Category Archives: Christmas

Candy Cane

The holiday season has arrived whether that’s Christmas, Yule, or another Winter Solstice festival. One familiar sight around this time will more than likely be the red & white candy canes adorning trees, stockings, and as a general treat given out.

Christianity has been quick to assign Christian symbolisms to candy canes as has been done with a good many other Christmas decorations and symbols that frequently have a pagan origin to them.

Christmas Folklore

There are a few stories that have sprung up since the 20th century regarding the origins of candy canes and a Christian connection. While these stories are quaint, there are no facts or records to back them up.

Indiana Candymaker – First Story

This story says that a candymaker from Indiana, U.S. decided to make a candy that would witness or testify of Jesus Christ. The J symbol for Jesus’ initial “J” or represents the cane of the Shepherds in the fields going to the manger in Bethlehem to see the newborn Christ. The white is for his virgin birth and his purity. Then three red stripes represent the scourging Jesus suffers when people are healed. There is a large red stripe to represent the blood shed by Christ in paying for people’s sins and their eternal salvation.

To do this, this nameless candymaker took a stick of white hard candy and formed the cane, added the red stripes, and before the candy hardened, twisted it to the “J” or cane shape.

Debunked – This one lacks any documentation. Surely, we’d have a record of who this candymaker was if we knew his home state and why he made the candy cane, to begin with.

Persecuted Christians – Second Story

This story says that candy canes were made during a time when Christians were being persecuted and that this cane-shaped candy served as a means by which to recognize each other.

Debunked – This story is easily refuted as the earliest that candy canes are mentioned is the latter part of the 17th century, when much of Europe is Christian. By this time, only those needing a secret means to recognize each other are non-Christians. Nor does this story mention which era of time Christians were being persecuted.

German Origin – Third Story

This story says that in 1670, the choirmaster in Cologne, Germany is the creator of the candy cane. Frustrated as many teachers and parents are when you have restless children who get a case of giggles and wiggles and are unable to stay still or quiet. In this case, choir boys get restless and noisy during long sermons. So the choirmaster hit on an idea and found a local candymaker for some treats. While looking at some white candy sticks, the choirmaster pondered if he would be allowed to give the boys sweets. That’s when the choirmaster asked the candymaker about bending the sticks into a cane shape as he would use the candy as a means for teaching. The white represents the purity of Christ, the cane hook for the story of the shepherds who came to find the infant Jesus at the manger.

Debunked – Aside from sounding authoritative because it’s “church history,” again, like the story of the candymaker from Indiana, there are no records of this happening.

What Can Be Verified

The above stories are largely quaint anecdotes and the earliest records for any of them are from the mid-20th century, the 1900s. The earliest mention of candy canes is in 1866 with the short story “Tom Luther’s Stockings” in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine. Their first-time association of them with Christmas comes in 1874. This is some two hundred years after the candy cane was to have been invented and popularized with the festive holiday season.

We have documentation of candy sugar sticks with colored stripes starting in 1844. The mention and evidence of the “J-shaped” candy canes with red stripes don’t come until the beginning of the 20th century. The evidence for this comes from Christmas cards printed before 1900 depicting plain white canes. Not until after, do the striped canes begin to appear on Christmas cards.

The best that can be guessed at is that some unknown person did come up with the idea of bending the cane sugar sticks into their familiar “J-shape” to represent a shepherd’s crook and to make it easier to hang on a Christmas tree for decoration. While it’s a good guess, that’s all it is.

German Immigrant – In 1847, it is believed that the immigrant August Imgard in Ohio, U.S.A. is the first person credited in America who decorated a Christmas tree using candy canes.

Famous Candy Company

Though indirect, this story is verifiable for the religious connection. The owner of the Famous Candy Company, Bob McCormack in 1919 did begin the process of bending candy canes into their J-shape, a process that needed to be done manually and resulted in limited quantities due to the amount of labor needed.

It’s McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest who came up with the means to automate the bending process for candy canes. Hence the Keller Machine. So yeah, there’s the Christian connection for those looking for it.

The Famous Candy Company would become Mills-McCormack Candy Company and then Bobs Candies.

Cuetlaxochitl

Pronunciation: ket-la-sho-she

Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)

Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)

For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.

So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?

A Xochime Native To Mexico!

This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.

What’s In A Name?

While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.

There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”

Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!

For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.

Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.

Western History

For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!

Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.

Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.

By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”

In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.

Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.

Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.

Poinsettia Marketing

Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.

Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?

Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.

Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.

Christian Symbolism

In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.

The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.

For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.

Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend

A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.

Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend

The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.

Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.

White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend

The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.

Poinsettia Day

This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.

Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.

December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.

Cuetlaxochitl Day

Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.

Everyday Uses

Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.

Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.

Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.

Horticulture!

The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!

Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!

It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.

For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.

Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.

During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.

When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.

Medicinal Uses

Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.

The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.

Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.

Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.

As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.

On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!

Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.

Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.

Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.

Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.

Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.

Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.

Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.

Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…

Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.

Hans Trapp

Also Known As: Hans Von Trotha, Hans Trott

The legends of this terrifying Christmas bogeyman from France say that he is the spirit of a wicked man who comes back during Christmas time as a scarecrow, waiting in fields and by roads to terrify his victims into behaving.

The Legend

The legend of Hans Trapp comes from the regions of Alsace and Lorraine in France. There are numerous variations to this story. The most retold one is that Hans Trap in life was a wealthy, yet cruel man. It is said that Hans gained his wealth by means of magic and pacts with demons as he worshiped Satan. Hans was heartless, vain, and greedy, reveling in his wickedness and sin.

When the Vatican got wind of Trapp’s cruelty and his involvement with the occult, he was arrested and brought before the Pope. For his sins of worshiping Satan and occultism, Trapp was excommunicated.

Upon his return to France, Trapp learned that his land and property had been seized and that he was left without any money. The villagers of his home province shunned Trapp and he was banished to the woods nearby across the border in Germany.

Enraged by what happened, Trapp threw himself even more into his occult studies and demonology. Revenge consumed his every waking thought for those who had exiled him. Trapp’s time alone in the forest drove him mad and he began to crave human flesh. He became so obsessed with this new craving that Trapp came up with the idea to dress as a scarecrow, stuffing his clothing with straw and ragged clothing before going to wait in a field for the first of his victims.

Soon enough, a young shepherd boy passed through the field and Hans Trapp leaped forward with a sharpened stick, killing them. Trapp dragged the body back to his house where he proceeded to butcher the child and eat them.

Just as Trapp was about to take his first bite of human flesh, a bolt of lightning struck him dead. The story says that this bolt of lightning came from God. As to Trapp, he fell lifeless, his head cracking on the table.

Since then, parents in the north-eastern region of France warn their children to be wary of Hans Trapp’s spirit that returns every Christmas, in the form of a scarecrow and hood who will snatch misbehaving children and them to the forest, never to be seen again.

Another variation to this is that Saint Nicholas chained Hans Trapp much like he did with Krampus to accompany him on his holiday rounds and if Hans Trapp is to have any redemption for his wicked ways, he follows and accompanies the Saint.

The History

Every legend has a kernel of truth, no matter how small. Though in this case, we have plenty of historical records.

There was a real Hans Trapp, known in life as Hans von Trotha presumably born in 1450 (the date really isn’t known) and who died in 1503 C.E. Hans was an imposing figure standing at close to 2 meters tall. A knight and marshal of the prince-elector, Hans von Trotha held two castles, Berwarstein and Grafendahn near the Palatinate Forest; a territory that stretched between France and Germany. Of course, two castles seem a bit much for a knight and there was a dispute between Hans von Trotha and one Henry, Abbot of the Order of Benedictine Monks at Weissenburg Abbey over the possession of the Berwartstein castle. Henry was adamant that Berwarstein was rightfully the property of the Weissenburg Abbey, that it had wrongfully been awarded to Hans von Trotha. Henry wasn’t about to give up the claim.

In response to the abbot, Hans von Trotha ordered a dam to be constructed that stopped the flow of water to the village of Weissenburg near the disputed castle. Henry complained of this, and Hans von Trotha ordered the dam to be taken down, causing the village to be flooded and a lot of economical damage. After this, Hans von Trotha began attacking Henry. The Emperor Maximilian I of Germany heard and tried getting Hans von Trotha to cease. The abbot then reached out to Pope Innocent VIII who sent a summons to Hans von Trotha, questioning him about his loyalty to the Catholic church. Hans von Trotha refused the summons and instead, wrote a letter to the Pope, accusing them of being immoral. This earned Hans von Trotha both excommunication from the Catholic church and an Imperial Ban placed on him by the Emperor.

Despite this, Hans von Trotha received the title of Chevalier d’Or, the “Knight of Gold” from the French monarch King Louis XII and served his court. Two years later, Hans von Trotha would die from natural causes. All charges against Hans von Trotha were dropped posthumously shortly after.

Legacy

Hans von Trotha became a local legend in the Palatinate region where stories told depict him as a robber baron, and his name would become Hans Trapp or Hans Trott. He would become a figure used to terrify young children, going from an infamous Black Knight to a restless wandering spirit.

In the “Legend of Jungfernsprung,” Hans Trapp’s name became associated as a fiend who seeks to rape a young woman out picking berries in a nearby forest.

Saint Nicholas’ Day

On Saint Nicholas’s Day, in the region of Alsace, Hans Trapp replaces the figure of Knecht Ruprecht as the Saint’s companion and scares children into behaving. As for Christmas, Hans Trapp will accompany the Christkindel on his journey.

Knecht Ruprecht

Pronunciation: ˌknɛçtˈʁuː.pʁɛçt

Alternative Names: Aschenklas, Bûr, Bullerclås, De hêle Christ (“The Holy Christ” in Mittelmark). Farmhand Robert, Farmhand Rupert, Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, Servant Robert, Servant Rupert, Rû Clås, Ru Klaus (“Rough Nicholas”), Pelz Nicholas (“Fur Nicholas”)

The figure of Knecht Ruprecht is another character who appears within the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions as another companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany.

Description

Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing black or brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a childhood injury. Due to this limp, Ruprecht carries a long staff, he also has a bag of ashes, a whip, a stick, a sack for hauling away naughty children, and sometimes small bells on his clothing. Further details are that he may be shown riding a white horse or that he may be accompanied by fairies or by men dressed as old women with blackened faces.

The Devil You Know

In Germanic folklore, Ruprecht is the German name for the English Robert and a common name for the devil.

In this respect, Reprecht is a lot like the earlier forms of Zwarte Piet as the devil. This fits those traditions with figures like Krampus and Zwarte Piet where Saint Nicholas is to have chained and enslaved the devil.

This devil figure is then who punishes misbehaving children with whippings, handing them a switch or coal.

When it comes to Germany, several various dark figures lend themselves to the wintertime, Saint Nicholas Day, and Christmas traditions. At first glance, it’s easy to distinguish all of them as they all have different names and appearances. Then when you get into the various traditions surrounding each figure, they do hold similar roles. Some folklorists will state that the different names are regional variations of the same figure.

Maybe, but some of them like Krampus, Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht and Hans Trapp are way too distinct in their descriptions and frequently their origins to really see them all as being the same being. And maybe there is some comfort in seeing only one Christmastime bogeyman to be afraid of instead of several.

With variations in names, some of them do end up blending Knecht Ruprecht with Saint Nicholas so he is known as Ru Klaus or “Rough Nicholas” or Pelz Nicholas or “Fur Nicholas.” As Pelz Nicholas, we see Knecht Ruprecht get blended with the figure of Belsnickel. Even further names are Aschenklas or “Ash Nicholas” in reference to the bag of ash that Knecht Ruprecht carries. There a couple sources that give alternate names of Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” when the figures of Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Martin are blended together.

Santa’s Companion?

Knecht Ruprecht is a dark helper and companion with a similar role to those of Krampus and Zwart Piet. It’s essentially a good cop, bad cop routine they share where Saint Nicholas is the gift giver who rewards while Knecht Ruprecht and others threaten punishment in the form of either thrashings or kidnapping.

Belsnickel – Knecht Ruprecht has also been identified as just another name for this gift-giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. The two are frequently confused and identified with each other.

Kobolds – Jacob Grimm in his “Deutsche Mythologie” says that Knecht Ruprecht and other punishing type companions are like Kobolds who could be either helpful or not so helpful.

So, what’s a kobold? Those are a type of household spirit in pre-Christian beliefs that could be either beneficial or malicious depending on how they were treated. After the arrival of Christianity, these types of spirits were said to be more mischievous when they weren’t helping or not properly given respect.

Robin Goodfellow – Jacob Grimm also goes on to say that this is the same person as Knecht Ruprecht and just another name that all these house spirits are known as.

Crime & Punishment

On December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, Knecht Ruprecht will ask children if they are able to pray. If the child demonstrates that they can, they are rewarded with gifts of apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If the child is not able to recite a prayer, Knecht Ruprecht will hit them with his bag of ashes.

Particularly naughty children will be given lumps of coal, sticks, and stones while good children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas in their shoes that they leave out. The absolute worst would be tied up in a sack and thrown into a river.

Nuremberg Christmas Procession

Knecht Ruprecht makes his first appearance in the 17th century during the Nuremberg Christmas Procession where he is a companion to Santa Claus. This is the first concrete documentation of this figure and their association with Saint Nicholas and the Christmas traditions.

According to traditions and stories, Ruprecht is either a farmhand or in other stories, a foundling that Saint Nicholas finds and raises as his own son. The German philosopher Alexander Tille has commented that Knecht Ruprecht represents the archetypical manservant much like stock characters Junker Hanns and Bauer Michel who represent the Nobility and are defined by their social rankings with no individuality.

In the High Alps, Knecht Ruprecht takes on more of the role of Saint Nicholas’ assistant, keeping an eye out for the Saint’s arrival. This is where both Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Nicholas can get blended together to be known as Ru Klaus as both are accompanied by troops of the goat-like creatures known as Krampus who will terrorize any misbehaving children.

Knecht Ruprecht has been the subject of a piano piece by the German composer Robert Schumann in 1848. The German poet and novelist, Theodor Storm wrote a poem called “Knecht Ruprecht” in 1862

Ancient History?

For Knecht Ruprecht, not really. He’s much newer compared to the figures of Krampus and Perchta. However, as a collective whole with Zwarte Piet and Belsnickel, then yes, there is an argument to be made with connecting Knecht Ruprecht to older pagan traditions for the dangerous time that Winter can be. So, it’s fair to say we can see the ever-evolving Christian influence to try and tame the more wilder, dangerous Yuletide figures and monsters. Connecting him to the Norse Odin seems more of a stretch as I’ll give that one more to Saint Nicholas.

Saint Martin’s Day

Or Martinmas, which is sometimes also called Old Halloween or Old Hallowmas Eve and was celebrated on November 11th to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of winter. Traditions involve feasting on the Martinmas goose or Martinmas beef, drinking wine, bonfires, mummery, and Saint Martin going around on horseback to bestow gifts of apples, nuts, cakes, and other sweets to children who hung their stockings with hay for Saint Martin’s horse.

Saint Martin is also sometimes called Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” and seems to be a figure similar to Saint Nicholas in their gift-giving roles. As a result, Knecht Ruprecht is said to sometimes be a companion to Saint Martin.

Other Saints

With the growing Christian influence in Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is also known to accompany Saint Peter, Saint Rupert, and even the Christkindel, or “Christ Child” during their gift-giving journey on Christmas.

Belsnickel

Pronunciation: Belsh-nickel

Etymology: Due to the homophone or same sounding words, it is a portmanteau of German belzen/pelzen (to wallop or beat) or possibly bels/pels (fur) and nickel for Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, “bels or pels” meaning fur

Also called: Bell Sniggle, Bellzebub, Belschnickel, Belzeniggl, Belznickel, Black Pit, Buzebergt, Christmas Woman, Drapp, Gumphinkel, Hans Muff, Hanstrapp, Knecht Ruprecht, Kriskinkle, Pelzebock, Pelsnichol, Pelznickel, Pelznikel, Rumpelklas, Schmutzli, Stoppklos, Xmas Woman

The character of Belsnickel is another character from German and Pennsylvania Dutch cultures who appears during the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions. Belsnickel is even known to make appearances in some communities of Santa Catarina, Brazil.

In more recent times, Belsnickel is more friendly, much like the Zwarte Piet tradition of the Netherlands, and not as scary as the seemingly darker figure of Krampus. Though Belsnickel will still come to punish misbehaving children while rewarding those who are well-behaved.

Descriptions

It can vary slightly what Belsnickel looks like. One source says they wear a black mask and carries a large black sack and then announces their arrival by knocking on windows or doors before bedtime on Christmas night. The family is expected of course to let Belsnickel in so he can hand out toys and gifts to good children and hickory switches to the misbehaving ones accordingly.

Other descriptions of Belsnickel say he’s filthy and dressed up in rags or furs. Clothing is often tattered or in some cases, a woman’s garb. Additional features will include a blackface, intended to be soot to show he’s dirty or he’s wearing a mask, bell, whip, and his pockets full of candy or nuts to pass out to good children. Sometimes Belsnickel will be more animal-like with horns and have a long tongue much like various images of Krampus. Another version of Belsnickel says they are a slender figure dressed in white who slips through keyholes in order to leave their gifts.

Bringing The Holiday Spirit!

The character of Belsnickel hails from the Palatine region of Germany along the Rhine, Saarland, and Odenwald area where he is sometimes a companion of Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, Belsnickel may arrive on his own, independent of Saint Nicholas.

When the American colonies were first established by the Puritans in the 1700s, they had banned the celebrations of Christmas as they felt them to be too pagan, taking away from the focus of honoring and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Plus, celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness, and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.

Not yet.

One step on the way to helping with that is the arrival of German and Swiss immigrants, bringing with them their traditions and celebrations. Settling in the Pennsylvania area, the image of Belsnickel helped to bring many of the Christmas traditions with family and friends gathering, singing, eating, and exchanging gifts. The Puritan colonies to the north didn’t pay much attention to what was happening south of them.

Today, many of these celebrations still continue in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities with some of these traditions extending as far west as Indiana.

Belsnickel Day?

This one can vary. In some places, Belsnickel will arrive a couple weeks before Christmas or he arrives on Christmas Eve to pass out his goodies or punishments. Often, an older, male member of the family, either father or uncle will come dressed up as Belsnickel. The first hints of Belsnickel’s arrival are heard by his tapping on the windows and then knocking at the door. Any frightened children who run away are gathered up by the parents and lined up so they can be questioned by Belsnickel if they’ve been good, to recite poems, a bible passage, or doing a simple math equation.

After that, Belsnickel would spread or toss out various treats on the floor for the children to get. Any child too eager and excited or greedy would be hit by Belsnickel’s switch to remind them to be good.

Santa’s Companion?

Belsnickel doesn’t accompany Saint Nicholas, he will appear either the night before Saint Nicholas’ Day or Christmas Eve or sometime in the one to two weeks before Christmas to hand out his gifts and treats or dish out punishments.

Other companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwart Piete and Knecht Ruprecht are known to accompany Saint Nicholas.

Knecht Ruprecht – Belsnickel has also been identified as just another name for this gift-giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a childhood injury.

Crime & Punishment

Receiving punishment from Belsnickel is comparably far tamer than one from Krampus. Belsnickel is known for handing out switches to naughty children as a reminder to be good.

Ominous Threat – There are versions of Belsnickel’s myth that say he will drag unruly children off into the forest for their behavior. Exactly what he does, is never specified.

“Belsnicking”

Also called Klausentreiben , this activity is similar to mummery, in the 19th century, people would go out, and get drunk as they vandalized the city and played pranks. This will occur on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, much like Krampusnacht where there is a parade or procession ringing bells.

On the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, people will dress in multiple layers of clothing with scarves covering their faces when they go out Belsnickling. They would be given food and drink until people could guess who it was before the revelers moved onto the next house.

Perchta

Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)

Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter

Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.

This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?

To answer that, we start at the beginning.

Attributes

Animal: Goose, Swan

Day of the Week: Friday

Element: Water

Month: January

Plant: Birch

Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving

Symbols: Staff, Knife,

Time: Night

What’s In A Name?

The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.

Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.

Depictions

Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.

Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.

Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.

Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.

Middle Ages

The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.

As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.

In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”

Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.

Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.

Alpine Goddess

In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.

Dual Goddess

Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.

Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.

Protector Of Women & Children

In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.

Goddess Of Nature

In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.

It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.

Weaver Goddess

In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.

During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.

Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.

According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.

Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.

Christian Influences

The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.

Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.

Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman

During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.

Perchten

These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.

Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.

Other Perchten names are:

Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.

Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.

Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.

Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.

Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.

Heimchen

Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.

For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.

Raunachte

This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.

Perchtenlauf

This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.

For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.

Krampuslauf

The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.

Twelfth Night

Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.

In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.

In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.

A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.

Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Berchtoldstag

Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.

Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.

Fastnacht

Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.

Urglaawe

This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.

In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.

Syno-Deities & Figures

Freyja – Norse

Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.

Frigg – Norse

The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.

Holda – Germanic

The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.

La Befana – Italy

The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.

Saint Lucy – Germany

A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.

Weisse Frauen

A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.

Jólabókaflóð

Pronunciation: yo-la-bok-a-flot

The Yule Book Flood or Christmas Book Flood

A fun holiday tradition that Iceland has, is the gifting of books for Christmas.

Starting after WWII in 1944 comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. Where many European countries were closing themselves off in order to rebuild their economies, it meant that not as many exports were happening.

For Iceland, paper was a lot easier to get imported, leading to books being the most common item that people could gift. It further helps that Iceland has strong literary roots solidly dating back to the 10th century and possibly the 800’s when the first Nordic peoples settled the land, bringing with them the Runes that they believed to come from the Gods. Add to it the Icelandic Sagas beginning first as an oral tradition before getting written down appearing between the 12th and 15th centuries, makes for a very strong literary heritage.

The Journal of Books is distributed to households in Iceland for free and marks the kickoff of the Christmas season. This annual release of new books in the months before December is when Icelanders will buy books and then gift them on Christmas Eve when people will cozy up inside with hot chocolate.

Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!

Leppalúði

Etymology: From Icelandic leppur (“rags”) and lúði (“oaf”)

In Icelandic folklore, Leppalúði is currently the third husband of the fearsome ogress or trolless, Grýla. Both Leppalúði and Grýla are known for being cannibals, eating children. Leppalúði is often mentioned in conjunction with his wife, Grýla as a means by parents to frighten their children into good behavior.

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði, and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Family

Spouse

Grýla – A cannibal ogress or troll, Grýla is the fierce, infamous wife of Leppalúði

Children

Some stories hold that Leppalúði and Grýla have had many children together, one count says that there are as many as twenty children.

JólasveinarnirThe Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Over time and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift-giving and will leave either a gift of sweets or a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.

JólakötturinnThe Yule Cat, is more Grýla’s monstrous giant pet black cat. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!

Twins – The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still young enough to need a crib.

Laziness

Most of Leppalúði’s fierce reputation comes from his association and marriage to Grýla and the Jólasveinarnir who go out hunting misbehaving children to eat. If it wasn’t for them, Leppalúði is likely to have died of starvation long ago due to his laziness and that he frequently stays home.

Vampire Pumpkins & Watermelons

This is an interesting one. According to the beliefs of the Romani living in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, any fruit or inanimate object that is left outside during a full moon becomes a vampire. The proof of this impending change is the appearance of blood, even a single drop on the skin of the pumpkin or watermelon.

Description

A vampire pumpkin or watermelon is going to look indistinguishable from the original plant. Though you know it has changed or is about to change if there is the appearance of blood on the fruit in question.

Legend

According to the account recorded by the ethnologist, Tatomir Vukanović, there is a belief that vampire fruit is similar to any inanimate object left outside during the night of a full moon will become a vampire. The only known source for Vukanović’s account is in his journal when he was in Serbia between 1933 and 1948.

Vukanović writes how the Gypsies (properly, they are known as Romani) who live in Kosovo, believe in vampiric plants and that Pumpkins and Watermelons are the two plants specifically to be wary of that have this change. This vampiric change in the two happens only when they are fighting each other.

Exactly how and why they are fighting each other isn’t made clear. Just that they do.

Vampiric Transformation

In Podrima and Prizrenski Podgar, the vampiric transformation only happens when pumpkins and watermelons have been kept for more than ten days. After ten days, the pumpkins and melons begin to stir and make a “brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!” noise as they shake.

Sometimes, a trace of blood can be found on the pumpkin or watermelon and that is how you know for sure that the plant has become a vampire. These pumpkins and melons then begin to roll around, going into people’s homes, stables, and rooms at night.

Christmas – In the village of Pirani, it was believed that any pumpkin kept after Christmas would become a vampire.

Another tradition among the Lešani holds that a pumpkin becomes a vampire when it’s used as a siphon, ripened, and dried without being opened after three years.

Yes, there’s a certain danger from this vampire pumpkin or melon showing up, but it is believed that they couldn’t do a lot of harm. Not in terms of draining blood, a vampire pumpkin isn’t likely to have teeth. But they can drain a person’s life or psychic energy, leaving them with a weakened aura and feeling ill or fatigued. Still, it’s a vampire and people tended to be wary of these vampiric plants anyways as this source of damage is much slower.

Destroying The Vampire!

Stake it!

More like boiling it. The Romani destroy their vampire veggies by tossing them into a pot of boiling water. Then the water is poured out. Next, the plant is smashed to pieces or scrubbed with a broom. Now the plant is thrown away and the broom burned.

Possible Reality Behind The Myths

While this sounds preposterous and ridiculous. There is an explanation for why this belief persisted and originated.

It’s possible the Romani of Serbia were joking with Vukanović when they told him the story while he was compiling his research notes for his book, “The Vampire.”

It’s also possible that this legend and superstition arose as a means for people to avoid eating rotten food.

Watermelons are known for having a red sap or “blood” that appears on their rind when they’ve aged and been sitting around for a while.

Pop Culture

The idea and use of vampire pumpkins and watermelons have made their way into the literature.  Notably Terry Pratchett’s “Carpe Jugulum” was written in 1998. The Bunnicula children’s series has vampire vegetables. The webcomic Digger makes use of vampire squashes, even pop culture books on vampires will mention vampire pumpkins.

Ankou

Pronunciation: ahn-koo

Etymology: From the Breton word anken for anguish or grief. Another word given is ankouatt, meaning “to forget.”

Also Known As: Ankow (Cornish), yr Angau (Welsh), L’Ankou, Death, the Grim Reaper, King of Dead, Angel of Death, Death’s Servant

In Breton mythology of Brittany, France, the Ankou is the local personification of death. They come at night either on foot or more often riding in a cart or carriage drawn by four black horses to collect the souls of the newly dead and take them to the Lands of the Dead.

Pre-History

With scant evidence, but the persistent belief in the Ankou prevailing, there are thoughts among scholars that the Ankou might be a surviving tradition of a local Celtic Death God or Goddess. It has been suggested by the 19th-century writer, Anatole le Braz that the belief of the Ankou goes back to the dolmen-builders of prehistoric Brittany.

Description

Imagery of the Ankou can be found throughout many of the old Celtic countries such as Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. One example is found on a baptismal font in La Martyre where the Ankou is shown holding a human head. The Ankou, like the depictions of the Green Man on many churches are a Pagan holdover and a defiance towards Church Authority.

The Ankou appears as a ghostly skeleton or sometimes as an old man who wears black robes and large, wide-brimmed hat that conceals its face. As a skeleton, the Ankou’s head is able to spin around so he can see in all directions. The Ankou is shown too carrying a scythe that has the sharpened blade upwards instead of downwards. Sometimes he only appears as a shadow carrying a scythe. He is said to drive a black cart or carriage drawn by two horses, one old and one young or there are four black horses. If there are several souls for the Ankou to collect, he will be assisted by two skeletons who help hurl them into the cart. A cold gust of wind is said to follow in the Ankou’s wake as he travels.

Aside from collecting souls, the Ankou when there is more than one, are guardians of cemeteries. And sometimes the Ankou of a cemetery is the first person to die in the year who is then tasked with collecting the souls of the dead and lead them to the afterlife.

Karrigell an Ankou – The Wheelbarrow of Ankou, he is heralded by the sound of squealing railways wheels outside a person’s home.

Labous an Ankou – The Death Bird, the cry of an owl heralds the arrival of the Ankou.

King Of The Dead – In some legends, the Ankou is the King of the Dead. Each of his subjects have their path that they follow their path through the Underworld or Afterlife.

Psycho-Pomp

Regardless of the description of the Ankou that you go by, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. The persistence of the Ankou has continued into the 21st century where it is recognized more as the Grim Reaper.

Though he is often shown carrying a scythe, the Ankou doesn’t have to kill anyone, just his presence and arrival signals that someone’s time has come. The Ankou’s role as psycho-pomp also sees him as something of a protector of the dead.

Death’s Henchman – In “The Legend of Death” by Anatole Le Braz, the Ankou is a henchman to Death, protecting the graveyard and souls around it, collecting them for the afterlife when it is their time. The last person to die in the year for their parish, becomes the Ankou for the following year. In any year where there have been more deaths than usual, the phrase: “War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk” is said. Translated, it means: “On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.”

New House – It is believed that the Ankou awaits in every new house to claim the life of the first living being to enter it. For that reason, a tradition began in the Breton Commune of Quimperlé to sacrifice a rooster and spread out its blood on the foundations of every house being built, that way the Ankou could collect the soul of the rooster.

Omen Of Death

To see, hear or approach the Ankou is an omen of death. However, it is with the understanding that to see the Ankou, is something of a blessing in disguise, as the individual is often given the time to be able to say their goodbyes and get affairs in order.

Your Soul Has Been Collected, Now What?

Well now, that really all depends on what you believe. For some, that’s it, no more, finis. For others, there’s going to be some sort of afterlife that the Ankou is going to take you for final judgment, whether that be a Heaven or Hell of some sort, or even just a Purgatory where the soul is in limbo forever.

There’s plenty of speculation and evidence in surviving Celtic stories that they likely believed in reincarnation as other religions and cultures have. Ultimately, even with the arrival of Christianity, the soul continues on in some form and the Ankou is going to take it there.

The Bretons were no different than their other Celtic kin, death is a part of life. The soul continues somewhere, even if we aren’t in agreement of where that is.

Fairy

In Ireland, the Ankou is seen as a type of fairy versus a ghost or spirit of some sort. Which makes sense where distinctions between the three are easily hashed out. Yet also a bit confusing, as most people will think of the small Victorian Flower Fairies that are small and have wings like Tinkerbell of Peter Pan fame. In the more deeper studies of Celtic or Irish folklore, faeries are a type of spirit, not just another race of beings with numerous various types. Older linguistics and translations show that faeries are the spirits of the dead and the Realm of Fairy is the Land of the Dead. Which goes right back to making sense to refer to the Ankou as a type of fairy.

Kalan Goañv

A Breton festival that corresponds to October 31st with the celebrations of Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio de Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou with milk, cider, and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders where offerings for the dead can be left.

Night Of Wonders

The Bretons call Christmas Eve the “Night of Wonders.” During this time, the Ankou will pass through anonymously through the crowd attending Midnight Mass. Anyone that the Ankou brushes past will be those who die before the New Year.

French Nursery Rhyme

“O, Lakait ho Troadig” is the name of a nursery rhyme that dates back to the 16th century. The Ankou is mentioned where each time the rhyme progresses, a new word in introduced that then becomes the first word in the series.

Irish Proverb

“When Ankou comes, he will not go away empty.”

Storytime

There are a few stories involving the Ankou that I came across while researching this figure.

Story One – First Child

In some stories, the Ankou is said to the first child of Adam and Eve…. Which would make him Cain, if we go by most versions and translations of the Bible.

Right then…

Story Two – Drunken Friends

This story sees three friends who were drunk and of course, walking home late one night. The three came across an old man on a rickety cart. Two of the friends began to shout at the old man, not realizing that this it he Ankou. Then they began throwing stones that when the axle on the cart broke, the two ran off.

As for the third friend, he felt bad and went to help the old man. He found a branch and came back with that to replace the broken axle. Then he took the shoelaces off his shoes to give the Ankou to tie it in place.

The next morning, the two friends who had thrown stones were found dead. As for the third friend, who had stayed to help, his hair turned white. He never spoke in any detail about what happened that night.

If we have the story, the guy must have told someone or written it down.

Story Three – The Cruel Prince

In this story, there was once a cruel landowner that challenged Death. The landowner? A petty, spoiled and entitled Prince. This Prince was out hunting, chasing down a white stag, an animal given special status in Celtic lore. As the Prince and his companions chased the white stag, they encountered a dark figure sitting atop a white horse. Infuriated that this person dared to trespass on his lands, the Prince challenged the stranger. Whoever killed the stag could not only keep the hide and meat but could also determine the fate of the loser. The stranger agreed, speaking in a soft, eerie voice that unnerved those who heard him.

To the Prince’s horror, the hunt was over faster than he anticipated. No matter how hard he rode, how fast he drew his bow, the stranger was faster still and succeeded at bringing down the deer. Angry at his loss, the Prince had his men surround the stranger, declaring that he would bring back two trophies that night. The white stag and the stranger.

The stranger laughed, revealing himself then to be Death, telling the Prince that since he loved to hunt so much, he could have the stag and all the dead of the world. The Prince was then cursed to become an Ankou or a Ghoul, forever collecting the souls of the dead.

Story Four – The Blacksmith’s Story

In this story, there is a blacksmith by the name of Fanch ar Floc’h who was very engrossed with his work on Christmas Eve, that he missed the Midnight Mass. He worked late into the midnight hour, (held sacred in some European cultures, the witching hour when magic happens) when the Ankou arrived seeking to have his scythe repaired. Fanch knew full well who his midnight visitor was and he worked on the scythe tirelessly, dying at the dawn of Christmas Morning.

Story Five – The Coach of the Dead

This story was first recorded by the Breton poet and folklorist Anatole Le Braz in 1890. The legend is much older, having been passed on through oral tradition.

A young man was curious one evening when he heard the sound of the Ankou’s axles as they creaked. The man ran out to a clump of hazel where he hid watched for the Ankou’s arrival. As the cart passed by, it suddenly stopped and one of the Ankou’s skeletal companions went to where the young man hid to cut a branch of hazel to repair the axle. The young believed had been spotted by the Ankou and was relieved when the cart soon left. However, when morning came, the young man was found dead.

Story Six – The Blocked Road

Three brothers are returning home after a night of partying and quiet drunk. The three decide they will pull a prank on the first carriage to pass through on a nearby road. They do so by blocking the path with a large, dead tree.

Later in the evening, the brothers were awoken by loud banging on their door and a voice yelling that they go and remove the tree blocking the path. The voice knows that it was the boys who pulled this stunt.

When the three opened the door to look, no one was there, but they could not close the door again no matter how hard they tried. The boys called out, asking who was there. Once more the voice boomed, ordering them to go to the road that they blocked.

Freaked, the brothers went out, finding that the stranger they thought to find was the Ankou. The Ankou explained that he had lost an hour of his time due to this stunt and as a result, they would all die one hour sooner. The Ankou then added, that the three were lucky, had they not come out when they did, they would have owed him a year of their lives for each minute that he lost.

Syno-Deities & Entities

Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.

Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the sea-shore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears when ever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come to close. The crew of this boat are said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.

Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Ankou due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.

Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.

Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.

Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.

The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán meaning “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.

In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.

Grim Reaper – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear the black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much so the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.

Santa Muerte The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper with wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.