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  Yule - The Midwinter Festival

Helya's Night - The night of the mother

Mother: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieTulya's E'en was followed by Helya's Night.

This was the night that saw the children of each household committed into the protection of "Midder Mary", or Mother Mary.

On first glance, although this looks like a purely Christian ritual, the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a later addition to a pagan tradition.

Helya’s night is undoubtedly the same as "Mother's Night" – a night that, wrote the 8th century monk Bede, coincided with Christmas Eve.

In his account of the pagan calendar in 725 AD, the Venerable Bede wrote:

"And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers' night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through."

The “mother” connection and the “watching” ceremonies of Mother’s Night seem to indicate that Helya’s Night was the same event, although overlaid with a Christian veneer.

On Helya’s Night, just as the children had once been committed to the protection of a goddess, ancestor, or the female deities known as the Disir, the ceremony became Christianised and the “mother” was naturally equated with the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother.

But what was the ceremony?

An account written in the 19th century recounts the experience of one woman who remembered her grandmother carrying out the ritual. She explained that, once the children were in bed, the old woman rose from her place by the peat fire and made her way over to the cradle where the youngest lay.

Raising her hands over the slumbering infant, she spoke aloud:

"Mary Midder had de haund
Ower aboot for sleepin-baund
Had da lass an' had da wife,
Had da bairn a' its life.
Mary Midder had de haund.
Roond da infants o' wur land."

This procedure was repeated over all the children, while the grandfather sat raking the peats in the hearth. The old man was also thought to have been reciting something but, unfortunately, his softly spoken words were inaudible.

As to the name, Helya strikes me as a corruption of the Old Norse heilagr, meaning holy – Holy Night being an obvious later name for Christmas Eve.

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