“They set the table for the Queen of Heaven,
—whom the common people call Frau Holda"
Like the White Lady, Frau Perchta and Berchta, Frau Holle was also connected with prophecy, although on a more domestic level. Near Hörselberg in Thuringia, maidens would place new fiber on their distaffs on Christmas Eve before Frau Holle began her rounds. A local rhyme ensured for every thread, one good year would follow: So manches Haar, so manches gutes Jahr, “As many strands, as many good years.” The work had to be finished by Epiphany when she returned, with nothing left unspun, or else, the rhyme continues: So manches Haar, so manches böses Jahr, “As many strands (leftover), as many bad years.” On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, a bowl of cream with spoons crossed over it was left out for her. When the members of the household woke up, the position of the spoons foretold the family’s fortune for the coming year. If the spoons had been moved or dipped in the cream, it meant she and her children had eaten and so accepted the offering, ensuring blessings in the new year. That this custom is ancient is evident by the early references to it.
Aberglaubensverzeichnis, a dictionary of superstitions believed to have been written by Rudolf, a Cistercian monk, between the years 1236 and 1250, observes:
In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regine celi, quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet.
“On the night of Christ's nativity, they set the table for the Queen of Heaven (regine celi), whom the common people call Frau Holda, so that she might help them.”
In agreement with this, The Life of St. Eligius (588-660 AD), who served as the chief counsellor to the Merovingian King Dagobert I, warns the newly converted people of Flanders, “nothing is ominous about the Calends of January. …[Do not] set tables at night or exchange New Years' gifts or supply superfluous drinks.” Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church, of course, railed against such customs as “preparing a table for Perchta” and participating in processions, going about with “incense, cheese, a rope, and mallets” on “the eighth day of the Nativity of our Lord.”
In some traditions, special foods had to be eaten on her feast-day. One record from 1760 specifies that no leguminous plants may be consumed when Frau Holle makes her rounds during the Twelve-Nights. In folk-tales of Orlagau near the Saale, if Frau Perchta finds anyone who has not eaten zemmede, a cake made of milk and flour, on the night before Twelfth-Day, she will cut him open, remove any other food she finds inside, and replace it with handfuls of straw before sewing him up with a plowshare as her needle. On the last day of the year, the Thuringians serve dumplings and herring. On that evening in the Vogtland, everyone must eat polse, a thick pap of flour and water prepared in a particular way. If anyone omits this dish, Frau Werra will rip his stomach open. Similarly, Perchta’s Day must be kept with a traditional meal of gruel and fish. If anyone partakes of another dish on that day, she cuts open his belly and sews up the wound using a plowshare as her needle. In Bavaria, greasy cakes are eaten on the eve of the Epiphany so, if Frau Berchta attempts to slice anyone open, her knife will slide off. At Christmas-time a spoonful of every dish must be placed on a gate or fence outside the house as an offering to appease this dreaded lady.
There is no question that Frau Holle is an ancient figure. The name Hludana, etymologically derived from the same stem as hlöd (“pile of earth”), is found in five Latin inscriptions: three from the lower Rhine towns of Nijmegen, Birten (near Xanten), and Kalkar, in North Rhine-Westphalia (CIL XIII 8611, 8723, 8661), one from Iversheim, a part of Bad Münstereifel in the very south of North Rhine-Westphalia, west of modern Bonn (CIL XIII 7944) and one from Beetgum, Frisia (CIL XIII 8830) all dating from 197- 235 AD. Many attempts have been made to interpret this name. The most steadfast connections are with Frau Holle and Hulda on one hand, and the Old Norse Hloðyn, a name for Thor’s mother, the Earth, on the other. The earliest direct reference to Holda occurs in a eulogy by Walafrid Strabo (808-849 AD) for King Louis the Pious’ wife Judith, the daughter of Count Welf. Her mother was a Saxon and her father a Bavarian, one of the peoples allied with the Lombards. In his tribute to Judith, Walifrid sings: “Oh, if eloquent Sappho or Holda should visit us to dance,” O si Sappho loquax vel nos inviseret Holda, ludere jam pedibus.
As a holdover from the old heathen religion, Holda was demonized by the new faith. Christian religious texts often state that she flies through the air with witches in her train. The ninth century Canon Episcopi censors women who claim to have ridden by night in just such a “crowd of demons.” Burchard, the bishop of Worms (c. 950–1025) and a native of Hesse, expands on this in a later recension of the same work included as part of his twenty volume compilation of Church law known as the Decretum. In the nineteenth book, titled de Paenitentia (Penitential or “Corrector”) under De arte magica, Burchard writes:
“Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [Holdam] who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company? If you have performed participation in this unbelief, you are required to do penance for one year on designated fast-days.”
-An excerpt from “Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology.”, 2018