The Winter Solstice is midwinter, and it is the shortest day and longest night of the year. And Christmas is one of the most pagan holidays around. The tradition of decorating pine trees, handing mistletoe as well as holly, and celebrating a sort of rebirth (in a son or the Sun, or else a god) all come from ancient European paganism, particularly Germanic paganism. However, the Romans also decorated trees, and they made sun symbols out of things like orange slices. I think the idea of ‘bringing back the sun’ is profoundly spiritual. And that is a big theme in modern pagan traditions. Today many pagans will make their own sun symbols or do something with the sun in ritual to represent ‘bringing’ it back. You often hear of people ‘calling the sun.’ And I think a lot of pagans are deeply aware that every day after the solstice is a little longer and a little warmer.
To the Norse, the day before the Solstice was Mother’s Night. This was supposed to honor the female ancestors, spirits, and goddesses. Yule itself was a particularly large public rite with feasting, drinking, and sacrificing. There were generally toasts and sacrifices to Odin, Njord, and Freyr. This feast was a mix of remembering the ancestors and celebrating fertility. The returning of the sun is also part of the Ragnarök story: a wolf eats Sol, the sun goddess. Every time the solstice happens, and the sun starts coming back, the Norse knew Ragnarök would not happen that year.
This feast is the first spring festival. I always feel like this holiday is hard to place, since it still feels like winter. While it is generally still cold and probably snowy outside, the wheel is turning. The days are also noticeably longer. Some pagans view this as the awakening of the Maiden form of the Goddess. Across pagan variants, it is a holiday of lights since the light is getting stronger. Across paganism, this holiday is also generally about the Irish Goddess Brigid. Brigid’s Crosses are a common sight. The idea of new life — from plants or new-born livestock) is also common.
This time of year was busy for the Norse. In Sweden, at least, there was a large market festival at Uppsala that went on in conjunction with the Thing. Presumably, there were often markets open during the Thing. The Thing was the annual public assembly to recite the law and to solve disputes. This time of year also featured the Disablot, or the sacrifice to honor the female spirits and deities. In some countries, this was held during Winter Nights, and in others it was around the Spring Equinox. It seems to be a sacrifice for the coming harvest and fertility, which is why I have it here. Some sources also show it as the opposite of the Autumn Equinox and the honoring of the elves and ancestors (since she sources say these were for the male dead/spirits).
The Spring Equinox is the second, and main, spring holiday. It feels properly like spring, and you can see flowers blooming and the trees becoming green. One of the more popular goddesses for this holiday is Ostara/Eostre, because she is supposed to be a goddess of spring. However, she is only attested in one source (by Bede) and is a somewhat contentious figure. Pagans love to celebrate this holiday with eggs. Rabbits and eggs are traditional signs of fertility, and there are various folklore traditions pin-pointing the decorating of eggs to the springtime. These symbols are common in modern pagan celebrations of the Spring Equinox.
There is evidence of a Sigrblot (in April), and it is described as a sacrifice in the summertime for victory on campaigns. There were often sacrifices and feasting to Odin in the early summer, before raiding parties set out on their voyages. Since Odin is a god of battle and the slain, he was honored for aid in the coming battles and to let the slain come to Valhalla. Odin was also the god of kings. Since most raiding parties were enabled by, and probably financed by, a king or nobleman, it would be appropriate to honor Odin in that sense as well.
The May Feast is the final spring festival. At about this time, it’s starting to feel like early summer. For many pagans today, this festival has a lot to do with sex and fertility. The May pole is an obvious phallic symbol. There is also a tradition of jumping over a bonfire with your lover on this day. Bonfires are common from Celtic paganism (at both Beltaine and Samhain, the cows were sent between bonfires to become clean). I feel that May Day is more about life and love than Midsummer.
Again, it’s hard to find information about holidays or festivals for the Norse for this time of year. There is the Germanic Walpurgis Night. This is more of a Medieval creation, with possible links to an ancient pagan festival. Namely, dancing around a bonfire might have happened in early May, much like it did in Celtic paganisms. It’s also possible that the custom of putting up a May pole – or May ‘tree’ – is Germanic in origin. Fun fact: my German grandma spent her childhood dancing around a May pole with the rest of her village.
From what I’ve seen, modern paganism focuses a lot on the sun during Midsummer. It is the longest day, and the sun is honored in full glory. I believe in Wicca, this is when the Goddess and God lay together, when the Earth is most abundant. It is also the time with the Fey are supposed to be out and about and at their most powerful. Fertility is obviously celebrated at this festival. But I guess I mostly associated the Summer Solstice with the heat of the sun.
In Scandinavian folklore, there is a tradition of lighting bonfires on the solstice. And there are plenty of folk traditions concerning covering barns and homes with plants. Around this time of year, there would have been raids, so most of the men would be gone and the women would be taking care of the farms and homes, as well as overseeing any trade. It’s hard to tell from sources if there was any public feast. (This is an assumption, but it makes sense to me: I can imagine there would have been feasts of thanksgiving and victory for the raiding parties. And the women might have had private rituals for prosperity in managing the entire estate.)
The Autumn Feast is the first of the harvest feasts. It still feels like summer, but the harvest is just about ready. The days are starting to get noticeably shorter. Making bread and corn dollies is common, probably from British folk lore. There is the idea that the Wiccan God dies with the harvest, particularly the corn harvest (to be reborn by the Goddess on the Solstice). This holiday is also associated with fairs and sports competitions from Celtic lore.
There isn’t much information about feasts in August for Norse pagans. Of course, there is more folk-tale information to look to. The first sheaf of the harvest was given as a sacrifice to the gods. I would guess this could be the members of the Vanir or Thor and Sif. Since the raiding parties would have also come back to Scandinavia around this time, there were probably celebrations for their return and victories. One of my DP books mentions a cult to Nerthus in Denmark, where people welcomed her wagon into their towns. Presumably, this was for the fertility of the land. It might have happened in later summer or early fall before the harvest went into full swing, but my book doesn’t mention the time of year. The Vanir were very important as fertility deities, and I know Nerthus, Freyr, and Freya each had their own cults. (Njord was associated with ships and the sea. Perhaps he was celebrated in the summertime.)
The Autumn Equinox is the second harvest festival. I always loved Autumn: the leaves, the colors, the crispness to the air. While the ancients were harvesting most of their crops at this time, today pagans can go apple picking or harvest pumpkins. I feel this high day is often the festival for thanksgiving for the various ‘fruits of our labors.’ The harvest was always a time to be grateful because the bounty of the fall was literally what got you through the winter and how you got seeds for the spring. Since many view this as a time of winding down in energy (with the coming of winter), it is a time to look back at the year and see how far you have come.
There is little evidence describing Norse or Germanic traditions for the harvest season. However, it seems there was some kind of feast to celebrate the harvest. At a minimum, this celebration would have been like any other feast: here would have been feasting and drinking, perhaps games played and poetry sung. As for the sacrifices, they might have honored the Vanir deities — Freyr, Freya, Nerthus, and Njord, among others. This is because the Vanir were associated with fertility and with the land spirits. And the marriage of Freyr and Gerd can be seen as a divine marriage that explains the fertility of the land.
This feast is the last of the harvest festivals, and it is the time to finish the harvest and also remember the dead. Things start to feel very much like winter. In fact, in Colorado the first frost usually comes on October 31. I think for modern pagans this holiday is more about the ancestors than it was for ancient pagans. Every public Samhain/November Feast ritual I’ve been to, from Wicca to UU to ADF, is very powerful. It is emotionally charged to begin with, but every ritual has had a beautiful way to honor the ancestors. I remember a ritual with a CUUPS group in particular. An entire end of the church was set up as an altar to the ancestors. The CUUPS members had brought pictures of their deceased relatives and other old items probably passed down. We were all told to bring something, so I brought a picture of my grandma. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about modern pagan rituals for this feast are how connected you can feel to total strangers, because you are all mourning someone together. Another modern practice that I do is the Dumb Supper, where you lay out an extra plate of food at the dinner table for the deceased.
The Norse called this time of year Winternights. It was very closely associated with the ancestors and the elves. Interestingly, Freyr is the lord of the elves, and so he was honored at this time of year as well. From what I understand from my DP readings, the elves are similar to the Sid in Celtic lore. For the first three nights, families stayed in the home during these days and not much is known about what happened therein, but presumably there were rites and sacrifices to the male ancestors and elves. This time of year is also the beginning of the Wild Hunt, perhaps another reason for everyone to stay inside. Odin, of course, leads the Wild Hunt, and that is another association with the Dead.