It is that time of the year again. World over Christmas is all about exchanging gifts, feasting and of course Santa Claus. Santa Claus is often represented as a jolly old man with a flowing white beard, a sack full of gifts slung on his back and riding a pack of reindeers including Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
However, in this world of gender equality, can women gift-givers and their legends be far behind? Mind you, we are not talking about Mrs Santa Claus!
Tante Arie (Aunt Arie)
In the Franch-Comte region of France and the French-speaking Jura region of Switzerland, it is said that Aunt Arie descends from her cave in the mountains, on the eve of Christmas, riding her donkey, named Marion. She announces her arrival by shaking the bell around her neck and gives cookies and cakes to all the good children. The children often leave vegetables for Marion, the donkey. This legend is based on a real person from the 15th century. It is said that Countess Henriette de Montbéliard, was very kind and generous to the folks living in her region and is said to have turned into a fairy upon her death.
According to a popular folklore in Italy, La Befana, an old woman, distributes gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany Feast on January 5. She visits all the well-behaved children in Italy and fills their stockings with sweets and gifts. Bad kids get a lump of coal. The families often leave some food and drink for Befana to nibble on and quench her thirst if needed. She is often dressed like an old hag with a broom and may even sweep the floor of the house if the kids have been extra nice. Legend has it that when the three wise men, on their way to infant Jesus’ house asked Befana for directions, she not only gave them the directions but also food and shelter for the night. Impressed with her, the Magi asked her to accompany them. At first, she refused, as she was busy with housework. A few hours later she wanted to go with them but could not find the wise men. It is said she is still searching for baby Jesus. La Befana is still celebrated with fervour all across Italy even today.
Remember your childhood fairy tale of Old Mother Frost by Grimm Brothers? It is quite likely she was modelled after Frau Holle. Frau Holle is the spirit of woods and plants and spinning and weaving and is a pre-Christian era deity as per Nordic culture. She goes from house to house during Advent and the 12 nights of Christmas to see if the children and spinsters are spinning, weaving and doing other household chores diligently and rewards them for their hard work.
While Frau Holle is from lower Alpine regions, Frau Perchta belonged to higher Alpine regions of Austria, Germany and Switzerland. She is the upholder of taboos and customs on each of the twelve days of Christmas, she would enter the houses, to see if children had worked hard and behaved well and left a silver coin in their shoes. The lazy ones did not get anything and had their bellies slit and stuffed with straw! Oops!
Frau Gaude from Mecklenburg, a historical region in Germany, is mostly bad. During Christmas, she travels through streets riding a cart drawn by a pack of spirit-dogs. If any door is open, she would let one of the dogs inside which would whine through the night. If the dog was harmed or killed and thrown out, it would turn into a stone and howl at night and bring a lot of bad luck to the inhabitants of that house. On the other hand, if the folks helped her with her work, they were amply rewarded sometimes or just let alone.
Now for the really wicked giantess and her family from Iceland. She haunts the streets during Christmas. She is surely not a generous gift giver. She goes house to house and asks for the naughty children so that she can eat them. Oh yes! Her cat, called Yule Cat, attacks people who do not wear new clothes on Christmas eve.
She also has 13 sons called the Yule Lads who play pranks on the inhabitants. They have funny names like bowl-licker, door-slammer etc. They are a bit nice to the children who behave and leave presents in their shoes left on the window sill outside.
Aren’t these fantastic folklores? Many of these stories were basically to scare the children into good behaviour but now they all add to the fun during the Christmas season.
In modern times, obviously, no one gets eaten and masked processions are taken out with people dressed as their favourite female Christmas character and there is a lot of music, dancing and fun.