Yule & Mother's Night
What is Yule? Yule is a pagan holiday with origins in many European countries that pre-dates Christianity. It was celebrated around the winter solstice (December 21st) as ancient peoples huddled together around the fire in an attempt to lure back the sun. Now, we have Christmas trees. But prior to the Christianization of Europe, we had Yule trees and Yule traditions.
There are many ancient Norse sagas that speak to Yule, the twelve days of Yule, and the various kinds of celebrations and rituals that would take place during this time of year. Yule would typically begin with some kind of ritual animal sacrifice. The animal would be used to feed the entire family or village and would be an offering to the Gods. I know that reading something like this with our modern-day minds can always be a bit jarring, but I implore you to remember that killing an animal for feasting is something we still do today... we just don't always see it happening. We still have a big feast today during Christmas. Our families gather, we cook traditional foods, we make more than we actually need, and everyone goes home with a plate of extras. We drink, we sing songs, and we tell stories. Unlike the intentions and the "reason for the season", the celebrations haven't really changed that much.
As with the Christianization of many Indigenous, folk, or pagan religions, the church and lawmakers have attempted to syncretize beliefs and celebrations. King Haakon the Good(not to be confused with Norway's current King Haakon), who reigned from 920-961, was the Christian King who declared that Jól (Yule) and a Christian holiday were to be celebrated at the same time in December. Haakon did something smart just like Alexander the Great did: His rule over Norway was considered "not conventional" as he didn't oppress the pagans who made up the majority of his kingdom. Instead, he allowed them to keep their celebrations and added another by law of the King. It is said that in order for a man to prove he had been celebrating, Haakon required "... every free man to consume a minimum amount of ale (approximately four gallons) and to keep celebrating as long as the ale lasted." So, not only did Haakon allow his people to keep their celebrations, he made the new holiday a fun drinking extravaganza. Who would complain about getting completely drunk, having a feast, and adding an additional celebration within your pre-existing holiday feasting? Well, what Haakon did was very smart because now we have all but erased the pagan origins of Yule. But, not completely. We still have our Yule trees, Yule logs, Yule wreaths, ornamental decorations, lights, and feasting. We gather together to celebrate the warmth and the light in the middle of winter. We fight back against the dark and the cold with light and song. And, on this winter solstice day, we welcome the return of the Sun... as did the Romans. (The return of the Sun or the birth of the Son.)
But there is one thing I discovered in my studies recently that I didn't know about: Módraniht
Módraniht, or Mother's Night, was celebrated to show respect and appreciation for one's birth mother, ancestral mothers, and Goddess-mothers. There's actually a lot of literature pre-Medieval and Medieval that speak to Módraniht and leave other hints as well. For example, there's a law book from the Western region of Norway called Gulathingslog 7. In this law book, we see that Yule was celebrated ‘for a fertile and peaceful season’. We also see in the Saga of Haakon the Good that Njord and Freyr were also hailed for peace and fertility.
Módraniht wasn't celebrated in December in every single part of Scandinavia, however. That's important to mention because we always need to be looking at the origins of things. What has been erased and why? Who did the erasing and for whom? What has been syncretized or combined, and for what purpose? For many modern pagans or heathens, Mother's Night actually kicks off the Yule-tide celebrations. For ancient Scandinavians and German peoples, however, there are a few options. Some celebrated during Yule, whereas others celebrated near February and March. The distinction here is that Yule often marks the Anglo-Saxon new year (it didn't always. We can also argue Samhain being the new year for many.). In other regions, spring-time marked the new year. Mother's Night meant to highlight mother's as light and life-bringers. Mother's were bringing us out of the darkness and into the warm and lighter realms. They are guiding us from darkness and accompanying us on our path towards wisdom and knowledge. This is important information because understanding that the new year marked the return of the light allows us to see why where are some geo-cultural distinctions between when Módraniht would be celebrated.
I think it could be quite nice to celebrate Mother's Night as the start of the Yule-tide celebrations for a few reasons:
Women often take on the majority of emotional, mental, and physical labor during the holiday season.
Women often take on all of the above throughout the entire year any way.
Not all women are mother's and therefore the traditional mother's day doesn't apply to everyone, whereas I think a celebration like Mother's Night (even though it has mother in the name) can be expanded to include all women given the fact that is it also a celebration of ancestral mothers and Goddesses.
If you have difficult emotions around mother's day for whatever reason, Mother's Night can provide a more religious or spiritual opportunity to honor ancestors, othermothers, female divinity, and the Goddess.
So, what Goddesses did Mother's Night honor? Mother's Night honors the Disir. They may go by different names depending on location and time-period, but the Disir are best understood as ancestral mothers or female spirits or deities. These spirits could even encompass local spirits of the land and place. A dís is a female deity or ghost often associated with one's fate. So, there's some linguistic stuff happening here that we should be aware of. This is why other scholars, including myself, feel that honoring one's own ancestors during this time would be appropriate. There is also evidence that beings such as Fylgja and the Valkyries can be included under the Disir umbrella.
There is an additional connection here in the Christian holiday celebrating Saint Lucia. Some scholars suggest that Saint Lucia's Day, which is celebrated on December 13th, is actually a holdover of Mother's Night. St. Lucia is considered a "light-bringer" and is celebrated 12 days before Christmas.
We actually have encountered the dís or Disir in recent days. The Netflix series, Merlin, featured the Disir. In this series, the Disir were considered the oldest court for the Old Religion and were portrayed as the mouthpiece of the Goddess herself.
Based on the majority of prior scholarship between myself and fellow feminist theologians, it's a known fact that women have been massively erased throughout history. Women have especially been erased from the religious, spiritual, and philosophical landscapes. So, tonight, this week, this month, whenever... I hope you re-incorporate Mother's Night and the Goddess back into your ritual practices.
Call on Freyja, Frigga, Hel, Skadi, and others. Call on your ancestors and call on yourself. Wield your feminine power like a torch, lighting the way through the darkness. When you craft, cook, clean, cleanse, and celebrate this Yule season, remember the women who came before us and the divine feminine power that exists all around us. Blessed be!
If you are preparing for Yule, Mother's Night, the Solstice, or the twelve days of Yule, I hope you'll check out the Winter Zine. There's a whole host of Snow and Ice Goddesses and deities, along with recipes and rituals. Thanks for reading!
Sources and references:
Common lands in Norway pdf text: https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/8162/Common%20Lands%20in%20Norway%20during%20the%20Middle%20Ages.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y