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The Lost Female Figures of Christmas - Part I

Updated on December 14, 2015
The Norse god Odin, whom many believe to be an influence on Santa Claus.
The Norse god Odin, whom many believe to be an influence on Santa Claus.

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.

Hervor, a renowned shieldmaiden attested to in the Poetic Edda.  She is shown here dying after a battle.
Hervor, a renowned shieldmaiden attested to in the Poetic Edda. She is shown here dying after a battle.

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!

The Norse Goddess Idunna. She guards the apples that give eternal life to the gods.
The Norse Goddess Idunna. She guards the apples that give eternal life to the gods.

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.

Carving of a female saint by a Dutch artist.
Carving of a female saint by a Dutch artist.

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.

Saint Lucia depicted holding grain, common of pagan agrarian fertility deities.
Saint Lucia depicted holding grain, common of pagan agrarian fertility deities.

Rick Steves Featuring Norwegian Chistmas & Pagan Influences

Saint Lucia

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 common depiction of the Christkind in Germany.
A common depiction of the Christkind in Germany.

Germany's Christkind

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.

Snow Maiden (1899) by Victor Vasnetsov
Snow Maiden (1899) by Victor Vasnetsov
Vintage Soviet Christmas card featuring Ded Moroz and Snegurochka
Vintage Soviet Christmas card featuring Ded Moroz and Snegurochka

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.

A popular depiction of Frau Holle
A popular depiction of Frau Holle

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 as depicted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.
The Wild Hunt as depicted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.

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.

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If you enjoyed this, read some more unusual Christmas history in "The Hidden History of Christmas Carols."

Good Yule!

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    • Bob Roach profile image

      Bob Roach 7 months ago from Denial State

      St. Francis of Assisi supposedly started the whole Christmas creche tradition in the early 13th century. His nativity scene included the usual characters: Christ, Joseph and Mary, shepherds, angels, wisemen, animals AND... midwives. Most of the time there were 3 midwives depicted. This depiction was standard until the 16th century when they somehow vanished from the scene.

      You have to wonder about the role genderized icons play in a culture's development. Scandinavian countries seem cool with including woman for positive imagery or even for non-human identities such as fir trees, and snow creatures.

    • profile image

      Medea 20 months ago

      Saint Lucia is still worshipped in Northern Italy, it brings good children gifts and sweets and throws ashes into naughty children's eyes to blind them. To get the gifts, children must prepare a plate with flour, fruit and other things that Saint Lucia (and her donkey) may eat on her journey. Sadly this tradition is getting lost, because more and more people are celebrating Santa Claus, forgetting the old tradition, I think it's a pity.

      Really nice article!

    • DS Dollman profile image

      Darla Sue Dollman 20 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

      I was surprised by how much I learned from this carefully researched article! It's informative, interesting, and fun to read. Sharing this one with my family!

    • profile image

      Anand Chaudhuri, India 20 months ago

      was intrigued by the word Indo-European in the article.....what exactly is this? This is a fascinating thesis of continuity in mankind's spiritual incorporation of icons and totems through religious transition....thanks once again

    • profile image

      Elaine Campbell 20 months ago

      So very grateful that you've collected and shared this information. Thank you!

    • ghalkett profile image

      Genevieve Halkett 20 months ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Really interesting; glad I found this!

    • profile image

      lien 21 months ago

      Hello, what a great article, thank you! I was wondering if you can tell anything about the 12 holy nights between Yule and Epiphany. I heard somewhere, though I can't remember where, that these nights are the nights of our Foremothers, and that every night represents one month in the new year. This intrigues me and I'd love to find more info about that. You are very good at finding this old knowledge and bringing it back. So I wonder if you have any sources to consult? Or could it be a next article? Warm greeting from Belgium, old Celtic and germanic land :-)

    • Georgina_writes profile image

      Georgina_writes 2 years ago from Dartmoor

      Great, informative article. Interestingly, my father (who would now be in his 80's had he lived). Used t traditionally celebrate Walpurgisnacht, and he lived in the East of England. You rarely hear this celebration mentioned. Thank you.

    • MHiggins profile image

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Great hub! I have some Norwegian friends that have told me about Saint Lucia. The hub is well researched and well written! Voted up.

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 2 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Wonderful to read about the female side to the history.

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Very interesting article - enjoyed it. Good to know women were not always second class citizens in the past.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      aesta1, I'm so glad you enjoyed it :-)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Your hubs are always interesting as they are information I have not come across on my own. These female figures are so fascinating for me who only knew the traditional women figures in the Catholic church. I am now interested to learn more about these early religions.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      Hermione, heathen comes from the Old English and it means those who dwell on the Heath. Really, it just means country dweller because urbanites converted first, and out on the heaths is where the old religion continued. Modern practitioners of Germanic paganism today generally prefer to be called Heathens. The word pagan means exactly the same thing, but it is of Latin origin. So Germanic pagans embrace the word Heathen because it came from a Germanic language vs the pagan word from Rome and the Roman Catholic Church who were oppressors.

    • profile image

      Hermine Castelblanco 2 years ago

      Why did you use the word heathen to describe our ancestors? you could have said pagans, which would be more appropriate instead of using the word that vilifies non-christians.

    • JeanOQ profile image

      Jean de Oliveira Quevedo 2 years ago from Soledade, Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil

      Sure it makes! Now I get it! Thanks! :)

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      Hi Jean, thank you so much for your comment and the compliment! Well, you are partially correct. Summer solstice is the longest day of the year, winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. But after Summer Solstice the days start getting shorter and shorter as Autumn and Winter approach, until we get to Winter Solstice, the shortest day. Then on the shortest day of the year we call upon the Sun to return, and the days slowly begin getting longer again, bringing the Spring and Summer. Does that make sense? :-)

    • JeanOQ profile image

      Jean de Oliveira Quevedo 2 years ago from Soledade, Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil

      Really great and very inspiring article! I was searching for something like this!

      Now I have a doubt: you said that the Solstice of Winter, the Yule, celebrates the rebirth of sun, shorter nights and longer days.

      "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."

      But in the Winter Solstice it isn't the reverse? Longer nights and shorter days? I said it because the same period is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere (I'm brasilian) and it means longer days.

      I'm not poiting mistakes, I'm just really confuse now! Maybe I made mistakes now!

      One more time: great article, I will read another of your hubs.

    • profile image

      KatyRavensong 2 years ago

      Thank you so much for these articles. I will be writing a column on "Forgotten Goddesses" on Global Goddess Oracle. You have given me some names to research. If I write on any you have given us, I'll be sure you are credited.

    • Silver Fish profile image

      Silver Fish 2 years ago from Edinburgh Scotland

      Wonderful hub, very interesting.

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 2 years ago from West By God

      I love this and I am going to share it on a new social media and others that I belong too as well and I will also go to your second part and do the same. https://www.tsu.co/Lady_Guinevere

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Thanks for an old look at our favorite holiday. I loved your stories of the female influence at Christmas, and so beautifully written too. These sometimes forgotten characters, saints or pagans, real or fantastic create a backstory to the season that adds depth and ties us to the people of the past. (voted up, etc)

    • wemarriage profile image

      Bridget Robertson 2 years ago

      Thank you. I love this article. I always appreciate you giving so many books to access.

    • ezzly profile image

      ezzly 2 years ago

      Excellent, I showed this to my husband who has Pennsylvania Dutch roots and lived in Germany for 3 years. I know in Spain that they have little Christmas in January, I never realized Yule was celebrated over days. Voted up.

    • profile image

      Sally McGregor 2 years ago from Waterford, MI

      Who knew there were so many unrecognized women in the history of Christmas. Good post. Thanks for the information.

    • Cofee Mommy profile image

      Natalia M Aeschliman 2 years ago

      Great Hub!!!! I learned something new!!

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 2 years ago from Nibiru

      good hub...never knew all that

    • profile image

      M L Morgan 2 years ago

      Great hub, fabulously written. You have enlightened me on many aspects of Christmas an Yule that I didn't know. :)

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Very interesting hub Carolyn and it great to read about the feminine characters connected to the Solstice and Christmas. We tend to forget that the early medieval church did a real number on women and totally vilified them. Any who didn't want to conform to the church's ideals of chastity and motherhood were burned as heretics or witches or hounded out of society. Hopefully the balance is returning.

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 3 years ago

      Great info! Love the history and stories. Thank you. Voted up for interesting and useful!

    • jponiato profile image

      jponiato 3 years ago from Mid-Michigan

      Fascinating, thanks so much for sharing this. Now I'm off to read part 2!

    • profile image

      Guarina 3 years ago

      Fascinating: always knew Xmas in US was Germanic in origins. Bishop of ME is celebrated in Northern Italy as San Nicolo' but in Centr & So Italy it's the Befana, a name derived from Epiphany, who brings gifts or coal with her sack on Jan 6.

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 3 years ago from Warwick, NY

      Very interesting hub. I never knew any of these things and was surprised to learn of the history of many of these Christmas-related females. I am better off for having been introduced to this interesting topic.

    • profile image

      Cora Bella 3 years ago

      came to this page through anne rice. love it. more power.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      I'm loving this... and can't wait to get to part 2 right now. But so far it's amazing.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Wow, yes, a fantastic read on women's history. I love learning new stuff like this. I never knew how much I loved history until I came to hubpages. So many wonderful thoughts I'm having after reading this. Can't put words to it yet, great stuff.

    • electronician profile image

      Dean Walsh 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Very interesting, it would be great if more people would accept the pagan roots of most of our Christmas traditions and symbols and perhaps make some space for others like these!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thank you, Flourish!!!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Wonderfully written and educational hub about females' role in Christmas. (Thank goodness. Mrs. Claus seems so in-the-background.) Voted up and more, plus pinned and shared.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
      Author

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Heather :-)

    • heatherlund profile image

      heatherlund 3 years ago from Tacoma, WA

      Very interesting hub, thanks for sharing!