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.
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.
We have mentions in the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, and the Saga of Helgi son of Hjovard, to the tradition of heitstrenging, which was the swearing of solemn oaths over the boar sacrifice known as the sonargöltr, during the observance of the holytide. The sonar-blot, or the sacrifice was also according to the Ynglinga saga a time for divination as well. Now how widespread this tradition was across the entirety of the Northern Tradition umbrella is something we do not know, but it could be in part the origin of the ‘Christmas Ham’ as part of holiday feasting.
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 with some of the traditions tied to 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 or companion, 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 (the Krampus probably evolves from this syncretization). 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. Old folk tradition tells us of Sweden’s Lussi who would destroy chimneys if work was left unfinished. 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. Saga of the Earls of Orkney tells us that in midwinter Thor was especially venerated in Sweden. 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 among modern polytheists. 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, other time and daykeepers like Dellingr, Dagr, Nott, etc. 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, Odin, Lussi, Frau Holle, Thor, etc.), and the hopes for the fertility to come in the planting and subsequent harvest season ahead. It’s not to say that the transition and long night was not recognized by these ancient groups, but rather what has survived to us tends to focus more predominantly upon the Wild Hunt figures we find within the Northern Tradition. We see among their calendars there was a very obvious demarcation in month names for the summer and winter solstices.
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 (in the autumn), 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. In the archaeological record, we have found over a thousand votive stone monuments erected to the honor of the matrons across the Rhineland (and beyond) in Europe. So this was a very major cultus. There are many scholarly suggestions that the figures of the Norns, Fylgia, and Valkyries may also be included under the ‘disir’ umbrella.
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 / 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 (more in the area of modern England) 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.
For a suggestion of a Mother’s Night ritual making use of the yule fire, hop over to my older article.
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. A tradition present in the apple tree wassail, and lambswool (a drink). One of Iðunn‘s heiti in the skaldic poem HAUSTLÖNG, öl-Gefnar (ale Goddess) reinforces the connection too. [You can read up more on this at my blog entry: Iðunn – Norse Goddess of the Apples.]
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 that some Asatruar follow (I do not) 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
- Virtue – Courage
- Virtue – Truth
- Virtue – Honor
- Virtue – Fidelity
- Virtue – Hospitality
- Virtue – Discipline
- Virtue – Industriousness
- Virtue – Self-Reliance
- Virtue – Perseverance
- Twelfth Night
Considering we have dozens upon dozens of deities, I think it’s a far better use of the yuletide to dedicate the yuletide not to the modern virtues (created as a codified listing of values to be like a ten commandments to teach others about our religion), but rather to spend it in connection with the Gods and Goddesses from our tradition. So many kindreds and individual households are developing their own practices along these lines. You can opt to do multiple deities in one night, or focus on just one alone each night. Some ideas to inspire you:
- Mother’s Night is the perfect time to honor the disir, as well as the mother Goddesses: Freya, Frigga, Sigyn, Nanna, etc.
- the winter solstice lends itself well as a night to honor the Gods and Goddesses attached to astronomical aspects of time-keeping: Sunna, Mani, Sinthgunt, Nott, Dagr, Mundilfari, etc.
- a night dedicated to the Vanir
- a night dedicated to the Norns
- have a night focusing on deities connected with the bounty and fertility of the land: Thor & Sif, Gerda & Freyr, Freya, Gefjon, Nerthus
- a night focusing on deities of the waters: Njord, Ran, Aegir and his daughters
- a night for deities of the winter like Skadhi, Ullr, Kari, Frau Holle
- Christmas Eve would be perfect as a night for Wild Hunt deities tied to the Santa Claus Mythos, Odin, Perchta, Frau Holle, etc.
- a night dedicated to the Healing Gods and Goddesses
- a night honoring the alfar and ancestors
- a night for Loki and his family
- turn Twelfth night into wassailing with veneration to Idunna and Bragi
- in Iceland, Christmas Eve is the yule book flood, where there is a modern tradition of curling up in bed to read. Turn one of the nights of yule into a night where Gods tied to poetry, stories and the spoken word are venerated: Odin, Freya, Bragi, Saga. And then grab a book and head to bed to read.
Originating in Sweden a new modern candle-lighting tradition has arisen among some modern day polytheists, that of Vantljusstaken, or Sun-Wait candles. The concept takes an advent calendar sort of approach as you count down towards yule, the candles connect to the first 6 runic letters of the futhark: fehu, uruz, thurisaz, ansuz, raido, kenaz. One rune a week as you approach the Winter Solstice, starting around November 10th (or six Thursdays before the winter solstice). While it began on Thursdays, group adapt the timing to what makes sense for their circumstances.
Since many Heathens have family members who are Christian (siblings, spouses, children, parents, etc.) many Heathens will still set aside Christmas Day as a secular time when they get together with the rest of their non-Heathen family. Many (especially in the United States) will still have gifts from Santa under the tree on the morning of December 25th for the kids. Although some may save Santa for December 6, where shoes set out are filled with treats in parts of Europe as pat of Saint Nicholas Day celebrations (no doubt where the stocking stuffer tradition comes from for others on Christmas Eve). This is slowly being rebranded as Oski’s Day by some modern believers today in honor of Odin. Especially as the night before is Krampus Night. The horde traditions we see with Lussi’s Night is not only echoed with Krampus, but also in the tradition of the Perchtenlaufen, typically observed in January.
7 thoughts on “The Twelve Days of Yule: From Mother’s Night thru Twelfth Night”
Interesting info- thanks!
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