The Lost Female Figures of Christmas - Part I
Introduction and Background
It may come as a surprise that there were a great many female figures associated with this time of year that have been obscured from much of our contemporary memory. Many of these figures are still popular in their home countries. But, America has a very different historical landscape when it comes to holiday practice, and it is the American brand of Christmas that has recently been exported to non-Western parts of the world.
Much has been said about Santa Claus being an amalgam of influences, and especially about his image being based on the Germanic god Odin. But, it is important to realize that there were many other holiday figures, both male and female, that did not find their way over to our modern American Christmas celebrations. German male figures such as Krampus and Knecht Ruprecht are coming up more and more in news and entertainment media. So I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the female side of Old Yule.
Mōdraniht - Mothers Night
A great place to start is the Germanic holiday of Mōdraniht. This holiday was part of the Yule festivities. Many people already know that the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from the fact that Yule was not just a one day celebration, but rather a festival that lasted for several days before and after the Winter Solstice.
Mōdraniht is literally translated as Mothers Night, or Night of the Mothers. We don't know a lot about this celebration because it would have been suppressed after conversion to Christianity. We do know that it was a time to celebrate motherhood and probably other female ancestors. This celebration of the feminine may be related to the age old correlation between the fertility of women with fertility of crops, and with rebirth of new life. The Winter Solstice, after all, celebrated the rebirth of the Sun and lengthening of days.
Just as it is in other indigenous religions, ancestor veneration was a very important aspect of Germanic spirituality. Both male and female ancestors were honored. But, it seems that female ancestors played an important role as guardians of the family line.
The Important Roles of Germanic Women
Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that women were often the ones home guarding the homestead while men were off at war, raiding, or trading. We do know that like the Celts, Germanic women were often trained to wield a sword. Although women on the battlefield was not as common as men, it was not uncommon either. There are accounts of female bravery in battle, and it is known that certain battle tactics were designed specifically for the shield maidens. So, it might be that the women who tended the homestead were seen as strong protectresses by their children. Indeed, many Germanic female names have elements of strength and battle in them. For example, the name Mathilde translates as "mighty battle maiden."
Whatever the case may be, we know that female ancestors remained a prominent element in Germanic heathen religion. They were celebrated not only during Mōdraniht, but they also enjoyed another holiday during the Autumnal Equinox - Dísablót. While Mōdraniht is attested in Anglo-Saxon sources, Dísablót is attested in the Norse. However, both cultures share a linguistic and cultural heritage.
Also, votive inscriptions along the Rhine demonstrate that a cult of "the Mothers" (also called Matres and Matrones) existed in southern Germany, Gaul, and Northern Italy. Half of the inscriptions are Germanic, while the other half are Celtic. This again demonstrates that the Old Religion placed a high emphasis on celebrating maternity and the feminine.
Mōdraniht was celebrated on the date that we now call Christmas Eve. So this year, raise a glass and toast to your own mother, grandmother, aunts, great-aunts, and all the women who have helped raise you and yours. This is surely an old custom that can be appreciated by people of any religion today!
Obstacles in Getting to Our Roots
There are many aspects of folklore, tradition, and folk custom that have very deep roots. We must remember that some traditions have been immersed in Christian practice for many years, but their true origins exist in the dark crevices of old heathen custom.
The origin of such practices can be difficult to identify for a variety of reasons. The pre-Christian cultures in Northern Europe passed on their wisdom, histories, poetry, and myths orally. So in most cases, they didn't leave written records.
Another major obstacle is the way that the Catholic Church absorbed paganism, at the same time re-branding and replacing specific customs and figures. Gods became saints, pagan holidays became Christian ones. This comes as no shock to most readers. Most Christians are well aware that Christ was not born in December, that Easter is named for the pagan fertility festival in honor of the goddess Eostre, and so forth. It is commonly known that the Catholic cult of saints arose to turn people away from local deities.
Hagiography Throws People Off
Any student of Medieval history should be familiar with a genre of literature known as "hagiography." This is the writing of the lives of saints. Now, this genre differs greatly from biography or history because hagiographers had no intent to portray the truth in their writings. Medieval studies students are told to read hagiographical texts with a grain of salt because their purpose had more to do with an agenda than any goal of portraying the truth. The agenda being to build new figures of veneration to replace the old pagan gods and goddesses.
Now, this is not to say that all saints are bogus. But when it comes to early Medieval examples, if there is not a shred of evidence outside of the hagiographical text, if the saint is closely associated with a holiday or deity, then the story of the saint should be considered nothing better than a folktale invented to replace earlier folktales, and a new religious figure invented to replace an previous one. Sometimes the stories are a mixture of fact and fiction. And, sometimes a true historical person's story could be grafted over a pagan legend.
Rick Steves Featuring Norwegian Chistmas & Pagan Influences
Saint Lucy is an example of a widely traveled saint. She originated in the Mediterranean and is still celebrated in certain parts of that region. But, she was greatly embraced in Scandinavia where she is known as Saint Lucia. Whether or not this saint existed as a true person, I cannot say. However, whether she did or not is irrelevant to her role in Northern Europe. Saint Lucia clearly became a new entity in Scandinavia, apart from what she had been in Southern Europe.
In both parts of Europe, Lucia was and is associated with light. So, that her holiday is celebrated on December 13th is significant. This strengthens Saint Lucy's ties with pagan customs. Saint Lucy's Day is one of the early mid-Winter celebrations that mark the coming of the Winter Solstice. In indigenous European religions, Solstice marked the rebirth of the Sun. It was the end of nights becoming longer and welcoming the start of them getting shorter. Celebrating light was common at this time.
In Scandinavia, there are other symbolic elements that connect Lucia to pagan times. She is often depicted carrying sheaths of grain, which is a common symbol of pagan agrarian deities. Another feature is that she is sometimes accompanied by young boys called stjärngossar (star boys) or tomtenissar. This is significant because the words "tomte" and "nissar" both relate to elves. Elves are a prominent feature in old Norse religion.
A similar figure is Germany's Christkind. Unlike Lucia, she is not representative of any saint. However, what she represents is even more fascinating. Literally translated, Christkind means Christ Child. How curious that the Christ Child is represented by a grown woman!
The Christkind is often the one who delivers gifts to children for the Christmas holiday, as well as Saint Nicholas (who is a separate figure from Santa Claus in Germany).
The fact that Germany, who's heritage shares much with that of Scandinavia, maintains a beautiful and otherworldly female figure with such a pronounced presence during Christmas celebrations is yet more evidence that the feminine was every bit as significant to our ancestors' Yuletide celebrations as male figures are at Christmas today.
This is not to insinuate that male figures were not celebrated in the past - they absolutely were. But, the point of this article is simply to demonstrate that the masculine and feminine influences were once more balanced than they are even today.
Snegurochka - Snow Girl
Although most of this article has addressed Germanic figures associated with Yule, it should be said that Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, and Finno-Ugric cultures shared many similarities in the past. There are distinct differences, but they share a common Indo-European background (barring the Finno-Ugric speakers). They also share similar climates, customs, and their native religions had much in common with each other. There is often a blending of tradition between these cultures, especially where they neighbor one another.
On that note, I introduce you to Snegurochka, a Russian Christmas figure. Usually translated to 'Snow Girl' in English, she is another Christmas character with complicated origins. Snegurochka is generally considered to have roots in the old Slavic pagan past. It is possible that she was once a patron goddess of winter like the Norse goddess Skaði. (And, indeed, the word Russia stems from the Norsemen who settled in the area - the Rus).
Like many European goddesses, Snegurochka lived on in the folklore of her people, even after they were converted to Christianity. Often goddesses were diminished into fairy creatures, fairy godmothers, etc. The late 19th century saw a great revival of folklore all over Europe. The most famous folklorists of this period are the Brothers Grimm. Just as they collected folktales from all over the German speaking world, Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev preserved the tales of his own people. Thus, the pre-Christian figure Snegurochka lived on during Christian times.
Religion was banned in Russia during the Soviet era. However, celebrating Russian history, and especially the history of the people (peasants), was encouraged. So, an old god of winter who had been remembered in folklore as a wizard was reinvented as the Russian version of Santa Claus - Ded Moroz. However, unlike the American Santa Claus, Ded Moroz travels with a lovely female companion... his granddaughter, Snegurochka.
Holle, Bride of Wotan
Frau Holle is an enigmatic figure, too complicated to fully explore in this article. It should be noted that she maintains many similarities with other European goddesses, as well as those mentioned here. It is thought that she was once an important deity who was probably attacked by the Church (we will explore this further in Part II).
Like Snegurochka, Holle lived on in folk legend. Her tales were recorded by the Grimm brothers. They found her stories to be widespread all across the German speaking parts of Europe. Her tales exist in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, the Alsatian region of France, Poland, and even into the Czech Republic.
Also like Snegurochka, Holle is associated with a powerful pagan god, Wotan. In Scandinavia, where he is known as Odin, Wotan is married to Frigga. However, in Germany, it is Holle who wears this crown. The pair ride together as they lead the infamous Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt was a myth known throughout Northern Europe. It consisted of a host of other worldly night riders traversing the skies in a terrifying chase.
As mentioned above, it has been said that Santa Claus is at least partially influenced by Odin. Just as Santa rides through the sky each Christmas Eve, Odin rode through the night skies with the Wild Hunt during Yuletide. Unlike Santa, however, Odin brings a woman. And, sometimes, Holle was known to lead the hunt herself, without him.
Continued in Part II
The second part of this topic is now finished! Part II features the more sinister female characters of Christmastide. Click here to read it.