This holiday was celebrated on the evening before Yule started (mostly the evening of December 20).
During Mothernight (Old Norse: Modraniht) nightly sacrifices were made to the “mothers”, the word “mother” referred to female ancestors in this context
Midwinter/Yule (*Jegwla = The Yelling):
Midwinter, also known as Yule (Anglo-Saxon), Jól (Old Norse), Jul (Scandinavian and German), Joel (Dutch), or Twelve Nights, was held at the Winter Solstice.
The word Yule means “to yell” or “to cheer” (German “johlen” and Dutch “joelen”), which may refer to the merry drinking feasts that were held during this period though a more plausible explanation is that it refers to the noise that the people made to scare off evil spirits during this time, just like the Chinese light firecrackers to scare off the evil spirits.
Jól was the most important holiday of the year and a combination of a fertility festival and a commemoration for the dead; this combination sounds weird but since Jól was the Germanic new year it represented both the “death” of old and the “birth” of new, it started on the day of the Winter solstice, which was mostly December the 21st, this day was also called “Midwinter” and was opened with merry celebrations, in Frisian and Saxon areas Christmas is still called “Midwinter”, Jól lasted for 12 days (mostly until January the 2nd) and after the last day of Jól the Germanic new year began.
The custom of placing a Christmas tree in the house is indirectly of heathen origin; in ancient times the people of northern Europe left offerings to the gods under a tree during Christmas, this was done outside because cutting down a tree just for fun was considered to be disrespectful towards nature, like so many other heathen customs this practice was forbidden by the church in most places, but in Germany the people refused to abandon this custom so the church decided to Christianize it; the Christmas tree was now cut down and brought into the house after which it was decorated with angels and stars to include a link to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, though the balls and lights in the tree are also of heathen origin, this custom was originally only performed in Germany but during the 1800’s it was adopted by many other European countries.
In Scandinavia the people held a procession during Jól in which they sacrificed the Jól boar to the god Ing (Frey) at the great heathen temple of Uppsala, a Christianized version of this custom still survives in Scandinavia today as St Lucia’s Day, the Anglo-Saxons had a similar custom and nowadays the Swedes still eat cookies in the form of a boar during Christmas, Dutch bakers also make marzipan boars or pigs that they sell to their customers during the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration that takes place just before the Christmas period, the people also make boars and billy-goats of straw or ares of corn; most of this local customs probably originate from a single collective heathen festival in which a boar was sacrificed to Frey.
During Christmas some Norwegians leave gifts of food and drink outside for the 13 Jólasveinar, this 13 spirits are believed to bring the harvest, each day one of them arrives on Earth and brings gifts; the first one arrives 13 days before Christmas and every day another one joins him until all 13 are present, after that they will disappear in reverse order, ending on the Twelfth Night of Jól.
In Norwegian folklore there is also the belief that the god Odin secretly listens to people who are holding conversations near a campfire during Jól, he does this to find out if they are happy in their life, he also leaves bread for the poor people.
During Jól it was a custom to give eachother presents, the more presents one gave, the more fertile the year that would follow, in many modern European countries the people still give eachother presents during the Jól period, especially Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations are good examples of that.
The Swedes have the custom of brewing ale at Christmas, it is believed that ale brewed during Jól posesses magical powers and the Swedes often save this drink for special occasions during the rest of the year, the Swedes also drink “Julmust”, which is a special type of Christmas beer, and also Sanniklaus, which is the strongest beer in the world with an alcohol percentage of 13.5%, this drink is also only brewed during the Christmas period; the custom of brewing beer at Christmas also exists in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and many other countries so this was probably an old heathen tradition.
In ancient times the people also performed “Minne-drinks”, a Minne drink was a drink to the wellbeing of a person, a god, ancestors, or something/someone else, during Jól it was a custom to drink Minne to the dead.
Another very old Swedish custom of heathen origin is the “St. Stefan’s ride”, which is held at December 26, it has been named after a Christian saint called “Stefan” to Christianize it but its roots are purely heathen; young men wearing straw costumes or white shirts put on masks or paint their faces black to represent evil spirits, they then mount their horses and ride to a certain river; the wild group of horsemen represent the riders of the Wild Hunt and the custom of painting your face black can also be seen in the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations where Sinterklaas’ funny black helpers originally represented the spirits of the Wild Hunt, the river may have something to do with the belief that water was an entrance to Helheim.
In Swedish folklore the horseriders are lead by a character called Trond, who is blind and wears a beard, this reminds a lot of the god Wodan, who was believed to lead the Wild Hunt.
A custom similar to that in Sweden was also performed in Germany, but these days it has unfortunately died out in most places there.
The same goes for the Netherlands, but in the Saxon areas in the north and east of the country this tradition has survived until about a century ago; during 2nd. Christmas day (the Dutch celebrate Christmas for two days) the sint-Steffensrit (saint-Stefan’s ride) was held in which young men rode through the neighbourhood on horseback and stopped at every inn (herberg) where the innkeeper gave them an alcoholic drink that they had to drink without dismounting their horses.
This tradition (which is mentioned in J.Schuyf’s “Heidens Nederland”) is believed to be a remnant of an old Germanic ritual where riders on horseback rode through the fields to symbolically fertilize them.
In the German Harz and its surrounding areas there is a legend about a character called “Hackelberg” who leads the Wild Hunt, this name is probably a corruption of “Hackelbernd”, who was a legendary oberjagdmeister (“upper-hunting-master”) from the 16th century who traded eternal well-being for the eternal right to hunt, although this legend is based on a 16th century hunter its origins are probably much older.
The Swedes also ring bells at the end of the 12 nights of Yule, a custom that is shared by many other Germanic countries; in the Dutch cities of Katlijk and Oudehorne for instance there is the custom of “St. Thomasluiden” in which bells are sounded continuously during the 12 nights of Yule to scare off evil spirits, originally this was also done at night but later this was limited to daytime only, an interesting thing to mention is that the people of Katlijk used to sound the bells on the graveyard and combine it with a party, but this is no longer allowed because it was considered inappropriate, from a heathen viewpoint it makes sense though; after all honouring the dead is an important part of Yule.
Sounding bells during Yule is very old and is believed to date back to Pre-Germanic northern Europe (at least 4000 years ago), though in most modern countries this custom has either disappeared or has been Christianized by connecting it to a Christian saint like for instance St. Thomas in the Netherlands.
Saxo Grammaticus also mentions that bells were used in heathen temples and it is believed that the use of bells in churches is actually a Christianized heathen custom.
There are still many legends that mention how newly made churchbells had to be blessed by priests to Christianize them and how the devil, white women, or heathen gods stole the unsanctified bells and threw them into a lake where they can be heard during the 12 nights of Yule, these stories are very common and there is actually such a lake in my vicinity too.
Another Dutch custom is “Midwinterhoornblazen” (Midwinter-horn-blowing), in which some people blow on big horns that are made of birch and other types of wood; this was originally done to scare off evil spirits but these days it is only a tradition.
The Wild Army/Wild Hunt:
During Jól the borders between the nine worlds were weaker and it was believed that the spirits of the dead from Helheim could enter Midgard during this time, the Wild Hunt (Wilder Jagd) also occured during Jól nights, especially when it stormed; during the Wild Hunt the god Wodan lead the dead over the lands on horses accompanied by dogs in a destructive rage in which people were sometimes kidnapped or killed and their posessions destroyed.
This destruction was not caused by the normal spirits who just came to visit, but by the evil spirits, Wodan’s task was leading the spirits of the dead back to where they belong to safe the humans from their wrath, in other sources he is portayed as their general who leads them in their destructive raid though that is probably a later attempt to demonize him.
During the Wild hunt Wodan was accompanied by the Earthgoddess Perchta, who was also known as Berchta, Hulda, Frau Holle, Frigga, and Erda.
The participants in the wild army of spirits were called Druden or Perchten, the Perchten were named after Perchta because she played an important role in the hunt; she blessed the earth to lead the spirits back to their own world, in which she was both supported and opposed by the Perchten; the good spirits supported her and the evil spirits opposed her, this belief was reflected in the “Perchtenlaufen” (Perchten-walking), which was a local custom in the former German province of Silesia (Schlesien) in the beginning of the 20th century; the people dressed themselves up in colourful costumes to represent the Perchten and held processions through the city.
The custom of dressing up as Perchten and holding processions during the Christmas period still exists in Austria, click here to see a movie of the Perchten procession that was held in the Salzburger Pongau.
Another possible remnant of the Perchten belief are the lantern processions that are held in many countries, originally this may have been a custom in which the people lit torches and held a procession through the city to represent the Perchten or maybe to scare them away.
In some local folktales in northwestern Europe the spirits of the Wild Hunt were called “Billygoat-riders” (“Bokkenrijders” in Dutch and “Bockreiter” in German), they were believed to ride through the air on billy-goats during Jól, this belief was so deeply-rooted in some areas that a group of bandits abused this belief by dressing up as ghosts and riding on billy-goats, most people were too afraid of them to do anything and from 1730 to 1780 they terrorized the southern part of the Netherlands and northern Belgium, when the leaders of this gang were captured the people finally discovered that they were not dealing with the real Perchten.
The Wild Hunt belief is of a very old origin and existed throughout northern Europe from Great Britain to Germany and from Scandinavia to northern France and the Alps; two older and more correct names of the Wild Hunt are “Wildes Heer” (Wild Army) and “Wütendes Heer” (Furious Army); the “hunting” aspect was added later and is derived from another Germanic legend about a Wild Hunter who roams the forests on his horse and chases women.
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