as well. One of these was held in Hadersdof earlier this year in January. There is an undated photo by Getty Images on The Telegraph as well. A search of these events seems to have them conflated or co-occurring with the Krampus Runs that have become increasingly familiar, but some focus specifically on Perchta.

I only recently discovered Perchta – I feel late to the party. I admit, though, that there is some comfort in knowing that the holiday season is bookended by visits from Krampus and Perchta. The stories remind me of my German grandmother – a wise woman with an immense knowledge of herbal remedies – and one of her favorite sayings that I had to learn – or, more accurately, was forced – to recite:

morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute

sagen alle faulen Leute

[tomorrow, tomorrow, not today

all the lazy people say]

Now, I’m left wondering if she was secretly sharing knowledge about a magical spirit from southern Germany.

Schweig, oder die wilde Berta kommt!