Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Yuletide Household Lore & Traditions

art by Arthur Rackham

The winter solstice is approaching.

Since the medieval period, the Twelve Days of Christmas have begun on Christmas day, Dec. 25, and ended on Epiphany, Jan. 6. The precedent for this, however, was the pre-Christian midwinter celebration, which probably began on the solstice. For European peoples, this was a time in which spirits chased through the skies in Wild Hunts and sacrifices were made to garner their favor and protection. Similar to the insular Celtic Samhain, the winter solstice was the crux of the new year for Germanic peoples – the deepest, longest darkness giving birth to a fresh new beginning. Rather than the waning of the light, as in Samhain, it is the point at which the light is the briefest that the end and the beginning meet for Germanic pagans, heathens, and animists.

Turning Hearth-ward

Everything turns inward this season. Bears – divine animals in Germanic animism – retreat into caves for hibernation; trees, too, consolidate their energy, dropping their leaves in favor of preserving their cores and roots. Humans take shelter indoors from the cold, relishing the warmth of the household. The light of the hearth fire, the stove, and candlelight provide a focus for holiday activities, the flame’s powers magnified by the darkness all around. Yule logs, still called so even after centuries of Christianization, traditionally burn throughout the Twelve Days, an icon of the sacred hearth fire. Any remaining unburned wood is saved to light next year’s Yule Log, and the ashes are used to fertilize plants in the upcoming spring (WhyChristmas.com).

Goddesses of the mountains, forests, and fields enter homes: Frau Holda in Thuringia and nearby states, Perchta in the Alps, Frau Gode and Fricke in the north. While these goddesses rule the hunt of midwinter nights and the wilderness, they also govern household matters: childbirth, the upkeep of the home, and the activity of spinning. On their visits during the Twelve Days, which are sacred to them, they count the hairs left on spindles and bless or curse accordingly – “so many hairs, so many good years” or “so many hairs, so many bad years” (Grimm, Vol. 1, p.269-270). They are impressed by tidiness, hard work, and generosity of time and service.

The primary day on which these goddesses are honored is January 6, celebrated by Christians as Epiphany. On the eve, bowls of porridge are eaten in honor of, or presented to, Holda (Motz 154). Perchta is honored with a meal of oat gruel and fish, dumplings, or pancakes on the same night (Grimm, Vol. 1, p.273).

Another important day was the Anglo-Saxon holiday Modranicht, “Mothers Night.” The Mothers worshiped on Modranicht were probably connected to the Matres and Matronae honored by Celtic and Germanic peoples across northwestern Europe in the first to the fifth centuries, as well as the Norse disir. Unfortunately, not much is left to us regarding how it was celebrated. Bede, the most prominent resource on Anglo-Saxon paganism, states only that it began on December 25 and involved “ceremonies” in the night.

Fear, Protection, and Renewal

As liminal times, personages, and spaces tend to be, people viewed the midwinter nights with a mix of apprehension and eagerness. The Wild Hunt was often perceived as a storm, and if passersby met the hunters, they stood a 50/50 chance of finding their death or being rewarded with gold. Such is the case for wintertime – a time of cold and want and perseverance that tries our resilience, cunning, and luck. But it also holds the promise of spring, of new growth once the snows melt and the weather grows warm. In some lore, the Wild Hunt was a spirit-performed fertility ritual that, in fact, enabled spring to arrive. It is the necessary death that allows life to continue.

Even so, Germanic peoples performed rituals to protect their households from disease and death. The Christmas tree, for example, has ancient apotropaic roots all over Europe. Romans, Celts, and Germanic peoples all brought in evergreen boughs and branches during the winter solstice (History.com). Unlike deciduous trees, evergreens remain just that – ever green – and this was a powerful, valuable symbol of vitality. Bringing these tokens into homes would infuse the household with their health and longevity, warding away illness and death that lurked in the darkness beyond.

Darkness, Light, and Balance

These winter nights embody seemingly paradoxical yet complementary states: preservation and release, sustaining light and warmth as well as embracing the darkness from which that very light is born. It is about inner strength, resourcefulness, and the bonds woven within a home. It is about glimpsing death, and of continuing life. This is at the heart of Yule.

May your midwinter be merry and bright.

 

Unlinked Works Cited

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Ed. James Steven Stallybrass. Vol 1. George Bell and Sons, 1880, https://books.google.com/books?id=neQtAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA269&lpg=PA269&dq=Here+cometh+up+Dame+Hulde+with+the+snout,+to+wit,+nature,+and+goeth+about+to+gainstay+her+God+and+give+him+the+lie,+hangeth+her+old+ragfair+about+her,+the+straw-harness;+then+falls+to+work+and+scrapes+it+featly+on+her+fiddle.&source=bl&ots=AEK6gha38W&sig=rtNsrBstRBwe_MUXgr9zRHzJC0I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiA8PbF4LDUAhVCSSYKHbBLCRQQ6AEILjAB#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed 11 June 2017.

 

Motz, Lotte. “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures.” Folklore, Vol. 95, No. 2, 1984, pp. 151-166, http://odroerirjournal.com/download/The%20Winter%20Goddess.pdf. Accessed 11 June 2017.

 

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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