Berchta comes to inspect your household at the Winter Solstice, she will poke into every corner of your farm and cott, thoroughly examine your barns for cleanliness and investigate if you have tended well to your livestock. She will carefully scrutinise the distaffs and spindles, the hanging herbs and the butter churns, the hooks and the kettles and check if your dining boards are scrubbed to whiteness.
Hearths must be swept clean for her inspection, doors and windows decorated with evergreens, holly and mistletoe, sweet food and fine drink made ready, and hollowed cakes baked.
And she will leave gifts for children overnight. If they are good.
Berchta in Mythology
Her name is Berchta, and she was once the premier goddess of the German hearth, the Guardian of the household, and many more things besides.
Finding Berchta is like reading a crime mystery novel. We see her in the collections of the Brothers Grimm. Jacob Grimm records in Germanic Mythology accounts of the travelling goddess named Berchta or Holla. Now, Frau Holle is one of the names given in Germany to the wife of Wodan. As we move further north, Wodan becomes Odin and Holle is Frigg or Freya. Before that she was Erda, the earth, a word which is not of Indo European origin at all.
Berchta’s best known journey was during the twelve days following our Christmas when she traveled the countryside in her wagon bestowing gifts on those who had been hardworking and punishing those who had been lazy. Her entourage consisted of horned animals, elves, faeries and the ghosts of tiny children.
Christianity and Berchta Christianity debased Berchta, and corrupted her into a scary old woman to frighten children and who was also associated with witches. Berchta was sometimes depicted with a long iron nose and one large goose foot. She is now the White Lady who steals softly into nurseries and rocks infants to sleep, but is the terror of all naughty children.
Christian missionaries declared that only those baptised could enter heaven, and in the world of humble folk the Goddess survived, christianised in folklore as Bertha the Hag, the one who especially cherished the souls of unbaptised infants.
Throughout history we have celebrated the spirit and intention of the seasons in ritual and festival. We celebrated life’s renewal as the sun regenerated from winter’s cold darkness. We find a connection between the Winter Solstice and the goddess of the land in the Venerable Bede who calls Christmas Modranecht – Mother’s night. This and the appearance of the three Berchten during the twelve holy nights hints at that our ancestors did not only worship the reborn Solstice Sun at the time of the Winter Solstice, but also his mother, the Earth Mother, and that she appeared in three aspects.
…was Berchta the original Santa? …
In Bavaria, there still lingers the custom of three disguised women known as Berchten moving in procession through the village on the Feast of the Epiphany.
In Northern Europe the Yule log burned, keeping back the darkness and blessing the household with the promise that the sun would return again and with its light bring joy. This was the time when an altar of flat stone was made for Berchta on which burned a fire of evergreen boughs.
Berchta is the root word for the tree we call Birch and is related to words Birth, Begin and the Icelandic Birtu meaning Light. All of these words are related and all describe ‘the ‘bringing forth into the light’. And the light comes forth after the Winter Solstice.
Was Berchta the original Santa ? Converting an ancient goddess into a sanitised nursery rhyme is nothing new, and today we know Berchta only as Mother Goose.