Frau Perchta isn’t as well known as Krampus these days and this Christmas-time goddess deserves a lot more press. She’s a staple in the Alpine regions of southern Germany and Austria, who seem to have more than their fair share of legends, but relatively under-the-radar elsewhere.
Frau Perchta, alternatively known as Berchta, or Bertha, and has also been called “Spinnstubenfrau” or “Spinning Room Lady.” She is often depicted with a beaked nose made of iron, dressed in rags, carrying a cane, and generally resembles a decrepit old crone. But this old crone packs a mighty punch and carries a long knife hidden under her skirt. The tradition of having goose for Christmas is sometimes linked to witches like Frau Perchta, who is often depicted as having a goose foot, along with the belief that goose fat enabled witches to fly.
Frau Perchta also bears a resemblance to the Scandinavian goddess Frigga, and both of them share one obsession in common: spinning, specifically, and domestic neatness generally. Considering that she dresses in rags, the story here is more a case of ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say. Legend has it that you’d better get all your flax spun by Twelfth Night (January 6th), “for when the Christmas season was over, it would be time to set up the big upright loom, at which time you must have enough thread to warp it and start your weaving.”
And what’s Frau Perchta’s punishment for those lazy ladies who haven’t finished all their weaving? In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, there were numerous tales of Frau Perchta trampling and even setting fire to the half-spun fibres. And if should you really irritate her by not spinning your falx, leaving your house in a mess and not even leaving out a traditional bowl of porridge for her? Well, then her rampaging will extend far beyond your slovenly spinning room. She’ll do nothing less than steal into your bedroom, disembowel you and replace your guts with rocks and straw. But Perchta does more than just check up on your spinning. Other legends equate Frau Perchta with the legend of the Wild Hunt and say that she flies through the night sky attended by an army of lost souls, including the demonic-looking Perchten, her army of servants who are almost indistinguishable from Krampus. The only way to know for sure is time, Krampus rides abroad at St. Nicholas Eve while the Perchten tend more toward Epiphany, and the last three Thursdays before Christmas, also known as Berchtl nights or Knocking nights. Also among her army of the night are the souls of unbaptized children. Legend has it if you hear the wind and thunder roaring and rumbling through the mountains on the Berchtl nights, you’re really hearing the sounds of Perchta leading the Wild Hunt. So this January 6th, instead of bemoaning the fact that Christmas is over, why not celebrate “Perchtentag” by telling your kids they’d better clean up their rooms or Frau Perchta will come and disembowel them in the night. Kids love that sort of thing.