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.
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.