The venerable Bede (672/673 – 26 May 735, Jarrow, Northeast England) wrote about the customs of the Anglo-Saxon pagans. He, among others, preserved invaluable knowledge of the origins of our western European culture. In his work “The Reckoning of Time”, he describes a festival of the heathens, Mōdraniht, that took place on the night we celebrate as Christmas Eve. It was a holy night, possibly even the holiest night of the year. And it belonged to the Mothers.
What exactly went on that night, is now hidden far in the dusk of time. We can make an educated guess by studying what related people in Europe celebrated. From medieval Scandinavian sources, we know about the custom of Dísablót, a sacrificial holiday, which took place in or around winter as well. Some sources state that women had a central role in these sacrificial rites. Most likely it was a blood ritual to ensure a good harvest the following year, but there is also evidence that the help of the ancestors was called upon. It is no coincidence that women were often in charge of these blood rites. Men ruled the outer world, in warfare and hunting. Women, on the other hand, were the mistresses of the house and the family. The realm of blood and the exact workings of new life was mysterious to them as well, but they were at the very least initiates in this cosmic rhythm. Their role and their lore was just as pivotal to the survival of the clan.
Christmas Eve is still one of the two very holy nights in the liturgical calendar, together with Easter. Many services take place this night. There is a silent anticipation in the air, even for those who care little about Christmas. It is strange to see how the ancient Mōdraniht, the night of the Mothers, almost seamlessly became the night of the one Mother, the Holy Mother of God. Mary stood in high regard, but the rise of Christianity meant the decline of respect for the role of ordinary women and mothers. Instead, the virgin became an important figure. For a long time, being a consecrated virgin, a nun, was the only way for a woman to fill a spiritual position in a community. A virgin set herself aside for supernatural fulfilment and had no dealings with what was almost inevitably a woman’s labour: the gritty and dangerous task of childbirth. A religion that has little or no capacity for the divine female, however, would soon be barren and void. It is no wonder that especially the ordinary people put the Holy Mother and other female saints on a pedestal, almost next to God and Jesus Christ himself. They needed to confide in and connect to an earthly, a motherly deity, that had lived through their ordeal. The Roman Catholic Church, on account of its vast expansion, had to incorporate the female element into its traditions. Mary tended to appear spontaneously to people underneath a tree, near a rock or a well. Her help, and that of other saints, was called upon for fertility, childbirth and health. She filled the gap between the natural and the supernatural world.
Today, we know almost all of the inner workings of motherhood. Yet the clear, cold light of science cannot shine everywhere. Most natural births still start at night, when it is quiet and dark, and safe. The reason is not entirely clear. Maybe it is easier to concentrate on the consecrated assignment of bringing a new human being into the world, with a dark blanket to shield us from everything else. And after this one holy night of giving birth, it is still often the mother that wakes to feed her child for many nights after. These days, we celebrate Mother’s Day on a bright and blustery day in spring, and celebrate our living mothers. But maybe a Mother’s Night would be much more appropriate: a special night to celebrate the blood sacrifice of our mothers and the countless and nameless mothers before them.
Whatever we choose to believe, we are all children of the same divine Mother. You could call the unspeakable God. If you prefer the more rational terms, you could call it the universe. We all spring forth from this same source. We are literally expressed, propulsed by the prime mover, the logical consequence of a story that started a very long time ago. Behind Grandma and Grandpa, our ancestors seem to blur into a faceless and nameless benevolence. But the fact is we are loved and are able to love today because they loved. Even if your own mother or father let you down in this respect, there must have been others to hold and help you in small ways, a caring presence in your life. Tonight we commemorate and share in the sweet suffering of the old universe that brought us here. We have to go through a dark night, a winter if you will, of rebirth before we can share in the new daylight and the crisp winter air. It is the beginning of a new year.