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 and other 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.
THE SANTA CLAUS MYTHOS & THE WILD HUNT
In the climes of the ancient Northern European peoples–by now they’d be snowbound and living an existence where they primarily just stayed inside their communal dwellings. This, especially in ancient times, would pose a number of health problems. With many people constantly dwelling together under one roof, if illness arrived among them it was quick to spread. (We’ve all seen how when a virus is going around work or school, many people end up catching it). Health of course is also impacted by the limited diet available of whatever food could be stored for the winter. They didn’t have a grocery store that imported strawberries from South America out-of-season.
Beyond this, if we think of the cycle of seasons there are classical understandings for the seasons. Spring is a time of new life and new growth, summer is a time of bounty and the peak of life, autumn is the time of harvest as life begins to decline, and winter is the time where the land lies fallow and classically is associated with death. While death did walk among people at all times, it was in winter that people were the most susceptible. They had to contend with disease, a limited food supply, pests that could spoil the food supply and make it unfit for consumption. The cold itself was an enemy as well. Even in the modern era, when bad winter storms blow through and the power is knocked out those most susceptible, the old, the infirm, and the very young can still die from the cold.
Into these associations with death we see stories about the Wild Hunt. While traditions may vary as to when the Wild Hunt began and ended, the yuletide was usually the time when the Wild Hunt was viewed to be at the peak of its activity. In some areas the Wild Hunt was led by Odin, in other areas it was led by a Goddess such as Frau Holle (aka Holda), or the Goddess Berchta (aka Perchta).
In the skaldic poem Óðins nöfn we see Odin called Jolnir, which means ‘yule figure’. In other skaldic poems he is given various names that mean ‘longbeard’. (Santa has a longbeard doesn’t he?). There are numerous folk traditions that arose where treats for Sleipnir were left in stockings (carrot, straw and sugar) to appease Sleipnir and Odin when the hunt rode. In exchange Odin was said to leave behind gifts or candy. In other areas, instead of stockings filled with treats, we see shoes were left out like with the Christianized appearance of Saint Nicholas’s Day on December 6th preceded the night before by the Krampusnacht. Krampus is a scary figure that goes around punishing the naughty, I also highly suspect the origins of Krampus relate back to Wild Hunt connections.
We see the use of the stockings progress in Iceland with the Yule Lads. Originally, the yule lads were something of a harassing, mischievous plague upon the population. While not as scary as hordes of the dead in the Wild Hunt, you certainly didn’t want to garner their attention. Today they’ve merged more with ‘Santa’ and are now known for filling stockings either with nice rewards or items to punish those who have misbehaved.
While Odin is usually the God most strongly associated with the Santa mythos, other scholars have posited that Thor may have also be connected to it as well. While Odin was a popular deity, Thor eventually rose to cultic prominence late in the Viking Age. Odin may have had Sleipnir, but Thor had a team of goats he drove around with. He was also known for being a pretty jovial deity, a friend of all humans. His sacred symbol, Mjolnir was a hammer, also the tool of choice for Santa Claus. In Sweden, children would eagerly await Jultomten, a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by a pair of yule goats, and Thor also had a pair of goats.
When we look to depictions of Frau Holle, we see clear folk traditions that point to her rewarding those who have done their work, or punishing those who haven’t completed their years’ worth of spinning before the start of Yule. In other parts of ancient Germania, we see the Goddess Perchta in prominence (instead of Frau Holle). Like Frau Holle, Perchta also has a seasonal procession at this time of year. In her case on her special feast day that fell during yuletide (possibly Twelfth Night), people were supposed to eat dumplings and herrings, and if they broke that ‘fast’ with any other food, she was said to punish them by gutting them and stuffing them full of straw. Like Frau Holle, there are also rewards/punishments for those who did/not finish their spinning for the year. Among Perchta’s stories, are also stories of people who had done good by her as she traveled the countryside on her night, would receive gold coins in their shoes. So again, we have a connection to gifts given in stockings/shoes.
This concept of misbehaving, begins to become a theme. The very origin of the gift-giving tradition becomes a reward for having done your work and behaved in the past year, or you’ll be punished, which sounds like our modern concept of Santa’s naughty or nice list. If we examine another similar figure, we see Lussi who led her Wild-Hunt like horde called the Lussiferda. On Lussinatta, folk traditions have Lussi coming down chimneys to steal misbehaving children. It’s been posited that Lussi got reinvented into Saint Lucia, just as Odin was likely Christianized into Saint Nicholas. In fact, there’s ample evidence that the Church was intentionally trying to combine with pagan practices to over time consume them.
Outside of yule specific traditions, giving gifts was a very specialized means of reinforcing community bonds between. Most often gifts were exchanged from the top of the socio-economic tier down. Since the winter months meant people were indoors so much, it became a time where I’m sure human patience was being rubbed thin among your family members, which meant that a misbehaving child very quickly drove you to your wits end. But also, since there was little work to do in the fields, it was the only time of year to work on creating other household items. For women, this applied most directly to textiles as we see illustrated with the folk traditions surrounding Frau Holle.
It also meant a chance to craft a gift for someone you may not have the time to do so during the rest of the year. There are some folk traditions that have survived to the present day, where the gift wasn’t so much material, as it was a poem specifically drafted in honor of a person. Since the cultures that comprise the Northern Tradition prized wit and intelligence, as well as poetry… it would have been viewed as a good gift indeed. Since part of the yuletide tradition, was to brave the dark and cold, and visit your family, friends, and others in the community… the gifts could become part of a happy note to culminate the visit on.
In the Celtic tradition we see the time of the dead most closely associated with Samhain, but in the Northern Tradition we see it more prominently associated with Yule. Just as we see in Samhain a correlation between the use of masks with the belief of the wandering dead or evil spirits, we see a similar tradition evolve around the yuletide in connection with the Goddess Perchta, and the horde she led on the Wild Hunt known as the Perchten. These would later be re-enacted by community members donning these costumes during the yuletide in a procession led by the Goddess. Some were beautiful (Schönperchten) which brought good fortune and others were ugly (Schiachperchten) which drove out evil spirits. This processional is no doubt part of the historical influence that gave rise to Krampus as part of the Santa Claus mythos in other areas. As a side note, among the archaeological discoveries at Hedeby, we have remnants of masks that were made and possibly used in processions such as what survives today with Krampus and other figures.
THE TWELVE DAYS OF YULE
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 ‘Christmassy’ 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). For Christians in 567 AD the Council of Tours would officially proclaim that the 12 Days were to be celebrated from Christmas Day through to the Epiphany.
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. Ynglingna saga also talks of animal sacrifice. The meat later used to feed the community, as well as the Gods. We know there were practices as well of human sacrifice too during other ritual observances. In one story in Snorri’s Edda is that of the Swedish King being sacrificed to help during years of drought and famine, the scene famously imagined by Swedish painter Carl Larsson in his Midvinter’s Blot.
One has to remember the awe that early man had to the primal forces of nature, embodied by our Gods. Luxuries like electricity, indoor plumbing, sophisticated means of home building spoils us. We forget just how easily a life can be in the balance at the whims of nature. Sacrifice, is just that, a sacrifice. And the thought that even a King wasn’t immune to the needs of the people is potently powerful, even if scholars debate if it’s based on any real, historical events.
I mention the sacrifices, because as we see the monarchs convert, many of the early monarchs passed all sorts of laws to curtail pagan observances, including that of sacrificing animals. 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.
I’m going to include as well that the JULBOCK, or Yule Goat, is most likely rooted in a combination of the Santa like figure’s animal, but also that after various Christian monarchs made it illegal on penalty of death to perform a ritual blot, or blood sacrifice, that straw goats became a substitute for the animal, and some areas would instead burn the goat in effigy instead. Some early costumes for various Wild Hunt like figures also would use straw as part of their costume. So, we may very well have a blending of the Wild Hunt, with the sacrificial animal happening as well. Famously today the small town of Gavle, Sweden builds a huge multi-story straw goat, and apparently it tends to get vandalized and burned down, a recent 20-minute English friendly documentary pointing to it being a modern-day example of Christianity and Paganism butting heads, which you can view at THE GUARDIAN. After viewing you can then check out this link to see the live webcam to determine for yourself if the goat is still around this year at the official website and webcam.
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.
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. Beyond what we know historically, deities associated with winter like the winter hunters Ullr and Skadhi are also sometimes hailed. Since this is the time of darkest night, but also for many the turning of the year, I like to honor our time-keepers during the yuletide, especially on Twelfth Night: Mundilfari the time-turner, and his children Sunna, Mani, and Sinthgunt. Additionally, Dagr and Nott are also appropriate.
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 traditional 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.
MOTHER’S NIGHT – THE START OF YULE
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, and elsewhere in Sweden there was another ritual known as Disablot that was held in February/March at the time of Disting in Uppsala, Sweden. Disablot is mentioned in the sagas of Heimskringla, Hervarar saga, Víga-Glúms saga, and Egils saga.
The Disir can be understood to be the ancestral mothers, and other female spirits (including deities) that oversee, influence, and protect the family, clan, or tribe. They can also be understood in some places to most likely also encompass the spirit loci. When we reach back to ancient Germania, we also see a thriving cultus dedicated to the “matrons” (aka the Matrae and Matrones), as well as mention to the Idis. There are many scholarly suggestions that the figures of the Norns, Fylgia, and Valkyries may also be included.
While references to the Disir are sprinkled in lore, it is the sheer prevalence of hundreds of votive stones in the archaeological record, that clearly indicate that there was a major cultic practice to the Matrons, Idis, or Disir across areas of Europe, including the cultus around the Austriahenae found so prominently in the Rhineland. I suspect, that while geo-specific cultures had their own rites around the Disir, that in all likelihood there were multiple religious and cultic observances to these figures throughout the entire year.
The votive stones we find of the Matrae and Matrones often times have depictions of sacrifice, including pigs, bowls of fruit, and incense that is burning. In all likelihood these depictions show us what sort of offerings they were given and can be used as inspiration for us today.
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. Some scholars have posited that the Christianized Saint Lucia, may very well 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. While there’s a few different Christian origin stories for Lucia, or Saint Lucy, one of them has her bringing light to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs surrounded by the dead with nothing but a lit wreath to guide her. Symbolically, traversing the dark and realm of the dead with light, seems to fit with pre-Christian symbolism.
In modern times Saint Lucia’s Day is observed on December 13th, 12 days before Christmas. So, this very much syncs as a parallel to yule starting with Mother’s Night for the 12 days of the yuletide, even though the dates between modern pagan and Christian observances vary. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, her feast day fell on the Winter’s Solstice.
On a side note, the traditional depiction of Saint Lucia is of a woman clad in white. We know this is sacred iconography that is referenced time and again in Northern Tradition areas. We see this mentioned in Tacitus Germania that priest or priestesses wore white, we also see in the folk traditions mentioned by Grimm that women clad in white appeared at dawn for Ostara/Eostre.
YULE LOG, FIRE & LIGHT
Most folks have heard of bonfires as part of solstice celebrations, in the Northern Tradition we also have folk 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 Lucia’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 year’s 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 rolls around again.
THE END OF YULE – TWELFTH NIGHT & THE WASSAILING TRADITION
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, which 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. In fact, we see this ancient connection in the very relationship between the keeper of the apples, the Goddess Idunna and her beloved God Bragi, who was known for his poetry. Poetry is but words given form and verse, which is a component in part to music.
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.
THE 12 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 Hanukkah 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.
I will leave you now with a prayer for Mother’s Night, and another for Twelfth Night.
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!