Midwinter and other Asatru Winter Holidays
The days may be lengthening slowly, but winter still grips the land in January and February. This article was adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and was generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. It has been edited and cut for consumption on the internet. For the uncut and full version, you can find the full Our Troth Volume 3 here in our bookstore.
The sagas refer to a sacrifice held in the depths of winter, the miðsvetrarblót.
- Thietmar of Merseburg wrote that sacrifices of humans, horses, dogs, and roosters took place at Lejre in Denmark, in January, “after the day on which we celebrate the appearance of the Lord” [January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany].
- King Henry the Fowler of East Francia put a stop to them in 934 (Chronicon I.17; transl. Warmer, Ottonian Germany, p. 80).
- Óláfs saga helga 108 (ÍF 27 p. 178) tells how the king was displeased to learn that the people of Mære were holding a midwinter sacrifice:
Síðar um vetrinn var konungi sagt, at Innþroendir hǫfðu fjǫlmennt á Mærini, ok váru þar blót stór at miðjum vetri, blótuðu þeir þá til friðar ok vetrarfars góðs. “Later in the winter the king was told that the inland Tronders were having a great gathering at Mære, and there were great sacrifices at midwinter. They sacrificed for frith and good winter weather.”
It’s not always clear whether the word miðsvetrarblót refers to Yule or to a different celebration.
In Óláfs saga helga, the miðsvetrarblót is the same as Yule, because the local magnate Ólvir stalls the angry King Olaf (temporarily) by claiming that the farmers were actually holding a jólaboð and a jólaveizla, both meaning “Yule feast.”
The implication seems to be that the jólaboð was harmless fun and not a Heathen sacrifice, but the excuse would not work if the miðsvetrarblót were not held at the same time as Yule.
Hákonar saga góða states that the Yule feast was formerly held on hǫkunótt, which is specifically identified with miðsvetrarnótt, “Midwinter Night.”
In other sources, the midwinter blót seems to be Disting, which was held a month after Yule. In fact, there is evidence for a number of traditional feasts that were held in the depths of winter, and their names differed in different places and times. Yet their functions seem to have been similar: keeping the people’s spirits up, looking forward to the return of spring, and asking the blessings of the Gods in the year to come.
When is Midwinter?
The Heathen Holy Tide of Midwinter begins on the first Full Moon following the New Moon after Winter Solstice.
If that's too much calculating for you, just stick to the first Full Moon after New Years. Usually it's the same thing.
Sólardagurinn: Day of the Sun
The oldest documentation of a midwinter feast comes from the 6th-century Byzantine historian Procopius (History of the Wars VI.xv.4-15). Procopius claimed that he had heard from native informants that that among the natives of “Thule” (probably Scandinavia), the sun never rose for a forty-day period in winter, twenty days on either side of the winter solstice.
The inhabitants carefully kept track of time by the moon and stars until thirty-five days had passed since the last time the sun had been seen. Lookouts waited on the tops of mountains until they saw the sun, and then returned to the people below and announced the sun’s imminent arrival. A general celebration followed.
Terry Gunnell notes that stone circles have been found on certain mountaintops in western Norway. It’s possible that these were cultic sites where the lookouts watched for the sun’s return (“The Season of the Dísir,” p. 122 n9).
In modern Iceland, sólardagurinn, “The Day of the Sun,” is the first day that the sun is visible after the winter darkness. The precise date of sólardagurinn depends on the location; where mountains block the horizon, it could be as late as early February.
Icelanders celebrate the sun’s return with sólarkaffi, “Sun coffee,” a spread of coffee and pönnukökur—Icelandic-style crepes, dusted with sugar and folded or rolled around jam or whipped cream (Árni Björnsson, Saga Daganna, p. 431). Icelandic poets have been known to compose poems to celebrate the sun’s return, like this one by Jens Hermannsson from Bíldudal (quoted in Árni Björnsson, p. 432):
Komdu sæl að sunnan
sól í dalinn minn.
Öllum flytur yndi
Allt sem andann dregur
á þig firir vin.
Vertu eins og áður
Come from the south, be welcome,
Sun, in my valley.
Your kiss of love
brings bliss to all.
Everything that draws breath
has you as a friend.
As before, may you be
Sólarkaffi is obviously a fairly modern holiday, and it cannot be shown to have any historical connection with the festival described by Procopius 1500 years ago.
And yet, the motivation is the same: keeping up everyone’s spirits in the depths of a Northern winter and looking forward in hope and trust to the spring that will eventually come. For those who feel the darkness and cold weighing on them, it may not be a bad idea to hold a celebration around this time as a way of looking forward to the light and warmth.
Charming the Plough
Plough Monday, next after that Twelftide is past,
bids out with the plough, the woorst husband is last.
—Thomas Tusser, Fiue Hundred Pointes of Goode Husbandrie, p. 180
From medieval times to the early twentieth century, the main cereal crop in Britain was summer wheat, which is sown in early spring and harvested in August. But before the crop could be sown, the ground had to be ploughed. Between January and mid-March, the fields were ploughed by teams of oxen. Fields also had to be manured, and in some years they were marled (spread with crushed limestone). The traditional date in Christian times for ploughing to begin was Plough Monday, the first Monday after January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany (the “Twelfthtide” mentioned above).
We don’t know from direct documentation whether the start of ploughing season was a festival in pre-Christian England. Yet it’s hard to imagine that an action so important to survival wasn’t marked with some sort of ritual. Ploughing scenes on Bronze Age Scandinavian rock art, at sites such as Aspeberget and Häljesta in Sweden, suggest that the act was spiritually significant.
Bede claims that the Old English name for February, Solmōnaþ, meant “month of cakes,” which were offered to the Heathen gods at this time (De temporum ratione 15, transl. Wallis, The Reckoning of Time, p. 54). The word sol usually means “mud,” and some have interpreted the name as “mud month;” others have connected it with the British goddess Sul or Sulis, or with the word for “plough,” sulh.
While as always we have to be careful about asserting continuity between Heathen custom and folklore recorded centuries later, it is or once was a widespread custom to honor the first ploughing with bread. As late as 1924, a Sussex ploughman was seen dropping a piece of his plum cake into a furrow for luck (Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, pp. 17-18).
As for celebrations, we know that the villagers of Carlton, Nottinghamshire held plough races on January 7 as early as the 1200s. An author writing in the early 1400s condemned a ritual that involved “leading the plough abouten the fire as for good beginning of the year.” By the 1600s, ploughmen in eastern England would dress up and process through towns with a plough, stopping at homes, singing songs and asking for money or food. In one village the song went:
Remember us poor plough boys,
A-ploughing we must go,
Whether it’s rain, blow, hail, or snow,
A-ploughing we must go. . . .
As discussed in the chapter on Freyr in volume 2 of Our Troth, some have interpreted the myth of Freyr and Gerðr as symbolizing the frozen earth, whose resistance has to be broken by the plough that ultimately makes her fruitful. Although many scholars have moved away from this “nature-myth” interpretation, it may resonate with some Heathens.
Thus this time seems very fitting to honor him.
A month in the Icelandic calendar is named for Þorri. It is named for a legendary Jotun Storm King who has come to be identified as a "Winter King" or "Old Man Winter" character.
It begins in the thirteenth week of winter, between January 19 and 25 in the modern Gregorian reckoning. According to one medieval Icelandic manuscript on astronomy and the calendar, the Sun (as seen from the Earth) enters the constellation of Aquarius three nights before the feast day of St. Agnes (January 21 in modern reckoning). This was the beginning of a month that in the southern lands was called “not showery,” but “we call it Þorri.”
According to Orkneyinga saga, Þorri was the first to hold the great midwinter feast which gets its name from him.
Hversu Noregr byggðist states that the Kvens (the Finnic-speaking natives of Kvenland) sacrificed to Þorri in midwinter, so that there would be good snow for snow-shoeing. Thus Þorri’s feast was known in medieval Iceland. However, we have little documentation of it until the 1700s.
Around 1700, the scholar Þormóður Torfason reckoned that Þorri had lived in the first century after the birth of Christ, but his feast survived for a long time after. At about the same time, Icelandic poets started writing Þorrakvæði, “Thorri ballads.” The best known, Kristján Jónsson’s “Þorraþrælinn 1866” (“The Last Day of Thorri, 1866”), is also known by 516
its first line “Nú er frost á Fróni” (“Now there’s frost in Iceland”; Rit Kristjáns Jónssonar, pp. 38-39). The poem begins with a farmer complaining about the dreadful winter weather, and then gives Thorri’s reply:
Þögull Þorri heyrir
en gefur grið ei nein,
glíkur hörðum stein,
engri skepnu eirir,
alla fjær og nær
og kalt við hlær:
“Bóndi minn, þitt bú
betur stunda þú;
er hart þjer þjakar nú,
þá mun hverfa, en fleiri
höpp þjer falla í skaut;
senn er sigruð þraut,
jeg svíf á braut.”
Silent Thorri hears
This moan of grief,
But he doesn’t relent,
Like a hard stone,
He shows no mercy to any creature,
Everything near and far
He strikes with his cold claws
And laughs coldly:
“My dear farmer,
Cultivate your farm better.
This mental anguish
That torments you now
Will disappear, and better
Luck will fall in your lap.
Soon the hardship will be conquered,
I will float away.”
In 1880, the Fornleifafélagið [Archaeological Society] in Iceland celebrated its own Þorrablót. In 1881 they celebrated it again, decorating their hall to look like a Viking hall, and drinking toasts to Odin, Thor, Frey and Njord, and other deities.
The folklorist Ólafur Davíðsson wrote that the new feast “had revived memories of the old, good and noble faith of our forefathers” (Íslenzkar Gátur, vol. 2, pp. 21-22).98 Þorrablót faded in popularity by the start of the 20th century, but as the town of Reykjavík grew, country folk who moved to town began organizing dinners featuring the traditional foods of their home regions.
Modern Heathen Midwinter Celebrations
For some Heathens, Midwinter is just Yule. That's all it is. So whatever you'd do for Yule at Winter Solstice, they'd do it at Midwinter. But there are a few little twists here and there if you want to also celebrate Midwinter as well as Yule at Winter Solstice.
Thorrablót was translated as the "Feast of Thorri" and not the "Sacrifice to Thorri"
This makes a very interesting distinction. Some Heathens have decided to celebrate the holiday of Thorrablot as either a sacrifice (Blot) to Thor or as the feast of Thorri, where there is no sacrifice.
In the feast of Thorri, Thorri is portrayed as a jovial (but still adversarial) "Old Man Winter"
Although some modern Heathens consider worship of the Jotnar dangerous or simply misguided, Thorri has received some sort of honor from humans since the saga age.
As Diana Paxson points out in the chapter on Jotnar in Our Troth vol. 2, there is evidence that at least some Jotnar were given offerings in the Viking Age.
One of the interesting parts of our customs is just how much our central values hospitality and generosity are constantly demonstrated. To invite Thorri in from the cold and present Old Man Winter himself with a feast and a hot fire to warm his bones is our way of melting winter itself away. Reminding us of the importance of good company and sharing warmth even with the Winter King.
A Feast of Thorri should have plenty of roasts, toasts and boasts. Many Heathens enjoy hearty winter meals around this time, with roast meats, fine cheese, fresh bread and plenty of dark malty ale. Since this is meant to "warm up" the King of Winter, some Heathens like to make this feast special by making their favorite spicy foods. This is a perfect time to cook generously spiced curries, jambalayas, chilis, pozoles or stews and serve them over plentiful bowls of rice with warm bread.
The Blot to Thor
Strictly speaking, the Feast of Thor is not grounded in historical practice. Despite the superficial similarities in names, there is no historical connection between the names Þorri and Þórr.
Nonetheless, the first Þorrablót in Copenhagen included a toast to Thor (Björn M. Ólsen, “Full Þórs,” p. 129):
Það er því meir en þörf að biðja
Um þrótt og huga veikri sjót,
Og heita á þrúðgan Þór að styðja
Æ, gef oss, Þór! að þessu sinni
Að þjóra jafnmikið og þú!
Vér signum hamri heiðið minni
Í hreinni trú.
So there is all the more reason to ask
For strength and courage for our weak troop,
And call on mighty Thor to support
Ay, allow us, Thor, at this time,
To carouse just as much as you!
We bless the Heathen memory with the Hammer
In pure faith.
All the same, some Heathens may find that it makes sense. Thor, after all, is the god who battles the frost-thurses and defends Midgard with his Hammer, and his strength and rough good humor may be needed at this time.
You can perform a Blot to Thor in the classic or the new modern manner, or whatever manner best suits your community.
Feasts of Thor should include plenty of food fit for a God with a mighty appetite and zest for life. Thor at his own wedding feast is said to have eaten up an entire roast ox, eight whole salmon, and all the delicacies set out for the ladies, washed down with three casks of mead.
Goat cheeses are also fitting, as is goat meat (as long as you don’t break the bones).
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