Frau Perchta and the Perchten
The Alpine areas of Germany and Austria, particularly the Tyrol and Salzburg are home to curious Yuletide customs surrounding a witch-like figure called Frau Perchta. Perchta is believed to be at large during the twelve days of Christmas when she and her posse of devils come down from the mountain forests to terrorize – and reward-humans. Perchtas’ dual purpose is represented by her duel image. In her benign aspect, Frau Perchta appears as a white-robed woman bearing gifts. However, she also manifests as crone-like figure-who rips out the guts of evildoers and discards them in the rubbish.
It is believed that Perchta began as an alpine nature goddess of the forests. For most of the year, this is where she stayed. However, when the year reached its cusp between the old cycle of the sun and the new, the goddess and her attendant spirits, the Perchen, would leave the forest and enter the world of men. Perchta would ensure that the spirits who attended her would bring no harm to good people. However, evil people were at the Perchens’ mercy.
In this way, Frau Perchta represents the ancient Indo-German fear of the season of cold and dark and the Perchen the uncompromising forces of nature. So people developed rituals to protect themselves, their homes and livestock from them. Special herbs were burnt around the winter solstice to safeguard homes, pens and food stores from these old spirits who could manifest as cold, hunger and blight. The herbs were also intended to wake the spirits of the new year or spring.
Records show that by at least the sixteenth century, if not earlier, young men had begun to dress up as spirits themselves to frighten off Frau Perchta and her gang. Wearing wooden masks, known as Schiachperchten, old rags, and ancient furs, these masked young men became known as the Perchten themselves. They roamed the countryside, attempting to scare off the real Perchten and so ward off evil.
Today, these rites of safeguarding and propitiation have become festive celebrations known as Raunachte or smoke nights, a great tourist draw in the alpine regions. Young men still dress as the Perchten, with their masks and costumes representing the good and evil they bring. The horns, tusks, and teeth represent the Perchtens’ ability to tear at the souls of their victims while their lack of ears is so they cannot hear their victims’ screams. The cow or horsetail whips carried by these human Perchten, however, are their gifts: ancient symbols of fertility or purification to bring hope for the coming year.