Between Samhain and Yule, the nights darken and grow longer – the sun is dying. With the reduction of its protective power, the shades of the dead and the spirits of chaos are gradually released from the underworld and this intensifies as the shadows lengthen. As the winter solstice approaches they threaten to engulf the sun and bring about a return to primordial chaos.
The sun reborn at Yule is a weakling babe and for twelve days all is still uncertain. Only at their conclusion does the sun gain enough power to turn the tide and send the Winter Spirits back to the underworld. These first twelve days are the most dangerous and uncanny days of the year. They exist outside of normal time and do not belong to the year proper – time is in suspension. Finnish shamans call this period ‘the Dreaming’ or ‘God’s Trance Hour.’ The strangeness of these days is reflected in many of their other names: the Balkan ‘unbaptised days’; the Slovenian ‘wolf nights’; the Germanic ‘raw nights’ and the Bulgarian ‘heathen days’ or ‘dirty days’ when demons attack the World Tree. In Scotland, no court had power during the Twelve Days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped purgatory and went straight to Heaven. In Finland and Sweden the Twelve days of Christmas were declared to be time of civil peace by law and anyone committing a crime during them could expect a stiffer sentence than normal.
The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Teutons (among others) all had a twelve day festival around the winter solstice. The idea was adopted by Christianity in the fourth century, because, the apologists said, it took the Wise Men twelve days to find Jesus. They start on Boxing Day because ‘Christmas Day was a holy day’, or maybe because the old way of counting days was that they began at sunset, so Boxing Day starts on the eve of December 25th.
Others say that the Twelve Days do begin on Christmas day, which makes Epiphany the Thirteenth Day of Christmas. Epiphany, on January 6th, brings an end to the Christmas period. Epiphany means ‘revelation’ as in the manifestation of a god. In parts of Europe the festive period is still sometimes celebrated for thirteen days and is referred to as ‘the Thirteen’. In Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Holland, Epiphany is called ‘the Thirteenth’.
Many of the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding the Twelve Days remain to this day. They are a time of danger, the eerie and the supernatural, haunted by spirits which might punish or reward. The Wild Hunt rides out to collect souls, and in Iceland it goes by the name of the ‘Yule Host’. In Guernsey the powers of darkness are supposed to be more than usually active on the twelve days between St. Thomas’s Day (the solstice) and New Year’s Eve. In Greece the Kallikantzaroi appear to wreak havoc. In Sweden the trolls are abroad, and elsewhere werewolves roam. According to Barnaby Gouge:
Wherein they are afraid of sprites,
And cankered witches spite,
And dreadful devils black and grim,
That then have chiefest might.
The dead return and traditions surrounding Yule include feasts left out for them. The Twelve Days represent the twelve signs of the zodiac the sun must past through and the twelve months of the coming year, and many omens were taken from them. In England it was said that the weather on the first day would reflect the weather in January, the weather on the second day the weather in February and so on. In Brittany it is supposed that the wind which prevails on the first twelve days of the year will blow during each of the twelve months, the first day corresponding to January, the second to February, etc.
Because a new era was beginning it was a prime time for divination of various kinds. In England, for example, girls would place onions in the chimney breast, named for their suitors, and the one that sprouted first would be their husband. Or they might go to the wood stack and draw out a stick. If it was straight and even, with no knots in it, their future husband would be gentle, but if it was crooked, he would be crabbed and churlish. In Poland, wax from the candles was dripped into glasses of water and then held to the light to interpret the patterns. Young girls would go out to the road and listen to the wind – if they could hear a voice or an animal, it would be from that direction that their future beckoned. If they heard nothing, they would yell and listen for the distance and direction of the echo. On the Isle of Man, goggans (small mugs) were filled with symbols of various trades such as water for a sailor, meal for a farmer and so on. These were laid in front of the hearth and the unmarried girls were brought in and according to the goggan they laid their hands upon, so was the trade of their future husband.
Yule (The Eight Sabbats)