Long before legends had St. Nicholas and even Santa Claus delivering presents, there were other giftbringers whose legends reach back deep into the cold, dark forests of northern Germany.
Fire was particularly important to the peoples of northern Europe. Berchta was goddess of the hearth. She was often associated with children. Occasionally she was described as a "white lady," bright, shining, beautiful. More often, she was portrayed as a witch - an ugly old woman with a long nose, big teeth and bristling, thick-matted hair. Her feet were huge, the better to trample wicked, disobedient children.For all her frightful appearance, Berchta was thought to have a kindly heart, at least part of the time.
Accompanied by a band of elves and sprites, Berchta rode through the land in the long dark nights at the end of the year. Sometimes she drove a wagon and sometimes she rode a great pale-colored horse across the sky. Each home was visited in the 12 days of the pagan Yule. The visit was half-feared, half-welcomed. A meal, usually fish and dumplings, had to be left for Berchta in case she was hungry, and a sheaf of oats for her steed. If all was in order, she pronounced her blessing. If things were not to her liking, she left a curse instead. Good was rewarded and laziness punished.
The legend of Berchta lives on in unlikely places, far from her original home in Germany. Carried south by wandering Germanic tribes in the 5th century, she lives on in Italy. She gained a Christian name, Befana, but the identity is unmistakable.
Italian children believe that Befana is a tiny, misshapen old woman, dark and ugly and dressed in black. Riding a broomstick, she goes from house to house on the eve of the Epiphany, Jan. 6. Sometimes she uses her broomstick to slide down the chimney, sometimes she comes in through an open window. Good children find gifts; bad children find lumps of coal or bags of ashes. Sometimes it is said that the really wicked are carried off by Befana.
Often, pagan customs blend with Christian feasts, and fanciful legends arise to provide Christian explanations for the old practices. Befana is no exception. Tradition says that she was busy sweeping on the night the Three Kings came searching for the Christ Child. They asked her to journey on with them, but she refused. Later, when the work was done, Befana shouldered her broom and set out for Bethlehem. Alone, she lost her way and so she searches for the Child forever.
The story traveled far to the north and to the east. In old Russia it was Babouschka who brought gifts. Like Befana she was a poor, little, crooked, wrinkled old woman. And like Befana, she had refused to go with the kings, and now searches for the Infant Jesus. Over the world she travels, peering in every cradle and leaving presents for little children as she sadly wanders on.
In Spain, the legend of Berchta took yet another form, for Spain, too, was overrun by Germanic tribes in the 5th century. Berchta herself was gradually forgotten, but one of her companions lived on. The giftbringer was a shadowy being, dark or black, as befitted one who long had traveled with a witchlike goddess.
But Spain was invaded many times, and its legends changed accordingly. In the 8th century the Moors came, Moslems from North Africa. Most of the new conquerors were brown-skinned Arabs and Berbers, but among them were black men from south of the Sahara desert. For the Spaniards, black could now mean African, and the dark giftbringer acquired a new identity.
Medieval legend had named the Three Kings who brought gifts to the Christ Child. They were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and artists invariably pictured Balthasar as an African, a king of Ethiopia. So now two legendary black men traveled about Spain at the end of each year: Berchta's companion, who brought gifts to the children, and Balthasar, who had brought gifts to the Christ Child. Inevitably the two were confused.
As generation succeeded generation, it became Balthasar who rode through the land at night, Balthasar who left sweets for good children and marked their faces with charcoal, so that they would know that the black king had come. Finally the darkness of the giftbringer became incidental, its importance long forgotten. Today, it is all three kings, splendid and regal upon their camels, who bring gifts in Spain on the 12th day after Christmas.
While Berchta was acquiring new names and new, unlikely companions, the tribes that had remained in Germany were finally giving up paganism and becoming fully Christian. By the 10th century, the ancient gods and goddesses could no longer be tolerated, seen as rivals of the Christian god. But old customs die hard. Berchta had always watched over the children, had always visited them in December. If Berchta was gone, they needed a new protector.
What legend was worthy to take Berchta's place? In time, the relatively new legend of St. Nicholas supplied the need and filled the role.