In Northern lore, Yuletide is not a holiday, but a season. In northern Europe, it begins with the feast of the dead at Winterfinding or Samhain, and the ancestors remain a part of the process, remembered as we repeat traditions from our childhood or open up the family collection of ornaments for the tree. In the Shetland Islands, they believe that at the beginning of the “merry month” the “trows” are released from underground to run riot through the season. This is a liminal time when the barriers thin between the worlds. Are they trolls, or “drows”—“draugs”, the walking dead, riding with the Wild Hunt or returning like the ghosts of Christmas past to haunt their descendants? In Victorian England, Christmas was a time for ghost stories.
When winter storms howl through the forests, slain warriors follow Herne or Woden through the skies. In Holle’s wagon, unbaptized children ride. At any time during the season, but especially in the liminal time between Jul and New Year’s, hail Odin, and put out a mug of ale for the riders and an apple for the horses when the wild winds blow.
But theirs is not the only magic. We can identify a succession of festivals whose actual dates migrate depending on the calendar and the century. St. Nicholas is celebrated now on Dec. 6th. Officially a 4th century Christian bishop from Myra in what is now Turkey, he became a giver of gifts who rewards the good, accompanied, as Thor travels with Loki, by a demonic associate, Rupert or the Krampus.
On December 13th, another “Christian” saint, Lucia, takes an older form as Scandinavian daughters, crowned with candles, bring coffee and cakes to the family at dawn. Changes in the calendar have transferred customs that originally belonged to the solstice, when it was Sunna or Saule who appeared after the longest night to promise that the sun will strengthen once more.
When she is not wandering the night with dead children, Frau Holda drives wives to uphold the standards of Germanic housekeeping, finishing the spinning and putting the tools away, no doubt to clear the decks for the orgy of cleaning and cooking needed for the holiday. Female ancestors bless their descendants on Mother Night, a time for family stories and recipes.
On the Thursday before Yule we may follow the Shetlanders who celebrate Tunderman’s Night with an offering of beer to Thor. On the Eve of Jul itself, we put out porridge (don’t forget the pat of butter on top), or milk and cookies, for the tomte or housewight who lives by the hearth.
The day of Jul itself is a time for feasting, for asking Freyr for peace and good seasons, and swearing oaths on the back of the the Jul-boar who will provide the feast. With fire and food and gifts we affirm abundance for the coming year
Today, some of these customs have transferred to New Year’s, especially when we use the energy to make resolutions for the coming year. At any time during this period the Wild Hunt may whirl through, spreading terror and blessings, until the season ends in mid-January when we put away the decorations and banish the trows/trolls back underground for another year.