“They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is “mother’s night,” because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.”
— De Temporum Ratione, the Venerable Bede
The celebration of Yule is an ancient tradition throughout Northern Europe, so important that it has lasted as the most celebrated holiday of the year, even into our modern times. The word itself, still in use (though archaic) today, is of such great antiquity as to be almost unchanged from the Proto-Germanic *jehwlą, theorised to be in use 2500 years ago and whose root origin is still disputed by linguists today. In modern Heathenry, Yule is still seen as a sacred between-time, when the old year dies, the new one is shaped, and the boundaries between the mundane and sacred become porous, letting both might and danger into the world.
Yule seems to have always been celebrated over a period of time, rather than a single day, an idea still present in modern times in the idea of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Historically, in Anglo-Saxon England two months were named “Giuli,” December and January according to the Venerable Bede, while in the Shetland Islands, Yule began with “Tulya’s E’en” or Troll’s Evening, seven days before Yule night and lasting through “Twenty Fourth Night,” the Christian celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Today, modern Heathens have largely settled on celebrating Yule from the eve before the solstice through New Year’s Day – a length of time between eleven and thirteen nights, and heralded by the celebration of Mother’s Night, beginning at sundown, inspired by Bede’s account quoted above.
Folk and Historical Custom
Inspiring the practices that now surround Mother’s Night is the Heathen reverence for female deities, ancestors, and living women. This veneration is evinced by the cults of the Matres and Matrones as guardian spirits. Similarly, Tacitus describes the veneration of women and seeresses: “They even suppose somewhat of sanctity and prescience to be inherent in the female sex; and therefore neither despise their counsels, nor disregard their responses.” (Germania, 56-57). Finally, there are the respected Scandinavian volur (prophetesses), and the protective power and wisdom associated with goddesses such as Frigg and Freyja. That the first night of the most potent Holy Tide of the Heathen year begins by honoring the female powers seems fitting – especially at a time of physical hardship (winter), spiritual danger (when “the dead walk freely, [and] trolls and alfar come into the homes of humans….” Gundarsson, Our Troth: Volume 2, Living Troth, p.333), and the celebration of (and with) family and community.
Surviving folklore from the Germanic regions has provided a rich source for modern customs that Heathens practice today at this time of year. In his Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm tells us that:
“…we are also told, that during the ‘twelve-nights’ no flax must be left in the diesse , or dame Holla will come. The concealment of the implements shows at the same time the sacredness of her holiday, which ought to be a time of rest.”
Meanwhile, Gundarsson describes an Icelandic Yule custom called “Bidding the Alfs to Home,” wherein
“The house-mother would sweep everywhere, in every corner, then kindle lights all through the house, where-ever there might be a shadow. She then went out and around the dwelling, some say three times, and spoke “Come, those who wish to come, stay, those who wish to stay; and fare, those who wish to fare, harmless to me and mine.” (p. 345-6)
This echoes other female-led home rituals described in the sagas, such as the ceremony in the Volsa Thattr, and the alfblot referenced in Austrfararvisur. Ritual led by the woman of the house seems particularly apt for this night, given the nature of a celebration of the female powers.
Offerings were also given at this time – to the landwights, the housewight, the dead, and/or other beings who fare through the night at this time. Gundarsson references a Lapplander custom that derived from Norse tradition, and possibly influencing the idea of the modern Christmas Tree, wherein is described
“how the Lapps made sacrifice by taking pieces of their meals on holy days and lifting them up, then putting them in a piece of birch-bark and making a little ship provided with sail and rudder, into which they also poured a little fatty gravy. They hung such ships on a tree behind the house, so that the swarming Yule-host would have something to eat.” (p.336)
In personal conversations with Jane Sibley, an academic and practicing teacher of Heathenry and seidkona in her family’s Norwegian traditions, she described a custom involving a cream porridge to be made and set out for the landwights during Yule.
A Modern Heathen Practice
Inspired by traditions like those described above, Chase Hill Folk has created their own customs regarding the celebration of Mother’s Night. What follows is a summary of the practices of this particular modern Heathen community, presented here as inspiration for how one might honor Mother’s Night as the start of the Yule season and prepare the home and family to receive luck and blessings in the coming year.
- Before sundown on Mother’s Night, all fiber arts should be finished – including sewing projects, spinning, knitting, etc., and the house cleaned thoroughly.
- At sundown, turn on every light in the house and light every candle to bring in and preserve the light for the coming dark time.
- Walk around the outside of the house, rectiting the prayer recorded above in order to welcome in the weal-bringing spirits of the season.
- Pour out an offering to the disir – both the divine goddesses, and the ancestral mothers who guard your bloodline, singing the carol “Mother, Listen,” composed for this celebration by Trevor Wentworth and Will Rowan, and available in two of the Chase Hill Songbooks, as well as Lynn and Will’ Rowan’s CD Sing the Sun’s Return.
- At the end of the evening before bed, make cream porridge, and set a bowl of it on the hearth or stove for the housewight, and another outside for the spirits of the land –
- Make a roux of 1T butter and 1T flour
- Beat in 1c. cream (not milk) until thickened
- Pour into a bowl, and place another pat of butter to melt on the top of the porridge
As the first night of Yule, it has also become customary to drink eggnog and wassail, eat rich foods, and spend time with family and friends to set the tone of wealth, plenty, and harmony for the coming year.
This year (2015), according to the ritual calendar in use by Chase Hill Folk, Mother’s Night begins at sundown on the night of Monday, December 21st.