(Reblogged from my PaganSquare blog, Threads)
And so it is Yule. Unlike Christmas (and even unlike the Winter Solstice itself), Yule is not a single day, and its arrival is not determined by a single calendar date. It is a dark tide of energy that arises, generally on or around the Solstice, and Yule proper lasts for twelve nights, ending in Twelfth Night (which usually falls on or around Christmas Eve).
Its coming is not always predictable; one can plan for Yule and then feel the tide of energy arrive a day early, or a day late. In this modern era, most people are so harried by the commercialism of the Christmas season that they barely even notice when the tide comes in, if they notice at all. I own an online shop and my day job is in customer service, so I certainly am not immune to the hectic atmosphere that prevails. In the midst of the flurry of shopping and making, it can be difficult to feel the moment when the land whispers to you: “It is now.”
Our ancestors (in the Germanic countries) referred to Yule as Rauhnacht, the “rough nights” or “raw nights.” The Yuletide energy is not a gentle one; it is harsh, glaring, strident, echoing the energies of the Wild Hunt that rules this season. It actually meshes pretty well with the frantic shopping and feelings of desperation and often despair that surround Christmas. It can manifest in irritation and snappishness (tempers have been short in my household all week long), or in a surge of energy that one does not know how to channel. Many people respond to it by feeling the need to retreat from the world, to nest with books or movies—which is actually a wise choice. Traditionally, Yule was a time for gathering a home with families and friends—not just to celebrate the return of the sun, but because it was considered a dangerous time. The roads, the wildness, all of the in-between places were particularly dangerous; there was too much chance of encountering the Hunt, or even being taken by it. Only witches, seidhr folk, sorcerers, and other societal vagrants would choose to be out and about on these nights.
This Yule has been interesting to me because, in addition to my spirit work (Odin and His Hunt are part of my hearth and home—no hiding from Them for me) I am also a business owner, and this is the first year I’ve had an actual “holiday rush season” in my little store. I’ve had several months of steadily increasing exhilaration and excitement (accompanied by exhaustion)–followed sharply by a sudden stillness, as people realize they can no longer get things through the mail in time for Christmas and turn to shopping locally instead. The drop-off was almost devastating at first; I was tempted to plunge into despair. But I suspect it is simply part of the natural cycle of operating a business, and in truth, I’m happy for the break. I have fibromyalgia, and I also work at another job in addition to my business, so I cannot keep up that pre-Christmas pace (however exhilarating) forever without risking burnout. Hopefully, the dead period will end after the holiday (when people have Christmas gift money to spend, perhaps, or when they begin looking towards Valentine’s Day). But in the meantime, instead of panicking about the lack of shop activity, I can take stock, work on my (financial) books for the shop, finish up some custom orders, enjoy Making at a slower pace as I build up inventory for the new year, get caught up on my blog posting (as I’m doing right now), and focus on my spiritual work, which largely consists of providing a sanctuary, a hearth and safe haven for Odin (who calls me His home) during these “rough nights.”
Cultivating a tranquil mindset during this season—which is a hectic one both energetically and in turns of human activity—is quite the challenge. I always find that lighting candles and burning incense helps me get my mindset into a more contemplating space, so I intend to do both this week, not only for meditation and trance work but as I read, write or Make. The book Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling offers a few traditional recipes for “the smudging nights,” as the twelve nights of Yule were also called, after the custom of fumigating the home against the dangerous spirits that roamed the land during this time.
Nordic incense for the smudging nights: equal parts of juniper berries, mugwort, fir resin, and yew needles
Yule smoke: equal parts of juniper, pine resin, and cedar
Pagan Christmas incense: equal parts of juniper needles, mugwort, ground pine resin, and wild rosemary
Incense for the smudging nights: ground amber, fir resin, dried fir needles, juniper tops, dried fly agaric mushrooms, hemp blossoms, laurel leaves, mugwort
To make a loose incense for Yule, simply collect the ingredients for any recipes above (properly dried, of course) and burn on a charcoal disk. Unfortunately, a few of these ingredients are either poisonous or illegal. Yew needles—which have a strong association with Yggdrasil, referred to as a “needle-ash” in the Poetic Edda—are perfectly legal but I will warn you now: make sure to provide adequate ventilation if you use them, or better yet burn them outdoors, as all parts of the tree are poisonous except for the flesh of the berries. Fly agaric mushrooms (otherwise known as amanita; these are the classic “Christmas” mushrooms, red spotted with white) have a connection with Sleipnir, Odin’s steed; in their folkloric origin, they sprouted from his spittle that fell to earth as the Hunt rode past. They can be legally ordered by mail in many areas, but check your state laws first. Hemp blossoms are illegal in many states, though not all (thankfully). They are still illegal on the national level.
As you may notice, mugwort is a recurring ingredient. This plant, one of the “Nine Sacred Herbs” of Woden/Odin, plays a starring role in my own personal formulary and is the primary ingredient in anything I make for Odin, from fixed candles to incense to pre-ritual tea. Also called felon herb, naughty man, old man, and old Uncle Harry (after Harr or “High One,” one of Odin’s by-names), mugwort is a hedge-crossing herb; it promotes the transition of souls from the other worlds to earth and vice versa. Thus, it was used both as a childbirth aid and in graves, and burned on bonfires for the dead. It grows by roadsides, to signal its role as a boundary plant. It widens the passageways between the worlds, and makes an excellent base for any Yule incense blend. It was used by the Nordic peoples much the way white sage is used by Native Americans: to purify and consecrate sacred space. As a tea, it also calms anxiety and opens up the visionary faculties.
My personal Yule incense blend consists of three key ingredients: mugwort, rosemary (for remembrance of the dead, as Yule is a time for honoring and communing with the ancestors, some of whom may ride forth with the Hunt), and juniper berries, plus pine needles if I have them handy. Rosemary is a more southern plant in Europe, but plentiful in Oregon where I live. Juniper was often used as a northern frankincense, a purifying and sanctifying smoke that was believed effective against evil spirits as well as contagious diseases. And pine needles add that rich, resiny aroma that we all associate with the season. Mix these together in any proportions, sprinkle on a lit charcoal briquette (in an appropriate fire-safe holder) and sit back to enjoy.
Yule is also a time to perform divination for the coming year, and one thing I will often do is draw a rune on each night of Yule as a “forecast” for the corresponding month of the coming year. (For example, on the first night of Yule I will draw a rune as an omen for January, etc.) This can prove surprisingly accurate, if done with intent. The Twelve Nights are also an ideal time for taking stock of the year just passed. If you’re looking for a journaling exercise for this purpose, I offer this one that I wrote years ago, and have used for several Yule seasons since. If you meditate and journal on two runes per night, it will take you through to Twelfth Night, at which time you will have a solid basis for setting any intentions for the New Year.
Light a candle (and perhaps some Yule incense) and, going through the Futhark in order, meditate and journal on the following questions. (You can also put the appropriate rune tile, cards, etc. on your altar as focal points.) The questions can be altered as desired; the point of the exercise is to serve as a meditative/introspective stock-taking of the past year, through a runic lens.
1. Fehu and Uruz: How has abundance manifested in my life this year? Where is my strength?
2. Thurisaz and Ansuz: What obstacles stand in my way? What inspires me? How do I inspire others?
3. Raido and Kenaz: What journeys (either literal or spiritual) have I made this year? What have I crafted (in either a literal or figurative sense)?
4. Gebo and Wunjo: What gifts have I given and received? What has brought me joy?
5. Hagalaz and Nauthiz: What upheavals have I dealt with? What do I need?
6. Isa and Jera: Where do I need to slow down, show more caution? What have I harvested?
7. Eihwaz and Perthro: What initiations have I experienced? What time do I take for play? What preparations have I made for the coming year?
8. Algiz and Sowilo: How do I ward myself? What insights have come to me?
9. Tiwaz and Berkano: What victories have I achieved? What in me has died this year? What has been born?
10. Ehwaz and Mannaz: What has been confirmed for me this year? How do I relate to my community?
11. Laguz and Inguz: How do I work with my dreams? What seeds have I planted, and what have I sacrificed to nourish them?
12. Dagaz and Othala: What doors have opened for me? What doors have closed? Where is my true home?
To all of my readers, thank you for making me part of your life throughout 2014, and I hope you’ll continue to stick with me in the coming year (as I have a lot of exciting things planned, both for my writing and for my store). Have a blessed and safe Yule!
Image: Photograph by me, of a hand sculpted Odin icon I purchased from Lykeia’s Botanica, partially repainted by me.