On Yuletide and the Span of Its days

The Three and the Twelve


Mummers dancing. Bodleian Library MS. Bodl 264, fol 21v.

As with the reckoning of Módraniht, there arises, from time to time, some great stirring amongst nowtidely Heathens as to the reckoning of Yuletide (OE: Géoltíd) and the tally of its days.   That Cristesmæssetíd, that is to say Christmastide, was set at twelve days at the Second Council of Tours in 567 CE is sure and true.  As deemed then by the bishops there gathered, “From the Nativity of the Lord [December 25th] to Epiphany [January 6th] there are festivities and feasts on every day but those three days in which, to tread down Heathen custom, our elders set aside at the calends of January for private prayer.[i] In keeping with this churchly deeming, the West Saxon king, Ælfred the Great, deemed it law in 893 CE  that “these days are given to all freemen but servants and hirelings: twelve days at Yule…[ii]

It is not said whether the “Heathen customs” (gentilium consuetudinem) which the Second Synod sought to stamp out were those of Roman Paganism, Celtic Druidry, or Germanic Heathendom. Indeed, such might well have been a holytide held by all three. At the time, Tours was in a Frankish kingdom yet, not so long before then, the land was Roman and, before then still, it was Celtic.  To step even further back in time, each of these three manygodded beliefs sprang from the same Indo-European root. Thus a thew found in one could often be found in the others, though its shape might shift from folk to folk.

Yet the synod’s deeming spoke of three days within the twelve which were so steeped in Heathen holiness that, for them, feasting was to fully give way to Christian prayer. Nearly four hundred years after the Second Council of Tours, and many miles to the north in Norway, there is found witness to a Heathen Yuletide feast which lasted for three nights. In the Saga Hákonar góða, it is said that, when king Hákon the Good became king of Norway in 934 CE, he deemed that the Norwegians should keep their Yuletide feast according to the custom of the Christians and that, before Hákon’s abanning, “Yule began on Hewing-night [slaying-night or Hogmanay], that is Midwinter night, and held for three nights was Yule (ON: Jól).[iii]   Thus it may be said then that the Norse Heathen, at least those of Hákon’s Norway, held a Yuletide of three nights and that the Franks, if not other Germanic tribes, may have have done the same.

Twelve Nights of Soothsaying

Reading the Runes

Þórbeorht Ealdorblótere casting the runes at Whitthenge Heall (2016)

Yet what of the Anglo-Saxons?   Across England sundry rites, tethered to the twelve nights of Yule, may be found. Moreover, many seem far more Heathen than Christian. One such witness is found in a work of Anglo-Saxon soothsaying, daymarked to 1120 CE wherein woe may be foretold by the blowing of wind on a given night of Yuletide.  As wended into our nowtidely tongue:

Here it says of the drighten’s (Christ’s) birth, about the twelve nights of his tide:
If the wind is on the first night, ordained men (clergy) will die.
[If] on the night after and the third night there is wind, then fruits will be undone (wither).
[If] on the forth night if there is wind, then loaves will be little.
If on the fifth night there is wind, then there is greed (danger) on the sea and ships will be undone (wreck).
If on the sixth night there is wind, then there will be sundry sicknesses on the earth that year.
If on the seventh night there is wind, fire will be swith (quickly, strongly) rife that year.
If on the eight night there is wind, then aldermen will die.
If on the ninth night there is wind, sheep will die.
If on the tenth night there is wind, trees will be late to leaf.
If on the eleventh night there is wind, all kind of livestock will be undone (die).
If on the twelfth night there is wind, then there will be mickle fighting on the earth.[iv]

That one should take heed of the winds at Yuletide may well recall the winds of the Wild Hunt, a godly and ghostly winter begoing, which was seen since time untold in the heavens above lands both Celtic and Germanic.  Though many gods, goddesses, yore-old kings, and heroes were said to take part in the procession, amongst the English it was believed to have been led at times by Wóden, the dwarven King Herla, Hereweard the Wake, Eadríc the Wild, and Herne the Hunter. Indeed, the forecasting of noble deaths and great warfare is well in keeping with what we know of Wóden as the god of the slain.

Abanning the Yoole-Grithol

Likewise, in York there is another witness to an English Yuletide of twelve days which seems steeped in Heathen thew: the abanning of the Yoole-grithol (Yule Grith) at York.  Calling upon the witness of an earlier work, Ex antique regift Ebor, itself penned sometime before the puritanical Archbishop Edmund Grindal abolished the York Yule Riding in 1572, Fr. Francis Drake recorded the rite in his Eboracum: Or the History of Antiquities of the City of York (1737).  As it is found there:

The sheriffs of the city of York have anciently used on St. Thomas’s day [December 21] … to make proclamation at the pillory of Yoole-grithol, in the form that follows by their sergeant:
“We command that the peace of our lord the king be well kept and maintained by night and by day. Also that all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players, and all other unthrifty folk be welcome to the town, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the high feast of Yoole, till the twelve days be passed.”[v]

It is noteworthy that the men of York marked the beginning of their Yuletide by St. Thomas’ day (December 21st), that being the winter sunstead, rather than by Christmas (December 25th). Such a reckoning of Yuletide harkens back to Anglo-Saxon Heathendom. As betold by Béda in his work, De Temporum Ratione (725 CE):

On the winter solstice, the 8th day before the calends of January (December 25th), [the Lord] was born.[vi] (Chapter 30)  

They began the year on the 8th day before the calends of January (December 25th), the day upon which we now celebrate the nativity of our Lord.  That which is now the most sacred night, was then called Módraniht by the Heathens, that is, “the night of the Mothers.”[vii] (Chapter 15)

During much of the Middle Ages, the winter sunstead was believed by Churchmen to fall upon December 25th. Indeed, it did for some time. Yet the Roman year-reckoning that they used was slightly off and, over the years, that daymark (date) drifted from the true sunstead. By the 11th hundredtide, the winter sunstead had come to fall on December 21st, though the Church continued to keep the 25th as the beginning of its own Yuletide, Christmas.  Thus, whilst the abanning of the Yoole-grithol at York was thoroughly christened by the 16th hundredtide, there can be little inkling otherwise that it was indeed “anciently used.”

Wassailing the Apple Orchard

12th Night 2016

Þórbeorht Ealdorblótere wassailing the apple trees at Whitthenge Heall (2016)

Beyond this there is the English thew of wassailing the apple orchards on the twelfth night of Yule, which itself would seem to recall the Heathen thew of tree-worship (OE: tréow-weorþung) which had been forbidden by the Anglo-Saxon church. To this day, Englishmen will gather in apple orchards on the 12th night of Christmastide to sing to the trees and bid them wassail with toasts of cider and offerings of bread set into the branches.  A shortening of the Old English wes þú hál, “be thou hale,” wassail is a blessing that is bestowed upon the boughs in the hope that they might bear a fulsome apple harvest in the year to come. As written of a wassailing rite held in Devonshire:

Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel-bushel-sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza![viii]

It would be hard to fathom a rite more rooted in Heathen thew than that of wassailing of orchards. Though we may not say for sooth whether the goddess known to the Norse as Iðunn, goddess of the golden apples whose name means “renewer,” was worshipped as well by the Anglo-Saxons, the Théodsmen of the Ealdríce have found it fitting to fain her as *Edunne upon the twelfth night of Yule. Indeed, at Whitthenge Heall we even planted a small orchard some years ago so that we might wassail the apple trees and worship her, as the goddess of our orchards, more fully.

Of the span of the Anglo-Saxon Heathen Yuletide, we have but one lore-spring, Béda’s De Temporum Ratione (725 CE) wherein he says that the Anglo-Saxon Heathens who came before him had two months called Yule (OE: Géola) which, more or less, matched the Roman months of December and January.  Beyond this we but know that the Anglo-Saxon Heathens began their year on winter sunstead which they named Módraniht.  Whether their high housel (feast) of Yule lasted three nights, as it did amongst the Norse or whether it lasted for twelve nights, as English folklore would seem to show, is not fully known.  Yet, as Anglo-Saxon Théodsmen it is not only the writings of thentidely churchmen that we turn to in our eft-shaping (reconstruction) of the old Heathen belief. Nay, we freely and fully draw upon the living lore of our folk (folklore) and of our old homeland, thinking no less of such customs for having been kept alive by churls. Indeed, we are truly thankful for such folklore and think of it as a gift from our fore-elders.

Anglish Wordhoard
Abanning – A proclamation or formal announcement
Churchly – Ecclesiastical
Churl – A commoner, a freeman
Daymark – Calendar date
Eft-shaping – Reconstruction
For sooth – For certain
Grith – Sanctuary and safety given for a set time
Heathen holiness – Pagan religion
Holytide – Holiday season
Hundredtide – Century
Inkling – Doubt, suspicion, skepticism
Lore-spring – A primary source of information
Manygodded – Polytheistic
Nowtidely – Contemporary
Sunstead – Solstice
Thentidely – Contemporary in the past
Thew – Custom, tradition
Winter sunstead – Winter solstice

[i] Acta Conciliorum et Epistolae DecretalesEt quia inter natale Domini et epiphania omni die festivitates sunt itemque prandebunt. Excipitur triduum illud, quo ad calcandam gentilium consuetudinem, patres nostri statuerunt privatas in kalendis Ianuarii fieri litanias.  Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[ii] Dómbóc of Ælfred 43 (c. 893 CE)Eallum frioum monnum ðas dagas sien forgifene, butan þeowum monnum ⁊ esnewyrtan: XII dagas on gehhol…  Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[iii] Saga Hákonar góða CH 25jólahald hafit hökunótt, þat var miðsvetrar nótt, ok haldin þriggja nátta jól. Wended from Norse by Þórbeorht.
[iv] Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 115, fol. 149v/8-23Her segh ymb drihtnes gebyrd, ymb þa .xii niht hs tideGyf se wind byoð on þa forma niht, gehadode weras sweltaðÞære æfteran niht ⁊ þere þriddan niht bið wind: þonne wespnas forweorðaðÞeore feorðan niht gif wind byð: lef byð lytelÐære v. niht gif wind byð: Ðere vii. niht gyf wind byoð:  byð frecne on seo ⁊ scipu forweorðaðÐere vi. niht gif wind byð: ðonne adla byoð þy geare on eorðan mislicaÐere vii. niht gyf wind byoð: fir byð swyðe ryfe þy geareÐere viii. niht gyf wind byoð: þonne ældemen sweltaðÐere ix. niht gyf wind byð: scep sweltaðÐære x. niht gyf wind byð: treow byoð fornerwedeÐære xi. niht gyf wind byoð: æale nyetenu forweorðaðÞonne xii. niht gyf winð byð: þonne byoð micel gefeoht on eorðanWended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[v] Eboracum, Or The History and Antiquities of the City of York by Francis Drake p197,  Made nowtidely in its English by Þórbeorht.
[vi] Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctum, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, appellabant, ob causam, ut suspicamur. ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[vii] eundem in solstitio brumali VIII Calendas Januarias natum.Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[viii] John Brand’s Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britian (1853). Page 29.

About Þórbeorht Línléah

Ealdorblótere (chief priest) at Whitthenge Heall of the Ealdríce, an Anglo-Saxon Théodish fellowship. Author of Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo (2014). Author of Þæt Ealdríce’s Hálgungbóc: The Théodish Liturgy of Þæt Ealdríce (2015, 2016). Þórbeorht resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Eþelwynn and two daughters.
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