The beginning of the winter season for the Northern folk. Rememberances of the dead and one’s ancestors were made during this feast. Winternights was a ceremony of wild abandon; much like the Carnivale season in the Mediterranean countries, and it marked the end of the summer season of commerce and travel and the beginning of the winter season of hunting. Much divination was done during Winternights to foretell the fates of those entering the coming year. It was said that if one sat on a barrow-mound (grave) all night long on Winternights, one would have full divinatory, shamanic (galdr and seith), and bardic (skaldr) powers . . . that is, if one retained one’s sanity! Winternights marked the beginning of the Wild Hunt, which would continue until Walpurgisnacht. This festival corresponds roughly to the Celtic Samhain, and the modern American festival of Halloween, although the darker aspects of the festival are not as pronounced among the Norse people. (The Norse festival of darkness was Walpurgis, a full 6 months away).
Some Nordic-inspired groups call it Winter Nights, as winter is coming on. Hela, Goddess of the Dead, is honored on this day, as is Mordgud the guardian of the Underworld, Nidhogg the corpse-eating dragon, Hlin the Goddess of Grief, and Hermod who walked the road to Hel. The Norns (Fates) can be honored here (or sometimes on December 30, modern New Year’s Eve, to foretell the year’s future). Because the veils between the worlds are thin at this time, Vor the goddess of divination may be honored. Baldur, Nanna, and Hoder may be honored in their after-death form as deities of light in darkness. The ancestors and beloved Dead are, of course, hailed at this time, but they may also be hailed rightly at any other holiday, as there is a strong streak of ancestor worship in the Northern Tradition.
Winternights is held the 31st of October. Winternights marked the final end of harvest and the time when the animals that were not expected to make it through the winter were butchered and smoked or made into sausage. The festival is also called “Elf-Blessing”, “Dis-Blessing”, or “Frey-Blessing”, which tells us that it was especially a time of honouring the ancestral spirits, the spirits of the land, the Vanir, and the powers of fruitfulness, wisdom, and death. It marks the turning of the year from summer to winter, the turning of our awareness from outside to inside. Among the Norse, the ritual was often led by the woman of a family – the ruler of the house and all within. One of the commonest harvest customs of the Germanic people was the hallowing and leaving of the “Last Sheaf” in the field, often for Odin and/or his host of the dead, though the specifics of the custom vary considerably over its wide range. The Wild Hunt begins to ride after Winternights, and the roads and fields no longer belong to humans, but to ghosts and trolls. The Winternights feast is also especially seen as a time to celebrate our kinship and friendship with both the living and our earlier forebears. It marks the beginning of the long dark wintertime at which memory becomes more important than foresight, at which old tales are told and great deeds are toasted as we ready ourselves for the spring to come. It is a time to think of accomplishments achieved and those which have yet to be made. Winternights also marks the beginning of a time of indoor work, thought and craftsmanship.
These festival and feast celebrated the accessibility, veneration, awe, and respect of the dead. This was also a time for contemplation. To the ancient Germanic peoples death was never very far away, and it viewed as a natural and necessary part of life. To die was not as much of a surprise or tragedy it is in modern times and death as not viewed as something “scary” or “evil”. Of higher importance to the Germanic people was to live & die with honour and thereby live on in the memory of the tribe and be honoured at this great feast.
Starting on this night, the great divisions between the worlds was somewhat diminished which can allow the forces of chaos to invade the realms of order, the material world conjoining with the world of the dead. At this time began the Wild hunt in which the restless spirits of the dead and those yet to be born walked amongst the living. The dead could return to the places where they had lived and food and entertainment were provided in their honour. In this way the tribes were at one with its past, present and future.
Again, the Christians forcefully subverted the sacred Germanic Heathen calendar to honour Christianity, Winter nights on October 31 became “All Hallows Eve” and November 1st was declared “All Saint’s Day”.