Christmas lore usually comes in the shape of a jolly red-suited man winding a sleigh through the starry night sky with his trusty band of reindeer. There are, however, some holiday figures who are much more ominous—chief among them the belly-slitting, child-abducting, half-woman, half-demon Alpine monster known as Perchta.
According to old Austro-German legend, Perchta is a malevolent pagan goddess who stalks the snowy landscape by night during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like Italy’s Christmas witch, La Befana, she is also associated with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Perchta’s aim is simple and chilling: to ensure local customs are upheld under the pain of death. In bygone times, this meant no weaving during the holidays, unless you dared to incur Perchta’s wrath—and what a wrath she had.
People believed that Perchta could enter their homes while they slept. If she found the inhabitants had not behaved during the year, Perchta ripped open their stomachs and disemboweled them, stuffing their cavity with straw, rocks, and other rubbish. She then stitched them up before moving onto her next victim. Perchta was particularly intolerant of unruly children and liked to bring a posse of zombie-like helpers with her on her rampages. Her large and misshapen “goose foot” is sometimes linked to the tradition of eating goose at Christmas.
Folklorist John B. Smith writes that Perchta’s earliest incarnation, dating from the Middle Ages, was as “the enforcer of communal taboos.” This initially meant punishing those who dared weave on days deemed sacred or those who refused to feast with the required enthusiasm. Smith notes that as more peasant women entered the workforce, Perchta’s focus turned to tormenting the lazy.
“Perchta is a sinister figure,” Smith writes, “who punishes the slovenly, the idle, the greedy, the inquisitive.” Errant children got tossed into her sack and carted off with their legs dangling out as a warning to others. In one story, a young farmhand who incurs her ire by spying on her, goes blind. Although his sight is ultimately restored, the message is clear: Do not mess with Perchta.
It’s a sentiment echoed by author and independent scholar Stephen Morris, who has written about Perchta. “I think my favorite [story] is when she intrudes on a wedding reception she was not invited to attend,” he says. “[It] sounds like the Wicked Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, right? She curses the bride and groom and the whole wedding party by transforming them into wolves.”
Read More- Meet Christmas Goddess Perchta, a Belly-Slitting, Half-Woman Demon – Broadly