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.
A MOTHER’S NIGHT PRAYER
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. We see folk traditions of Lussi where the lussebride or representative lucia would walk the property with her candle from house, through barn and stable, and around the boundaries of the farmstead to ward it from evil. In Heimskringla, we have a description of a Disablot, which suggests that the King in Sweden oversaw the ritual in his role as High Priest while ritually riding around the sacred hall. Just as we have aspects of land-taking in stories of Gefjon, or as exhibited in the Æcerbot (which was a ritual) or Plough Monday traditions, we can understand that it is likely that the King’s riding on his horse probably ritually connected to some aspect of land-taking or boundary making as well. One imagines in pre-Christian times this was probably accompanied by prayers or invocations to the Holy Powers for protection, and can be part and parcel of some of the hallowing traditions for rituals too.
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.
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.
Some groups let the children decorate the Yule Log before it is set ablaze, using 100% natural fiber ribbons, construction paper cut outs, etc. This is a great activity to do before ritual if you wish too.
Have prepared enough candles so everyone in attendance has one.
Set up your ritual area: including prepping the area for the yulelog (ash removal, fire extinguisher/water/sand in reach, adding tender, etc.), an altar with any representations you may wish to include of the Disir / Idis / Matrons upon it, and any and all offerings. A traditional disablot would feature an animal sacrifice, but that’s not always practical today (especially with so many of us no longer raising and slaughtering livestock ourselves). But you can make sure there is still food and drink on the altar to give in offering. Remember, if you have come together for a feast even pot luck style, the powers (in this case the Disir) should always be fed first before any person. Historically, the feasting occurs after ritual (as the animal sacrifice would have portions cooked for those gathered). With small kids, or people who may have medical conditions it’s ok to have snacks, but always remember the Gods and ancestors are served first especially when you come together for ritual. So you open a bag of chips, put some on a plate for the powers, before any humans grab one to munch. (Save the big feast and the most special treats for after the rite).
Before you begin, please take a moment to address everyone present about how the rite will go, expectations on behavior and ritual etiquette, and allow them to ask questions. All too often I have seen newcomers given no warning, and then they make horrendous faux pas. A good host (or their representative) helps to set people at ease. Taking a few moments to explain things is such an easy preventative measure to take from offending a holy power. This is a great opportunity to teach about the Disir, the Matrons, some of our traditions with Yule, etc. Then I recommend one last comfort break for everyone before it’s time for ritual.
This ritual presumes you are doing a faining, not a blot with animal sacrifice.
Extinguish all light (electrical, fire, candles, etc.). Allow darkness to descend and give pause to it in silent observance by all. After that pause (approximately a minute or so, adapt to your gathering by what seems best) then set your yule log alight (with some means of firestarter). You can do this very traditionally, or make it easier on yourself with a lighter.
The host or gythia(or godhi), then will light a candle from the yule log, then precede to walk the boundaries of the ritual space to hallow. I would invoke Sunna that her light may follow you and ward away the darkness, and shine blessings and protections upon you and all those assembled. Many invoke Thor for hallowing, but for Mother’s Night I like to keep the energy to the female powers. I went with Sunna because the solstice is in part a time sacred to her. The flame of a candle can be perceived as a microcosm of the flames of the sun. You could just as easily choose another female power that is appropriate for your group: Frau Holle, Berchta, Freya, Frigga, etc.
After the host/gythia has hallowed and warded the space, return to the altar.
The sacred drink (mead, or some other beverage to stand for it) should be poured into the mead cup/horn and the invocation should be said to start things off. Pour from the cup/horn into a special vessel like a blot bowl for it in offering to the gods, part of this liquid will be used to dip a branch in and anoint blessings on the altar, offerings, and blessings upon those gathered. [If you plan to do OPTION 2 below, don’t pour it all out. Pre-plan so there’s either a designated helper to bear the horn or cup, or there’s a means to have it stowed on the altar without it splashing everywhere. Keep some in the original bottle to pour more into the horn/cup if needed.]
- Now hand out candles to everyone in attendance, and from the candle lit by the yule log, light everyone’s candles.
- Then offerings are set afire on the yule log. I especially like to use fragrances like dried lavender, clover, etc. I’ll actually collect dried blossoms I’ve had from throughout the year and save them for the rite. I’ve even burned in offering before needlepoint that I crafted for them. Anything you go to burn should be natural and free of harmful chemicals. Maybe you have jewelry you want to offer, or some other item? Those can be buried as long as they’re made of components that wont poison the land or ground water. Libations poured out (not in the fire or you’ll douse the flames).
- 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’. You can end it there and move on, or you can tack on OPTION 1b.
- Have each person one at a time add their own words and what they may wish to say. You can do so via a horn or mead cup. But it may be a bit troublesome juggling the candles and the drinking vessel. I personally prefer OPTION 2, but if you have a group that has a lot of newcomers they may need you to lead them more collectively as a group.
- Instead of OPTION 1 entirely, after the space has been hallowed and warded, invocations said, blessings bestowed. The host/gythia will invite everyone (one at a time) to come forward to the yule log with a handful of fragrance to toss into the fire in offering (or some other offering they have prepared). [Groups have different etiquette for the order of speaking over the horn. Some may focus on elders either by age and/or a hierarchical rank within their group, this approach usually provides for more experienced examples to go first for newcomers to see. Some groups may ask certain classifications of people to come forward first. For a night honoring the Disir and Matrons, they may ask mothers to come forward. For a different rite they might ask Veterans, etc. Some groups keep it more casual and merely go in a clockwise circle.] When an individual comes forward, they receive the horn or mead cup and speak their personalized words in honor of the Disir. When they are finished, they return the drinking vessel to the horn/cup bearer, and then the host/gythia will light that person’s candle from the yule log’s flame (or the candle the gythia first lit from the yule fire).
The host/gythia should close out the rite, with any final offerings, invocations, prayers, songs, etc. Adapt as best suits your gathering.
The last act should be everyone’s individual candles being extinguished. In olden days, fire would be carried from the yule log to restart the hearth fires throughout the community (assuming a certain level of proximity). That’s not practical today (unless you’re in walking distance), so instead 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 to carry the good fortune and blessings into their homes for the new year.
At this point while the rite is concluded, the festivities have not. Time for feasting, the vigil, and for those so inclined this is the time to tell stories, or to sing.
Traditionally at least one person should sit vigil with the yule fire the whole night through, It’s easier if you can share the burden, or do so in shifts. Some may simply spend the time in conversation throughout the night. Some may prefer to be in meditation.
Once dawn arrives, those groups so inclined will then cast runes to see what is in store for them in the next year.
Afterwards to bookend and conclude this last bit of religious observance I recommend that those left should recite or sing Sigdrifa’s Prayer, (or perhaps something more specifically geared to Sunna such as a song or a prayer) with their attention to the east (In the Landnámabok it mentions bowing to the east to hail the rising sun) and then extinguish the yule fire. (Unless you have the means to safely keep the fire burning. and the intention to keep the fire burning. Even if you do, you should collect some of the embers now before they are ash to use to start the fire next year.)
If you’re the host, save part of the Yule log to start the fire at next year’s Yule after you extinguish it when morning comes. The candles are being sent home for the same symbolic reason for everyone (including those who may not be able to stay for the vigil through until dawn). Craft tins are great for storing the wood, and large enough ones will work for the candles too. The metal tins should provide an environment that if there’s any lingering heat or chance for the flame to reignite you’ll quickly deprive it of any oxygen. I’ve seen cookie tins used, or if the wood was thoroughly doused and left to soak a few minutes in water, I’ve seen it then retrieved and wrapped in aluminum foil. I like the idea of the craft tins, because they’re small, portable, and individuals can decorate the container to make it something special.
And last but not least grab some breakfast, clean up, say goodbye to anyone leaving, and go get some sleep!
What lies above is just an example of how you could conduct a ritual for the evening. Don’t be daunted by it, be inspired, adapt as best befits your situation. As long as the focus is on the Disir/Matrons, and there is sincerity and respect in what you are doing it will all fall into place.