I do not want to let another holiday season pass without talking a bit about the Perchtenlauf.
If you have never heard of it, that is because it is an old winter tradition kept in the mountains of southern Germany, Austria, and the Tyrol. To understand it, you first of all have to know the meaning of the word “Perchten.”
Actually, we should look first at the form Perchta, also seen as Berchta, which was the name of a pre-Christian Nature deity, whom we can think of as being our “Mother Nature.” Perchta, whose name means “Bright,” was a goddess who had two aspects. In the warm and light days, such as in spring, she was a beautiful, shining maiden. But in the cold, hard days of deep winter, she was a frightful old hag with a broom. That shows us the two faces of Nature at two very different times of the year.
Perchta and her accompanying spirits of Nature and of animals came down out of the snowy hills to human habitations in the days between Christmas and Twelfth Night. Like Santa Claus, who knew when you were good or bad, Perchta would come invisibly into homes to make sure the spinning was properly and diligently done, and that all was in tidy order. If it was not, punishment would follow.
The frightful spirits who travelled with Perchta became known as Perchten themselves, and that is the origin of the name “Perchtenlauf.” The “Lauf” part refers to the course upon which the Perchten travel to visit the mountain villages.
On the Internet you will find all kinds of interesting and entertaining photos and videos of the Perchtenlauf in various places in the Germanic-speaking mountains. The Perchten today are often teams of young men who dress up in full and often very scary costumes, coming into the village sometimes with great racket and torches, and with switches to “punish” various people they might meet along the way, not surprisingly often young women.
The interesting thing about the Perchtenlauf for me is that it shows the survival of the very ancient pre-Christian beliefs of the mountain people even into the age of computers and cell phones, and it also tells us something about ourselves and our relationship to Nature.
If you are a reader of the Brothers Grimm tales (if you are not, you should be), you may recall the old story of Frau Holle, “Mother Hulda,” in which two different girls, one diligent and one lazy, go at different times down a well and find themselves in a strange land where an old lady asks them to work in her house. She tells the diligent girl to be careful to give the feather bed a good shaking so that the feathers fly, because when she does so, it snows in the world. Frau Holle / Mother Hulda is just another and more northerly name for Perchta, and when it snowed in those parts of Germany, people could say that “Frau Holle” was making her bed.
The Perchtenlauf has become a popular and very anticipated event in mountain villages in Germanic Europe, and if anything it seems to be spreading even more widely than before. Very elaborate horned masks are carved skillfully from wood, then painted, and there are whole hairy costumes that go with them. American mountain towns could no doubt increase their winter tourism if they were to adopt the annual winter “Perchtenlauf.”
But for us, the Perchtenlauf reminds us that Nature is not always bright and sunny, but has a cold and chill and difficult side as well, which we feel most in the frost and ice and snow of winter. Imagine, then, how winter must have seemed to people centuries ago, isolated in their mountain villages and trying to make it through that time of hardship with enough food and enough firewood so that they might survive to see Perchta’s more shining and favorable aspect with the coming of spring. In terms of hokku and its spiritual foundations, the bright and beautiful and young side of Perchta in the spring is her Yang aspect, but in the winter we see her cold and aged Yin aspect, as frightening for us as winter for our ancestors.