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
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.
From the book:
“Pagan Christmas “ by Christian Ratch and Claudia Muller - Ebeling