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The heART of Ritual


Mothers Night: The Ancient Pagan Origins of Santa?

An ancient winter festival which stems from at least the Iron Age is Mothers Night or Modraniht.

This celebration took place on what is now Christmas Eve, and was associated with honouring female ancestors and spirits, hence the association with mothers. What may be surprising to some is that this celebration is also echoed in some Irish Christmas Eve folklore.

Unlike other less attested feasts which took place at this time, we have definitive written documentation of this celebration going back to the 8th century, and relics of these same deities in the form of the Dísir and Matres from the first century.

The oral tradition goes back much further, possibly to the early European fertility goddesses.

Similar Bronze Age triple goddesses are also found in Anatolia, perhaps indicating a proto-Indo-European root. The seven Matrika goddesses, for example, extend back to at least 3’000 BCE.

The Dísablót of Northern Europe was held during winter nights as well as the Vernal Equinox.

Now, this is an interesting occurrence because the fairies and spirits associated with the Pleiades (Including the aforementioned Matrika) were also acknowledged at these times. But that is probably a post for another time except to say that we should not be so quick to forget that the stars were as much a reason for seasonal celebration as the rebirth of the sun! In this context, the longest nights of the year would have been a time when the stars were more present in the lives of people and therefore would have been seen to be more influential. As I have written about quite a few times here, we are finding more and more monuments aligned to constellations and pole star positions on auspicious days which verifies this.

I would expect that this will be the case here in Ireland as well.

But back to Mothers Night. This was a night when offerings and sacrifices were made to the goddesses, the foremothers and female ancestors. Offering a portion of a meal, leaving out butter, honey or drink were popular means of appeasing and expressing respect and thanks. Burning fires, incense and divining prophecy for the year ahead were other activities associated with this night. This should be no surprise considering the links between the Dísir, the Norns and Moirai, all triple groupings of supernatural women/ goddesses controlling fate.

It is interesting to look at this tradition in light of a previous goddess mentioned here, la Befana, who flew into houses bringing fortune to children who had been good, and pieces of coal to those who had been bad. Befana is similarly connected to Perchta and the fairy queen, Nicnevin, who was often considered to lead The Wild Hunt at Yule. This was a procession of elves, fairy spirits, the dead and other supernatural entities. Although it is often considered bad luck to encounter this hunt on parade it is interesting to note the more playful and teasing aspects of Irish folkloric encounters. (Not to ignore the actual deaths of others who are dragged along by this ghostly chase!)

This tradition of a woman travelling the world bringing gifts is also embedded in Irish lore. Could this be a remnant of the ancient goddesses bringing good fortune? Here is one example of a surviving tale which was recorded in Carlow in 1937:

“It is said that every Christmas Eve night an old woman goes on a sleigh from one side of the world to the other. The sleigh is pulled by dogs and it goes on the clouds. One Christmas Eve the shaft of the sleigh broke and she fell to the ground. She landed beside a carpenter's shop. The carpenter made a shaft for her sleigh. He watched and watched until she was out of sight then he looked at the ground and by some magic power all the chips turned into gold.”

With later Irish Christmas Eve folklore, much like with Brigid at Imbolg, for example, we see Mary substituted for the more ancient Goddess figure.

As you can see, then, there are also some startling parallels to la Befana, who was a goddess who flew from house to house in ancient tales in mainland Europe at Midwinter. And, as already mentioned, la Befana herself is connected to the goddesses Perchta and Holda. The old woman in this instance might also be another form of the Cailleach, of course. There are strong links to the Cailleach initially being associated with Goddess figures of mainland Europe before the associations with Ireland and Scotland.

There are also ancient traditions related to the Deer Mother figure of the Asian shamanic peoples as well the tribes of Scandinavia, Scotland and the indigenous North American peoples. We have already mentioned how the various Goddess figures flew through the air on a sleigh, carried the sun in the antlers of a deer, and delivered gifts to the people.

So, perhaps Christmas Eve should be remembered for its much older association with female ancestors and spirits, as well as it’s association with the beginning of a new yearly sun cycle. Mother's Night was a moment of personal closeness and reflection for families, daughters and sons. It was a time to remember the mothers who had passed on, and as the dark nights reached their end and the new light was about to be born it was the moment of contact between endings and new beginnings. (C.) David Halpin. Photo: The Shamaness of Bad Dürrenberg reconstruction by James Dilley.


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