Beginning the New Year with Mothers Night

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Heathen basics, Heathen worldview, Heathen worship, Heathenry, Reconstruction

Modraniht is one of the holiest tides of the year for Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. All the information we have on its ancient observance is from the Venerable Bede in Chapter 15 of his The Reckoning of Time.

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.

Not a lot to go off, is it? But we were able to draw quite a bit from his passages about Eostre and Hreðe, so it's nothing new for us. First, let's start with the name. Modraniht (Latinised as Modranecht) means Mothers' Night. Who were the Mothers that they honoured this night? According to Bosworth-Toller, modor means the female parent (used for humans and animals), can be used of a spiritual relationship, and includes those who act like a mother. He also glosses the word with the Latin matres, which were female goddesses on the continent (usually depicted in threes) that watched over either a specific geographic area, or of a clan/tribe. A related word found in Bosworth-Toller is eald-mōdor, literally means old mother but is used for grandmothers.

In modern Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, the Modru are usually the female ancestresses of one's line, but some also tie them to the continental ideses, which are Valkyrie-like guardians of a family. If we go with the definition of the matres, they could be seen as a trio of goddesses (possibly made up of ancient ancestresses) that watch over the family.

In my own practice, the Modru are my female ancestresses, the women of my family that have departed this world but continue to watch over my family. I see them as pretty much being deities who have domain over their descendants. They can bless us with the wisdom they have gained not only from their own lives, but also from the lives of others they have listened to the stories of in the underworld paradise. But we have to be willing to listen for this wisdom.

Modern Heathenry traditionally celebrates Mothers Night on the Eve of Yule (the night before).  This is because of Bede telling us it was on December 25. We will get to the reason why a little bit later in this blog post. For now, let's discuss the effect that having the two so close together has. A few of us Fyrnsideras (Anglo-Saxon Heathens) were discussing this on the Fyrnsidu Discord server back in July, and someone commented on how they feel like the solemnity of Mothers Night gets superceded by the festivity of Yule. So we started thinking about alternatives. Since Bede tells us Mothers Night was their new year, we ended up deciding that we were going to experiment this year by observing it on the first day of the Anglo-Saxon year, that is the first day of Æfterra Ġeola.

Since Bede tells us Modraniht was on December 25, most people assume this means the Solstice. The early church, after all, dated the winter solstice as being December 25. Bede, however, recognizes that this dating for the Solstice is wrong in chapter 30 of The Reckoning of Time. He admits the timing of the Solstice should be a few days before this. So I don't think he was referring to the winter solstice here. He actually does refer to the Solstice later on when he's talking about the day of Yule being "the day the sun turns back and begins to increase." He doesn't mention December 25 (or any date) in that context.

Due to the drift of the Julian calendar, the winter solstice was actually on December 18 in Bede's time (see the table here for proof; it sometimes falls on the 17th, but it's at night when it does. By Anglo-Saxon reckoning, the night before the 18th is on the 18th). So an alternative date would be a week after the solstice because Dec 25 is a week after December 18. Since most modern Heathens celebrate Yule for twelve days, this would mean putting it on the eighth day of Yule (this year, that would be December 28).

Another alternative, and my favourite theory, is that Mothers Night was originally celebrated on the first day of the year. That would be the First of Æfterra Ġeola. By my reckoning, that would be January 4th this upcoming year (2022). My theory is that when Bede gave December 25 as the day for Mothers Night, he was giving the closest day of significance on his own calendar, because the day would jump around every year on the Julian calendar if this theory is correct. By my calculation, the first of Æfterra Ġeola actually would have fallen in Bede's time on December 25 once every 19 years (the closest to the writing of The Reckoning of Time in 725 C.E. would be 721 CE). My calculation is done by adding 36 hours to the new moon after the solstice (December 18 in Bede's time). See my Anglo-Saxon Calendar page as to why. You can see the raw data for lunar phases in Bede's time here.

If you do the calculations, the First of Æfterra Ġeola fell within a week of December 25 almost half the time in the century that The Reckoning of Time was written (9 times out of every 19 years, or 47% of the time). To figure this out, figure out the first full moon after the solstice (December 18 in Bede's time) for each year, and add 36 hours to it (this estimates when the first sliver of the moon would have been visible, which is what the ancient world called the new moon). If it's on or before December 31, it's within a week of December 25.

Since we can't say for certainty which day Modraniht would have been celebrated on from Bede's account, modernizing the date for your practice is also valid. The evening of December 31 would make sense, because Bede tells us it was their new year. Going with the date Bede gives us (Christmas Eve) would be also be valid. I've also seen an American Fyrnsidere suggest that it could be moved to the night before Americans celebrate Mother's Day (which is in early May).

Which date for Mothers Night should you observe? That's an individual choice. Go with whatever date makes the most sense to you and/or works best for you. I'm not going to judge you for your decision, and anyone who does doesn't deserve a say in your practice, in my opinion.

So how does one celebrate Mothers Night? Bede mentions ceremonies, which is just another word for rituals. Most Heathens who celebrate Mothers Night do a ritual that includes or even culminates in an offering to their Modru. If mothers are present for the ritual, recognizing them as future Modru is also appropriate. A celebratory feast before or after also wouldn't be out of line, if you're celebrating with others.

Regardless of when you celebrate it (other than maybe doing it on the American Mothers Day), it should be considered the spiritual beginning of the year. So reflections on the previous year, what you did right and what you did wrong, and how to do better in the following year, is also appropriate. New Year's resolutions may be a fun way to supplement your holiday celebrations. I'd be careful of making them oaths though, because broken oaths can have severe negative consequences in Heathenry.

If you decide to join those of us who are experimenting with celebrating Mothers Night on the beginning of the lunar month following Yule, do me a favour. Come back here after you do and leave a comment about your experience of it. We're trying to decide if and how separating Yule and Mothers Night works for us, and the more people recording their experience of it helps us because more data is always useful.