Twelve Days Out of Time

The Twelve Days of Christmas officially begin on 26 December, Boxing Day. According to some they are the last six days of the old year and first six days of the new year. The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Teutons (among others) all had a twelve day festival around the winter solstice. The idea was adopted by Christianity in the fourth century, because, the apologists said, it took the Wise Men twelve days to find Jesus. They start on Boxing Day because ‘Christmas Day was a holy day’, or maybe because the old way of counting days was that they began at Sunset, so Boxing Day starts on the eve of 25 December. If, as Pagans, we celebrate the solstice on 21 December, that neatly and conveniently takes the Twelve Days of Yule to New Year’s Day.

The sun reborn at Yule is a weakling babe and for twelve days all is still uncertain. Only at their conclusion does the sun gain enough power to turn the tide and send the winter spirits back to the underworld. These first twelve days are the most dangerous and uncanny days of the year. They exist outside of normal time and do not belong to the year proper – time is in suspension. Finnish shamans call this period ‘the Dreaming’ or ‘God’s Trance Hour’.[1] The strangeness of these days is reflected in many of their other names: the Balkan ‘unbaptised days’; the Slovenian ‘wolf nights’; the Germanic ‘raw nights’ and the Bulgarian ‘heathen days’ or ‘dirty days’ when demons attack the World Tree.[2]  In Scotland, no court had power during the Twelve Days. In Finland and Sweden the Twelve days of Christmas were declared to be time of civil peace by law and anyone committing a crime during them could expect a stiffer sentence than normal.

Many of the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding the Twelve Days remain to this day. They are a time of danger, the eerie and the supernatural, haunted by spirits which might punish or reward.

As the Twelve Days represent the twelve months of the coming year, and many omens were taken from them. In England it was said that the weather on the first day would reflect the weather in January, the weather on the second day the weather in February and so on.

The threat of the precarious Twelve Days that follow before the Sun gains enough power to combat it is reflected in the folk tales of ghosts and fairies temporarily freed from the underworld. In Guernsey the powers of darkness are supposed to be especially active between St. Thomas’s Day (21 December) and New Year’s Eve, and it is dangerous to be out after nightfall. In the Orkneys, precautions had to be taken against supernatural visitors, especially from the influence of the trows, the ugly and malicious fairies of the Northern Isles who leave the underworld at Yule. [3] In the Scandinavian countries on Christmas Eve people stayed indoors so as not to meet the spirits. In Sweden the trolls were abroad.  In Iceland the thirteen Yule Lads or Jolasveinar appear. Though today they have become cuddly gift bringers, leaving presents for good children and potatoes for naughty ones, originally they were terrifying characters, the sons of two undead trolls, Gryla and Leppaludi who stole and ate naughty children. The Yule boys start arriving during the days before Christmas to cause mischief. 

The Hag Goddess comes into her supremacy during the Twelve Nights and flies through the midnight skies, accompanied by wild women, ghosts and other spirits, collecting the souls of the dead, especially those unbaptised at the time of their death. Usually described as a spinner, she is a crone with long nose, or perhaps a nose made of iron, or she has iron teeth.[4] She sometimes carried a pitcher of live coals or a cauldron to burn the distaffs of lazy spinners.[5] However, though she was severe in her punishments, she rewarded those who pleased her, and her passing blessed the land with fertility. It was she who gave newborns their destiny.

Frau Gauden and her twenty four daughters were often seen during the Twelve Nights, and where she passed by with her dogs, the harvest would be good. Folk songs remember Fru Gauden as a giver of auspicious gifts to children. In northern Germany the Hag was Frau Holle or Frau Holt. To placate the goddess and her host, people would leave out offerings. In Germany the Hollenzopf (‘Hölle’s braid’) plaited loaf was left out. Holda, whose name means ‘the kindly one’ brought rewards for diligent spinners, and on every New Year’s Eve, between nine and ten o’clock, she drove in a carriage full of presents through villages where respect had been shown to her. At the crack of her whip the people would come out to receive her gifts. In Hesse and Thuringia she was imagined as a beautiful woman clad in white with long golden hair, and, when it snows hard, people said “Frau Holle is shaking her featherbed.” She is derived from the Germanic sky goddess Holda or Hulda, who was also a goddess of fertility, the hearth and spinning.[6]

More frightening still are the Greek Kallikantzaroi who appear during the Twelve Days. They are half-animal, half-human monsters, black, hairy, with huge heads, red eyes, goats’ or asses’ ears, lolling red tongues, ferocious tusks, long curved claws and animals’ feet. Though they normally live in the underworld, at this time they attempt to climb up the World Tree to emerge on earth. In the Macedonian plain of Saraghiol, the Kallikantzaroi emerge from a stone named Kiatra Schuligan, beneath which an abyss opens, black and deep, and the sound of laughter, sobs and screams can be heard issuing from it, along with the sounds of pipes and beating drums.  [7] The signal for their final departure does not come until Twelfth Night with the Kalanda festival, when the ‘Blessing of the Waters’ ceremony takes place. Like other such creatures elsewhere, they are often said to be spirits of the dead. Children born at Christmas are susceptible to becoming Kallikantzaroi, as are people with inept guardian angels. In some places they are thought to be transformed humans placed under a spell after being born with a caul during the Twelve Nights.   

This is a characteristic they share with the werewolf, a man who is supposed to change into a ravening wolf – ‘man-wolves’ is the name given to the Kallikantzaroi in southern Greece. The connection between Christmas and werewolves is not confined to Greece. According to a belief in the north and east of Germany, children born during the Twelve Nights become werewolves, while in Livonia and Poland that period is the special season for the werewolf’s rapacity.[8] The wolf is associated both with the wild side of nature and the time of chaos and boundaries. In Norse myth the Fenris wolf embodies the forces of night and chaos and will bring about Ragnorok, when those forces will overwhelm the world.

Only when the reborn Sun gains sufficient strength, at the end of the twelve days, will the spirits of chaos be sent back to the underworld and the new year can begin in proper form.

© Anna Franklin


[1] Nigel Jackson, Compleat Vampire, Capall Bann, Chieveley

[2] The “Pagan Days” by Max Dashu, http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB07/scholar.htm

[3] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Vega, London,

[4] The Russian witch goddess Baba Yaga had iron teeth and flew with witches at the summer solstice.

[5] Max Dashu http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/witchtregenda.html

[6] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Fairy Encyclopaedia, Vega, London 2002

[7] This Macedonian lore of the kallikantzaroi connects high rock formations with the dead, especially infants who died without baptism. Similar associations were made by the Scots, who used to have a custom of burying unbaptised babies among inaccessible rocks. The child’s spirit entered into the rocks and became the echo (called ‘child of the rock’ in Gaelic).

[8] Nigel Jackson, Compleat Vampyre, Cappall Bann. Chieveley, 1995

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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