The Twelve Nights
A somewhat chaotic record as the result of browsing in books
with folk tales and lore
The in the subtitle mentioned books were all in German and the myths and lore they offered and which are described in short below are all mainly restricted to the European mainland. For information concerning England see the link at the end.
This piece of text concerns a remnant of which it often is assumed, that it stems from the time of the ancient Germanics and would have been maintained itself through the ages in several regions of Europe until the current time. Meant are the ‘Twelve Nights’, also known as ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Twelfth Night’. Other names are ‘Rough Nights’, ‘Smoke Nights’ and a widespread name is the German term ‘Rauhnächte’.
Whether it indeed originates from pre-Christian time is doubtful; anyway, there is no clear evidence for it.
The days for the Twelve Nights aren’t everywhere the same. Three approaches exist of which the forst one is adhered by a majority:
— Long time ago, these Twelve Nights would have begun after Yule, which was celebrates from the 21st to the 24th of December (following our current calendar system), days in which also the Winter Solstice was a part of – the day on which the light defeats the dark and the days are beginning to become longer and the nights shorter.
The end of these Twelve nights is on January 6.
— In another view, these days already started on December 21. Both Christmas Days and the Sundays until January 6th weren’t count, because these were ‘free of demons’. This view is considered clearly of Christian origin.
— In again other regions the Twelve Nights would have started at December 36 and also ended at January 6.
There is no certainty about whether these views are historically correct, nor whether they coexisted or have to bee seen successively … if they did exist at all.
During this time the Wild Hunt is on the road eminently; an army or a hunting party of ghosts. Often, it is said that their leader is the Germanic god Woden (Wodan / Odin)m often, but not always accompanied by his wife Frigga. In several region in German speaking countries also ‘Frau Holle (Mother Hulda) is called als a co-leader. However, the sources for that divine leadership don’t seem to be very old, the oldest written sources are clearly from quite some time after the Middle Ages ended.
(See for a more extensive work about the Wild Hunt the book “Wild Hunt and Furious Host”).
Under the strong and leading influence of the church it was in the Middle Ages and upward told, that the Twelves was a time in which the winter demons appear and only can be expelled at January 6, the Holy Epiphany day.
At first sight, the twelves seem to be a mixture of heathen and Christian influences, but it can not clearly be distinguished which aspect are of heathen and which are of Christian origin. It is even possible very well, that apparent heathen aspects only were added during the Christian Medieval, initiated by monks to shirk the responsibility of caused damage by winterstorms as the work of the Devil.
In few sources it is recorded that originally only four of those ‘Rough Nights’ would have existed. That were St. Thomas’s Day (December 21), Christmas Eve (December 24), New Year’s Eve and the night before Epiphany. However, it it strongly assumed, that this view is a rather late Christian revision, used to banish either heathen elements from this period or elements belonging to a concurring Christian currents – there was a time that such different Christian groups combated each other until extermination.
In the viewpoint of a Germanic-heathen origin of the Twelves also a specific name for this period is presumed, pointing perhaps to a ‘pause’, an ‘in-between period’ on an ancient Germanic calendar; between the past year and the coming one, a time of chaos (Wild Hunt), or of rest. But this thought does not go beyond rather airy speculation.
In the regions where the Twelves were celebrated, there were some accompanying customs:
With a piece of consecrated chalk the first letters of the three kings from the biblical birth story of Jesus were written above the entries to the house. This would be a good defense against spirits who would try to enter. This custom still exists in many regions in Europe. For instance, in Germany the ‘star singers’ go through the streets. These singers, mostly children dressed as the aforementioned three kings, ring at the houses to collect money for a charity. They sing a short song and after they got some money, the chalk ceremony is done again -the three letters and the year. In other european countries similar customs exist.
Several kinds of activities or work had to stand still, else they would have caused bad luck.
It was not allowed to thresh the grain, because otherwise it would spoil all the corn as far around as one could hear the threshing. One had to drink from an uncovered well, one had to cough into a bucket or a ton, to prevend sickness, fathers should keep their children in sight, otherwise they would turn into a scuttlebut or a tub.
During the Twelves it was not allowed to do the washing, only after January 6 it was permitted again to wash the dirty clothes. Trespassing that would bring bad luck in the new year.
If Frau Holle would visit the house and see that there was some unfinished spinning or weaving work, or the house was not properly cleaned, she would punish the house wife cruelly. And if it would concern unmarried women or maidens, then either they would surely not marry the wished man in the coming year, or got married to a man with a long beard, or they would die.
It was assumed that during the Twelves, people could be tempted quite easyly to serve the devil. Therefor they should stay close and alert.
The Wild Hunt which chases through the sky often was symbolized by people who wore masks which look wild, rough and were very hairy. The term ‘Rough Nights’ sometimes is explained by this custom – ‘rough’ (German: Rauh’) would then point to a uncouthly, hairy and feral being. Those masks are called ‘Perchten’, which is connected to ‘Frau Perchta’, likely another name for Frau Holle in southern Germany and the Alpine countries. People masked that way went through the streets. That ‘Percht walking’ still exists in few areas in Germany. It concerns very noisy processions which are held during the last week of the year; the participants are masked and dressed as demonic women, heathen goddesses and scary animals. Similar processions are already recorded since the 5th Century CE, but the term ‘Percht’ is only known since the 11th Century.
To specific events of the Twelves major importance was attributed, they expressed hope and good expectations for the coming new year.
Another name for the Twelves is ‘Lot Days’ and then points to days on which someone could get knowledge about his or her future. To get that knowledge, people silently went to a crossroad and alertly listened and watched for omens that both count point so specific weather in the coming year as also to personal events. The term ‘lot’ (used in an old German meaning) mainly means here ‘listen to what is coming’ ans less points to ‘fate’. Each day of the Twelves would give a prediction for one of the months in the new year, the first prediction points to January, etc. The best moment for doing this was in the late hours of the afternoon going into the evening – daylight – dusk- night.
People believed, that the weather at these twelve days was a forecast for the weather in the respective coming twelve months, e.g. much rain on the third day would mean much rain in March.
Sunshine had another special predictive meaning for the new year. Much sunshine means:
1st lot day (25/12): The new year will bring much luck..
2nd lot day (26/12): Prices will raise drastically.
3rd lot day (27/12): Strife and struggle can be expected.
4th lot day (28/12): Some family members will be teased by fever dreams.
5th lot day (29/12): It will give a rich fruit harvest.
6th lot day (30/12): Other fruits will thrive as well.
7th lot day (1/1): Much good herbs will grow in the meadows.
8th lot day (2/1): Fish and poultry will be numerous.
9th lot day (3/1): Rich trading profits.
10th lot day (4/1): Thunderstorms can be expected.
11th lot day (5/1): Very misty days.
12th lot day (6/1): Quarrel and disagreement.
The source for this does not specify time periods for this.
Dreams also would have a similar predictive meaning. A dream in the first night of the Twelves gives a prediction for January, a dream in the second night for February, etc. Therefore it is strongly advised to speak out or write down the dream immediately after awakening to not to forget it.
The ghosts that are chasing through the sky, being members of the Wild Hunt, apparently can be recognized by their animal-like feet. As ‘evidence’ that these spirits really exist are the ‘Megalodon shells’ brought forward, which in some languages is also called a ‘cow foot shell’. This shell can be as large as 7.9 inch and its heart-like shape suggest the footprint of a cow.
As the footprint of ghost-like beings like e.g. Goblins the shape of a pentagram is asserted. The connection between the feet of such beings and the five-pointed symmetrical form is likely based on petrified animals like the sea urchin or the starfish which skeletons have that kind of symmetry. This was seen as exceptional and therefore these kind of fossils were seen as magical objects and were given as funerary objects to the dead as a help on their further journey.
The ‘Smoke – or Rough Nights’ have their equivalents in ancient Greece where a similar folklore would have existed. And apparently, also in the ancient cultures of Japan and China similar rites would have existed – at many places in the world the last six and the first six nights around the turn of the year are seen as a major event in different social societies.
According to some myths and lore tales during the Twelves the spirits of the deceased visit the living people – this time is generally known in those sources for a return of the souls and the appearance of ghosts. Although the Twelves is a European phenomenon, other cultures outside Europe knew something similar.
A folk tale reads:
During the Twelve Days heathen power reigns violently. The ‘Wild Hunter’ gives evil spirits entrance to the earth and leads them in a huge army around in a wild hunt. The red-eyed death goddess Hel and Frau Holle are traveling around and it was a custom in some areas to shake the fruit trees every evening while calling:
little tree, little tree
please don’t sleep now,
Frau Holle is coming.
And Woden, the leader of the Wild Hunt can be recognized for his floppy hat and his long wide coat.
Another tale records that the souls of the dead are part of the Wilde Horde, together with wild boars, hares and other animals. And 24 big black dogs are running ahead of that army of about half a million spirits. At night people can hear the hunting calls and the dogs barking.
These and almost all other similar tales are only recorded since the 18th Century. It is unknown how long they existed before orally. But within the scholarly myth research it is accepted today, that this can be at utmost a few Centuries, probably even less.
When the Twelves are over, then in the Epiphany night (the night from January 5th to January 6th) the power of all those ghosts and spirits are broken by smoking them out unremittingly and by burning consecrated candles.
The evening of January 5th is still seen in some regions and the ‘Percht-Eve’ and processions are held again and their participants are wearing again the same masks as described before. During the procession people sway censers and sprinkle holy water; the purpose of that is to revive and encourage the earth to bring forth rich harvests in the young year.
Because Medieval church leaders wanted to banish completely the noisy Percht-processions, they organized ans a kind of counterpart the so called Epiphany processions and Epiphany concerts were added to that later.
Clever people could during the twelves make use of the power of the spirits in favor of themselves, but carefulness was of the highest importance while doing that:
If a girl would sweep away the smoke in the hearth with a besom broom while reciting a specific litany, then she could see in the hearth fire the face of her betrothed husband. Concerning this, a tale narrates about a maiden who did that rite, but the words of the litany stuck in her throat which caused a loud noise in the smokestack and quite a few stones fell down. Because she was so terrible afraid that the whole house would come down, she started crying loud for help, but all other family members were out to church. However, a boy next door, who also had to stay at home to care for the house heard her crying and came running over to her. That way, she still saw her broom-to-be, because in the course of the year the two married.
From another region comes the tale that at looking through a three-cornered window during the Twelves, one would see the people who would die in the new year.
Another folk tale narrates that if one during the Twelves buries a mirror between 10 and 11 hours in the evening and digs up it in the first hour of the new year, one could see in it the faces of ones enemies.
Another piece of lore narrates that if you watch the fire in the hearth while carrying three different pieces of wood in the arm, than the fire will show the worst grief that will happen to the one who is doing that.
And, at closing this article …. those who during the Twelves listen in the midnight hours to a horse and a cow, their conversation can be understood and they will tell about the bad luck that will happen under the roof of that house.
For a more to England geared information see as a starting point HERE.