What is Vetrnætr?
Vetrnætr (Winter Nights) is one of the primary holidays found in the Norse branch of Heathenism, and observes the end of the summer half of the year and the beginning of the winter half. This festival is attested in several of the sagas, and is one of the three seasonal festivals listed in Ynglingasaga, along with a midwinter festival (likely Jólablót/Yule) and a victory sacrifice at the onset of summer (Sigrblót).[i] It has been carried forward into modern Heathenism from the older sources by many different groups and organizations including Ásatrúarfélagið[ii] and Forn Sed Norway, while Forn Sed Sweden observes Alvablot (Elven Sacrifice), which may be a connected tradition dating from pre-Christian Sweden.[iii]
One aspect that is not very clear about historical Winter Nights observations is exactly how they were carried out. Rather, there appears to have a fair degree of variation from region to region, and perhaps even more individually. The sources that we have, while not giving a complete picture, do at least give us some things upon which we can base our reconstructions, so that the modern forms share a similar spirit with their older inspirations.
When is it celebrated?
Since the Old Icelandic/Old Norse calendar was kept on a lunar basis rather than solar, the dates of things such as seasonal changes had more variation than they do by our modern reckoning. As Winter Nights was held at the onset of winter, we can use this information to better pinpoint the timing. The beginning of winter on the Old Icelandic calendar was said to occur in the month of Gor (Innards), which began on the Saturday after the 26th week of summer. Since summer ends on a Wednesday, this leaves a gap of two days in-between, and this gap would most likely be the time of Winter Nights, making it a three-night long festival. On modern calendars, this lands between the 19th and the 26th of October.
Andreas Nordberg claims as well that all major sacrifice days were observed 28 days after a solstice or equinox event, which would place Winter Nights 28 days after the Autumnal Equinox in modern reckoning.[iv] This lines up as well with the timing based off of the old calendar. Most modern Winter Nights celebrations, though, will usually be held on a Saturday during that time frame, due to work schedules and other factors.
Who celebrates it?
Winter Nights is attested in Norse sagas, and therefore is primarily a celebration within the Norse branch of Heathenism. As stated above, pretty much all Scandinavian organizations celebrate it or a connected festival. In North American Heathenism it is also often observed, although there has been some confusion with the development of the Winter Finding holiday, which occurs on the Autumnal Equinox. This is the same as Haustblót (Autumn Sacrifice), but the name has caused a somewhat common tendency to mistake Winter Finding and Winter Nights as being the same holiday.
How is it celebrated?
This is the point at which the most variation in Winter Nights celebrations occurs. There is no one way in which historical Winter Nights traditions were observed and this goes all the way to even which deities were honored. Four beings or groups of beings who are named in different sagas as having been honored at this time are Freyr, Óðinn, the álfar and the dísir. The honoring of the dísir appears to be the most common based on textual evidence, and is present in at least Víga-Glúms saga and Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. The reference in Egil’s saga also gives a hint into one of the offerings used, as he and Ölvir are first denied ale when they travel to the home of Barð because it is being used for the Dísablót.[v]
The reference to the honoring of Freyr comes from Gísla saga Súrssonar when Þorgrímr says that they will be performing a sacrifice to Freyr during the autumnal blót. Since Freyr is also known as the lord of the álfar this could lend support to the connection between them and Winter Nights, but that is in no way certain from this reference, and would be purely conjecture. However, there is a clear reference in support of their being honored at this time, and that comes from Sweden. In the skaldic poem Austrfararvísur, Sigvatr Þórðarson journeys to Sweden in the service of King Olaf II in Norway at the onset of winter. When he comes to a place known as Hof he seeks a place to stay. However, he is turned away at several different houses, each time by a man named Ölvir. He is told that the people there are heathen and are performing a sacrifice to the álfar, and that they also fear Óðinn’s wrath should they allow the ceremony to be interrupted by outsiders. This also gives a possible reference to ale being used as an offering; because the man who turns away Sigvatr at every house is called Ölvir, it has been interpreted as possibly being a title rather than an actual name, meaning “Ale Being.”[vi]
The account given in Austrfararvísur does not explicitly state that Óðinn was honored at that time, but it certainly carries a heavy implication of it. It is also not specifically presented as a Winter Nights observation, but because it happened at the onset of winter in line with other celebrations, and because Ynglingasaga presents the Winter Nights feast as having been a widespread practice, it can be fairly well interpreted that the Álfablót was a Winter Nights observation in at least that part of Sweden.
Regarding actual practices, as stated above it appears that ale was at least a somewhat common offering during Winter Nights observations. Additionally, we know that this time of the year was prevalent for slaughtering livestock before the weather turned. Because in that time meat would generally not be preserved as long as it can now, it would have to be eaten much more quickly. Because of this, it is also very likely that meat from livestock was a common offering. Overall, a portion of the fruits of one’s harvest were likely to be the primary choice for offerings. In modern times this is often a similar case; and for those who farm, brew or raise livestock a sacrifice of that kind may well still be their choice. For those who do not, these types of offerings are still good even if purchased elsewhere.
Why celebrate Vetrnætr?
For modern Heathens, specifically those who follow the Norse branch, this is one of the primary festivals present in the lore, and therefore is an important one. Though our calendar now is different from the old one, this still marks a turning point at which the sunlight and warmth of summer is gone and we head into winter. It is also a time to give a portion of what we have gained over the summer as both thanks and as a petition for a favorable winter. As can be seen from the source literature, traditions and customs for this festival had a great degree of variation by region and community, and likewise in modern times different individuals and groups observe it in modern times, but the spirit of a feast heading into winter is still the same. As for the dísir and the álfar, though it appears that they were historically worshiped as anonymous spirits connected to the family rather than specific ancestors, they are still very much a part of one’s environment and deserve respect. Indeed, these spirits could greatly aid people if kept happy, and to welcome them as a member of the family is certainly a positive action. Take this time to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter with some warmth and feasting.
[i] Snorri Sturlusson. Heimskringla. (New York: Dover Publications, 1990).
[iii] Årets Högtider. Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige. http://www.samfundetfornsed.se/om-forn-sed/%C3%A5rets-h%C3%B6gtider-1283052.
[v] Thorsson, Örnólfur et al. The Sagas of Icelanders. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2000).
[vi] Snorri Sturlusson.