THE TWELVE DAYS OF YULE
From sagas we have two terms: jólablót (Yule sacrifice) and midvinterblót (Midwinter sacrifice). We’re left with a puzzle, were they two terms for the same observance, or different observances. Scholars are cautious about assuming information, but I believe they are the same.
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, in large part because of differences with changing calendars: lunisolar, Julian, Gregorian. This is further complicated as Christianity and Christian leaders from the church and monarchies also changed dates and celebrations, causing an array of syncretizations. For Christians it was Pope Julius I who said December 25th was the birth of Christ in the 4th Century, and later in 567 CE the Council of Tours would officially proclaim that the 12 Days were to be celebrated from Christmas Day through to the Epiphany. Remember, Christmas exists in December because Christians’ attached their religious observance to the pre-existing celebrations in the Roman Empire connected with Saturnalia, or the god Mithras. As Christianity spreads into Europe we see that syncretization blend again as it comes into contact with the Germanic cultures. Because of all of this there’s really no 100% right time, because the calendars kept changing and the dates were moved around, we’re looking at a range of possible dates from December well into January.
Today, most pagans and heathens celebrate the yuletide as running from approximately December 20 – December 31 (but there are variations), many opting for ease to focus rites around the astronomical winter solstice. We’re told by the writings of German missionary, Thietmar of Merseburg (b975 – d1018 CE) that in Denmark yule fell in the month of January (this after the country had converted officially to Christianity decades earlier).
In the archaeological record we have some runestaves (in this case they were a type of runic calendar) that points to a celebration known as “midvinternatterna” (Midwinter nights) occurring from roughly January 12-14th (Julian calendar) or January 19-21 (Gregorian calendar, what we modernly use in the mainstream Western civilization today). While this seems incongruously tied to the winter solstice, we have records from Roman sources that talk of the Germanic tribes tying their gatherings to nights of the new or full moon. Modern recreations of the old Germanic lunisolar calendar would have Yule occurring at the full moon, after the new moon following the winter solstice, taking us into January.
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 (written in the 13th Century about events 3 centuries earlier) 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 across the Northern Tradition umbrella for various rites. In Ynglinga saga ( in Snorri’s Edda) is that of the Swedish King Domalde being sacrificed to help during years of drought and famine, the scene famously imagined by Swedish painter Carl Larsson in his Midvinter’s Blot.
Continue reading “The Twelve Days of Yule: From Mother’s Night thru Twelfth Night”
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