Sacred Nights, Smudging Nights, and Incense

Our ancestors called the twelve days between December 25 and January 6—

the time between the first day of Christmas and epiphany (the day of the

holy kings) the raw nights.” They are now more generally known as the

twelve nights of Christmas. They also recognized four “smudging nights” dur-

ing which the people smudged their homes and stables with herbs to protect

against evil influences.

Old tradition has it that during these nights—especially the nights before

St. Thomas Day, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and epiphany—the spirits are

out, haunting. In these dark times, ruled by elemental powers, the spectral

army of Wotan’s wild hunt hurried through the clouds, uncanny spirit beings

fighting the battle between light and darkness. In his unfinished epic, Pharsalia

(also known as The Civil War), Lucan (39-65 ce) describes the emotions of

people of a remote past:

Nature’s rhythm stops. The night becomes longer and the day keeps wait-

ing. The ether does not obey its law; and the whirling firmament becomes

motionless, as soon as it hears the magic spell. Jupiter—who drives the

celestial vault that turns on its fast axis—is surprised by the fact that it

does not want to turn. All at once, witches drench everything with rain,

hide the warm sun behind clouds, and there’s thunder in the sky without

Jupiter realizing it (Lucan, VI).


Rituals were in order to ward off the demonic influences and to conjure a rebirth of the sun after the dark days. At nightfall, “house and stable were smudged with healing herbs: mug-wort, juniper, milk thistle, fir resin” (Storl 2000b, 150). Because of these smudging rituals (originally pagan and

later performed by Catholic priests), these nights were known as “smudging nights.” People burned juniper and many other aromatic substances to drive out demons. The smoke transformed the aromatic woods and herbs into scent that was supposed to implore the gods to take mercy on human

beings and to keep away all evil. They also placed various combinations of magical herbs (called “nine herbs”) in their beds for protection and mixed them into their animals’ food.

The smudging nights are still taken seriously in Scandinavia. 



Incense for the Holy Nights

The essence of smoking is the essence of life, and the aroma of the spirit.

Arvigo and Epstein 2001, 65


The German word for Christmas, Weihnachten, comes from the Middle High

German Wihenaht, which has been documented as far back as the latter half of

the twelfth century, the time of Hildegard von Bingen. The Old High German

verb wihen comes from the adjective weich (holy), a usage that died out in the

sixteenth century. Weihrauch (incense) goes back to the Middle High German

wifhjrouch and the Old High German wihrouch, which mean “holy smoke.”

All of this goes to prove that incense is an essential element for the Christmas


The primary meaning of the German word weihrauch is “smoke for invo-

cation” or “sacred smoke.” It refers in particular to the aromatic smoke that

results from the burning of a smoking (or incense) substance, or a substance

transformed by burning to produce a smoke that distributes itself throughout

a room. In modern usage, weihrauch is a synonym for any substance burned

to produce smoke. It is largely associated with the incense used in Catholic

churches, even though this ancient “smudging” practice takes place all over the

world, in numerous religions and cultures.

The use of incense is no invention of the Christian church. Smudging and

incense burning are fundamentally human activities, ancient behaviors that

people from all ages and regions have discovered, developed, and treasured.

In the Himalayas, the shamans told us that their ancestors, the first shamans,

introduced smudging around sixty thousand years ago as an essential element

of shamanism. Shamans of all cultures report something along the same lines,

that the incense substances they use were discovered by their first shamans or

were revealed to the shamans by messengers of the gods. Shamans

all over the world also adhere to the belief that the smoke liber-

ated by the fire that burns the incense carries the soul of the sub-

stance mto the otherworld, the world of gods and goddesses. The

holy smoke is transformed into a divine nectar, the most desired

potion, the godly food needed to prevent aging, just like the golden

apples of Idun or Freia.

The gods are as dependent on the favor of human beings as

humans are on the favor of the gods. In the shamamc cosmos, there

IS no one god lording over his chosen people and punishing them '

for wrongdoing. The shamanic cosmos is holistic: Everything is

part of one meaning, and m one or more different contexts every-

thing IS interdependent on all other things. Incense burning and

smudging are an expression of give and take, exchange, mutuality.

They represent a holistic pattern and a spiritual process, a ritual

of consciousness.


Thus we see that incense burning and smudging are among

the oldest ritual practices of humanity. Shamans put themselves

into a trance state with the smoke that rises from certain woods,

resms, and leaves. The prophet (seer) inhales the smoke of the

consciousness-altering substance in order to fall into ecstasy.


Priestesses and priests burned resins to make contact with the gods and god-

desses. With incense, one can conjure or drive out demons, sanctify and purify

buildings, and introduce the sick or possessed to delicious scents or dreadful

stinks. Aromatic smoke was believed to have magical and medicinal attributes;

different incenses were associated with specific gods and planets. 


In Scandinavia, Children letters to Father Christmas were burned in the open fire, because this

was the only way one could be sure the message would reach Father Christmas

Incense for the smudging nights of Christmas fulfills most of the purposes

stated here. It enables contact with the otherworld and the gods and goddesses

who dwell there. It points the way to the wild chase, feeds the dead souls of

the ancestors, wards off demons and evil shamans (“witches and sorcerers”)

cleanses and purifies house and yard, and prevents the spread of contagious’

illnesses. Perhaps most important for modern people, incense gives rise to a

ritualistic holy feeling. In short, it marks the time of the twelve raw nights and

announces the arrival of Christmastime.



This article was published on Friday 09 December, 2016.