The Feast of the Midwinter Witch
Frau Holle is to me what many neopagans would call a patron deity. Goddess of witchcraft and nocturnal flights, wild animals, winter, and mountains as well as childbirth, housekeeping, and fabric arts — Frau Holle oversees so many aspects of life that are important to me. Like Baba Yaga, she looks (and can be) fearsome; however, she is much gentler to those whom she favors — hard workers, makers, generous and helpful souls. During the Twelve Days of Christmas (some specify the night of Epiphany, Jan. 6), Frau Holle — like other feminine mountain spirits of Europe — rides through the air, descending into homes through chimneys or windows or open doors, to inspect the household. If all is in order, she blesses the house; if not, she curses it. Her gifts are wealth and easy work and fertility both of individuals and fields. Knotted or spoiled threads are bad omens.
I don’t make frequent formal offerings to Holle. My craft work is often inspired by her — that is, I feel her moving me to make certain things, and so it is a kind of devotional work, as is my housekeeping. Otherwise, it’s only between New Year’s Eve and Epiphany that I honor her.
I’ve been wanting to do more for her around this time — make her holiday a bigger deal, something for my whole family to participate in that isn’t stiff or solemn. I guess it’s the heathen in me that says holidays are for feasting — day-long events involving food and drink, stories, games, music. Events that bring people together, create rich memories, celebrate and foster traditions, whether these traditions are cultural or personal. These celebrations, as mundane as they appear, are the offering, with their energy and joy and setting-aside of time. We welcome the spirits into our places and celebrate them.
Considering this, and all of the research I’ve done the past few years into Holle, Perchta, and others like them, I drafted a set of traditions for this time:
- Clean the house, top to bottom, in the days beforehand to prepare for her arrival
- Set out decorative spindles or spools, figures of wild animals, and feathers at the hearth and near prominent windows and doorways
- On the Eve, cook a dinner of fish and pancakes, dumplings, or oatmeal in her honor
- Read the Grimms’ “Frau Holle” and Lieve Baeten’s The Christmas Witch to the kids before bed
- Have the kids set out their shoes by the front door to be filled with sweets
This set is a mix of extant folk traditions, innovation, and reconstruction. Setting out shoes to be filled with goodies is drawn from the German (and Dutch) traditions of St. Nicholaustag that I loved as a kid but feel inappropriate celebrating now as a non-Christian. However, stories abound of Frau Holle (and Perchta, and Harke, and Gode) appearing to helpful, hardworking souls and giving them gold. So it isn’t a far leap to bring this tradition to honor Holle, and it’ll be a great New Year tradition for the kids: a wintry, mountain-dwelling witch-spirit who comes to the house to inspect its cleanliness at the turn of the year, beckoned by the aromas of a special meal, and leaves gold foil-covered sweets in their shoes overnight.
It is extant tradition to eat a meal of fish and pancakes or dumplings (or oatmeal, but the baby is allergic to oatmeal, so that’s out for us) on Epiphany in honor of Perchta or Frau Holle, or at least set out a bowl of oat gruel for them as they come down from the mountains to make their annual tour. This is connected to their role in agriculture, which I’ve discussed at length in my Witches & Pagans article “Riding with the Frauen” in the Winter 2018/2019 issue. I’m thinking that this year, we’ll do salmon hash in crepes with a yogurt dill sauce — yum!
The decorations mentioned in point 2 above are all associated with Frau Holle. She’s often described in old records as having lupine features — a long snout and wild hair according to Martin Luther; long teeth according to the Grimms. She’s reputed to check spinners’ work on spindles and distaffs, so setting out spools of thread or yarn to be blessed is appropriate. She is also said to fly through the air on wild animals, along with a retinue of witches or the dead, so birds and other beasts are also good symbols with which to decorate the house on her holiday. Likewise, a clean, orderly house is imperative for a favorable visit from Holle, who above all things hates laziness and disorder.
As I’ve grown into my path as an animist and witch, I’ve come to realize that — even as one who favors reconstruction and folk traditions — it’s not necessarily the age of a tradition or practice that matters most; it’s whether or not the spirit of the thing is in tune with the heart of a belief system. This is especially true in folk religion and magic, which inevitably (and authentically) alters over time to suit the changing needs of communities and individuals. After we’ve spent time studying in depth the practices and beliefs of our ancestors (in this sense, those who came before us who have contributed to and borne knowledge to us, not necessarily blood ancestors) and absorbed a kind of intuitive understanding of how that system operates, we can adapt that wisdom to our current needs, worldviews, and environment in a way that is authentic. This is how we keep traditions alive and relevant. Old ways are still important; they should be studied and absorbed, practiced when relevant, and like the advice of a true elder, they serve as the pattern to which we can refer to weave new ways into our spiritual fabric.
The Brothers Grimm. “Frau Holle.” https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm024.html.
Burchard of Worms. “De arte magica.” Canon Episcopi. 9th c.
Luther, Martin. The Exposition of the Epistles at Basel. 1522.
Motz, Lotte. “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures.” Folklore. Vol. 95, No. 2 (1984), pp. 151-166.
Parton, Heidi. “Riding with the Frauen.” Witches and Pagans. Vol. 36 (2018). pp.