St. Germain of Auxerre. Doesn’t he just look like a self-righteous prig?
There are some interesting passages in the Life of St. Germain of Auxerre (c. 378 – c. 448), also known as Germanus. Note that the name denotes someone connected with the Germanic tribes, and he lived in Gaul during a time of great Frankish invasion and influence, and he died just before the creation of the first Merovingian dynasty.
On a time he was harboured in a place where every night the table was made ready for to eat after supper, when men had supped, and he was much amarvelled thereof, and demanded of the host of the house wherefore they made ready for to eat after supper. And the host said to him, that it was for his neighbours, which would come and drink one after the other. And that night S. Germain established him to wake for to see what it was. It was not long after that there came thither a great multitude of devils, and came to the table in guise of men and women. And when the holy man saw them, he commanded them that they should not go away, and after he sent for to wake the neighbours on all sides, in such wise that every body was found in his bed, and in their houses, and made the people to come and see if they knew any of them, but they said nay. And then he showed them that they were devils, whereof the people were much abashed because the devils had mocked them so. And then S. Germain conjured that they never after returned thither ne came more there.
Now, nothing in this account from St. Germain mentions Yule or Mother’s Night, but it does map excellently with later accounts that showed up in early witch trials in southwest Germany and eastern Switzerland, described in detail in Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.
Burchard of Worms, writing nearly 600 years after the death of Germain, describes something very similar, if lacking in detail:
Hast thou done as some women are wont to do at certain times of the year? That is, hast thou prepared the table in thy house and set on the table thy food and drink, with three knives, that if those three sisters whom past generations and old-time foolishness called the Fates [“parcae”] should come they may take refreshment there… those whom thou callest “the sisters” can do or avail aught for thee either now or in the future? (Corrector, 153)
Still another 400 years or so later, Ginzburg describes a very similar ritual among the benandanti (who might be considered “good witches”), who fought the evil witches who were inclined to go into the wine cellars and first drink themselves to satiation, and then piss or shat into the casks to foul the wine. The benandanti simply drank the wine.
As such, we see a progression, but always involving the habit of some persons with supernatural connections entering a home after the inhabitants had gone to sleep, and who eat and/or drink the provisions available, and who can do good or ill.
One interesting further connection is in the timing. Although the story of St. Germain doesn’t mention anything about when he saw his supposed “great multitude of devils”, Ginzberg’s sources are very specific, and often name “the ember days” as times when they when they would perform their rites.
The Parcae, or Fates
The ember days are an interesting phenomenon worthy of a digression. First introduced as early as 220 CE by Pope Callixtus I*, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.
So it is entirely possible that the ceremony that St. Germain describes happened before Yule. Even though the account is silent on the time of year, it would agree with both the Corrector and the later witch trial evidence from the western Alpine area, which describe a similar phenomenon. .
So I present this as yet another piece in the puzzle, which can go one of two ways. Either we’re seeing a mythology-based celebration of the coming of the Norns/Fates/Parcae that was gradually transformed into a sort of virtual visiting tradition, or we’re seeing an actual visiting tradition that was slowly mythologized and turned into a virtual “astral” gathering once it was outlawed by the coming of Christianity.
The slight shifting of the dates is easily explained, as the Church deliberately attempted to appropriate already-extant Heathen holidays. It’s only natural that the peasantry, who were accustomed to making their celebrations on or near the solstices and equinoxes, would simply shift the date to conform to the new authorities, without making substantive changes to the event itself. Over the course of centuries, these customs became distorted, and became but a pale shadow of their former, robust Heathen origins.
* Why don’t modern popes take cool names like that???
Of course Christmas itself has just passed (and I hope that those of you who celebrate it had a wonderful holiday, even if you only do so as a secular holiday of family, plenty, and generosity, with no religious overtones, like my family does), but the traditional date of Yule is still more than two weeks or so away, so we’re continuing to Make Yule Great Again here at the Garden.
This time, I would like to present a few traditional dishes for your Yule feast. Most are more modern Scandinavian dishes from the traditional julbord, or Christmas buffet.
Swedish meatballs. It’s not particularly a Yule dish, but come on. Can you really do a traditional Scandinavian buffet without them? Recipe here.
The Christmas ham. This is the centerpiece of the julbord; the ham, or julskinka, is first boiled, and then served cold, with a crust of mustard and breadcrumbs. Also note the continuing references to boars and pork (associated with the god Freyr) with the holiday. The Local (a Swedish news outlet) mentions that the pigs are killed on Lussinatta, at night. Recipe here.
Pickled herring. Pickled fish is a staple in Scandinavian countries as a rule, but it is especially brought out in the cold winter months, when fresh fish would be something of a rarity. Generally, this is something to be store bought, but the adventurous might try to make their own with the recipe here.
Lutefisk. Errr… yum?
Lutefisk. Take air-dried whitefish, soak it in lye and salt for days, and then rinse it off and cook it once it becomes gelatinous. I’ve never dared try it (and I eat just about anything) but it’s a staple in Norway and Sweden in the traditional Julbord, eaten with boiled potatoes. Want to make it? There’s a recipe here. Good luck Paisan!
Yule bread. A traditional Viking recipe, flavored with cardamom and almonds. Recipe here.
Norwegian Christmas Bread. Another recipe, almost akin to an English pudding rather than a bread, with raisins and walnuts. Recipe here.
Dopp i grytan. Called “dip in the pot” in English, this is a custom of dipping bread into the reduced juices used to cook the ham, like a fondue. I’ve never done it, but it sounds amazingly good. Recipe here.
Janssons Frestelse. If you want to get more adventurous than the boiled potatoes mentioned above (and nothing says you can’t do both!), try this sort of scalloped potato dish, with anchovies (I happen to love anchovies, and the thought of the salty fish mixed in with the creamy potatoes and onions sounds great). Recipe here.
Marzipan Pig. Obviously a new addition to the menu, this dessert course made of shaped almond paste seems obviously tied back to the recurring themes of boars and Freyr and Yule. And isn’t the little apple in its mouth adorable? Marzipan recipe here.
Today marks the arrival of the first of the Yule-lads (IS jólasveinarnir); mischievous spirits who arrive one per day for the next twelve days, and each stays for exactly thirteen days, so on the 25th of December, they’re all present. They are the sons of the Icelandic trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and each has a specific attribute.
Of course, in modern times their hard edges have been smoothed over, and they’re seen as mostly-benevolent, Santa-like figures, but all the good wishes in the world won’t change the fundamental nature of a wight. They’re basically cautionary tales for children, as they would come out of the mountains and glaciers to frighten naughty children during the Yuletide.
Mother’s Night and the New Year behind us, we find ourselves more than two weeks from the solstice, and a week before Yule itself. We now find ourselves at St. Knut’s Day, which is celebrated in Sweden and Finland, but not Denmark or Norway. The timing of this feast day deserves a little attention, as it’s got a somewhat involved history. The day is named for Knut Levard of Denmark, who was killed in a civil war and canonized in 1169. It should be noted that that is a pretty late date, and well into the era of Christianization.
Originally, Knut’s Day was celebrated on January 7, the anniversary of his death. In the 17th century, it was moved to the 13th of January, presumably because it was interfering with the celebration of the Epiphany on the 6th. I’m going to ignore that later date, because it is way outside my era of interest for this analysis, and has little if any significance when it comes to replacing already-established Heathen celebrations.
Dancing around the soon-to-be-taken-down tree
Traditionally, Knut’s Day represents the end of the Christmas season in Sweden and Finland. There are “plundering parties” as the Christmas tree is taken down and the edible ornaments that traditionally adorn it (candies, cookies, and cakes) are removed and devoured.
More interesting, perhaps, is a tradition that is akin to our modern Halloween, where children and adults go from house to house in scary costumes of ghosts and scarecrows, attempting to frighten neighbors and friends.
There is dancing, and what has been described by L. Lloyd in his “Peasant Life in Sweden… Illustrated” (written in 1870, pp. 217-218) as:
…”Gästabuds-Krig,” or war of hospitality. The master of the house comes into the apartment where the “Jul” festivities have taken place, and affixes his axe into the middle of the floor; the housemaid follows him with a broom, the kitchen-maid with a knife and a spoon, or rather ladle, the “Källare Drang,” or tapster, he whose duty it is to look after the cellar, with the spigot of the ale barrel, with other like company, and makes pretense to drive away the guests, and should there be any present who can read and sing, they read aloud King Orre’s Legend, and sing his ballad, the words of which I have not at hand, but which in some degree resemble our own doggerel:
“Old King Cole Was a merry old soul, And a merry old soul was he; He called for his pipe, And he called for his wine, And he called for his fiddlers three.”
Scary costumes for guising on the day, with some similarity to the guising done at the beginning of the season on Krampusnacht…
And presumably the plundering of the pantry of the last edibles that were cooked and baked and brewed for the Yule celebration would be polished off by the guests.
It has recently been suggested that the dramatic Yule game in Sweden in which “King Orre” figures originated in a representation of the defeat of King Erik of Pomerania.
With a footnote referencing “H Jungner, Om Kung Orre, Maal og Minne, 1914, pp. 123 ff” that I have been unable to follow-up on. Anyone able to help track that reference down is invited to contact me in the comments below. Sounds fascinating.
The superficial nature of some of the Christian festivals is especially clear in the case of the figure of Knut, since the saint obviously never had anything to do with ‘sweeping’ or ‘knocking out’ Christmas. Magnus Olsen has thus sought to establish an early relationship between the traditional figure of Knut and other figures such as the legendary King Orre, and the spirit of Þorri, a personification of the early Scandinavian fourth winter month beginning c. 13 January. Considering the fact that Knut is often acted in folk tradition, it might be noted that both Knut and Þorri are identified in the rhymes sung about them by the same sole characteristic of a beard. A faint possibility exists that this shared feature has roots in a visual tradition of disguise which originally applied to both figures at this time of year. The vestiges of such a tradition might possibly be found in the unique account given by Jón Árnason of how Icelandic farmers used to ‘welcome Þorri onto the farm’ (‘að bjóða Þorra í garð’) by hopping around their farms half-dressed on the first morning of Þorri, their wives following suit the first morning of Góa, the following month.
I still want to know exactly what goes on with this acted-out Knut folk tradition (other than apparently an elder version of the Polar Bear Challenge). To the BOOKS!
So, to bring this all back to the subject at hand, all we need to do is make our standard 8 day correction for dates, because of the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and I think we have the answer to all this mummery. Adjust 8 days from the original date of January 7, and we get January 15. Right around the middle of winter.
A day or two after Yule.
I think what we see in Knut’s Day are the events of the end of Yule. Exact dates are of course fungible when it comes to the ancient calendars, but I think what we’re seeing here are the equivalent of modern “Boxing Day” traditions. The last of the food prepared for Yule needs to get eaten, the decorations need to be taken out, and, let us not forget, this also marks the end of the “out and about” time for the Wild Hunt, which began waaaay back on Lussinata, on the solstice. That’s combined in a visiting tradition involving scary costumes; made all the more relevant by the fact that there’s still excess treats to be handed out (in the “war of hospitality”), and the gag is all the funnier because everyone knows that the Wild Hunt isn’t out and about after Yule.
Man, this really works.
We’ve been circling the big one for a while now, but we’re homing in on Yule itself. We’re getting there, dear readers, have just a little more patience!
Each year around this time, in Facebook posts and elsewhere, we are certain to be lectured by well-meaning Christians on the “sinfulness” of celebrating Christmas. Their arguments can be persuasive. “In the Bible, God never told us to celebrate Christmas,” they say. “Christmas has its roots in paganism,” they say. So that must mean we’re just dupes celebrating a pagan ritual when we ignorantly think we’re gratefully celebrating the birth of Jesus. Who wants to celebrate what God never told us to celebrate and which supposedly has its roots in paganism? Not me! But are those things really true?
Since Mrs. Miller doesn’t actually link to any examples of people saying this, it’s difficult to suss out whether this is actually happening. It would have been nice, and unfortunately without something specific for her to be chewing on, this has the look of a straw man. Fortunately, Google is a fine mistress, and I was able to quickly find a few examples of the question of whether or not Christmas is Pagan, from good, upstanding Christian ministries and groups; should be easy to find the sorts of Christians that Mrs. Miller is talking about, right? Let’s take a quick look:
Heh… I’m just having a bit of fun; I do know there are Christians out there who don’t like Christmas and condemn it as Pagan. But they’re not the majority, by a long shot. And in fairness, they’re not complaining about the holiday; they’re complaining about the trappings and customs that have been attached to it (more about that later). But finding pro-Christian stuff was a lot easier. Goodwife Miller continues.
While there is no specific instruction in the Bible to honor or celebrate the birth of Jesus each year (and no, of course we don’t know the actual date of His birth), neither is there any prohibition of it.
REALLY??? Is a committed conservative Christian actually making an argument that, “if it’s not specifically prohibited in the Bible, it’s okay to do”??? ‘Cause I’m very sure there isn’t any “thou shalt not commit abortion” or “thou shalt not have gender reassignment surgery” or “thou shalt not have sex wearing a Pikachu costume” passages in there.
The Bible says this is okey-dokey!
Interestingly, there really is a concrete Biblical prohibition on one cherished Christmas custom:
But as for using the literal words of the Bible as a guide to what one is and is not allowed (or compelled) to do, I’ll leave it to Jed Bartlet to have the final word:
But I digress. Gentlewoman Miller continues…
Further, when you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, it is clear that heaven and earth celebrated that miraculous event. Can you imagine the breathtaking awe felt by those humble shepherds at the sight of the multitude of heavenly host praising God on that powerful, wonderful occasion?
So a bunch of angels appeared in the desert, and the shepherds looked around and said “WTF just happened?” but nothing about heaven and earth celebrating what happened. Again, since Mrs. Miller doesn’t provide any passages to back up her assertion, it’s hard to tell. Maybe she’s thinking of Luke 19:40 (which has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, by the way)???
I can think of nothing more worthy of annual remembrance and celebration than the birth of Christ, alongside the celebration of His resurrection from the dead (the supposed “paganism” about which we are also lectured by those same well-meaning Christians. “The root word for Easter is the name of a pagan goddess!” they say). These events are part of the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Well, the word Easter does come from the Old English word Eostre, which was, according to Bede, a Heathen goddess. So… yeah. That’s probably why different languages have different words for things, and many languages call Easter a variety of different words related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach”. English being a Germanic language and all…
But I think this is at the heart of the problem with Mrs. Miller’s article. She is confusing the complaints about customs, language, dates, and the like, with the significance of the holiday in the Christian religion. Legitimate complaints about those things don’t necessarily mean they are complaining about the Christian symbolism associated with the holiday.
I submit to you that the truth is the opposite of these assertions of paganism. The claims that the pagan rituals in which Christmas (and Easter) supposedly are based pre- date Jesus’ birth, earthly ministry, sacrifice and resurrection from the dead are wrong. Nothing “pre-dates” Jesus. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. He is outside of time, because He is before time. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing – nothing – was made. He is God. His willing sacrifice to save the world was set and planned before the dawn of time and creation of the world.
Well, that’s a nice (and conveniently self-serving) theory, but just saying it’s so doesn’t make it so.
Fortunately, we have history, and archaeology, and historiography, and all the other branches of science to tell us that yes, things did happen prior to 4 BCE, when your savior-god was supposedly born. Time being linear (even if events do move in great cyclical patterns), are you actually saying that Satan literally has the power to see the future?
All pagan (satanic) rituals, “holidays” and celebrations throughout history are nothing more than cheap imitation knock-offs of the Real Thing. Satan has always tried to set himself in the place of Jesus, to be the object of worship. Before being cast to earth, he tried the same thing in heaven. To this end, he has created myriad false religions and rituals, from blatantly pagan to sneaky, fake “Christian.” Not only are these designed for Satan to soak up men’s worship, but also to deceive men and keep them from coming to a saving knowledge of Truth found only in the Word of God.
Except, of course, that there were religions before Christianity. Heck, there were religions before Judaism, which is the spiritual basis for Christianity. Unless she’s saying that Satan founded the Egyptian religion millennia before there even was a Jewish or Hebrew people? Or perhaps he was responsible for Neanderthals worshiping the skulls of animals, or burying their dead with horns? Because that’s religion, too, and it way predates that sorry patchwork you call a faith.
In so many different ways, since the fall of man in the Garden, the devil has deceptively imitated and mocked Christ’s ministry and message, even before they played out in time. So, no, the celebration of the birth of Christ – that we call Christmas – does not have its roots in paganism. It’s the other way around. Satan has always stolen the ideas he has from Christ’s truth, and then he twists and perverts that truth into lies and grotesque wickedness.
So… Satan can see into the future. And then arrange things so that he can create things that presage that future, but… not. Gods, this is as absurd as Satan planting fossils in the ground, or arranging photons in space so they happen to hit the Earth at exactly the right instant so as to give the illusion that the universe is more than six thousand years old. And Yahweh lets him! Her god is either a sadistic fuck who enjoys seeing the humans he supposedly loves being conned, or, well, not quite what he’s been cracked up to be.
Another point to consider is the fact that the world, currently under Satan’s lordship, despises and reviles all things of God and Christ.
But wait. Isn’t Mrs. Miller in the world, too? And of it, because she’s got a physical form (I assume; otherwise how could she hit the keys on the keyboard?) Doesn’t that make her a vassal of Satan?
Thus, we see Satan’s war on Christmas, waged by his servants the God-haters among us. If Christmas was truly based in satanic paganism, don’t you think the devil would be fine with its presence in the public square?
Oh, the “war on Christmas” canard. I was waiting for this one. How successful it has been, too. Why, the padlocking of church doors on December 24th has been a staple of our society for years. The postal service, pressed into service, routinely opens up cards throughout December, gainfully employing hordes of people with Sharpies to cross out the word “Christmas” and replace it with “Holidays”. There’s nary a mention of Christmas in print, or radio, or television.
It’s almost enough to make you wish there were churches on every corner. But those were bulldozed years ago in preparation for the final assault on Christmas.
Christianity has a collective martyr complex, but in the absence of real persecution, they seem to feel compelled to invent it. “My cashier didn’t say “Merry Christmas”! I’m just as oppressed as Christians who are killed in Somalia!”
Instead, we now see almost every major corporation aggressively scrubbing even the mention of Christmas from their businesses and advertising.
Indeed. Like A.C. Moore, Barnes & Noble, Bath and Body Works, Belk, Best Buy, Bronners, CVS Pharmacy, Dillards, Hallmark, Hobby Lobby, Home Depot, JC Penny, K-Mart, Kohl’s, Lehmans, Lowe’s, Macy’s, Menards, Neiman Marcus, Rite Aid Pharmacy, Sears, Staples, Toys R Us, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. All of whom appear on the “nice list” published by the Liberty Counsel.
It’s irksome to see the ridiculous level this corporate purging of Christmas has reached. Having been in radio for 22 years, I’ve watched as the generic word “holiday” has slowly replaced Christmas in national radio ads. It would be silly if it weren’t so devilish: “This holiday, give the gift your sweetheart wants!” “Make your holiday cards special!” “Find all your holiday gifts in one location!” “Do your holiday shopping with us, and save!” “We have the perfect holiday gifts at prices you’ll love!”
I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise to squaw Miller, but there are other religions out there, that are just as legitimate, and legally protected, as hers is. And most, if not all, of them have holidays clustered around the winter solstice. Not to mention the entirely secular holiday of New Year’s. And as the population of the United States (and the West in general) has slowly shifted away from Christianity to other faiths, or no faith, or a mushy “spiritual but not religious”-osity (ugh), the assumption that any given person will be Christian. Saying “Happy holidays” or advertising “holiday gifts” is simply safer for retailers who want to make the maximum number of potential customers feel welcome.
It’s not “holiday.” It’s Christmas.
…and Diwali, and Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve/Day, and Yule, and Kwanzaa, and Saturnalia, and Zartosht No-Diso, and Festivus, and Korochun, and Hogmanay, and dozens more. Christianity is not the only religion out there, and retailers would be idiots for not wanting to reach out to the 30% of Americans who aren’t Christian.
No one sends out “holiday cards.” They send out Christmas cards.
No one does their “holiday shopping.” They do their Christmas shopping. No one gives “holiday gifts.” They give Christmas gifts.
See above. Lots of midwinter festivals have gift exchange traditions. In fact, the tradition started with Roman Saturnalia and Norse Jól.
This is yet another example of the world doing its worst to obliterate even the mention of Christ – in this case, as it appears in the word Christmas.
No, this is an example of the world being inhabited by a majority of people that aren’t Christian, and don’t want to follow your insipid sexually repressive death-cult.
The giant corporations are glad to scrub Christmas from their advertising, but boy do they love to load up on national “holiday” ads in order to separate you from your Christmas cash!
Yeahhhhh, about that…
Christmas is not pagan, and it’s not “holiday.” It is part of the greatest True Story in the history of stories. How fortunate we are that God so loved the world! Jesus, stepped down from the glory of His heavenly throne and into the form of man. He was born into the world He loved so much that He willingly offered His precious, sinless life in place of ours, and all we have to do is believe and accept His free gift salvation.
Yeah, yeah. We’ve all seen The Little Drummer Boy. Your religion’s midwinter myth has been shoved down out throats on national television for decades (how’s that for being oppressed!). Doesn’t make it true.
For those well-meaning Christians who deeply believe celebrating Christmas is wrong, an offense to God, then for them, it is wrong. Let every man be convinced in his heart. But, for those of us who view it as the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, then let us celebrate it with joy and thanks to God.
And here, I think, is the fundamental disconnect, and why frau Miller would have been much better served to pick a few concrete examples, rather than the straw man she ended up arguing against.
On one level, I actually agree with her. The celebration of the birth of their savior-god is absolutely a Christian thing, and there’s nothing wrong with Christians doing so. The date may or may not have been selected to coincide with a couple of Pagan Roman celebrations, but who cares? Christians can choose dates for their holidays like anyone else.
However, it should also be noted that modern (and historical) Christmas celebrations have accumulated enormous Pagan and Heathen customs over the years, many of which I’ve detailed (and will continue to detail) here on the blog as the Yuletide season continues. In fact, I hate to say it, but Jason Mankey has outlined the Christian and Pagan provenance of a host of modern Christmas customs and symbols, and done a very good job of it (I might quibble on the edges here and there, but it’s a good piece overall). I daresay when people write against Christians celebrating Christmas, they’re really referring to the Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Wassailing, drinking and overeating in general, commercialism in general, St. Lucia, Rudolf, Yule Logs, and on and on and on. And maybe they have a point, if one is so wrapped up in the Bible as to want to purge from one’s life anything that doesn’t come out of Leviticus.
The other problem with her analysis is the blind willful refusal to acknowledge that any other religion besides Christianity exists, let alone that all of them have holidays around this same time of year, that the United States is becoming steadily less Christian, even if she might not like that fact, and businesses want to try to sell goods to as many people as possible. It just makes sense to market to a full third of the population who don’t happen to share her faith, even if “holidays” becomes a handy shortcut to do so.
This is a follow-up (and correction) to last year’s post about Mother’s Night. Additionally, it will be something of an addendum to my post on New Year’s Traditions a few days ago, which sort of conflated New Year’s Eve with New Year’s Day. Properly, they should be separate, as we shall see.
Just to lay out the evidence that had been previously presented, we have:
The Feast of the Parcae is attested to in the contemporary penitential sources around the time of Yule (I had originally said “beginning of Yule” but that seems to be not the case)
The Matronae (“Mothers” – triple goddesses worshiped in the Migration Era) are associated with fate, life, death, and abundance, thus connected with the individual Norns
Mothers’ Night is attested to in the works of the Venerable Bede around the beginning of Yule
The Feast of the Parcae becomes the Feast of the Mothers
Let’s turn to the sources.
Burchard of Worms tells us what not to do with the Parcae:
Hast thou done as some women are wont to do at certain times of the year? That is, hast thou prepared the table in thy house and set on the table thy food and drink, with three knives, that if those three sisters whom past generations and old-time foolishness called the Fates [“parcae”] should come they may take refreshment there… those whom thou callest “the sisters” can do or avail aught for thee either now or in the future? (Corrector, 153)
Gimme that old-time foolishness!
And what might those “certain times of the year” be? Our old friend St. Eligius comes to the rescue:
…nothing is ominous or ridiculous about the Calends of January. [Do not] make little women [i.e., corn dollies], little deer or iotticos or set tables at night [for house spirits or the Mothers] or exchange New Years’ gifts or supply superfluous drinks. (Life of Saint Eligius)
Bernadette Filotas puts it:
In another clause [of the Corrector of Burchard] the Parcae seem less ominous: “certain women” at “certain times of the year” (the New Year?) were accustomed to try to bribe “those three sisters whom ancient tradition and ancient stupidity named the Parcae.” They set a table in their house with food, drink, and three “little knives” for the sisters’ refreshment, in the hope that if they came, they would help their hostess either at present or in the future: “thus they attribute to the devil the power that belongs to merciful God.” Here the Parcae appear to be less figures of pitiless destiny than sprites, small ones at that who can handle only “little” implements, and who make their way into the house but seldom (but in medieval Latin, the diminutive was often used to indicate contempt, not necessarily to refer to size). The identification with the classical goddesses is made by Burchard, not the common people. (Pagan Survivals; Superstitions and Popular Cultures, p. 77)
Bede fills in more information with his description:
… began the year on the 8th calends of January, 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. (Faith Wallis, tr., 1999)
What the heck is “the 8th calends of January”, you might ask? In the original Latin, one counts from the start of the next month, in the latter half of the month. So the 8th calends of January is December 24. And in the Germanic mindset, the date starts at dusk. What we would call the evening of December 23.
But… let’s correct for the change in calendars. If we add the 8 days we’ve been using as a corrector between the Julian and Gregorian dates, we get… December 31. New Year’s eve.
So where I had Mother’s Night on the night of the solstice, it seems to be more properly put on December 31. Not related to the calendar date, or the Christian date of the Christmas celebration, but on the very day that we now celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Thus do I think that the Feast of the Mothers, known to Bede as Mōdraniht, is more properly placed on New Year’s Eve, rather than the night of the winter solstice. It has the double-meaning, then, with the night in question being the “mother” of the New Year, as well as being that time when the Three Mothers (aka the Norns) are honored and given a feast in hopes that they will be well-disposed towards we mortals.
I covered the significance of the “little deer” in the New Year’s Customs post, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that the “little women”, or corn dollies, are very possibly images of the Three Mothers themselves, possibly even set at the table to stand in for, or encourage, the participation of the real thing, in much the same way that we use god-posts and statues to represent the real gods.
So there we are; New Year’s Eve is Mother’s Night. Set out a meal for the Three Mothers, with three knives, that they will visit your home and bestow fortune for the coming year. It fits together perfectly.
What’s next? The coming of the New Year, of course!
New Year’s Eve (also known as St. Sylvester’s day), and New Year’s Day (also known as the Calends of January), is a time when the pattern for the coming year is laid down. This is a time not only for divination to see what the coming year will bring, but also positive actions to make sure it is prosperous, healthy, and fertile. The early Christian church was well aware of Pagan customs associated with the day:
…nothing is ominous or ridiculous about the Calends of January. [Do not] make little women [i.e., corn dollies], little deer or iotticos or set tables at night [for house spirits or the Mothers] or exchange New Years’ gifts or supply superfluous drinks. (Life of Saint Eligius, France, c. 650 CE)
Nor celebrate Thursday in honor of Jupiter or the Calends of January according to pagan tradition. (Penitential of Bede, England, c. 730’s CE)
Hast thou done anything like what the pagans did, and still do, on the first of January in [the guise of] a stag or a calf? (Corrector of Burchard, Germany, 1023 CE)
What a wonderful set of descriptions; omens, idols, offerings, gifts, drinking, celebrations, and animal guising. Thanks for writing all that down, guys!
One Swedish custom holds that one should place one cup of water on the table for each type of grain that is grown on one’s farm. The next day, if air bubbles are on the rim of a particular cup, it indicates that crop will prosper in the coming year. Similarly, all across the Scandinavian and German-speaking world, the custom of molybdomancy, or divination by lead (Bleigießen in German), is common on New Year’s Eve. In Europe, kits are sold, complete with a melting spoon, ingots, and a book to help interpret the shapes.
The process itself is simple, and is often done in groups, at New Year’s Eve parties. Small ingots of tin or lead are melted in a long-handled spoon or small pot and poured into cold water. The shapes formed by the quick-setting metal is interpreted for its significance in the coming year. Bubbles represent money, a broken casting represents misfortune, the shape of a ship indicates travel, etc. Such interpretations are necessarily subjective, of course, and it may be helpful to write them down for later review, and cross-check them with other forms of divination. This is the time for it! (Be careful whenever handling molten metal, of course!)
New Year’s Day sets the pattern for the whole of the coming year. Thus, if one receives money on January 1st, the year will be prosperous and will see one’s wealth increase. If one pays out money on the day, however, the year will be lean and one’s wealth will wane. The same principle applies to annoyances or other troubles; if present, they will persist throughout the year. This is one reason that in many parts of Europe and America it is traditional to wish friends, families, and acquaintances well on New Year’s Day. You’re setting the path for the rest of the year.
The weather of New Year’s Day is also a significant indicator of the coming year. A red sky indicates that evil and war will be present in the coming year. Blustery winds indicate an average harvest, but sunshine will presage a pleasant year overall. In Brittany, they take this even further, saying that the prevailing winds on the first twelve days of the year will reflect the winds for the rest of the year, one day representing each month.
The tradition of “first stepping” is also widespread. Basically, the luck of the house is influenced by the first visitor to cross the threshold in the new year. In some regions, dark hair is considered lucky, in others the first visitor must be male, and so on. It does seem to vary widely by region, so no universal Germanic standard can be applied, but it does seem that an “opposite” type from the norm seems to be considered lucky, so in a place where blondes and redheads prevail, dark hair would be sought out for its lucky properties. Sometimes, cakes, sweets, or drink would be on hand to welcome the lucky visitor.
The other tradition associated with New Year’s Day is animal guising, as mentioned in the Corrector of Burchard of Worms. Animal guising has a long and complex history in Europe, and it’s way beyond the scope of this article to cover it all, but I can heartily recommend Nigel Pennick’s excellent book Crossing the Borderlines. It’s not readily available at Amazon, but that link will take you straight to the publisher, where it appears to be available very reasonably. There’s also E.C. Cawte’s scholarly Ritual Animal Disguise, sadly out of print but available on the after-market or in a good university library,
From Romania, the stag is resurrected from dancers
Now, the context and purpose of the guising mentioned by Burchard is obviously lost to us, but I think it can be seen in the other connections to Luck that we see across the spectrum when it comes to New Year’s. I think we’re seeing a reference to a sort of sympathetic magic, similar to that seen in some hunting magic practices. Look at the specific animals that are mentioned: stags and calves. In an agricultural culture that relied on husbandry and hunting, those are the things you want to have in abundance. And, in keeping with the theme of, “as goes New Year’s Day, so goes the year,” having stags present in the community on the first of the year will ensure they are plentiful during hunting later in the year, just as having calves on the day will work towards lots of young cows (and, presumably, other baby livestock, by association) throughout the year.
The straw deer mentioned above in the Life of Saint Eligius would serve the same function, I think. If there are deer around the farm on New Year’s Day, they’ll be around during the year. When hunting deer is an important part of survival, that would be significant.
I would imagine there are dances that are associated with the guising, perhaps some sort of stylized hunt, and stylized farm life scene, but that’s just a supposition on my part. More research into that aspect of the tradition is clearly indicated.
HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: Order your lead-casting supplies now! Prince August Toys has a pre-done kit, complete with booklet, but they’re in Ireland, and it might take some time to arrive. Fortunately, bullet-casting is a very popular thing, and you can get a ladle and led pellets easily enough on Amazon.
Last year I took a first stab at going through some of the lore regarding the feast of St. Thomas the Brewer, aka “Doubting Thomas.” This post is going to be something of a repost of that material, but with some added refinements based on my more recent researches. The original can be found here, but this article should be considered to supersede it, as I use it as more of a launching platform here.
In mainstream Christianity, Thomas is known as one of the apostles, famously the one who doubted that Jesus had been resurrected, and who had to put his fingers in the wounds to be convinced (hence “doubting Thomas”). His feast day is December 21st, the day of the Winter Solstice, in the Gregorian calendar. The key here, I think, is that we see a conflation of customs that go with the solstice, and some that belong more properly to the “shifted” Julian date, which would place them around December 29 or thereabouts. That date will be important in a minute.
But in Norway (and in a more limited sense Sweden), he is also known as “Thomas the Brewer”, by whose day all work in preparation for the Christmas season must be completed, lest some accident befall the person who was behind their time, including the baking, butchering, wood chopping, and of course the brewing. This is key to identifying northern traditions that have been superimposed onto Christian saints; when they exhibit behaviors or have associations that are unknown elsewhere.
Besides the northern-only tradition of brewing being associated with this day, on St. Thomas’ day, English tradition includes begging for alms or cakes, sweets, or fruit, whence comes the ditty, “Christmas is coming / the goose is getting fat / go and throw a penny in the old man’s hat / if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do / if you haven’t got a ha’penny then god bless you.” In Germany, this sort of charity was practiced by employers towards their employees. But the website Catholic Culture gives it thus:
In England, this was a day of charity, when the poor women went a “Thomasing” or begging. Wheat was cooked and distributed for the poor.
That brings to mind what we discussed earlier regarding St. Lucia, whose feast day should fall on the solstice. She was associated with wheat and grain… I daresay that could be a transposition of a bit of St. Lucia onto the “right” day. It’s of course impossible to say for sure, but it would make sense given the shift in dates with the calendar change. Things are going to be messy.
This association of Saint Thomas with brewing (and charity) is not found in other Christian contexts, nor is his feast day near the Winter Solstice in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and it was moved from December 21 (where it was placed in the 9th century, just as Christianity was coming up into northern Europe, which I think is very significant, and also when the Julian calendar was in use) to July 3 (in 1969, so it wouldn’t “interfere” with the other Advent activities) in the Catholic tradition. It’s still celebrated on the 21st by Anglicans and Episcopalians, and some others.
So what we have at this point:
A tradition associated with brewing
A tradition that was originally held 8 days after the solstice (using the Julian calendar), or (more significantly, I think) two weeks before the Yule celebration in the middle of January
The brewing of beer for Yule is enormously important. In fact, the Older Gulathing Law made the brewing of beer or ale mandatory for Christmas/Yule:
We have also promised that every husbandman and his wife shall join in an ale feast, all sharing equality, and bless it on Holy Night with thanks to Christ and Saint Mary for peace and a fruitful harvest. And if this is not done, they shall pay a fine of three marks to the bishop. And if a man allows three winters to pass without giving an ale feast, and he is accused and convicted of this, or the penalties that we have added to our church law, he shall have forfeited his goods to the last penny; and the king shall have one-half of it, and the bishop one-half. But he has the choice of going to confession and doing penance; remain in Norway; but if he refuses to do this, he shall depart from the king’s dominion.
The working assumption being that, just as the date of Yule had been moved up three weeks to correspond with the Christian Yule, so too were traditions and requirements similarly moved up. That would mean that the brewing of ale, and the holding of an ale-feast, would have been regarded as mandatory for the Yule season as well.
And when would you start brewing that ale for the feast? A week or so after the solstice. Two weeks before the celebration of Yule. December 21st, O.S. If you didn’t start brewing by then, you wouldn’t have any ale for the expected (and perhaps mandatory) ale feast. It could take longer to make a good brew, but this was the last chance. And that last chance was recognized in the popular imagination, and because of the date, eight days after the solstice, it became superimposed onto St. Thomas, because that was his newly-minted feast day. I don’t see this as a “major” holiday by any stretch. Merely a marking of the fact that the brewing better be done by now. But it’s something to mark in the calendar, and especially those who do their own brewing should take note of this important deadline!
St. Lucy’s Day, better known in Scandinavian circles as St. Lucia’s Day, is a Christian feast day celebrated today on December 13. Before the conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, however, it was associated with the winter solstice (as they knew it, the longest night of the year).
St. Lucy was originally Sicilian, and martyred in 304 CE. She quickly became a very popular saint, and her feast day was honored at least by the 6th century in Anglo-Saxon England. In southern Europe, she is associated with grain, and there is a later (16th century) tradition of her eyes being gouged out; neither of these attributes is particularly associated with her northern European incarnation.
It is quite telling that in very Lutheran (Protestant) Sweden, the celebration of St. Lucia’s Day has survived and thrived. The image of young blonde girls with crowns of greenery and candles is iconic, and has been exported to the surrounding nations (Finland, Norway, and Denmark) within the last century or so. Here, the tradition holds that the saint was helping Christians hiding in the catacombs, and put candles on her head to be able to hold more food in her hands. This doesn’t seem to be a tale originally associated with her in southern Europe; it could be a “retro-fit” to explain her explicit connection with light in northern Europe, and in any event the crown of candles isn’t attested until 1820, so it’s likely a modern invention based on an earlier association with light in general (appropriate for the solstice-based celebration).
However, it is important to note that St. Lucy’s story is probably not historical; even the Catholic Encyclopedia agrees that:
This beautiful story cannot unfortunately be accepted without criticism. The details may be only a repetition of similar accounts of a virgin martyr’s life and death. Moreover, the prophecy was not realized, if it required that Maximian should die immediately after the termination of his reign. Paschasius, also, is a strange name for a pagan to bear. … and it is to be hoped that these [miracles she is said to have done] have not been introduced by the pious compiler of the saint’s story or a popular instinct to link together two national saints. The story, such as we have given it, is to be traced back to the Acta, and these probably belong to the fifth century. Though they cannot be regarded as accurate, there can be no doubt of the great veneration that was shown to St. Lucy by the early church. (Emphasis added)
Since they seem to have just imposed a generic female saint “template” on the figure of Lucy, it seems likely that the celebrations around her were already there, and they were simply trying to impose a Christian veneer on these practices.
And the celebration of St. Lucia in Sweden is marked with songs, and a young girl being selected to play the role of Lucy, wearing a crown of lingonberry greens and seven white candles (in modern times, these are usually electric, rather than real flames). She is at the center of a procession of children singing songs and holding food (special cakes) and drink. (Some traditions hold that if you hear the sound of the Wild Hunt behind you, you should toss one of the cakes, called lussekatter, over your shoulder to appease them.)
Native Swedish lyrics with a Neopolitan melody, and still beautiful
So far we have:
A feast day on (or as close as they could approximate it) the winter solstice, the longest night of the year
Association with light that is largely absent from the southern European version (aside from the name, Lucy, which comes from the Latin lux, “light”)
Still doesn’t seem definitive, although it’s certainly suggestive. And who would be the most logical choice to celebrate on the shortest day of the year? The goddess Sunna, as a way of urging her to elude the wolf (or be reborn after the wolf consumes her) through sympathetic magic.
However, there’s another piece of the puzzle; the witch-like figure Lussi (or, more rarely, the male Lussigubben). Lussi is a Scandinavian figure, closely parallel to the southern German Holle or Perchta, Lussinatta is the traditional start of the Wild Hunt, or as it’s called in context with her, lussiferda (it has different names in different locations, and the details vary; we’ll discuss the Wild Hunt in particular in its own post). All the work of the household to prepare for the coming winter is to be complete by Lussinatta, lest the lazy households who haven’t gotten their chores done be punished (again, parallels with Holle and Perchta).
There is also a tradition known as lussivaka, which is an all-night vigil on the night of the solstice, along with a feast, to keep an eye out for the lussiferda flying by. In modern times, this takes the form of an all-night party, which traditionally breaks up at dawn. There are also reports from the 18th century of offerings of food being left outside on the Lussinatta, probably to appease the troupe of trolls led by Lussi; this is doubtless related to the above-referenced custom of tossing the lussekatter saffron buns over your shoulder to elude the hunt. A recipe for the buns can be found here.
So here, I think, we can really start to fill in some details. We have a confluence of several traditions (or, perhaps like we see with Nicholas/Krampus, a mixed tradition to start with). First, we have a celebration of the sun goddess, Sunna, on the longest night of the year, in order to help her through her weakest time. A vigil is held overnight, in order to make sure she returns through this darkest time.
Second, we have the appearance of Lussi, who exhorts the people to have their chores done in preparation for the long winter, just as we see in southern Germany with Perchta and Holla. In some ways, there are a lot of parallels between such figures and the goddess Frigg, whose domain over the domestic household has long been established.
Third, we have the appearance of the Wild Hunt, in the form of the lussiferda, which sticks around until the celebration of Yule (which would happen in mid-January). During this time, it is hazardous to be out and about at night, lest the hunt seize the unwary traveler, and on its first night of appearance, offerings are left outside (to distract the hunt from finding the sun goddess???).
And of course, in keeping with the methodology of orienting everything around the solar-defined solstice, rather than the calendar-defined Christmas, we would place this observance on or around December 21st, conveniently mapping very well with the conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: If you’re planning an all-night lussivaka party, now’s the time to send out the invitations.