I am happy to announce that the Creed of Caledon has performed its first ‘blot’ to mark the Winter Solstice on the 20th of December. We went outdoors to perform rites to herald the beginning of Yuletide at sunset with offerings of mead to the gods and our ancestors. Later, we performed our second ‘sumbel’ (folk gathering) this year and concluded the rituals with a meal and some mead. Despite not being considered the New Year by the Ancient Europeans (which was marked by Winter Nights in mid-October), it is the most important blot, as it marks the darkest day of the year and the time when the powers of darkness and illness are at their peak. Celebrants may pass a sunwheel wreath and walk or dance in a circle using chants (which survive today as carols) to bring back the sun in an effort to reverse the shortening days and strengthen its power. ‘Yule’ is the name for the Winter Solstice and is celebrated at sunset before the actual date of the solstice (as our ancestors saw darkness preceding light and a new day began at sunset) and ‘Yuletide’ refers to the twelve days of Yule, the middle of which is now known as Christmas and ended on the 1st of January. ‘Yule’ means ‘wheel’ and refers to the wheel of the year but also to the turning of the sun itself, which are both represented by the sunwheel.
In Norse mythology, Yule is the time when Hermod (an alter-ego of Wotan) journeys to the underworld to petition Hel, jotun of death, to give back Balder and Nanna. Hel refuses, but Balder and Nanna give Hermod a ring and a blanket as gifts to the gods, which is why we exchange gifts on Christmas. Balder represents the light of the sun, and it is at this time of year that he is at his weakest and most miserable in the cold of the grave, but the visit from Hermod gives him the strength to begin his recovery. The celebration on the Winter Solstice is known as ‘Mothers’ Night’ and refers to the reverence given to our ancestors (in particular, the female ones known as ‘disir’), reflecting the fact that the realms of the living and the dead are very close at this time of year. Wotan leads the ‘Wild Hunt’, a procession of ghosts and elves roaming the night sky that lead the souls of the recently departed to the underworld. Wotan is also known as the ‘Yulefather’ and is the origin of the image of Father Christmas. In heathen times, children would leave their boots filled with hay for Wotan’s eight-legged horse ‘Sleipnir’ to eat, an in return, Wotan would fill their boots with presents.
Much of the traditions we associate with Christmas come from Germanic customs, and the Christians simply replaced Balder with the figure of Christ, and Wotan with Saint Nicholas. It has always been a time where families spent most of their time together indoors at the coldest time of year to tell stories, play games and feast and drink. The Christmas tree is also a part of these heathen customs, as the animal sacrifices of the blot (which means ‘blood’) would have their blood sprinkled on and limbs hung from pine trees, which are now represented by red bobbles and tinsel. Despite the crass commercialization and materialism that we are subjected to every year, underneath the veil of consumerism lies our authentic traditions that our folk have practised for millennia. It only requires a stripping away of cultural elements from Christianity and more recent capitalism to uncover a twelve-day long festival that is specific to Europeans and their temperate homeland, where the warmth and light of the sun is much missed at this time of the year. Yule represents the fire that is kept burning at the darkest time and we offer our light to the sun to contribute to it’s recovery. Remembering these traditions is essential to maintaining cosmic order and harmony and we only need to remember our ancestors and our family to continue them. Merry Yule, and may Wotan bless your family and your ancestors, wherever you are.