Dipping my toe into a contentious issue here, especially at Yule.

We know that the Icelanders enforced frith when they came together at the Thing – by bounding the area and by having  swords tied by frith-bonds so that they could not be drawn. We know that Yule is a time when frith must be kept. We know that kinship was very important to the ancient heathens, so important that being split from his dead kin was what made Radbod step back from forsaking the gods and being baptised, and so important that great friends swore blood brotherhood.

But we also read in the sagas of many a dust-up at thing – both verbal and physical – and many a falling-out between kin. One heathen organisation has traditionally enjoined those who attend its annual moot to be ever blithe as well as frithful; one hears tell of attendees “stepping outside”, leaving the campsite, to have out an altercation, and many years one saw an eruption of controversy on e-lists after they all came home. Germanic people are famously fractious – we heathens can’t even agree what to call our way. What are we supposed to do when we disagree with someone on a list; or in a kindred; or in our blood family? This ideal of frith doesn’t even fit the lore, let alone the needs of actual living.

In fact, it’s a re-dressing of Xian peace, perhaps, as in Rydberg’s work, with a focus on the family and the tribe. Compare the advice in Hávamál: friendship is so wonderful because you can speak your whole mind (121); no true friend says only what the other wants to hear (124), and perhaps most tellingly: Eldi heitari / brennr með illum vinum / friðr fimm daga – “Hotter than fire / burns for five days / the relationship between bad friends” (51), where I’ve rendered friðr by “relationship”. This is what you get, in fact, when you only say good things to each other and don’t share your true thoughts: a five-day friendship, and a falling-out. (Or a peaceful moot followed by an explosion on the lists.) Nothing gets settled at such a moot, nobody reaches a deep understanding with another that way, no flame jumps from person to person (57). It’s a dead end and a waste of an opportunity, even when it doesn’t end in enmity. It’s suppressing one’s true thoughts for the sake of an alien ideal of peace. And it may seem that the Hávamál passage uses friðr oddly there, but Cleasby-Vigfússon suggest that that was the original usage: joy, friendship, a relationship. Notice that that’s the word for the “favour” of a false woman in 90: Svá er friðr kvenna. There’s a flood of later uses, in both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, where it means “truce” or “peace”, but the heathen texts do not bear out the notion that the Xian ideal of peace for its own sake is heathen. Rather, what Hávamál says, what saga figures (and families) do, and even Hávamál’s uses of the word, indicate otherwise.

Which is actually kinder to your friend: to tell her as soon as something she is doing starts to be a problem for you, or to grin and bear it and seethe inwardly? Which is actually better for your family, both in reputation and for those who are stuck with being members: to make excuses for the guy who chronically misbehaves (pilfers; “tags” public property with his name; is rude to women in the street or on-line … ) or to tell him as a family to shape up, preferably before it does become a habit that’s hard to break or a criminal matter? Which benefits children more, for their families to tell them it’s ok even if they do badly in school (and maybe then be disappointed or even angry), or for them to tell them clearly that they should do all the homework and ask for help if it’s hard, because how they do in school does matter? “Little white lies” should be little. If you really care, you should say something. No true friend – or kinsman – says only nice things. And that is after all what a moot is – a meeting. The ancient Things were places to court and marry, and to catch up on news, but they were also law courts at which to get things done, including having out and resolving contentious issues.

There is no putting of peace first in heathenry. Týr, as we know, is not a peacemaker. Baldr, Snorri tells us in Gylfaginning, is the wisest, sweetest-spoken, and most merciful of the gods, and his judgement is irrevocable. Forseti, his son, settles all law cases brought before him so that the parties go away reconciled. Those are the closest: Baldr and Forset resolve situations, without the battle that would be the other way to resolve them. It’s not that we should be using the holmgang to resolve every dispute, or encouraging fights at moots, or treating family members the same as enemies (Hávamál has many verses distinguishing dealings with friend and foe, idiot and wiser person, and advises us that family is a good thing and having no one is not). It’s not that we should be blithe the way Víga-Glúmr was – when he decided to kill someone. Our blitheness at Thing, or with friends and relatives, should come from a genuine relationship, a genuine togetherness, a genuine exchange of views.

And that’s the kind of frith I wish us all this Yuletide, and after.

Welcome to our new blog. (The old one was lost in some SNAFU at the hosting company.)

I think we’re all well aware that the decoration of the tree at Yule is a heathen survival. The custom spread to Victorian England from Germany because Prince Albert cherished it, and the German tradition was always to bring in and decorate the tree on Christmas Eve … at the start of the Xian version of the 12 days of Yule. There’s a legend ascribing the tradition to Martin Luther, but that’s transparently false. The original version of the tradition, however, was almost certainly to go out and decorate an evergreen tree where it stood, as a counterpart to wassailing one’s fruit trees, and in clear kinship to the tree of Uppsala and the Donner’s/Thor’s oaks of England and Germany.

Going back to an outdoor tree (possibly with garlands of cranberries and other things the birds might like, which was also a 19th-century tradition) is an interesting idea, although planning and serious ladders are involved, and I think most of us really like the light-laden indoor tree. Personally I use a fake tree since I can’t stand the idea of killing one for the purpose, and the potted ones that were promoted a few years ago as a living alternative find it hard to survive in our well heated, dry, and kind of dark living spaces … plus they can’t survive in pots forever and should really be planted in the ground after one Yule, and that’s a quick way to run out of garden space.

But as we all know, the tree has come to be a thing on which one piles lights, and ornaments that reflect light. And every year the competition gets tougher to have the most brightly decorated house and front yard. A lot of this is just fun: there’s a house near where I live where the guy loves inflatables: his yard is currently full of Winnie the Pooh characters, teddy bears, a pair of shivering penguins who are probably from some Disney movie, and a snowman doing a headstand; and lighting that throws kaleidoscopic patterns on the front of the house has apparently been selling faster than Home Depot can keep it in stock. Some of it’s obnoxious advertising that belongs in front of a church, if anywhere: nativity scenes, with or without Xian music, the big-box seasonal version of the virgin in the half bathtub that some Catholics feel compelled to have in their front yard. And some of it, in this neighbourhood, looks as if it may be meant to figure on an engineer’s LinkedIn profile: that screensaver pattern of streams of light on a grid that splash or explode when they hit each other – done in micro-wiring on the facade and porch columns, along with pools of static pinpricks of coloured light in the grass, all invisible in daytime.

One of the people I used to read on LiveJournal who have now decamped to Facebook or somewhere used to complain every year about the light pollution from front-yard Xmas displays mucking up his astronomy. I do feel sorry for astronomers. The Mount Hamilton observatory overlooking San Jose has a serious problem year-round, without throwing in Xmas yard displays intended to dazzle airline pilots.

But light at our homes is part of the essence of Yule. Yule is the cold turning of the year, when the Wild Hunt is riding and the weather is likely not fit for man or beast. It is when we hold our loved ones tight and when we celebrate togetherness, friendship, and especially family, when we keep our homes lighted against the darkness and tell news and stories and share knowledge, wisdom, and history of those who have gone before. We celebrate our ancestors, in dísablót and alfablót, we tell the stories of our forefathers, of heroes, and of the gods, we feast and sumble as well as blót and make plans and vows for the coming year. The tales of this time of year feature when to open the door, they feature lighted halls full of merriment, they feature toasts and oaths, and above all they feature the hearth: both the hall/hof hearth where the drink is passed over the fire to hallow it, and the home hearth around which kin are gathered. On Mothers’ Night, the first night of Yule and solstice night, the light was kept burning all night, and some heathens keep an all-night vigil.

As regards the home hearth, a major part of the tradition that is hard for many of us to keep up is the Yule log: a large piece of wood brought in from the forest, ceremonially lighted at the beginning of the twelve days (often with the remnants of last year’s), and kept alight at least the first night. This may go back to traditions of allowing the peasantry to bring home a piece of timber for their own fires at the same time as they were required to gather winter firewood in the forest for the lord. Just as the twelve days themselves have been seen as an annual holiday when peasants were not required to work. But surely that is the wrong way round and the traditions preceded the feudal relationship. The Yule log in one shape or form survives today in the oddest places – the South of France, Spain, as well as Germany and not only the British Isles (where there are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish terms for it as well as a host of regional names) but also apparently in the colonial American heritage. (Plus of course there is the French tradition of a cake formed like a log.) Tenacious custom, and the more one looks at it, the more it is clearly holy: there are traditionally rules against barefooted and bad-tempered people being around the Yule log fire, and in Provence they still apparently parade it around the house and then dab it with a twig dipped in wine before lighting it. The prayers associated with the lighting in some places are about joy. Some heathen groups have tried to revive the tradition, just as we have heathen Yule trees, and I think this is much to be encouraged. So long as neither burns the place down.

Joy and light to you for all twelve nights and days.