Mother’s Night – The First Night of Yule

History

“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.

Summer Flowers

Frey Flower CeremonySummer has come to Chase Hill, green leaves through the woods, blazing sun alternating with life-giving rain, and Ing Frey is decorated with flowers to welcome in the season of growth and fertility.  What beauty!  Thanks to those who were able to come for our Flower Ceremony this year!

Our Gods

Our Gods

Heathens honor dozens of gods whose lore and names have been preserved from Scandinavia, England and the Continent. Each Heathen community finds their focus drawn toward some gods who become the center of their ritual practice.

The Ese (Aesir)

First among the gods are the Ese, the great gods who guide such forces of nature and culture as the sun and moon, peace and war, death and growth. Chase Hill regularly honors the following Ese:

Thunor (Thor) – The Thunder God, Thunor protects the folk and the ealh (sacred space) on Chase Hill. He travels the bounds of Middle Earth, protecting the order of the world from the elemental powers that would undermine it. We usually honor him twice a year – in the heat of summer when the thunderstorms begin, and at the end of winter, when he drives the Frost Giants away, clearing a path for spring to arrive.

Sunne (Sunna) – The Sun Goddess, Sunne rides the skies every day, and we honor her power at the solstices. She represents victory to the living, healing, and the life-giving power of day and summer.

Ing Frey – The Golden One, Frey is the god of beauty, peace, fertility, growth and sex. In the summer, we decorate his godpost (a sacred image) with flowers as a symbol of the opening and growing all around us, while in the autumn, we thank him for the harvest, and see in him the sacrificial figure of John Barleycorn whose beauty and vitality is mown down so that we might eat.

Eorthe/Firgen (Jord/Fjorgyn) – Mother Earth, Eorthe is the mother of all gods and men, and she exhibits many aspects. We honor her as Erce, the first and primal power of the world. We honor her as Folde, the ploughed earth, in late winter, when sugaring season starts – the first sign of the coming plenty of summer – and we also honor her as Firgen, the forested mountain, goddess who upholds the sovereignty of the gods and preserves the wilderness around us.

Skadi – The Winter Goddess, Skadi is the mountain-dweller, the lone hunter, the woman dressed in man’s armor, lover of wolves, and snowshoe-lady. During the Dark Half of the Year, Skadi stalks the mountain, bringing death to those beings too weak to survive the cold, and in death, the promise of new life when the year turns again. She shows us strength, survival, and courage.

Frig (Frigga) – Queen of the Gods, Frig is the sky goddess and cloud-mother, patron of witches and seers, and lady of the household. She preserves peace among men, oversees all economics – setting aside what needs to be saved and apportioning what needs to be used. She is a goddess of wisdom and wyrd, seeing the fates of all men with her powers.

Woden (Odin) – Chief of the Gods, Woden is the god of death, crossroads, thresholds, travel and magic. He leads the Ese in appointing the turning of the year and the day, the movements of sun and moon He governs the howling winds, is a master of will, fury and wishes, and in the Dark Half of the Year, he leads the werewolves and ghosts of the dead in the Wild Hunt.

Eostre – Dawn Goddess, Eostre’s power is that of healing, rebirth and springtime. She walks the earth at each dawn, but her greatest power is in the spring, when we hold ritual to welcome her home from the long, dark winter. She governs the Light Half of the Year with beauty, hope and renewal.

Hell (Hella) – Goddess of the Dead, Hell holds the ancestors in her halls and in her arms when they pass beyond this world. Half beautiful and half rotten, she shows us both sides of death – the wisdom and love of those who watch over us from beyond the grave, and the truth of mortality; that one day we all will join her and walk this land no more.

The Landwights (Landvaettir)

Many lesser gods or wights (spirits) exist alongside the Ese. The Landwights are those beings that inhabit and animate the land around us – hills, mountains, trees, animals. On Chase Hill, we begin every ritual by thanking those beings that coexist in this place with us, feeding and sheltering us every day.

The Ancestors

Every person alive today has uncountable ancestors whose blood runs in our veins, whose spirits watch over us, and whose lives opened the way for us to live as who we are today. We honor the Ancestral Mothers who care for our family lines, we honor the dead whose lives and names we remember, we honor those ancestors whom we have never known, and we honor the people who have preceded us on our paths and in our traditions.

As the light slowly lengthens…

Featured imageIn Old English, the word “Lent” — now referring solely to a Christian observance of fasting — was the word for spring.  It is related to our word s”lengthen” and “long,” and evokes the growing light of day that we see at this time of year.  So when I say that Chase Hill Folk, yesterday, observed Lent, I mean that we stood outside at 6:00, gathered for our monthly ritual and, for the first time since September, the sky was still light.

Golden candle flames flickered in the snow, and as we called upon the goddess Eorthe and the sacred cow who is the generative power that has begun to move through the world around us, wakening the trees and their sap, softening the frozen ground into mud, the sky transformed from dusk to night, a reminder that we still have a month or more before the light half of the year begins in earnest.

Together, our community honored the spirits of plants and animals we consume each day, thanking them for the nourishment they give us.  We offered water, fastnacht doughnuts, birch mead and sparkling black currant juice to Eorthe and all these spirits of food, while singing our version of the traditional Æcerbot charm for the fertility of the fields in the coming season

It seems fitting, then, that on this morning after calling for the change of seasons in ritual, we have set our clocks ahead, and our daily activities will be moved one hour further into the light.  We are on summer time now, and we have only to wait patiently, and the snow and ice will soon melt off the hill and the earth will spring forth in life and growth once more.

Hail Skaði!

The snow sifts gently down over Chase Hill — softly today, though it ebbs and flows with the winter.  The trees stand stark against the grey sky, edged in white, and in the fading light of this evening, Chase Hill Folk gathered to honor Skaði, the goddess of winter.  Torch light and drumbeats carried us from the light into the darkness as we honored our Ancestors, and then we gathered to venture out into the night once more, to hail the Shadowed one, Dweller-in-the-Rocks.  We offered Elderberry Mead, Black Currant Sparkling Juice, as well as evergreen boughs and losses, changes and transformations we are undergoing to the goddess who knows loss, and the strength that comes from it.

Together, we sang and ate at the cabin — a plethora of green salads brought on, one would suspect, by the yearning for green in the cold, wintery world around us — and engaged in deep discussions about the worldview of Western Culture, the problem of wolves, and the value of community.

What a blessing to share ritual with you all!  Hail, Skaði!

Hail Firgen!

Tonight, in the cold dark of the January night, Chase Hill Folk gathered to honor the goddess of the wild mountain — Firgen.  The harrow, dimly lit, was graced by our new Wild Hunt banner, and we sang to call upon the power of the mountain below us.  We offered Vanilla-Cinnamon Mead and Black Currant Sparkling Juice, and listened to the deep quiet of the darkened mountain.  Our ritual was graced by the presence of the wind, the stars, and the bright-glowing eyes of the Wild Hunt in the shadows.  Hail Firgen, Mother Mountain!

The Yule Wreath

Today, at midday, the Yule altar was taken down.  The wreath was disassembled, and all the intentions and gratitudes that we collected during the Yule Feast were taken, along with the greens, out to the harrow.  There, a sacred fire was lit from nine woods, and the last pieces of our Yule celebration were burned in Sunne’s light.  The blue-grey smoke, and the white ash were blown from the ground by the wind.  Like that smoke and that ash, may those energies spread outward from Yule, carrying us into a beautiful, bright new Year.