My mother’s Oma refused to do laundry during the Twelve Days of Christmas. To me, this makes perfect sense, the Christmas Season is just so busy… who wants to do laundry? But the reason goes deeper, to the legends of the Rauhnacht. The Rauhnächte, the time between the years, are a time when old memories carry out traditions from pagan times in Germany. Before you brush it off, or think to yourself “modern people can’t possibly still believe any of that stuff”, I think you may be surprised at just how many of the traditions we follow. Certainly, not many people expect to see Woden leading a Wild Hunt across the heavens, but families across Germany (and the world) engage in fortune telling and loud fireworks. (And I’m certain I wasn’t the only child who hoped to overhear my dog speaking on Christmas Eve.) This time between Christmas and the Epiphany crackled with magic.
What are the Rauhnächte?
It takes 365 days for the Earth to go around the Sun…. but the Lunar Calendar, measuring the time it takes for the moon to wax and wane 12 times, takes only 354 days. How did people deal with those missing 11 days (and 12 nights)? By treating them as a separate entity, as an in-between time from the end of the old year to the beginning of the new one. They were called Rauhnächte.
Today we count the 12 days from Christmas, December 25th until midnight January 6th, the Epiphany. (However, since the Christian Church didn’t officially celebrate December 25th as Christmas until the year 336AD… and the Germanic tribes began converting to Christianity in 496AD, some older traditions say the cycle starts on December 20, St Thomas Day, the first day of Winter, the darkest day of the year and the turning point for the light). During these cold dark Winter days, without electricity or central heating, staying close to the hearth meant safety. This wasn’t a time for working. Battering storms made stories of ghosts easy to believe. And rituals were created to see it all though.
So, what is Rauhnacht? The origin the word Rauhnacht is fuzzy…. Some say the root comes from “rauch”, meaning “smoke”, since smoke and incense are important during this time. Others believe it comes from “ruch”, meaning “wild, hairy”, from the wild beasts who roam the woods and mountains. But who were these beasts? And why was incense needed to cleanse the home and barn of spirits?
The Wild Hunt of the Rauhnächte
Jacob Grimm not only collected Fairy Tales with his brother Wilhelm, he also compiled Germanic folklore, old customs, and ancient beliefs in his 1835 work, Deutsche Mythology or German Mythology (published in English as Teutonic Mythology). According to Grimm, the Wild Hunt or Wilde Jagd, was a spectral hunting party, a das Wütende Heer (angry army) led by Wotan. The tales of the hunt vary depending on which corner of Germany they were collected. Sometimes Wotan leads the group alone, but in the north he might be accompanied by Holda (Frau Holle)… in the south Perchta… and in the east you might hear about Barborka (Barbara) Together they led the spirits of those who died during the year to the afterlife.
Keep your eyes down! To see the Wilde Jagd meant certain death…but you could hear it coming in the howling of the wind and rattling of the tree branches. So how did people protect themselves? Traditions kept people safe. Rules were created, like- stay out of a barn with doors on opposite sides at night, because the hunt could sweep through and take you up! We may smile at the quaint superstitions, but we aren’t as removed from those times as you might think. (There is MUCH MORE to the Wild Hunt Story… Read it Here)
See how many of these you know…
Rauhnächte Traditions and Superstitions
Just like my Ur Oma insisted, no laundry could be done during this time, and no Clotheslines must be stretched out. Why? When the Wild Hunt rides by, they might get caught up in the laundry or the line and miss their chance to go to the next world. Spirits left behind get angry, and ruin the next harvest. Some believed that Frau Holle would snatch the white linens from the line, and use it to sew a shroud for the someone in the home.
Smoke and Incense in the Home and Barn
Burning certain herbs and resins like Frankincense, Myrrh, juniper, and pine would protect the home and animals from harm. Coals and the herbs would be carried from room to room in buckets or special holders and the smoke cleansed the home. Today, we have adorable smokers that do the job for us with small cones of incense that smell of pine or frankincense.
Order and Cleanliness
Everyone knows that demons and ghosts love disorder and are comfortable in chaos. If they find it, they will happily stay. A clean and orderly home means that the Wild Hunt will pass you by. Today, we still focus on a clean home for Christmas… and my mother insisted that all of our toys and dolls be cleaned and lined up neatly before Christmas Eve.
Fireworks and Noise
The flash bang of fireworks, the crack of whips, the banging of pots all drive spirits away. Bells are rung, both in the church, and by people walking door to door during the Glockennächte (Bell Nights). In some villages of northern Germany, young men go door to door banging on pots to let people know they are coming, and then they collect cookies and nuts in exchange for reciting poems. Even today, some Austrian villages hold a the Perchtenlauf. Perchten, people dressed in furs that look a bit like Krampus, or SchnabelPerchten, people dressed as women with ugly masks, make noise to chase the evil spirits.
Animals Could Speak
My mother told me that on Christmas Eve at midnight, animals could speak like humans. I waited up and watched…spied from behind the door… hoping that my dog would finally say more than “woof”. It’s good that I never heard anything. For although it is said that animals are given the power of speech during this time, any human who hears them speak would surely die. Barn animals would use their power to tell the house spirits if they were mistreated by the farmer.
Flying across the heavens makes Woden hungry. A plate of leftovers from the Jul or Christmas dinner should be left on the doorstep for passing spirits to insure good fruit harvest (Frau Holle is said to be particularly fond of poppy seed cakes). Much like today we leave cookies for Santa…
The year’s spinning should have been finished by this time, and woe to the young woman who left it late. Spinning wheels (and some say Milling Wheels) are to be still during this time, or Frau Perchta will come and punish you. In some stories, the Boar (a Germanic Fertility god) sets the wheel back in motion on January 6th when the New Year begins.
Speaking of the Boar…. In Germany pigs have long been considered good luck charms. On a farm, a pig meant meat for winter. And in Teutonic times, a Boar was sacrificed at the New Year to honor Freya, the goddess of love and good fortune. Today, people commonly gift each other Marzipan Pigs over the New Year.
The list goes on and on… There should be no card playing or gambling. Women and Children should not be out at night alone. Beggars should be fed and looked after. Doors and gates should be locked, and a candle should be set on the windowsill at dusk (today we set up Schwibbogen).
Fortune Telling and Divination
(I feel like this practice deserves to be singled out because it’s such a BIG part of the Rauhnächte.)
All of the rules and superstitions act as touchstones. Ways to control or understand the inexplicable in cold dark times. But the Rauhnächte weren’t just a time of protection, they were also a time for looking forward. The time between the years makes Divination… Fortune Telling… much easier, and there so many Fortune Telling traditions!
Lead Pouring, or Molybdomancy, has been practiced for thousands of years. On New Year’s Eve, families would sit around the table, and melt lead over a small fire in a spoon, then pour the melted lead into water. The lead hardens into a shape. By determining the shape… and checking a chart… the future is revealed. Today, the Bleigiessen kits are getting harder to find because of the lead content. It is possible to use Tin, and some say wax (but I think wax is just too soft.) Order a kit from Germany here–> Bleigiessen with Tin
Keep a notebook by the bed during this time, because dreams can predict your future. Naturally there are some guidelines. The day you have the dream corresponds to the month (12 days = 12 months… so the first night represents January usw.). Dreams before midnight are for the first half of the month, and dreams after midnight are for the second part of the month. (I have no idea what happens if you dream on the couch while taking a nap).
In Schwabia, Silesia, and the Erzgebirge, they practice Chromiomancy…a fancy word for letting Onions predict the amount of rain which will fall over the year. On Silvester (New Year’s Eve), an onion is cut into 12 pieces (in some areas, 12 onions are used) and placed on a wooden board. Each piece (or onion) is named for a month. Salt gets sprinkled on the onion piece and left overnight. The amount of moisture found on the skin in the morning determines how rainy each given month will be.
For single women wanting a partner, visiting a crossroads or the Stations of the Cross during the Rauhnächte will reveal their future husband. She must stand still and quiet, and he will walk by. If she speaks, or turns to watch him, he will vanish, and the wedding will never happen.
Another weather forecasting method is similar to future prediction of dreams. The weather on each day of the 12 Nights reflects how the weather will be over the course of the year. December 25 predicts January’s weather… December 26th predicts February… and so on. (Honestly, I’m not really sure this is any more or less accurate than my local weather man).
What are the Rauhnächte?
The Rauhnächte, the time between the years is a time of silence, of looking back over the past year, and planning ahead for what’s to come. While today we may not see ourselves as superstitious, the old ways still tug at our memories. We celebrate the New Year with fireworks and noise, we remember and make plans. We clean house and light our smokers. So, maybe, whether or not you believe in spirits, it might just be a good idea to leave a plate with some cookies out on the doorstep, just in case Wotan comes by looking for a snack.