Christmas lore usually comes in the shape of a jolly red-suited man winding a sleigh through the starry night sky with his trusty band of reindeer. There are, however, some holiday figures who are much more ominous—chief among them the belly-slitting, child-abducting, half-woman, half-demon Alpine monster known as Perchta.
According to old Austro-German legend, Perchta is a malevolent pagan goddess who stalks the snowy landscape by night during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like Italy’s Christmas witch, La Befana, she is also associated with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Perchta’s aim is simple and chilling: to ensure local customs are upheld under the pain of death. In bygone times, this meant no weaving during the holidays, unless you dared to incur Perchta’s wrath—and what a wrath she had.
People believed that Perchta could enter their homes while they slept. If she found the inhabitants had not behaved during the year, Perchta ripped open their stomachs and disemboweled them, stuffing their cavity with straw, rocks, and other rubbish. She then stitched them up before moving onto her next victim. Perchta was particularly intolerant of unruly children and liked to bring a posse of zombie-like helpers with her on her rampages. Her large and misshapen “goose foot" is sometimes linked to the tradition of eating goose at Christmas.
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Folklorist John B. Smith writes that Perchta’s earliest incarnation, dating from the Middle Ages, was as “the enforcer of communal taboos.” This initially meant punishing those who dared weave on days deemed sacred or those who refused to feast with the required enthusiasm. Smith notes that as more peasant women entered the workforce, Perchta’s focus turned to tormenting the lazy.
“Perchta is a sinister figure,” Smith writes, “who punishes the slovenly, the idle, the greedy, the inquisitive.” Errant children got tossed into her sack and carted off with their legs dangling out as a warning to others. In one story, a young farmhand who incurs her ire by spying on her, goes blind. Although his sight is ultimately restored, the message is clear: Do not mess with Perchta.
It’s a sentiment echoed by author and independent scholar Stephen Morris, who has written about Perchta. “I think my favorite [story] is when she intrudes on a wedding reception she was not invited to attend,” he says. “[It] sounds like the Wicked Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, right? She curses the bride and groom and the whole wedding party by transforming them into wolves.”
Frightening tales of Perchta are certainly entertaining, but there is more to her legend than horror and mayhem. “I first heard about Perchta in a book of German fairytales,” Rebecca Beyer tells me. She is a forager-witch and a scholar of Appalachian folklore and magic who feels a strong connection to Perchta. “I find any creature or goddess figure that holds an aspect of terror interesting. She is one of the many dual-faced goddesses, both fair and ugly, dark and light. I guess it's difficult not to find resonance with deity figures that are so frankly, human—like us. With these big, oppositional aspects that remind us that in all light there is shadow, no matter how we'd like to ignore it.”
Rebecca’s point about Perchta’s duality speaks to the contrasts that make her so fascinating. Her name means “bright one,” which refers to iterations of the Perchta legend which depict her as youthful and white as snow as opposed to elderly and hag-like. She may be a dab hand at belly-slitting and a close associate of Krampus but, as Morris points out, she is also known as Grandmother Winter, the woman who makes the snow—“probably the most family-friendly version of her,” he adds.
Percha’s legend stretches back hundreds of years but her popularity shows no sign of diminishing. In Austria and elsewhere, she remains a very visible part of Christmas festivities. A perfect example is the Perchtenlauf, which, as Beyer explains “is a masked procession full of noise-making, fireworks and people, generally men, dressed as terrible beasts with large horns. These perchent or followers of Perchta, serve to frighten away the cold, evil spirits of winter by out ugly-ing them.
“They are so fearsome themselves they aim to scare the very cold away. There were well documented attempts at suppression in the 17th and 18th centuries, but today, these processions have experienced a revival. We're even seeing these in America now, which delights me, and I'd love to have one in Asheville, NC where I live someday.”
Each year, Beyer marks the Epiphany by preparing one of Perchta’s favourite meals. “I personally enjoy leaving out a meal of oat gruel and herring for her on 6 January, and having some myself in her honor,” she says. “I also enjoy creating art and imagery of her to honor her, so she does not become a forgotten goddess.” It is a sentiment shared by many every Christmas, wherever Perchta and her terrifying deeds are celebrated.