Just as our pagan cousins celebrate the eight major sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year, for those of us in the Northern Tradition we too have somewhat similar key celebrations that we call holy tides (from the Old Norsehátíðir). Some of these celebrations are more significant and special than others, and these especially important holy-days are known as high holy tides: such as Ostara, Winter Nights, and Yule which is now upon us.
Of these three documented High Holy Tides, it is Yule that far and away seems the most sacred to modern practitioners in the Northern Tradition, if for no other reason than so many of the ‘Christmas’ traditions that have survived into the present day. While the association of Christ with this ancient pagan holiday came about in Roman times as connected to the festival of Saturnalia and the Mithraic cult, the spread of Christianity into Europe brought the pagan customs in the root cultures of the Northern Tradition (Germania, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England) into direct connection with the newly Christianized holiday export. While some aspects of other pagan solstice practices were common throughout, it is explicitly a number of Northern Tradition practices that we see surviving in our modern Christmas traditions, including: carols, feasting and drinking, gift-giving, Santa Claus (and other variants), evergreen decorations and the Yule log.
Since customs vary between the modern day countries where these ancient cultures once stood, there is some variance in these customs, and in how modern day Heathens choose to celebrate them. Some mirror their practices more precisely after a geo-specific historic culture, whereas others will look at the width and breadth of what we know of Northern Tradition customs.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas Carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” modern heathens opt to celebrate this as the Twelve Days of Yule, with the last day culminating on 12th Night. Since ancient calendars followed a different method of time, the solstice celebrations as well as later ‘Christmasy’ style observances can vary from place to place as to when they occur. Today, most pagans and heathens celebrate the yuletide as running from approximately December 20 – December 31 (but there are variations).
We do know that the celebration of Yule wasn’t always twelve days long. In the Norse text Heimskringla: The Saga of Hakon the Good talks about it once lasting for three days, or as long as the ale lasted. The night it began was known as the slaughter night, where animals would be ritually slain. Their meat later used to feed the community, as well as the Gods. It was King Hakon of Norway, who as a Christian passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day (which was already a weird bastardization of the Christian story of the Nativity and Saturnalia/Mithraic customs) AND the pagan yuletide celebrations were to henceforth be celebrated at the same time. While this only specifically impacted Norway (and its territories), it illustrates an intentional combining of the holy-days into one celebration.
Today, the high holy tide is celebrated for twelve days. Whether this was because in some areas it was celebrated for that long originally, or was perhaps some odd creation that came from blending old pagan time-keeping methods and calendars with the modern ones together the end result is the same.
It is customary that NO work is done during the yuletide. From Germanic sources we see stories of the Goddess Berchta punishing those who had left work undone. In the Icelandic Svarfdæla saga, we see a warrior who postpones a fight until after the Yuletide. The Saga of Hakon the Good also speaks that the Yule was to be kept holy. Some practitioners of the Northern Tradition will even opt to completely withdraw and go incommunicado from online mailing lists, bulletin boards, and social media outlets like facebook so they can stay focused on spending the yuletide with friends and family. While it’s not always an option for everyone, there are those who choose to use vacation time from work so they can have the entire yuletide off as well.
The modern yuletide usually begins for most Heathens with Mother’s Night. In Bede’s De Temporum Ratione he describes what he knows about an old Anglo-Saxon celebration that he states was called Módraniht, which marked the beginning of a new year and was celebrated at the time of Christmas. Apparently Mother’s Night was observed the entire evening through. While little information exists to describe what Mother’s Night was, by looking at the Northern Tradition umbrella we see what appear to be similar rituals. While Yule marks the start of the year for the Anglo-Saxons, we see in Scandinavia that this distinction was at least for some geo-specific locations given to Winter Nights, which had a separate observed ritual to the Disir as part of their celebration. The disir can be understood to be the ancestral mothers, and other female spirits that oversee the family, clan, or tribe. When we reach back to ancient Germania, we also see a thriving cultus dedicated to the “matrons” or the Idis. Female deities are also sometimes included with the disir.
I personally theorize that Saint Lucia’s Day (celebrated primarily in Scandinavian countries) occurs on December 13th and features a female ‘light-bringer’ may be a Christianized remnant of an ancient disir-related ritual. The Christianized Saint Lucia Day, may have pagan origins related to the figure of Lussi. The practice of Lussevaka – to stay awake through Lussinatt to guard oneself and the household against evil, not only fits symbolically well with a solstice celebration of longest night, but also brings to mind the description of Mother’s Night being observed for the entire night as well.
Twelfth Night & Wassail
Yuletide festivities conclude on Twelfth Night. Many modern Heathens will sync this with New Year’s Eve. It’s the last big party to celebrate a new year, celebrate the passing of the darkest (and in theory coldest of times) and to look forward to the lengthening days and warming temperatures. Of all the nights of Yule, this night seems to be the one most closely associated with the custom of wassailing, which embodies in part the customs around caroling as well.
, Hail, Heilsa, are all different versions of the same root word across a few different languages, which essentially relates to health, prosperity and luck, and was used prominently as a type of salutation. Not only would you use the word to greet someone, but the greeting also had the implication that you wished them good health. During the yuletide there is a specific type of beverage, that of wassail that was imbibed. This drink would vary by household but it was meant to be alcoholic, with some fruit juices in it and other seasonings to help fortify all who imbibed it for the year ahead.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas carol “Here we come a wassailing among the eaves of green” that’s where the tradition comes from– the wishing of good health and the drinking of wassail (a specific type of beverage imbibed for good health) during the yuletide celebrations. In some specific areas, those from lower socio-economic tiers would go singing to those of greater wealth, and the higher socio-economic household was supposed to give wassail to the carolers. We also see a number of folk-traditions that show not only songs sung in ancient yuletide celebrations, but also that people sometimes went into the orchards or fields and sang, no doubt asking for fertility and to reawaken from winter slumber in the time ahead.
While the concept ‘hail’ may seem antiquated, it’s still in use far outside modern heathen venues, or in connection with Christmas or yule celebrations. For instance, the President of the United States has a ‘theme song’ that is played as he makes his ‘entrance’ into many of his public appearances, the song is titled “Hail to the Chief” which colloquially means ‘greetings and good health to the chief/president’. It’s actually really common in many schools (college or high school) fight songs as well, like Purdue University. Infamously, most people remember it used in the ‘Heil Hitler’ of Nazi Germany.
The Twelve Days of Yule in Modern Practice
While we do not have clear historical evidence pointing to how each day of Yule was celebrated, that hasn’t stopped modern practitioners of the Northern Tradition from creating their own customs and practices.
While some Heathens may simply bookend Yule with Mother’s Night and Twelfth Night and not have specific observances in-between those days, there are some other Heathens who have taken things a step further. Pulling inspiration from the Nine Noble Virtues, and combining it with candle-lighting celebrations like Chanukah or Kwanzaa, they have come up with a reason to light a candle every night during the Yuletide.
An example of which lies below (there are a few variations out there, some focus on different Gods on different nights instead of the virtues):
- Mother’s Night
- The Winter Solstice (and/or The Wild Hunt)
- Virtue – Courage
- Virtue – Truth
- Virtue – Honor
- Virtue – Fidelity
- Virtue – Hospitality
- Virtue – Discipline
- Virtue – Industriousness
- Virtue – Self-Reliance
- Virtue – Perseverance
- Twelfth Night
Since many Heathens have family members who are Christian (siblings, spouses, children, parents, etc.) many Heathens will still set aside Christmas Day as a time when they get together with the rest of their non-Heathen family. Many will still have gifts from Santa under the tree on the morning of December 25th for the kids.
Gods Typically Honored
In Gulathingslog 7 we see that Yule was celebrated ‘for a fertile and peaceful season’ we also see in the Saga of Hakon the Good that Odin was hailed as a bringer of victory, Njord and Freyr were also hailed for peace and fertility. Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology speaks of how Frau Holle’s annual wagon toured the countryside during the yuletide season for blessings of a fertile year ahead. Deities associated with winter like the winter hunters Ullr and Skadhi are also sometimes hailed. Since this is the day of darkest night, Nott (aka Night) as well as silver-gleaming Mani (our God of the Moon) may be honored. Some will also honor Sunna (Our Goddess of the Sun) as she will only grow in prominence in the months ahead. Thor is also honored by those who view him as the origin of the various Santa Claus like traditions.
Additionally, I will honor Saga. Saga means history or story, and I see at this time of year when Winter is cold, that people will naturally huddle together around the hearth-fire and tell the old stories: the stories of our ancestors and of our Gods. So I honor Saga at this time, as well as my ancestors too.
It’s interesting to note that while some pagan solstice celebrations focus on the Sun and related solar deities, I’d say that in the Northern Tradition the focus is more on the deities associated with the Wild Hunt including Berchta, and the hopes for the fertility to come in the planting and subsequent harvest season ahead.