While researching my previous post about Krampus and Knecht Ruprecht, I was surprised to learn that there are a couple of Christmas or Yule witches in Europe. The two main witches I came across were as different as night and day. Reading their stories made me think of the line from Wizard of Oz “Are you a good witch or are you a bad witch?”
The good witch is the witch from Italy named La Befana. According to her legend, she was home cleaning her house when the three Wise Men stopped by to ask her for directions to where Jesus was born. La Befana did not know but offered to allow the gentlemen to stay the night at her home. In the morning, the Wise Men offered to allow La Befana to join them on their journey to see Jesus. She turned them down, claiming she had too much housework to do. Later, she regretted her decision. So she gathered candy and presents for the baby Jesus and bread and baked goods for his mother, Mary, before setting out to find Jesus. Unfortunately, she was unable to find the baby but along the way she gave presents and candy to good little boys and girls she came across.
Quite a bit about La Befana reminds me a lot of Santa Claus. She is described as being covered in soot because she enters homes through the chimney. Instead of flying around with 8 reindeer, La Befana flies around on her broom. La Befana leaves the candies and gifts in the children’s stockings hanging by the fireplace for good children and for the bad children she leaves either a lump of coal or a stick in their stockings. Instead of leaving milk and cookies out for La Befana, families will leave out wine and sausage or bread. Unlike Santa Claus, La Befana is known to sweep the floor before leaving which is suppose to mean sweeping out all the bad luck in the house for the year. (I’m hoping that she visits my house this year!)
La Befana’s name is from the Greek word epiphany. Which is appropriate because she comes on the night before the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. Present day on January 5th, many towns in Italy will have festivals celebrating La Befana. Women will dress up as witches and attend feasts and parades. The celebrations are similar in style to the festivals for Krampus.
Farther up, away from La Befana, is a very different type of witch. In Iceland, there is a giantess that strikes fear in the heart of children. If you watched the Christmas special of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, you know a little about Gryla. While she is actually more associated with Yule instead of Christmas, that association is still fairly new. Gryla has been feared since the 1100s but associated with Yule since the 1900s. Gryla is considered to one of the original feminists. According to her legend, Gryla has been married three times. One of her husbands she killed because she grew bored with him. She is described as having fifteen tails and being the mother to 13 troll children.
Unlike Knecht Ruprecht who typically beats naughty children, Gryla is known for searching out the naughty children and eating them as punishment. On Christmas, Gryla along with her 13 children and extremely large, black cat (appropriately named Yule Cat) will leave their cave to search for naughty children to cook into a stew. However, if a child repents their naughty behavior, Gryla has to release the child back to his or her family. Her children each are known for their own type of mischief. Stekkjarstaur has peg legs and harasses sheep. Giljaaur looks for opportunities to steal milk. Stufur likes to steal pan to eat the crust left on them. Pvorusleikir likes to steal wooden spoons to lick. Pottaskefill likes to steal leftovers from cooking pots. Askasleikir will hide under beds to steal bowls that people set down. Huroaskellir likes to slam doors when people are sleeping. Skygarmur likes to steal a yogurt-like dish called skyr. Bjúgnakrækir likes to steal sausages that are being smoked. Gluggagægir likes to peek through windows to find things to steal. Gattapefur likes to steal Icelandic bread called laufabrauo. Ketkrokur likes to steal meat with a hook. And finally, Kertasnikir likes to follow children in order to steal and eat their candles. Yule Cat doesn’t limit itself to just children when looking for something to eat. Yule Cat will hunt and eat anyone who does not receive a new a new set of clothes for Christmas. A new pair of socks or underwear is enough to keep you from being eaten by this giant cat.
Do any of y’all have a Christmas witch tradition? What are some unique traditions your family has around Christmas? Let me know in the comments below!