Frau Holle is the patroness of Urglaawe. She is also the protectress of agriculture and women’s crafts such as spinning. Various spellings of Her name exist, including Holda, Holle, Huld, and Hulda. She is heavily associated with flax and linen, the Elder and Elderberries, the distaff
She features in the 24th story of the first volume of Wilhem and Jakob Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmärchen (1812) . The tale passed to the Brothers Grimm from the area of Hessen in Germany. It was told to them by Henriette Dorothea Grimm née Wild with more details added in the second edition (1819). It is still common expression in Hessen and beyond to say “Hulda is making her bed” when it is snowing, that is, she shakes her bed and out comes snow from heaven. In the second edition of the book in 1819 they added some details, most prominently the rooster’s greetings, provided by a correspondent Georg August Friedrich Goldmann from Hannover. Like many other tales collected by the brothers Grimm the story of Frau Holle was told to teach a moral. In this case, it is that hard work is rewarded and laziness is punished.
As Christianity slowly replaced Germanic and Scandinavian paganism during the Early Middle Ages, many of the old customs were gradually lost or assimilated into Christian tradition. By the end of the High Middle Ages, Germanic paganism had been completely assimilated and Scandinavian paganism was almost completely marginalized and blended into rural folklore, in which the character of Frau Hulda eventually survived.
In Germanic Pre-Christian folklore, Hulda, Holda, Holle and Holla were all names to denote a single being. According to Erika Timm, Perchta emerged from an amalgamation of Germanic and pre-Germanic, probably Celtic, traditions of the Alpine regions after the Migration Period in the Early Middle Ages. Hulda is also related to the Germanic figure of Perchta, alternately spelled ad Berchta. She dwells at the bottom of a well, rides a wagon, and first taught the craft of making linen from flax. Holle is the goddess to whom children who died as infants go, and alternatively known as both the Dunkle Großmutter (Dark Grandmother) and the Weisse Frau (White Lady), elements which are more typically associated with the Grimm’s fairy tale as well. Her connection to the spirit world through the magic of spinning and weaving has associated her with witchcraft in Catholic German folklore. In Urglaawe, Frau Holle and Berchta are sisters. Each represents a separate part of the spiritual year. Holle represents the light half and Berchta the dark half of the year.
Frau Holle is associated heavily with the Wild Hunt in Urglaawe. The observance of Allelieweziel represents the transition from the light half of the spiritual year to the dark half. Holle’s departure on the Furious Host (Wild Hunt) is reflected in the death of the fertility of the soil. Allelieweziel is the death phase of the life-death-rebirth cycle. As Holle sets off upon the Furious Host, She is followed by an entourage of the lands spirits and the souls of the recently departed. Throughout the dark half of the year, Holle hunts for stray souls. As She finds them, they join the Furious Host until She brings them to her figurative mill to “grind” them into their next life. As a principally agricultural people for centuries before migrating to North America, the ancestors of the Deitsch transmitted no information about going to the hall of any deity upon death; instead, human souls follow cycles similar to that of the crops that dictated their livelihood. As such, most Urglaawer belief in a rebirth of the soul within the family stream as opposed to Valhalla, etc.
There are also some Verbots (Taboos) associated with Frau Holle. There is a Verbot in Braucherei and Hexerei (Urglaawe healing and magical practices, respectively) on the burning of Elder, with some very few exceptions. The essential reason for the Verbot is that it is an insult to Holle and is treated as though one were burning Her. The exceptions are the following: the burning of the ripe berries is acceptable; the burning of the leaves, unripe berries, and flowers in funerary rites is acceptable; the burning of the flowers in rituals to Holle is acceptable.
There is also a Verbot against spinning during Yuul. The distaff is to be cleared by the completion of old projects and set and prepared with a fresh project consisting of flax (or relevant material) specifically to be placed out during Yuul. The flax is both an offering and a means of receiving blessings. The completion or total abandonment of old projects seems to be important. After the crack of the whip or the start of the new year, every portion of thread that comes from what was on the distaff is particularly blessed. Any old projects that were left on and continue to be used are considered to be stained by the lack of respect to the custom. It’s a sentiment that also appears when one ignores Berchta’s demanded meal of gruel and herring on her sacred feast day December 31.
The onset of Yule starts a time where interaction within the home and introspection into oneself are virtues to be pursued, particularly as a lead-in to the setting of goals and resolutions to be put into place in the coming year. Incomplete projects are often seen as holdovers from the prior year and as burdens on change and progress, particularly if they have been sitting idle for a long time. However, there is an important understanding about Berchta that comes from Hexerei sources that indicates that the introspective function is necessary to have order in one’s own head on Her feast day, thus allowing for one to be of sound mind when making oaths of resolution. The incomplete projects are seen as a complication of that pursuit. New year, new beginnings, starting out with blessed thread. Dragging the old and incomplete into the new year represents being tied to the past (in a bad way) and will require the unthreading of anything produced in that circumstance.
As with some other Verbots, though, there are some exceptions to the use of the distaff during Yule. One is if the thread being spun is consecrated to Holle (or Berchta or to the other names by which She is known) and the thread never used. Another is if the items spun are used for sacred purposes (altar cloths, etc.). A third is if the item is one to be given charitably.
Frau Holle is one of Germany’s most durable female legendary figures and represents a pre-Christian deity who survived in popular belief and in the memory of common people well into the nineteenth century, including the German migrants to the American colonies and later the United States who would come to be known as the Pennsylvania Germans, the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Deitsch.
- Grimm Jakob und Wilhelm, “Kinder und Haus Marchen” 1812, 1819
- Timm, Erika. “Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten: 160 Jahre nach Grimm aus germanistischer Sicht betrachtet.” 2003
Special thanks to Robert L. Schreiwer, the Urglaawe Facebook Group, Die Urglaawich Sippschaft vum Distelfink and the Urglaawe Customs Guild