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.
Wassail, 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. Gluhwein/Mulled Wine, or cider with mulling spices are examples of drinks in the wassailing tradition.
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.
For a heathen take on wassailing music (and other music of the season), you can check out Skaldic Hearth Kin’s “Winter Wassail” album available on iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.
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.
A Twelfth Night Prayer
Hail Mundilfari the time-turner
for another year’s ending,
and another’s beginning
has come upon us again.
In the spirit of the season
we have braved the dark nights and cold,
traversed snow and ice,
to visit and make merry
with our family and friends,
our neighbors and community.
When we have seen those in need
we gave generously of ourselves
to brighten and warm their days,
for the health and well-being of all.
Mundilfari we hail your Children,
through whom we measure the passage of time:
Sunna, the Ever-shining one,
Goddess of the dancing Sun in the sky
Mani, the silver-gleaming,
God of the waxing and waning Moon
Sinthgunt, fair twinkling
Star Goddess of sparkling grace
Their guiding light
reminds us in the darkest of times
that there are paths yet to travel
and hope yet at hand,
and that You are with us always,
as constant as the passage of time.
Hail to Night and Her Daughters,
and Day and His Sons!
May we know no ill-tidings in the days
of promise that lie ahead.
May this new year be ripe
with blessings for us to harvest.
So we hail!
Most Pagans are quite familiar with the fact that many of the so-called ‘Christmas’ traditions have their origins from ancient polytheistic cultures and their festivities such as Saturnalia, Yule etc. This even includes Santa Claus.
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 12thNight. 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. Mother’s Night
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.
Tonight we honor our Mothers, who through joy and suffering endured so that their children, and their children’s children might not just survive, but thrive.
I call to our mothers, the light and the life bringers who have guided us from darkness onto the paths our ancestors have traveled, and now the paths we walk down.
All-mother Frigga I hail thee, and I thank thee. For the immeasurable blessings, your guidance and your wisdom. You see all things, even if I may not know them. May your counsel follow me into the year ahead and be the compass from which I navigate.
May the blessings of the disir be upon you all.
For those curious about how to potentially have a rite around this night, or how the Yule log connects, keep reading.
Most folks have heard of bonfires as part of solstice celebrations, in the Northern Tradition we also have traditions concerning the yule log, as well as the ashen faggot which was a collection of bundled branches that were burned instead. We see in the Christian practice of Saint Lucy’s Day, what I feel is a pre-Christian practice of bringing light on the darkest and longest of nights.
Among English sources, we know that remnants of the previous years yule log, was used to help light the next year. By doing so we have a tradition that has the light (while now extinguished) ‘kept’ throughout the year. In part this becomes something like a folk amulet of good luck, but also a means to ‘restart the light’ on the coldest, darkest, and longest night of the year when it roles around again.
Based on this, here is how I like to celebrate Módraniht.
Extinguish all light (electrical, fire, candles, etc.). Set the yule log (in a hearth, or firepit, or bonfire) alight.
Have candles nearby, and everyone in attendance gets one. The host or gythia, then will light each candle from the yule log.
Collectively everyone can recite the prayer above, or the host/gythia can lead the prayer but prompt everyone (call and response style) into a ‘Hail the Mothers’. Then one by one each person can add their own words and what they may wish to say.
Some groups let the children decorate the Yule Log before it is set ablaze, using 100% natural fiber ribbons, construction paper cut outs, etc.
Then offerings are set afire on the yule log. I especially like to use fragrances like dried lavendar, clover, etc. Traditionally someone should sit vigil the whole night through, only extinguishing the fire when dawn breaks. Many groups will then cast runes come dawn to see what is in store for them in the next year.
If your rite is attended by others outside of those who live under the same roof with you, ask them to turn off all lights in their homes before they come to the rite you’re hosting.
In olden days, fire would be carried from the yule log to restart the hearth fires throughout the community. That’s not practical today (unless you’re in walking distance), so the candles lit by the yule log are extinguished, and each individual takes the candle home with them. When people return home, they can set the first fire in their home (be it a candle or at the hearth) from the candle lit by the yule log.
If you’re the host, save part of the Yule log to start the fire at next year’s Yule.
Today when we hear people talk about the so-called war on Christmas, it is a battlecry of Christians who feel they have a monopoly on the winter holidays. A common refrain being Christ is the reason for the season. But in Early America, Christmas was outlawed as a criminal act, or was viewed as having no consequence at all by some of our founding forefathers–especially those of Puritan background.
To understand why this notice even existed, first a bit of a history lesson is necessary.
In colonial America, the Puritanical leaders ( I am including the Pilgrims in this group) felt that Christmas was indeed a ‘Pagan’ celebration (as explained by Puritan leadership including the minister Increase Mather of Massachusetts Colony, such festivities were rooted in the practices of Saturnalia) and the observance of the holiday was heretical and had no part of building the Godly society they had fled Europe to create. In addition to the umbrage they took to those Satanical practices, the Puritans were also anti Christmas because the Bible did not talk about celebrating the nativity, nor being clear on when it was, therefore the Puritans viewed it as not being a part of their religious observation. Their attitude created the original American ‘War on Christmas’, of course they preferred to call Christmas ‘Foolstide’, in part because only the ungodly fools would celebrate such ‘Satanical Practices’, and no doubt as a further scathing reference to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ seen in some Christmas traditions found in parts of Europe, including England.
The very first Christmas in Colonial America at the Plymouth Colony in 1620 went unobserved. In fact there’s an account from 1621 in the colony, that governor William Bradford yelled and chastised people he caught at merriment on Christmas Day. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas beginning in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating it was monetarily penalized. Christmas Day was so insignificant to our founding forefathers that Congress was in session during Christmas, and on occassion they did actually meet for business: the earliest occurrences being first in 1797 when the House of Representatives met, and 1802 when the Senate also met on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Congress began to have formal recesses for Christmas.
In Early America it was common to find in parts of the country that people were expected to work or attend school on Christmas Day, many churches didn’t hold any observance on the day at all. In some areas, particularly in parts of New England, Christmas celebrations continued to be criminalized until it became a National holiday in 1870.
I for one, am glad we’ve got our festivities now, and I like today’s growing climate of greater inclusiveness, there are dozens of special religious observances and festivities in this time frame. Tis the season to be merry and bright!
To understand the ‘pagan connections’ (or rather we should say origins) that the Puritans had such criticism about, only takes an exploration of human history and world religions.
In the earliest days of the Christian Church, Pagan Romans were the elite powerhouses of that ancient world, and most Christians numbered among the lowest of the social classes in the empire. So when the Roman Empire celebrated their festivals, the Christians in the Empire got a bit of a break as well.
Many Pagan cultures have had various forms of celebrations around this time of year. In Ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia spread in popularity. Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry while honoring the Roman God Saturn. The festival was characterized with a modest type of role reversal where slaves could get a little taste of what it might be like to be at the other end of the social ladder. The one-day festival spread into a multi-day affair lasting for about a week, roughly correlating to our December 17-23. While work was still being carried out, this was a festival that the slaves and servants really loved as they were able to have a break, and their masters got a bit of a glancing lesson about the work the servants did for them.
There was also another celebration around this time of the year in the ancient Roman Empire. Mithraism worshiped a Sun deity (Mithras), and his key celebration was on December 25th, an observance called the “Nativity.” What I find fascinating about Mithraism is that it began in Persia, was transported by Alexander the Great’s Greek soldiers, and then was spread even wider by the Roman Empire itself. Through the years there appears to have been a certain level of bleed-over between the Saturnalia festival and the Mithraic festival.
Favored by Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 C.E.), Mithraism certainly had wide spread influence. Of course, everything changed when Emperor Constantine converted in 313 C.E. and Christianity suddenly went from a marginalized religion of the minority to a mainstream religion. While the tide of destruction that Christianity brought to Pagan practices and temples was briefly halted during the reign of Emperor Julian (who tried to restore Pagan practices and issued an edict for religious freedom), after his death the machine of destruction continued.
Yet despite early Christianity’s attempts to wipe out the Pagan celebration, the people enjoyed it too much and kept practicing it. While some early Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nazainzus) fought against the combining of the Pagan practice with Christianity, eventually the church decided that instead of fighting it, it would be smarter to assume power over the festival and slowly Christianize it, leading to the Papal Decree by Pope Julius I in 350 AD formalizing December 25th as the date for Christ’s birth. It should be noted that the various Christian denominations do not have a consensus about the time of Christ’s birth. While some do believe it was at least in the Winter, other groups do not. For instance, the American Presbyterian Church puts Christ’s birthday sometime in the autumn.
An unnamed 5th century Syrian writer had this to say about the change:
It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which [time] they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity [of Christ] should be solemnized on that day.”
Emperor Justinian in 529 AD made it a civic holiday, and then in 567 AD the Council of Tours officially proclaimed Advent a period of fasting for the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany, (thus why it’s 12 Days of Christmas, of course many Pagan observances were multi day too). Through the years various Popes instructed various Church leaders to further the rebranding of Paganism into Christian significance, such as when Pope Gregory I sent instructions for Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury (England). While the original letter is lost, the letter was preserved in quotation by Bede:
To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.
For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.”
There is ample evidence through the centuries of this institutionalized conspiracy to slowly Christianize the old Pagan ways.
Of course, the irony is that this church edict is against the dictates found in Biblical passages. Christians should be familiar with prohibitions against Pagan practices. The Bible states:
Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jer 10:1-5).
Eventually, the church did try to crack down on these Christianized Pagan elements. During medieval times they banned gift-giving because of its Pagan origins. But Pope Paul II revived some of the most depraved customs of the ancient Pagan festival and spun them with a Christian anti-semitic tradition. Those traditions were now used to target the Jews who were forced to run naked for Christian entertainment, and to the laughter of the pope. By the time we reach the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church forced rabbis to wear clownish outfits while they were force-marched as the Catholic crowd pelted them. In 1881, Polish church authorities riled up the masses to anti-semitic riots across the country leading to the racist murders of Jews, as well as other physical and sexual assaults against others. The riots were so severe that property losses in the millions were suffered, but worst of all lives were lost too.
Puritans in particular took great umbrage with the pagan origins of Christmas, and actively begin to revolt against it. Both in England and later in the American colonies they continued to fight against it.
So Puritan Christians for nearly the first hundred years of our nation’s history combated Christmas. So here’s some food for thought: To those early Puritan leaders, the sheer fact offended Christians are wasting time on rhetoric on the ‘War on Christmas’ today would mean that those modern practitioners are to their way of thinking, ungodly.
Most of the Christmas traditions that exist — gift-giving, the hanging of the evergreens, Christmas trees, feasting, Santa, caroling — all originated from a variety of Pagan practices. While I can understand that to some Christians this is a holy time of reflection as they celebrate their Christ, let us remember we were here first. And Christ is notthe reason for the season. He’s just a latecomer to the party.
There are numerous religious observances during the ‘holiday’ season: Channukah, Mawlid el-Nabi, Rohatsu, Zarathosht Diso, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati, Solstice, etc. In fact stating ‘Solstice’ is really misleading as it is one umbrella term encompassing dozens upon dozens of unique celebrations worldwide such as the celebrations from various Native American tribes, Aboriginal peoples, as well as Pagan and Polytheistic observances (both the unbroken traditions and the modern reconstructed ones).
So to the Christians, who do claim that Christ is the reason for the season, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy this time of year for your own religious reasons. Please enjoy your holiday season. But would you do the rest of us the courtesy and please consider the history and context before you get upset the next time when someone doesn’t wish you a Merry Christmas. If you as a Christian want to wish Merry Christmas, that’s fine, but don’t be surprised when I wish you a Joyful Yule back, or someone else wishes you a Merry Solstice, Happy Chanukah, the politically correct Season’s Greetings, its alternative Happy Holidays, or some other cheery salutation for some other happy festival. But to expect by default you will always be greeted at retail with a Merry Christmas is hubris.