Monthly Archives: November 2013

January – The Season Of The Witch

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In many parts of Europe, witches are a common and popular figure of the Christmas season. Prior to the Christian church taking over January 6th as Epiphany or Three Kings night, this was the holy night of Berchta, goddess of winter, witchcraft and animals. Many countries have adapted Berchta to their own cultures and she goes by many different names and personas, but the further you go back in history, the more fearsome she gets.

In more modern times, she is associated with the fairy tale figure of Mother Holle, with her enormous teeth, doling out punishments for the lazy and responsible for making it snow upon the earth by shaking out her feather beds and pillows. In Italy she is known as La Befana and in Russia, Baboushka. In these incarnations the old woman is the epitome of a type A personality. She is overly obsessed with order and cleanliness, so when the three kings pass by on their way to visit the christ child and invite her to come along, she declines the offer as she hasn’t finished her sweeping. Soon after they leave, Baboushka comes to her senses, packs a basket of freshly baked cookies and goes out to find them, but they are too far ahead for her to catch up. Now, come each January 6th, like some sort of residual haunting, she packs up her cookies and sets off on a broomstick to find them. She looks in the house of every child and leaves a cookie behind.

Urbania has laid claims to the home of the original Befana. Here, they hold a great festival where hundreds of women dress in stereotypical witchy garb and flood the streets, juggling, dancing, singing and greeting all the children.

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In Italy, you can catch a glimpse of witches in storefronts everywhere and even see her “flying” on her broom from the tops of the tallest church towers, throwing candies and treats to excited children below.

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The traditional centerpiece of a goose for Christmas dinner is even tied to witchcraft. Berchta is often referred to as Perchta, a sinister figure appearing as a half witch woman half demon with a goose or swan’s foot. It was believed that witches rubbed their bodies with goose fat, which enabled them to fly. People left the fat in a pot outside as an offering to witches on Christmas night where they would take nightly flights, called grease flights, over the twelve days of Christmas.

Perchta roams the earth this January night, rewarding those who are hard working and generous and punishing the idle, greedy and (oh dear) the curious. Children and adults alike are vulnerable to Perchta’s wrath. Her punishment of choice involves slashing open your stomach so she may violently rip out your intestines, which are then replaced by straw, rocks and garbage. Being an adept seamstress she’d sew you right back up again and then be on to the next victim. In many places Perchta rides with a throng of demonic looking helpers, who love to partake of the feast offerings left out for them by people hoping for Perchta’s blessings of wealth and health in the new year.

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 In Switzerland Perchta’s demon sidekicks, straggele, get to dole out the punishments themselves and aren’t terribly discerning as they “…rob all bad children and tear them to pieces in the air.” That must make quite a mess. I doubt La Befana would approve.

 

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Mari Lwyd – The Zombie Christmas Horse

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No Christmas tradition bears more resemblance to Halloween than that of the Welsh celebration of Mari Lwyd. There are costumes, trick or treating and a macabre skeleton mare that has risen from the dead and wanders the streets with her attendants with one goal in mind – to get into your house. To keep them out, you must engage in a battle of wits…in rhyme no less.

An ancient practice, Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare/Holy Mary is typically celebrated on New Year’s Eve. Since these ancient times, people have celebrated festivals of light – signifying rebirth and hope in times of darkness. In the festival of Mari Lwyd, we have the rebirth of a dead horse. A horse skull is affixed to a pole with a white cloth to hide the puppeteer. Mari Lwyd is sometimes decorated with festive ribbons and bells or winter greens and accompanied by costumed, wassailing revelers, who are representative of the dead who have risen to remind the living of their existence.

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Mari Lwyd and her group, knock on doors asking, in song, to be let in. The song is sung in Welsh and is pretty much the same with a few variations. You can listen to it here:http://www.omniglot.com/soundfiles/songs/yfarilwyd.mp3

Once the traditional opening verses are sung, Mari Lwyd and company are answered by those inside with challenges and insults. A battle of wits known as a pwnco ensues, where riddles, challenges and insults must be exchanged in rhyme. If Mari’s party wins the pwnco, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties endures, the Mari party enters with another song and is given drinks and treats.

 

* Mari Lwyd piece by Laurence G. Tilley http://www.lgtilley.co.uk/gallery.html


* Mari Lwyd artwork by Paul Woodford http://www.artmatters.org.uk/

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

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He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.

In Santa’s earlier incarnation, the jolly old elf brought something just as good as presents to your house. He brought along a demonic sidekick, Krampus.

Krampus carries with him a sack, to stuff naughty little children like you into, as well as the original rod of punishment. The rod is hazel wood and is believed to hold magical properties — it can ward off evil spirits, the Devil and protect one from lightning. There is even a legend associated with Mary and the infant Jesus taking refuge under a hazel bush during a violent thunder storm. Other legends depict witches beating lakes with a hazel rod in an effort to create thunder clouds, which materialize overhead and do their bidding.

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The hazel rod was considered the great rod of life. With this phallic symbol, women and animals were beaten “with gusto” in hopes of them becoming fertile. It was also considered a wishing rod, used to find hidden treasure. Sometimes, a human countenance would be carved upon it. Indeed, it looks just as disturbing as it sounds.

In some countries, males don Krampus costumes and run wild through the streets whipping and punishing anyone and everyone they come across. While in Austraia and Bavaria he roams the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.

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Finally, on the night of St. Nicholas Eve, it’s Junior Judgement Day! Children polish their shoes, a representation of the soul, and set them on the hearth, along with a treat for St. Nicholas’ horse, or reindeer, depending on the country’s custom. Nicholas enters and fills the shoes with small gifts, perhaps a little orange, a golden walnut and a honey cake and reads aloud from his golden book, all of the child’s good deeds from the past year. However, if you were bad, Krampus is given leave to beat you, mercilessly, shove you in his sack and carry you promptly to Hell.

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He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!

 

You can also listen to the audio edition of this article on The Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast,

episode, He Sees You When You’re Sleeping 

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Christmas – The Other Halloween

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for roasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago

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Wait a minute… There’ll be scary ghost stories? On Christmas?

That’s right, Virginia.

Most of us Halloween enthusiasts spend the large part of the holiday season packing up our graveyards and snuggling the spiders back into their webs for the year, followed by a period of mourning that “it’s all over” and we shall have to wait another year for October to finally weave it’s magic again.

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When those sneaky Christian reformers started in on the transformation of Pagan observances, traditions and rituals they left a great deal intact. Much of it has been forgotten by mainstream society but, if you look into the origins of the symbols and traditions practiced today you’ll be delighted to know the season is rife with everything we love – supernatural goings on, monsters, spellcasting, ghosts, witches and magic…

Here, I’ll be showcasing the more macabre aspects of the season and of course, there’ll be scary ghost stories.

*Photograph by Addison Geary