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On the Twelfth Night: the Coming of the Christmas Witch

The last night of the Yuletide is approaching, although when exactly it is depends on whom you ask. For much of Europe, it’s the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th. On this night, Perchta descends from the Alps to visit homes in Bavaria and Austria. In Italy, the Christmas Witch called La Befana leaves gifts for children then, too. Holda, Fricke, and Gode course through the skies of middle and northern Germany, cursing or blessing according to their pleasure (or lack thereof). Yet in Scotland and Wales, another figure arrives at some doorsteps a little earlier, on New Year’s Eve: Mother Goose. Like Saint Nichlaus in Germany, She leaves gifts and candies in shoes for children to discover on New Year’s Day. Sometimes, she’ll even leave feathers on the threshold as evidence of her passing by.

The Christmas Witch

Last year, I checked out from the library Merry Christmas, Little Witch by Lieve Baeten, in which Lizzy the witch spends much of the book trying to get her home ready for the Christmas Witch to come, in spite of various (but welcome) interruptions. It’s a cute story that our eldest child loves, and it got me thinking about my memories of St. Nichlaustag when I lived in Bavaria. I loved the experience, but as an adult I don’t feel comfortable petitioning an explicitly Catholic saint. After talking it over, my husband and I decided to incorporate the Christmas Witch tradition into our household, where the children leave out their shoes and find gifts from Her in them. We decided on New Year’s Eve because that’s the end of the Yuletide for us — the decorations come down and we resume the “normal time.” Also, because we celebrate Yule around the winter solstice at our house and then two consecutive Christmases with both sides of our family, New Year’s Eve ends up being the literal Twelfth Night for us.

Night of the Mothers

Two years ago, before all this was decided, I dedicated myself to the Mothers of the Mountains (which you can read about in Hagstone Publishing’s upcoming Living with the Gods anthology). Part of my dedication involved taking an oath to celebrate Them between New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve with a meal of fish and grains (pancakes, crepes, dumplings, etc.), and leaving an offering of porridge or gruel out for Them. For the first two years, this was something I did just for myself, not making much mention of it to anyone else. The decision to involve the whole family by incorporating a Christmas Witch tradition extends the magic of the Yuletide a little farther for everyone.

Building Traditions

This year, I’m planning to make salmon patties, cheesy spätzle, and either sautéed cabbage or baked Brussels sprouts for dinner. Cabbage is lucky, especially on New Year’s Eve, and a good, nutritious winter vegetable. My kids love cheesy spätzle, a mass of vaguely noodle-like German dumplings slathered in cheese sauce. Fish is a traditional food on Perchta’s night, and I have a special relationship with salmon (which I’ve written about in an essay to be published in the next Stone, Root, and Bone). I’ll also make chocolate pudding because it’s my husband’s favorite homemade dessert, and it’ll add a nice touch to the festive meal. We’ll use our nice china and eat by candlelight — our son’s favorite thing to do.

In preparation for the holiday, we’ll clean the house and put away the Yule decorations, except perhaps for some garlands and a small artificial tree that we’ll deck with sewing notions and thread (as my Mothers also govern fiber arts). We’ll use these to make a holiday shrine for the Mothers, along with a little knitting doll that my mom bought in the Czech Republic, a tiny dog figurine, a porcelain West German swan vase, candles, and a small tapestry I was compelled to make in November.

When the kids are full and ready for bed, we’ll have them set their shoes by the door or in the big garden window by the dining table, and we’ll read Merry Christmas, Little Witch. When they’re asleep, we’ll fill their shoes with gold foil-covered chocolates, a Kinder Egg, and a small toy. Then my husband and I will drink wine, toast the New Year (and, for me at least, the Mothers of the Mountains who inspire and protect us). And when I wake up on New Year’s Day, I’ll whisper, “Rabbit, rabbit,” for luck.

The traditions we’ve learned from our forebears and the ones we make along the way anchor us to our faiths in ways that are concrete and sensual. They bring our deep beliefs to life, express them palpably. They forge deep bonds between us and our spirits as well as with our loved ones, creating warm memories and reinforcing a support system that buoys us when we are in need. This is the point of holidays, which are holy days — to remember, to connect, to express abiding love. Worship needn’t be stoic and ascetic. The joy we bring to it is another offering — a powerful, enduring, and meaningful thing.

Happy holidays, reader. I hope the new year finds you well.

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