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 Norse hátíðir). 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 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 12th Night. 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.
Twelfth Night & Wassail
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, and 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.
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’ on nazi Germany.
The Twelve 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 Chanukah 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 member show 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.
The Santa Claus Mythos…
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. Afterall they didn’t have a grocery store that imported strawberries from South America out-of-season.
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 Oski’s Day).
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 uypon 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, mjollnir 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 year’s 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.
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 amongst 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.
The Yule Goat, Yule Boar and Yule Cat
Today, one of Sweden’s most traditional Yule symbols, is that of the yule buck or yule goat, which features prominently in the tale of Jultomten. In antiquity the common animal sacrifices included horses, cattle, boar, and goats. In Sweden in particular we see goats sacrificed. Once Christianity had taken over, many laws were passed that forbade the sacrificing of animals for ‘pagan rituals’. From this void, we see the real animal, begin to be replaced by a person in a goat costume that becomes a symbolic ritual offering and slaying. The use of costumes or masks for ritual, is not alone, as we also see it in another yuletide festival as previously mentioned with the Goddess Perchta.
The yule goat is presented as a straw made goat. I suspect like the human wearing a goat get up, the yule goat becomes a nod to the pagan ritual sacrifice of a goat at blot once laws were established preventing the sacrifice to occur. I also suspect, that as we see in some areas, a folk tradition persisting of some of the grain crop being left in the harvest as Sleipnir’s lot. I could see that also being used to feed the yule goats, or conversely eventually to be used to make the straw yule-goats themselves.
We see something similar with the tradition of the Yule Boar. The last ear of corn reaped in the preceding harvest, would be used to make a corn-meal loaf baked into a boar shape. In some areas the Yule Boar was kept out only during the yuletide, in others it was kept into the next year when it was mixed with the new crop of corn and then consumed. The older traditions didn’t have a symbolic boar of corn, but included boar animal sacrifices, or humans symbolically representing the boar sacrificed.
Of course, over the years we see the Yule Goat in some areas become the Santa-like figure all on it’s own. We also see other non-human figures connected with reward and punishment, such as the Yule Cat. The Yule Cat would watch to see what children got new clothes, for it was said that a child that got new clothes had in fact behave and done their chores. But a child that didn’t get new clothes, had been naughty and therefore became offerings the Yule Cat could take. The Yule-Cat appears to be a late-evolving tradition, with a first written appearance in the 19th Century. But it derives its roots from the same industriousness/behavior motif we see with the deities that tie to the Santa mythos. In part, it may have been written to help generate a call for those of wealth to be generous and give clothes to the needy, so no children would be taken. On a more morbid interpretation of the story, the poor who had no warm clothes would probably not survive the winter.
Famous Swedish export Ikea, regularly sells Yule Goats this time of year. They’re a common ornament for the yule-tree, or other decorations (the way some may have a sculpture of a reindeer on their mantle or table). In some areas there is a folk custom of trying to sneak the goat in under someone else’s yule-tree without being caught as an innocent prank, and then the new household possessing the yule goat must find some way to sneak it onto another unsuspecting household.
One of the most famous Yule-Goats today is the Gavle Goat. The Gavle Goat is a giant Yule-Goat that towers over people, erected in an open area nearby the town of Gavle’s shopping center. It’s rather famous since not only is it HUGE, but around half of the goats that have been erected (now there are two in different places in the town). Its something of a fun past time for people to watch the live camera feeds of the town, to see if the Goat is there, and to see if they can catch one of its many vandals in the act. Over half of the 70+ goats were burned, but some have been run over, KID-napped (get it?), or otherwise vandalized (like being thrown in the river).
This year on the night of December 2, the Natural Science Club’s goat survived an arson attempt on December 2nd. On December 17th, a security guard for The Southern Merchant’s goat reported that he had been offered a bribe so it could be stolen by helicopter. The goat as of the December 21st Lunar Eclipse, is still there, but you can view the web-cam for yourself.
Gods Typically Honored:
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. Deities associated with winter like the winter hunters Ullr and Skadhi are also sometimes hailed. Since this is the day of darkest night, Nott (aka Night) as well as silver-gleaming Mani (our God of the Moon) may be honored. Some will also honor Sunna (Our Goddess of the Sun) as she will only grow in prominence in the months ahead. 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 focus is more on the deities associated with the Wild Hunt, and the hopes for the fertility to come in the planting and subsequent harvest season ahead.
Want to learn more about some of the other holy tides?