Witches and Christmas date back centuries, perhaps even to the days of Jesus’ birth, when La Befana became the benevolent gift-giver to deserving Italian children. Most of the Christmas witch-lore is not so uplifting. Other winter witches, including the terrifying Frau Perchta, are hideous creatures. Where I call home we have the hideous Bog Lady who wanders the marshland on Christmas seeking out unsuspecting children. In my version of this tale, the benevolent Christmas Witch imprisons Old Nelly, saving the village.
I love folklore, especially these dark and creepy tales. The story of the Winter Winter and Father Frost is sure to instill fear into wayward children. The local lore where I live focuses on witches, faeries, and the Bog Lady. She’s another nasty spirit out to capture unruly children. My Bog Lady is most likely descended from Nelly Longarms lore in certain parts of Great Britain. Old Nelly herself is associated with wintry murder. While I am a huge fan of these tales, I’ve got to admit that the way witches are almost universally portrayed as evil (except La Befana) irks me. I set out on a quest to find stories reflecting kind, powerful witches yet connected to folk horror. I ended up lost in a mire of modern fiction that had little to do with true witchcraft. The one notable exception is Ami McKay’s Half Spent Was the Night, a sort of sequel to her bestselling Witches of New York.
Both La Befana and Frau Perchta (aka Berchta, Bertha, Holle) worked their magick, albeit very different kinds, on Epiphany. In a curious family tradition, we always had “Mrs. Santa” bring gifts on Epiphany. This was obviously a very thinly disguised Befana. The Twelfth Night is the traditional time when the Magi visited Jesus. The period of mid-December to early January has been associated with festivals long before those Wise Men ever set foot in a manger, including Saturnalia and The Wild Hunt. Most of these festivals are annoyingly lacking in witches, though, and the ones that do show up are more like vicious entities rather than our contemporary understanding of witches. Here’s an excerpt from my retelling of the Christmas Witch and Old Nelly.
Old Nelly and The Christmas Witch
Excerpted from the Winter 2019 Edition of Open Circle Magazine.
The boys escaped from the heat of their homes fueled by the excitement of the day. Their Christmas feasts were still to come, and the hours between presents and supper long. Bundled in their warmest clothes, they trudged down the path towards the pond. Chattering about the new treasures of the day, an orange, a tin soldier, and a wooden boat just like those nestled against the village wharf. Ignoring, or perhaps forgetting the warnings of their mothers, they rushed towards the promise of sliding on the smooth ice.The oldest led the way through the fresh snow, his black boots clearing the way for the younger ones. Ahead on the trail, he noticed what looked like an arrow drawn on top of the snow. While thinking this a bit odd since there were no footprints to be seen he nevertheless carried on. Then he came to the next one. And then the next. His nose began to burn. What was that smell?
The younger boy thought this to be a game. What mystery did they point to? But the oldest one grew wary. Not wanting to look timid, he joked about the arrows. Arriving at the pond, they found the surface oddly washed clean of fresh snow. The ice shone black. Their noses were stinging. Was this merely the cold? What was that smell?
Being brave boys, they slid onto the ice. A shriek from the youngest stopped their game. Fearing the worst, the oldest slid and ran to his side. He was crying now, pointing down to the ice surface. Frozen to the spot where he stood. Below the black ice that was clear as glass, the face of a beautiful young woman.
The oldest scooped up the youngster, fleeing to the shore. Now they remembered their parents’ warnings. Never go to the pond on Christmas.
Scurrying back home as quickly as the snow would let them. Their mother would know what to do. They knew her secret ways.
Excitedly, they told their tale. She nodded. As she dressed, she told the boys to go next door. The older couple there would watch over the boys while she dealt with this situation. She knew exactly what was going on.
Wrapped in her furs, she rushed to the pond, stopping only once she saw that what they said was indeed true. The shadow came up behind her suddenly, stretching out arms too long for any human.
The witch knew who this was. Old Nelly. The evil spirit of the marshlands between the coast and her home. The children called her the Bog Lady. The witch slid across the surface, then gained traction on the fresh snow. She turned deeper into the forest, towards the marsh. Old Nelly slithered through the trees, stretching her arms longer and longer but the witch was quick. She stopped in the marsh. Fear threatened to render her immobile, but she resisted.
To the winds she called, “I summon you to surround this evil spirit.” She stood firm in that marsh, directing the winds around Old Nelly. Spinning and spinning her arms until the spirit stood contained before her. The shrieking creature writhed, determined to break free. “I will have your soul, child,” it screamed. Shaken, but determined, the witch held the spirt fast with one arm while with the other she commanded the marsh to open. A great crack rose up as she called the spirits of the water and earth to heed her. With all her strength, she cast the creature into the pit. The elementals held Old Nelly tight while the witch tossed in the lantern, she had brought with her. “By spirits of fire, I burn thee into this place forever more. You shall n’er escape, creature.” She then instructed the earth, water and wind to bury Old Nelly and fire to hold the creature fast. The spot she marked with rod of blackest poplar.
Exhausted, she returned to the pond to find her neighbor waiting. “Did you cast out the creature?” he queried, for her ways were not the secret she believed them to be.
“Aye. She no more will trouble us on Christmas Day nor any other.”
The villagers laid to rest the young woman who had been the great-great aunt of the witch. She was buried under a birch tree with no headstone, lest Old Nelly find her if she managed to free herself. The young woman had been the last one to face her, albeit unsuccessfully. The witch who jailed the creature became nicknamed “The Christmas Witch.”
However you celebrate the holidays, I wish you fierce love, true magick, and freedom.
Yule Blessings! Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!
…and witch up the season!
Have Yourself A Merry Little Witchmas!
May Hekate’s torches shine for you in the new calendar year!
Yours in Witchery,