The Traditions of Yule Tide

There are several traditions that we Asatruar practice around Yuletide.  That’s Christmas for you non-pagans out there.   The idea of Yule originated with our ancestors during a time when they worshiped the true gods of our people.  Before Christianity had spread its foreign influence over our homelands.

Mother Night is the first of the 12 nights of Yule.  It starts on December 20th, and the twelfth night is on the 31st, Yule proper.  When our ancestors used a lunar calendar, it left about 12 days left over each year.  So the twelve nights of Yule were considered to be not part of the old year, nor yet part of the new year either.   Because these days were considered to be outside of the year, they were considered especially holy.  A time when the veil between the worlds was thin.  A time when the gods were more likely to walk the earth in physical form, and people were more likely to catch sight of the elves or dwarves that are around us.  On Mother night, the first of the twelve nights, we get together and make a feast to honor the Disir, or protective feminine ancestors that watch over us.  We set a place for them at our table, and afterwards bury that food in sacrifice.  We pour a vessel of milk and/or honey at our harrow, and offer that to the house wights or landvaettir.   The Disir are not entirely different from housewights, so it’s best to offer something to both at this time of year.  Since the veil between worlds is thinner, this is a good time to have the landvaettir look favorably on you!

At the culmination of this time, on twelfth night itself, which others know as Yule, we celebrate the beginning of a new year.  We offer thanks to all the gods, and the children often wake to find that just as in ancient times, Red Thor has ridden past in his sled, pulled by his magical goats, and has dropped down presents for the children that are loyal to him.  Sometimes the children can hear the bells on his sled ringing as he flies overhead.  He delivers his presents down the chimney when he comes.  He knows which children have honored him through the year, and to the ones which have shown him know loyalty he delivers a lump of coal.  Some of you might recognize that some elements of this story have transmuted into the Santa Klaus myth.

Another tradition which we practice at this time of year is honor the landvaettir by decorating a tree with colorful bits of ribbon, or colorful toys.  They like shiny and reflective things, and will help give you a good harvest and help protect your property if they find favor with you.   When Xianity was forced onto our folk, a lot of our ancestors were forced to bring trees indoors in order to hang the offerings on their branches, so that the church could not condemn them for demon worship or witchcraft.  The tradition itself survived, though most Xians do not seem to know they are giving gifts to the elves and forest spirits when they decorate their trees.

Another Tradition which still survives is the Yule Log.  The actual practice has almost died out in America, but is still holding on is parts of Europe.  In America it is still a poignant symbol that you can find on many cards or other holiday scenes.

There were many regional variations on the ritual, but the English version—the one we know best—was probably the simplest. On Christmas Eve, members of the household ventured into the woods to find and cut a great tree, preferably an oak. Size was important, because the Yule log had to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas. Once cut, the log was dragged home with much celebration. As many people as possible grabbed onto the ropes to help pull, because doing so was believed to bring good luck in the new year. Even passersby raised their hats in tribute.

The Yule log was dragged to the hearth of the great open fireplace—a common household feature in old England. The log was lit with a scrap of burned log carefully preserved from the previous year, a practice that ensured the continuity of good fortune not only from year to year, but also from generation to generation.

One popular aspect of the Yule log tradition was that no unnecessary work would take place in or around the household as long as the log burned. This season of merriment and reflection was a time for respite from daily labors. This is a tradition that I really wish we could practice in these modern times, but as a small business owner, I must work at least 7 days per week, and many others are in a situation where they cannot tell their employers that they need 12 days off during the holiday season! I suppose if we were all farmers or crofters, and were snowed in during the heart of winter, when the roads were all but impassable anyway, we might find ourselves practicing this tradition.

When the twelve days of Christmas had passed, the remaining scraps of wood were stored carefully until the next year, when they would be needed to light another Yule log. The wood scraps usually were stored under the bed of the mistress of the household, where they held the promise of success to the entire manor. Historical accounts differ in the bundle’s specific function. Some say it protected the home from fire, some say from lightening, and still others from all manner of ailments during the coming year.

Our Kindred has a Yule candle.  We light the Yule candle, with the stub of the candle from the previous year.  We also burn a yule log, but alas, none of us have the facilities to burn a giant oak trunk for 12 days, so our Yule log tends to be a log that we have picked to last through the night during our Yule Celebration.

You’ve heard the old song “Deck the halls with boughs of Holly?”   Our ancestors knew that the physical properties of Holly were a good ward against malicious spirits, so they would hang holly at the doors and windows during this time of year, when the spirits have more power than normal.  Hopefully, this would deter the spirits from entering that home!

Of course, the tradition of the mistletoe has deep roots in our culture.  As many people know, Loki used a bit of mistletoe to cause Hod to slay Balder.   What many people don’t know is that there are actually two versions of that story, and the older, more popular story is what has given life to the tradition of “kissing under the mistletoe.”

The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that lived that they would not harm her beloved Balder. However, she passed by the mistletoe, since it was so small and new to the world, that she thought it was harmless.

Leave it to Loki to find the loophole. He made an arrow (some say spear) from its wood. To make the prank even nastier, he took the arrow to Hodur, Balder’s brother, who was blind. Guiding Hodr’s hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder’s heart, and he fell dead.

The legend says that Frigga’s tears became the mistletoe’s white berries.  In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.  When we pass under it, the kiss we receive is a holy kiss from the Mother Goddess herself!

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