Yuletide Rituals and Sedes

by Swain Wodening


Modern Heathens have at their disposal centuries of customs concerning Yule. Many of these date back to the time when it was the ancient Heathens who celebrated the tide of the ancestors, frith, and gift giving. Many of these can be used to enhance the blots and
symbels done during this period, and therefore are presented here with a brief description. By using the rites designed for each of the Twelve Nights of Yule, as well as the traditions here it is hoped you can have a fuller holiday experience.

One ancient belief is that dreams during the Twelve Nights predict the events in one's life for the coming year. An interesting activity would be to keep a log of one's dreams for each of the Twelve Nights.

Gift Giving
The tradition of gift giving goes back to Heathen times when gifts were exchanged throughout the Yuletide and not only on one day of the tide. Therefore it is fitting Heathens do this as well. Gifts need not be expensive and often handmade gifts are better than something purchased at a store. Ideal gifts are those relating to our religion, books, ritual gear, art, tapes, and of course drinking horns.

Holly, Ivy, and Yule Decor
At Yuletide the Elder Heathens decorated their homes with ivy, holly, and boughs of evergreens. Ribbons were also used and the entire home covered with garlands and wreathes. Modern Heathen should do not less in an attempt to capture the Yuletide spirit. Below are three of the more common house decorations.
Yule Tree: The tradition of the Yule tree comes from Germany. Originally it is believed the trees were decorated outside and gifts left for the land wights. This custom can still be observed in other parts of Northern Europe. With Christianity, the trees were brought inside to hide from the church. Modern Heathen trees can be decorated with Heathen symbols as well as the commercial lights, glitter, and ornaments. If one wants they an decorate a tree outside instead as the Heathens of old did.
Yule Wreaths: Modern tradition uses a Yule wreath at the Mothers' Night symbel as an oath ring. This wreath is oathed upon as well as wished upon, and then burned at the Twelfth Night blot. Therefore these wreathes are best made out of natural substances such as cedar branches. Other wreathes can be used as decorations around the house.
Lights: In the more northern countries, Lucy Day which was a festival of lights is celebrated and seems an ancient holiday in connection with Yule. Candles, torches, and other forms of light were left burning to light up the night skies. Today we can use electric lights for the same purpose.


A tradition well recorded in England, but probably beyond the means of most Heathens to perform is Hoodening. The tradition of dressing in animal skins and performing plays, dances, and processions is a practice observed throughout all of the Germanic area, but is recorded particularly well in parts of England and Scandinavia. As early as the fifth century this practice was condemned by the Church. Archbishop Theodore condemned those "who on the kalends of January clothe themselves with the skins of cattle and
carry heads of animals". While St. Augustine condemned the "filthy practice of dressing up like a horse or stag in the 5th century." Men in skins with animal heads are a common theme in early Heathen art. Hoodening is a practice that was observed in Kent and the Isle of Thanet on Christmas Eve... areas that have remained Anglo-Saxon since the intital invasion of the tribes. Hoodening consisted of carrying either the skull of a real horse or a wooden one from house to house on a pole. The jaws of the horse head were rigged to snap by a string being pulled. The head was then carried by one of the Hoodening party, who was covered in furs or hides. The rest of the party, also dressed in furs, carried handbells ringing them while singing songs. For this they are given gifts usually in the form of money. It was considered bad luck not to give to the Hoodening party. There were several reports in the 19th century of folks being extremely frightened by this, tho those from the area seem to have been amused. In the modern era, Hoodening has taken on many aspects of the hobby horse plays and mumming. Below is one of the songs from a modern Hoodening party:
Boy and horse are friends once more
Head and eyes no longer sore
Dobbin now is all submission
Having learned his hardest lesson
Half starved he is now, poor nag
Something please to fill his bag
Do not burst out the door
Give us something, good friends, for ...
If ye the Hooden horse do feed
Throughout the year ye shall not need.

Morris Dancing
Not quite as impractical as Hoodening is Morris dancing. Morris dancing, particularly the variety consisting of sword play also took place during the Yule tide. Morris dancing to quote Linetwigle of the Ealdriht in her paper, Dance in Northern Tradition consisted of "stamping, leaping and hopping, rapping of swords or planting rods against the ground (these denoting a connection to fertility of the land), and the wearing of bells, plus a plethora of regional variations." Morris dancing also consisted of blackening of the faces (as did often mumming and hoodening) to either scare off evil spirits, or to mock the Wild Hunt.

Something more practical for Heathens than Morris Dancing or Hoodening is mumming. Mummer plays take place in all of England, usually in pubs, and like Hoodening seem to date back to the Heathen Era. All of the plays consist of five to twelve cast members and follow the same basic plot. 1) A hero returns from a distant land. 2) The hero is challenged and killed. 3) A doctor is called and revives the hero. 4) All hostilities are ceased. Some see this as a ritual reenactment of the birth and death of a sun god. This is highly unlikely, as Heathen lore seems to have preserved no myths of this particular type. More likely the plays were for entertainment value alone, and if anything to celebrate the healing powers of the gods, particularly Woden as a healer, and to educate that Yuletide is a time for frith and wishs that come true. Day 8 of the Yule rites presented here consists of a Mummer Play.

Sword Dancing
Another form of dance performed at Yule tide besides the Morris Dances were the Sword Dances. These were at one time performed with the long sword and seem to be quite ancient. Most of the dances consist of a procession and the clashing and leaping of swords as well as the formation of various patterns with the swords. Often the dance ends with a mock death and revival by a "doctor" as with the Mummer Plays.

The wassailing of Victorian times resembled carolling more than it did its earlier counterpart, and is the form most are familiar with. Ancient wassailing consisted of making the drink wassail, originally mulled ale, curds, apples, and sometimes nuts. A group of wassailers would then go out with bowls filled with wassail from house to house and wassail the apple and cherry trees with songs and loud noises to ensure a good crop from the orchards the next year. A few wassailing songs survive, but these seem to be of a later variety.

Yule Log
The Yule log has not survived into modern celebrations for the most part, and for most modern Heathens would be difficult to do without a fireplace or wood burning stove. You may therefore wish to set up a symbolic Yule log. You can carve it with wishs for the New Year, garland it, do what you wish. If you have a place you can burn it outside during Yuletide, you may wish to do so. Traditionally, the Yule log was brought in on Mothers' Night, it was then set ablaze and hoped to burn all Twelve Nights (remember this log was nearly an entire tree to be burned in the long pits of a long house). Different areas had different customs concerning the Yule log. Everywhere the log was garlanded and decorated with ribbons prior to the procession to the longhouse. The procession was, as most procession during the holidays, a joyous one. Once burning no one could squint in the presence of the log, nor were barefooted women allowed around it. In Yorkshire, England, they practised what is called mumping or gooding. Children would go begging and singing from house to house as the log was brought in. In other areas, the children were allowed to wassail the log the first night and drink to it.


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