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.
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.
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.
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.