This is the first blog post in a series on the topic of Heathen Holidays.
The season of Yule is upon us, and though many pagans share the word yule these days, celebrations by the same name may differ widely from one tradition to the next. Here we’ll be talking about how Heathens celebrate Yule, particularly traditions practiced by the Chase Hill community in Vermont.
In Heathenry, Yule is always a multi-day celebration. (Ever hear of the twelve days of Christmas? That wasn’t a Christian innovation!) Historically, it may have been celebrated for a span of days, weeks, or even months! Many modern Heathens celebrate Yule starting at sundown the night before the winter solstice and ending at sundown on January 1st. This holiday marks the ending of one year and the beginning of the next – with the span of 12 or 13 days belonging to neither, but instead a potent in-between time for resting and setting intentions for the coming year.
The first night of Yule is often called Mothers’ Night after the Old English tradition as recorded by the Venerable Bede. This is a time when we honor all the goddesses and female ancestors – the Good Ladies – when they at last take a break from their yearly work and wander the earth, traveling from home to home during the night. As the start of the almost two-week Yule celebration, it is also the time when we bless and ward our homes to protect them from the many dangerous beings that live in the long dark nights between years.
Celebrating Mothers’ Night
Leading up to Mothers’ Night there is a flurry of house cleaning. When the host of the Good Ladies comes, we want our homes to be orderly, and it is customary to finish all fiber arts projects before they arrive. Because spinning, weaving, and other crafts are so sacred to the Good Ladies, we set them aside for the span of Yule and don’t pick up new projects until the New Year. Working on fiber arts while the Good Ladies themselves take a break from that work would be hubris indeed! All this should be done before the sun sets, signaling the start of the Yule holiday.
Once the house is clean, all your knitting projects are done for the year, and night has fallen, it is time to bless the house. We “kindle fires in every corner of the house” by turning on every light – even that rarely used closet or basement light. Light every candle and oil lamp that is out and in use (you don’t have to pull out that backup box of 20 tapers and light them all!), and turn on all your flashlights. Any woodstoves or fire places should be lit – even if only by an electric tealight. The house should be fairly glowing in contrast to the dark winter night. Then gather up some bells (yes, bells!) and step outside to recite this prayer to all the unseen beings that move through the night between years:
Come those who wish to come,
stay those who wish to stay,
and fare those who wish to fare,
harmless to me and mine.
(adapted from Our Troth, vol. II, Second Edition, compiled by Kveldulf Gundarsson)
Ring your bells and walk a circle around your house, welcoming in good luck and all kindly spirits, while driving away bad luck and any beings that mean you harm. When you are finished, your house is blessed, and you can turn off all the extra lights and blow out the candles (make sure you don’t forget any!)
For a holiday dinner, I often make dishes that fit the theme of the Good Ladies – potage bonne femme (a French leek and potato soup whose name means “soup of the good woman”) and hexenschnee (a Dutch dessert of applesauce, gelatin, and whipped egg whites called “witches’ snow”) are two of my favorites.
And beyond feeding ourselves, it is also time to feed the spirits. On Yule eve, the house spirits of the Heathen world are given their yearly pay in the form of cream porridge — with a big dollop of butter on top. The hob, tomte, nisse, or whatever regional name you use for the being that protects your home will find your offering if you place it on the hearth or the doorstep. If your house spirit isn’t particularly hungry and the bowl is still full in the morning, the contents can go to your garden via the compost.
Lastly, before bed, we lay out the Feast of the Good Ladies, because tonight they will come to the house, checking to see that all is in order and all spinning for the year is finished, and we must welcome such august guests with a meal. This food stays on the table until morning when we eat it ourselves for breakfast, taking in the blessing of all those kindly spirits as the first act on the first morning of Yule. It is important to leave the food uncovered so the Good Ladies can take part in the feast and lay their blessing on it. But be aware that some breakfast foods don’t survive well exposed to warm, drying air for hours. This is a great time for foods with rinds, peels, or crusts – fruit (a bowl of apples or clementines), cheeses (which are often stored unrefrigerated in countries outside the US), and uncut loaves of bread, pies, or pastries. There are some European recipes such as the Italian La Befana Cake that do well sitting out, as they are made for traditions just like these in their areas of origin (la Befana is an Italian witch who similarly enters homes looking for a meal, though she rides at Epiphany on January 6 — a date in common with some other Heathen versions of this practice, especially in the Urglaawe tradition).
However you celebrate it, here’s wishing you all the blessings of Yule, and all the protection of family, home, laughter, and light in this dark time of year.