Winternights (Vetrnætr) is one of the three major festivals celebrated in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the others being midwinter (Yule, Jól/Jólablót, Hökunótt) and the beginning of the summer raiding season (Sigrblót “Victory Blot” or Sumarmál). Snorri Sturluson wrote of these festivals in the Ynglinga saga of the Heimskringla: “There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory.”
Although the names and dates of these festivals have been recorded, very little information survives attesting to the types of celebration and worship. There also appears to be a great deal of variation between regions.
“Winter nights” was not mentioned by name in the Heimskringla, however sacrifices (blóts) held in Scandinavia at the beginning of winter during this time include álfablót and dísablót. Álfablót was a sacrifice held in private for the local spirits, the alfar (elves or male ancestors). As Freyr is the lord of Alfheim, some associate him with Winternights celebrations. Dísablót was usually a public sacrifice performed by the king, honouring the dísir (female ancestors). Odin, the All Father, is also sometimes associated with Winternights.
Winternights was celebrated for a period of three days in mid-October, observing the end of the summer half of the year and the beginning of the winter half. The Old Icelandic/Norse calendars were kept on a lunar basis, rather than solar, therefore the exact dates vary. In the Old Icelandic calendar, the beginning of winter was said to occur after the 26th week of summer, however scholars attest that Winternights can be held anywhere from October 11th to 26th on the modern calendar.
As Christianity replaced paganism throughout Scandinavia, these festivals were slowly replaced and reinvented with Christian ones, such as shifting Winternights to November 1 to coincide with All Saint’s Day. Although Winternights is held around the same time of year, and celebrates the harvest and the ancestors, it is not the same festival as Celtic Samhain or modern-day Halloween.
Common themes surrounding this time of year include the slaughter of animals before the winter appeared, as feeding livestock over the long winter would use a lot of resources, and farmers would use the meat for sustenance during the lean winter months. This time of slaughter was associated with large feasts and celebrations, sometimes termed vetrnátta blót, where revellers would thank the gods and ancestors, and celebrate the year’s bounty and abundance. These celebrations would also be associated with the ceremonial drinking of ale (sumbel), most likely filled with story-telling and boasting.
Winternights is an important Heathen festival marking the turning point at which the light and warmth of summer gives way to the darkness of winter. It is a time to give thanks for our abundant harvest and appease the gods in hopes of a favourable winter.
Let’s embrace the darkness and give thanks for all we have. Hail Vetrnætr!
© West Coast Pagan