You thought the person in the red outfit giving out treats tochildren on Christmas Eve was a jolly,overweight elf with a white beard and a team of reindeer leading the way.Nah. That's just what Santa's spin doctors want the world to believe.

Want to know who really decides who's naughty or nice? Try Holda,the Teutonic goddess of winter.She's the beautiful blonde wearing a shimmering gown and red or white goosedowncape who flies through the night sky onDecember 24 bringing gifts and spreading joy.

In Pagan religions, goddesses are an important part of our celebrationsbecause they help tie us to ancienttraditions and the seasons of the year. Holda is one of my favorites.Stories about her are found in oldfolktales of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Norway, andother parts of Europe. Her namemeans " kind" and "merciful."

HoldaI first discovered Holda many years ago while researching the Paganorigins of Santa Claus. In addition tolearning that the Teutonic Gods Odin and Thor were part of Santa's mix, Ifound that in some parts of oldEurope, it was Holda--not Santa--who brought gifts to children anddetermined who was "naughty or nice." Ialso encountered lore depicting her as dressed in red and going downchimneys to bring gifts to children. Anold Germanic tradition included leaving an offering of food and milk forHolda on December 24, known as MotherNight.

I decided to learn more about Holda, and connecting with her and her lorehas been part of my Winter Solsticecelebrations ever since. I invoke her in rituals, and keep a picture ofher on my household altar. She is evenamong the Yuletide characters that appear in the public Winter Solsticepageant that I direct each year inMadison, Wisconsin.

As with many ancient goddesses, Holda is complex. Also calledHulde and Frau Holle, she goes by avariety of names and takes different forms, depending on locale andculture. In her form as a beneficent andnoble White Lady, Holda is beautiful and stately, with long, flowinggolden hair, which shines with sunlightas she combs it. She wears a white gown covered with a magical white goosedown cape. At Yuletide, she travelsthe world in a carriage and bestows good health, good fortune, and othergifts to humans that honor her. Shenot only is connected with Winter Solstice itself, but also with theholiday season that continues many of itscustoms, the 12 days of Christmas--from December 25 through January 6.

In some tales, Holda is a weather goddess. Snow flies as Holdashakes her cape or the comforter on herbed. It is said that fog comes from her fires and rain from her washingday. In other accounts, Holda is agoddess of prosperity and generosity. Gold coins fall from her cape as shefurls it. In one tale, after avillager worked all night to fashion a new wooden shaft to replace the onethat had broken on her carriage, hefound she had thanked him by turning the wood shavings from his work intogold. It was only then that hediscovered the woman he had helped was actually the Goddess Holda.

In other early lore, Holda was a sky goddess riding on the wind.She is thought to be an older form ofFrigg, wife of the Father God Odin; in some tales, Holda and Odin ride thesky together. Holda also has beenhonored as a goddess of the moon, and sometimes her name has been used asa term for a lunar priestess.Another of her forms is that of a night-riding witch leading a spirit hostin a fierce ride, known as the WildHunt, through the sky and across the land.

During persecution times in Europe, some of those suspected of witchcraftwere said to "ride with Holda." HerPagan origins are evident in folk tales in which she is described asaccompanied by a grand and furiousprocession of souls of the dead, mostly unchristened babies and children.It was said that as Holda and herentourage passed through the fields, they blessed the land with abundanceand caused a double harvest in thegrowing season that followed.

In many places, Holda is closely associated with Perchta(Berchta), her tatters-clad shadow twinsister, also identified with the Wild Hunt and Yuletide. On Perchta's Day,January 6, ancient Europeans leftofferings of cakes and milk on house roofs to bring good luck for thecoming year. Holda and Perchta probablyemerged as local variants of the same goddess-turned-folk character, sinceboth sometimes appear in tales ashunched-backed crones and bogey figures, punishing or blessing adults aswell as children for bad or goodbehaviors, at Yuletide and at other times of the year. As crone goddesses,they also preside over destiny andthe cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Geese are sacred to Holda, and some say she is the source of thestorybook character Mother Goose. Asthe Lady of Beasts, Holda has many creatures associated with her,including hounds, wolves, pigs, horses,goats, bears, and birds of prey. In some tales, she lives in the woods andis the ancient half-tree,half-woman who gave birth to humankind. Apples and flax are among theplants sacred to her.