The Winter HolidaysPosted by Byron Pendason on December 10, 2023 CE, in Heathenry, Anglo-saxon calendar, Heathen basics, Heathen worship, Reconstruction
Wes hāl!1 Winter is here! My reconstructed calendar has winter beginning with the Wintermonað full moon. For 2023, that began on October 28 (keep in mind that for the Anglo-Saxons, there were only two seasons, winter and summer). For this blog post, I want to go through the winter holidays and give my thoughts on them.
Winter, as stated above, began with the full moon on October 28. The winter is the “dark half” of the year. Winterfylleð, the name given to the first day of winter, is a liminal time. As such, the veil between the worlds is thinnest at this time. Many Anglo-Saxons accordingly treat this as an equivalent to the modern neopagan holiday of Samhain. It’s a day to reach out to one’s ancestors and to honour them.
Winterfylleð is also a good time for reflection. As a liminal time on the threshold between summer and winter, it’s a good time to reflect on where you are in life and where you want to take your life from here. Thoughts about things that no longer serve you and should be thrown out are good reflections, as are thoughts about what you need to do to prepare for the next season of your life.
Mythologically, this is the time that the cosmic order hands dominion over the natural world to winter. Nature is “dying”, preparing for the lifeless months of winter. But hope is not completely lost, as it should be remembered that after the dark months comes the months of light.
Yule is midwinter. While some modern Heathens think that this is the exact middle of winter, this seems to be a modern understanding. Yule has historically been understood to be the solstice (Bede, for example, tells us that Yule is the day that “the sun stands still” and the days begin to increase). This makes sense if one understands midwinter as the turning point of winter when days begin to lengthen. It’s a day of hope, a day to look forward to the end of winter and the coming of summer.
For me, the weather is beginning to turn bad around Yule. We typically get our first snowfall in the days around Yule. In ancient times, there wouldn’t be much work to be done around this time so it was rather a time to spend with your loved ones. The Saga of Haakon the Good tells us that Yule was originally three days, but by the time of Alfred the Great it was twelve days long. There’s debate about whether this was Christian in origin or not, since there’s 12 days between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. But regardless of the length you choose to celebrate Yule, feasting with loved ones and showing them your appreciation for them with gift giving is certainly appropriate.
Mythologically, this day is often understood to be the climax of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is when Wōden leads a hunting party to scoop up lost souls and depositing them on the edges of Hell, where they can continue their journey towards their ancestral hall. The other participants of the Wild Hunt will vary by the area where the folklore is being collected, but it’s usually with Wōden at the head of the party.
In Norse folklore, Wōden is often seen as Father Yule, and weather storms are often interpreted as being the Wild Hunt passing by. Folklore in Northern Europe is full of stories of the living being caught up in the Wild Hunt, or being picked up and deposited far away. With the Wild Hunt in mind, it’s customary to offer propitiation to Woden on Yule, petitioning the Yule father to bypass the petitioner and their loved ones.
Modraniht is attested by the Venerable Bede in On the Reckoning of Time. Bede tells us of the Anglo-Saxons:
[They] began the year on the 8th calends 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.
By “that very night”, he’s referring to the evening before (because the medieval Christians, like the Anglo-Saxons as well as many other ancient cultures, began their day with the evening before at sunset) i.e. Christmas Eve. Traditional reckoning of Modraniht assumes that he was placing the solstice on the traditional Western Christian date of December 25, and so dates Modraniht to Yule’s Eve. But Bede acknowledges elsewhere in On the Reckoning of Time that the solstice was more properly placed upon the 22nd, in accordance with the understanding of the Egyptians. This would place Modraniht on the third night of Yule2. This is my opinion of when Modraniht should be celebrated. However, like most things involving Heathen praxis, I think the when is less important than actually observing it.
The focus of the night3 is the Mōdra/Mōdru. This is the plural of mōdor, the normal Old English word for mother. In the context of Modraniht though, it refers to a class of spirits. These Mothers are often thought to be protective spirits of the family, generally associated with the Norse disir. I believe it was a solemn petition to these spirits to plead for their protection over the family. Usually winter weather is just beginning at this time and the months ahead would be harsh. Food would begin to be a concern soon due to dwindling food supplies. It’s the perfect time for protective spirits to be offered to asking for their help to keep the family safe.
The End of Winter
Bede tells us that the Anglo-Saxons had six months of winter. Since it began with the full moon of Wintermonað, this would place the end of winter and the beginning of summer as the full moon of Ēosturmōnað. I generally observe a day to Hrethe the full moon of the previous month since mythologically I see Hrethe as defeating winter to make way for the return of Eostre and summer. As this day to Hrethe isn’t a formal holiday in ASH though, I have no name for this day (though perhaps I should come up with one.)
As Eosturdæg is properly a summer holiday, though, I won’t be going into detail about it here.
So that’s the journey through the winter holidays. It’s not an exhaustive list, of course, since there’s other days that other Fyrnsideras may observe. I wanted to focus on the “universal” holidays of Fyrnsidu. If there’s holidays in the winter months that you observe that I didn’t talk about though, please tell me about them in the comments. I always enjoy hearing from my readers!
Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell. ↩ ↩2
Long time readers may note that this contradicts a blog post from a couple years ago where I place Modraniht on the first day of the year. My praxis is always in flux and adapts as time goes on. ↩
Modraniht literally means Mothers Night in Old English. ↩