These last few years, Krampus has broken into the American zeitgeist in movies such as Rare Exports, Krampus and, heaven help us, the William Shatner vehicle, A Christmas Horror Story. Those films and viral videos of the misidentified “Krampus parades” in Austria have conspired with our desire for a new, nastier way of celebrating Christmas, putting the red right hand of Santa in a leading role with the jolly old elf as kings of the season here in the U.S. and abroad.
Truly, though, it’s women—or rather female deities—who have long ruled Yule. Hailing from the older, colder countries of Austria and Iceland with their own fascinating companions, characters such as Perchta and Gryla both punished and rewarded adults and children during Christmas time for centuries before Santa Claus came to town. Read on about these winter witches and decide for yourself if these ladies should be our leads across the annual finish line.
While she goes by many names—including Frau Perchta, Percht, Berchta, Bertha, and even Holda—her folklore is native to Austria, especially Salzburg and the Alpine regions. Her modus operandi has changed over the centuries, but she’s most active during the Twelve Days of Christmas—that is, between Christmas and Epiphany. According to Jacob Grimm, author of both the famous fairytale collection and compendious Teutonic Mythology, her name means “Shining One,” and is Tyrolese for “Epiphany.” As explained by folklorist John B. Smith, the linguistics are a bit complex, but Perchta essentially means “The Bright One,” coming from an obsolete German adjective meaning “bright.” As such, Grimm associated Perchta with pagan moon goddesses like Selene and Diana. Like her northern counterpart Holda, she was also long believed to have the gift of flight and to lead The Wild Hunt.
According to Alison Jones, author of the Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, Christianity transformed Perchta into a goblin. She was said to have a long nose, a “swan’s foot” (that is, an enlarged foot that indicated she was a shapeshifter), and a hideous face. Like Krampus, she was portrayed as wearing a basket on her back with the legs of bad children she’d snatched dangling over the lip. But unlike Krampus, she had a taste for violence that went well beyond children.
Perchta the Punisher
Since the Middle Ages, Austrians have known Frau Perchta as “The Belly-Slitter” who punished those that didn’t conform to church practices, such as feasting and fasting, during The Twelve Days of Christmas (Zwölften). For example, she slit open the bellies of those who didn’t eat enough on Epiphany. Only a full, round belly was said to deflect her blade. A woman who spun at night or on a holiday would also suffer slitting. Once the sinner’s belly was open, Perchta would pull out the intestines and stuff the cavity with straw, chaff, splinters of glass, and other refuse. (Some said she’d sew up the wound with her plough using a chain for thread.) Over time, especially as the spinning trade grew, Perchta was said to punish lazy spinners with her trademark cut-n-stuff if they hadn’t spun their flax by Twelfth Night. And when the spinning trade became more industrialized, she became the general enforcer of the work ethic.
It wasn’t all murder and kidnappings. She also rewarded the worthy with gifts and blessings. According to Frazer in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion: “Good children who spin diligently and learn their lessons she rewards with nuts and sugar plums.” And, “she makes the ploughed land fruitful and causes the cattle to thrive.” Scholar Julius Schmidt in 1889 recorded that shepherds believed if they brought her flax in summer, she blessed their flocks. And if a family left her the remains of their supper on Twelfth Night Eve, she would come to the home as a wizened old woman and eat, bestowing blessings on the household.
Perchta’s companions were the perchten. Since the Middle Ages and perhaps earlier, men and boys at Christmas time have dressed as perchten, wearing horned masks and animal hides, ringing bells and wielding a switch as they roamed their villages to drive out the demons of winter. Unlike the traditions of yore, however, today’s perchtenläufs are more for performance than spiritual ritual.
Many Americans are familiar with the perchten, but they don’t realize it. Have you seen those snarling Krampuses (Krampi?) in the popular “Krampus parade” videos from Austria? What appear to be Krampus parades are actually perchtenläufs, the participants dressed in perchten costumes to carry out this centuries-old tradition.
The confusion between perchten and Krampus is understandable. Not only do they look similar, but also Americans know Krampus thanks to the fact that Christmas, the native holiday of Krampus, is more popular in the U.S. than Epiphany, which is bigger in Europe. Foreign video posters are adding to the confusion through mislabeling the events as krampuslaufs. Even some German posters have started using that term, probably so that English-speaking viewers can find them. Enter “perchtenlauf” into YouTube™ search and you’ll see what I mean.
Down comes gryla from the mountains,
With forty tails,
Bag on back,
Sword in hand;
Comes to cut out the stomachs of the children
Who are crying for meat in Lent.
— Rhyme from the Faroes in the 1940s
In the 13th century, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda spoke of the evil troll, Gryla, who lived in the mountains of Iceland. In Snorri’s poems she has only fifteen tails but with a hundred bags filled with twenty children tied to each tail. The Sturlunga saga describes Gryla as having goat’s horns, hooves and a long nose covered in warts, as well as myriad other frightening details, such as eyes black as hell on the back of her neck, teeth like burnt and blackened stones, and a deformed nail growing from every finger. Long before she was associated with Christmas, she had a year-round sense of when children were naughty or nice. She’d stuff misbehaving children in her sack and take them to her cave to boil alive for a tasty stew. Her lazy ogre husband, Leppa-Lúði, would lie in bed waiting for her to bring in the feast.
To make matters worse, they had kids.
Gryla and The Yule Lads
But by the 17th century, Gryla’s terrors had reached Christmas time, and affected not just the lives of ill-tempered children but everyone in the family. Starting thirteen days before Christmas, her thirteen troll sons, known as jólasveinar or The Yule Lads, would invade a home one by one until they were all present on Christmas Eve. Starting on Christmas, they’d then leave one by one until they were all gone by Epiphany. Named for his special prank or crime, each Lad would bedevil the family until he left. The 20th century Icelandic poet and politician, Jóhannes úr Kötlum, describes the Yule Lads in his 1932 collection of children’s poems called Jólin Koma (Christmas is Coming). While there have been as many as 80 Lads and even Lasses named over the centuries, his poem “Jólasveinarnir” lists the canonical thirteen Lads as follows:
- Stekkjarstaur, Harasser of Sheep
- Giljagaur, Stealer of Milk
- Stúfur, Eater of Crusts in Pans
- Þvörusleikir, Licker of Spoons
- Pottaskefill, Stealer of Leftovers in Pots
- Askasleikir, Stealer of Leftovers in Bowls
- Hurðaskellir, Slammer of Doors at Night
- Skyrgámur, Stealer of Skyr (Icelandic Yogurt)
- Bjúgnakrækir, Stealer of Smoked Sausage
- Gluggagægir, Window Peeper
- Gáttaþefur, Stealer of Laufabrauð (Snowflake Bread)
- Ketkrókur, Stealer of Meat by Method of Hook
- Kertasníkir, Stealer (and possible Eater) of Candles
These days the lads have mellowed to mere Santa Claus clones, leaving gifts (or admonishments) in children’s shoes on Christmas night. Which is too bad because I kind of liked the pervy peeper guy, and Mr. Meat Hook had real horror potential.
Jólakötturinn: Gryla’s Cat Hates You
In addition to the Yule Lads, Kötlum’s Christmas is Coming also includes an ode to the most dangerous Christmas beast in Icelandic folklore. While Gryla’s offspring might have turned over a new leaf in recent years, her giant pet feline is as vicious as ever. Jólakötturinn, The Christmas Cat, doesn’t even try to lure you in with an exposed belly and inviting purr before clamping onto your hand with its claws and teeth like a bear trap. Rather, this monstrous black cat stalks and kills anyone on Christmas Eve who has a hole in their sweater or who didn’t get new clothes for Christmas.
Unlike the other Yuletide avengers, The Christmas Cat doesn’t punish children for misbehaving or even adults for being lazy. This kitty is sort of an equal opportunity killer, taking out children, adults, the impoverished… basically everybody who doesn’t follow this one rule. Since most people in centuries past couldn’t afford new clothes and made them instead, it’s safe to say that, early on, Jólakötturinn’s execution was probably about not making (enough) clothes rather than not buying new ones. Being devoured by a homicidal cat for not processing the autumn wool before Christmas is a harsh punishment, indeed, but it isn’t far from Perchta’s belly slitting for similar offenses.
The Christmas Cat is so popular in Iceland that even Bjork wrote a song for this furry winter monster using the lyrics from Kötlum’s poem.
Sealing the Deal
What folklorists believe makes Gryla the more interesting and powerful figure than any male deity in Iceland is the only recently defunct Háa-Þóra cross-dressing as part of the larger vikivaki games at Christmas time. According to folklorist Terry Gunnell, a man carrying a “a large effigy of a woman, built around a pole with cross bar” hung with a large set of keys that clattered loudly. Wearing this effigy of the goddess, the man would enter the gathering and create havoc as everyone danced until the effigy’s dress was tattered. The shadowy lighting, the noise, and the effigy all together created a primitive, chaotic feeling evocative of the ogress. Gunnell says that contemporary medieval accounts mirror these games using a figure called “skin Gryla”—that is, a man dressed up as Gryla—similarly causing havoc.
You Better Watch Out
So, I don’t know about you all, but as Christmas approaches, I’m going see to my spinning, buy a new sweater, and feast well when I should. Most of all, on Christmas Eve, I’m going to leave Frau Perchta a little meal. Not milk and cookies—that’s for The Other Guy. (Besides, why settle for one Santa when you can have Gryla’s Thirteen?) Oh, no. I’m going to leave good steak and whiskey for The Shining One and her thirsty perchten. Why? Because many would agree that 2016 was one of the worst years on record. And since it feels like Jólakötturinn is already gnawing on our bones, we need all the boons we can get for the New Year.
Top image: Perchta, by Melchior van Rijn.
This article was originally published in December 2016.
Maria Alexander is the award-winning author of Mr. Wicker and numerous short stories. Her nonfiction is used in curriculum at Champlain University. Her new YA novel, Snowed, from Raw Dog Screaming Press is being called “one heck of a page turner” by adults and “kick-ass” by teens. For more information, visit her website.