Winter Solstice is an action-packed time of year when it comes to celebrating ancestral-style. Our Northern European forbearers called this time Yule, and it took twelve days and nights to do it right. At Seven Trees Farm, the more we learn about the holidays, customs and traditions of our ancestors, the more we add to our own way of celebrating.
Yule kicks off with Modranicht or Mother Night, the longest night before the shortest day of the year. Our ancestors held this night as sacred to Frigga, who labored to help the new year be born. This is also the night when most farm and household work was supposed to be wrapped up for the year, and everything tidied-up and ready to celebrate. Failing to do so could make the various deities and lesser beings cranky.
Not only do we wassail our apple trees on solstice night, but we also welcome our Tomte home for the winter with a dish of porridge and milk left out at bedtime (perhaps where the idea of milk & cookies for Santa originated). I’m sure he is around the rest of the year, but with all the planting and harvesting and preserving busy-ness prefers to hide out until things settle down. While everyone was indoors as much as possible, heralding the return of Sunna with many candles and a brightly-burning Yule log, outside the restless dead followed Odin/Wotan across the night skies in the Wild Hunt.
Though it may be met any night of the year (especially those associated with the dead or their festivals), the Hunt is most prevalent on Winter nights, particularly between Yule and Twelfth Night. This goes back to the very old belief that the dead walk among the living during Yule. Ancestors were honored at this season and food was often left out for them, because the relationship between the living and the dead was essential for the well-being of livestock and family. The Wild Hunt may then be associated with ancestral spirits who come to collect their portion of the year’s spoils in return for a good harvest the following year.
Odin and his scary crew aren’t the only ones travelling through the Yuletide nights. The jolly fat man we know today as Santa Claus had early incarnations as a Nisse or Tomte, a household elf who brought gifts to people who had been productive and tidy during the year. He didn’t arrive in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. A goat (julbock) carried the gifts, and sometimes the elf himself.
These days the Julbock is typically a straw figure of a goat used as an ornament, but it is actually an ancient Yule symbol that goes well back into pagan times. It is theorized that the Yule Goat stems from a connection to Thor, who had a chariot that was pulled through the sky by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.
Another connection with elves at Yule time are the Landvaettir or land-wights. They are beings or spirits that inhabit our surroundings and influence daily life (Iceland even has four Landvaettir on its coat of arms). Our ancestors believed it was very important to be in their good graces, and made small offerings to them, often in the natural places they liked such as large stones, springs or pools, trees. But at Yule time offerings were made in the form of ornaments, ribbons and holiday treats hung in the branches of a special tree.
The Yule Log is also a key part of the long winter festival. In fact, in earlier times it was part of the tradition to keep it burning the entire twelve days and nights of Yule. Hearths were much bigger then, so communities made a competition out of finding and hauling home the largest one they could. Long-burning oak was the most popular choice, and the new Yule log was supposed to be lit by a kindled remnant of the previous year’s log. Keeping this bit of charred wood under the mistress of the house’s bed brought good luck and also protected the house from fire.
One constant in all this Yuletide fun was drinking. Wassail bowls, ale, mead, and in later years, punch, all played a part in welcoming the new year. Our ancestors also offered drink to deities, landvaettir, ancestors, disir, alvar, missed friends and loved ones. Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla, in the Saga of Hákon the Good, describes the custom of the bragarfull at feasts:
The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a godi ['chief'], blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin‘s goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter,Njörd‘s and Freyja‘s goblets for peace and a good season. Then it was the custom of many to empty the bragafull; and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the minni ['remembrance'].
New Year’s Eve marks the end of Yule, and the Norse brought their way of celebrating it to Scotland, where it’s known as Hogmanay. More drinking is involved, and oath-making (which we call ‘resolutions’), as well as the custom of first-footing. The first person to cross a home’s threshold after midnight on New Year’s Eve will determine the homeowner’s luck for the new year. The ideal visitor bears gifts—preferably whiskey, coal for the fire, small cakes, or a coin—and should be a man with a dark complexion. Why? The answer hearkens back to the 8th century, when the presumably fair-haired Vikings invaded Scotland: a blond visitor was not a good omen.
If you’d like to learn more about Yule, both as it was celebrated by our ancestors and as modern people recreate those celebrations, check out the links below:
The Traditions of Yule Tide
The Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual
Yule – The Midwinter Festival
The Wild Hunt – a darker shade of Yule
The Wheel of the Year Turns - Tomte and Julbock
Wassail, drink hail