The Coziness that is the Yule Season
Modern Heathens celebrate a wide variety of holidays, from the birthdays of Viking heroes to birthdays of modern heroes to the changing of the seasons, and everything in between. My favorite Heathen holiday has always been Yule. Like many other people, I love the nip of frost in the air; the ever-present scent of cinnamon and oranges and pine needles; the cozy winter clothes and lit fireplaces; and the fact that it is a special time for family and friends to come together to share meals, give presents, and, in general, “Drive the cold winter away”. (I also love the fact that, being the Freyr devotee that I am, the days finally start to become longer again; these 4:30pm evenings kill me.) Though it can be a stressful time in many ways, overall, in my mind it’s still the best time of the year.
I had these kinds of experiences growing up as a Christian, and as an adult Heathen celebrating Yule, absolutely none of these wonderful things have been taken away. I don’t feel that anything of real import has been taken from my enjoyment of this season. It probably helps that much of what modern Americans think of as “Christmas traditions” are actually carry-overs from Germanic pre-Christian traditions (the Yule log and Christmas tree, for example) or are basic elements that are included in many religious celebrations (such as getting together with kith and kin to share meals or give gifts). And it’s even near Christmas (or, to be more precise, Christmas is near it) so my non-Heathen kith and kin are doing essentially the same thing as I am. We’re all pulling together to celebrate the season.
This year, I had the chance to celebrate Yule in a bigger way than I’ve ever done in the past. I organized an opportunity for the local pagan community to come together as a family, despite our many differences, and to worship together. With my co-leader Mary Diamond, I wrote and led a large, Heathen-focused public Yule ritual, including a three-round sumbel, in honor of Frigga and Freyr, the Norse frithweavers.
It the first event of its kind, co-sponsored by the local ADF Sinnisippi Tuath Grove and the CUUPs White Oak Grove, As this was a public ritual, the ADF grove took on the ritual planning and much of the logistics, while the CUUPs provided the space and took care of the rest of the logistics. Several others and I are members of both groups, and due to the fact that the larger local community had gone through some fissures and changes in the last few years, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to start bringing the local community back together. It took a lot of work and juggling of interests, priorities, and expectations, but it came off wonderfully. Frith was woven; community was served; and the Gods, ancestors and landvaettir were honored. All in all it was a successful ritual, and I’m proud to have helped make it happen.
What is “Frith?”
One of our main goals from the with this ritual was to build frith.
“Frith” is an Old Norse concept that I’d really love to bring into modern usage; we Heathens use it pretty regularly already. (And once you know what it means, you will too!) Unfortunately, the term doesn’t scan cleanly into modern English. Though it is often translated as “peace”, the concept really is much more complex. My favorite definition of it comes from Ann Groa Sheffield’s book Frey: God of the World, where she identifies it as one of Freyr’s key roles. She translates frith as “sacred inviolability”. My working definition based on her translation is this: “We who are members of this family (or who are gathered at this temple or event) agree to treat each other respectfully and proactively look after each other’s health and well-being, because it would be sacrilegious to do otherwise”. (A bit wordy, but still a lovely concept, no?)
Back in the day, “frith” described a level of social behavior that was expected while within Freyr’s temple or at special events like the Thing. Keeping the frith meant not just that you agreed to not to harm anyone with weapons or words (weapons were not allowed in Freyr’s temple or at the Thing). It also meant helping out and taking care of each other. Frith was such a deeply embedded social agreement that we really ever hear about it in the sags when the storytellers vividly describe the other attendees’ mass outrage and shock when the frith is broken.
Among the Norse deities, the two main “frith-weavers” are Frigga, the wife of Odin, Queen of the Aesir, and a goddess of family and social bonds; and Freyr, a Lord of Alfheim, Vanaheim, and Asgard, and a god of kingship, frith, and prosperity. They both work toward creating and maintaining peace and stability in their own areas of influence. In addition, Freyr is historically honored with feasting at yule, and Frigga is associated with Anglo-Saxon holiday Mōdraniht (Mother’s Night), celebrated on or near December 24th. As such, they seemed to be the perfect Deities for the occasion.
Putting it all togetherIt turned out that our ritual had one other goal: figuring out how to make a basic Heathen ritual fit into the much-more-formalized ADF ritual structure. Even after several weeks of discussions, I was struggling to find a way to weave frith and to make my experience with Heathen rituals fit into my understanding of the ADF structured. I honestly wasn’t having much luck with it until a Heathen ADF member sat down with me and went through the ADF ritual structure, comparing each step with what I would already do in my usual Heathen rituals. It turned out there wasn’t much difference, really. It came down to just adding in a part to specifically call out and honor the Well of the Norns (the Well); Yggdrasil (the Tree); and Sunna, as symbolized by the Yule Log (the Fire), in a section that ADF calls “Recreating the Cosmos”. Otherwise, the basic Heathen ritual is ADF-ready. Given that the Norse/Germanic cultures are one of the main Indo-European “Hearth Cultures” from which ADF has drawn its ritual structure, this isn’t too surprising.
So, ok–ritual structure: check. But what about the frith? How would we build the frith within this structure? That’s when my friends suggested, “You can always sumbel.” Of course! Sumbel!
Are You Ready To Sumbel???
In any Heathen ritual, the blot or the sumbel is really the key to the whole thing. That is where the magic happens. One form of “magic” (however you want to spell it) that Heathens are really good at is building community—with each other, with the landspirits, and with the Gods. And we do this via the blot or the sumbel.
A sumbel consists of three rounds of ritualized toasting. It can have many more—as many rounds as you have energy or bottles of mead, really–but the base structure has three rounds.
Our three rounds were as follows:
- Round One: Toasting the Gods of the occasion (Freyr and Frigga), as well as other Gods, and asking for their blessings;
- Round Two: Toasting the Ancestors or other Honored Dead, and asking for their blessings;
- Round Three: Boasts of our own successes and Toasts to another person’s success. (Some people also include “Oaths” in this round; I omitted it because this ritual was open to the general public, and while I am an idealist, I am not interested in tempting fate by having random people swear sacred oaths at a public ritual.)
Not unexpectedly, many attendees did not do much more than say “Hail!” each round and drink from the horn, as people often do when new to a Heathen ritual, but even so, by participating and witnessing other people’s toasts, they were still part of the magic. Other people hailed everyone from Lilith to Tyr; we even had a hail to Quetzalcoatl. In the past, I’ve even been in sumbels were Jesus was hailed. This was fine by me; Heathen rituals, particularly like this Yule ritual, are meant to be open and welcoming. Hospitality: that’s the key. In my opinion, it’s neither realistic nor hospitable to demand that only Norse deities are honored in a public sumbel. As long as the Norse gods are also honored, I think it’s fine.
After the sumbel, we did a divination, as in all ADF rituals. Our first question was: “Have our offerings been accepted?” to which we received the Laguz rune (water, fluidity; generally seen as a positive rune). Our second question was “What gifts to you offer in return?” to which we received Fehu (movable wealth; very fortuitous!). Our last question was “What wisdom do you have for our community?” to which we received Ehwaz (horse and rider; partnerships). Very good advice, I’d say.
The event was not without its flaws; one thing we did learn was that with as large of a group as we had (fifty people, including children), we really needed to have someone be in charge of the potluck and someone in charge of the gift exchange. But as for the ritual itself, and the sense of coming together to worship as a community—that goal, I think, was achieved, and achieved well.