Now that even the calendar that is based on the Romans’ reckoning of the year has let us know that a new year is upon us (Celts and others may have celebrated that already at the Winter Solstice), we are all busy with resolutions and plans for the time to come.
But before we venture out to try this new diet, to really go running every day, to hunt down the all-promising job, or to finally take on this home improvement project, we could stop for a moment and contemplate how to clean the house – literally and figuratively. Let’s clear out the old clutter from the past year, all that stuff that may hold us back, even make us give up on our resolutions.
Fortunately, our ancestors came up with some ideas already in ye olden days, and we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. In the Alps, our forbears celebrated the so-called Raunächte (possibly meaning smoke-nights, referring to fumigating or smudging). I have already elaborated on these in an earlier blog-post, but this year I would like to concentrate more on the fumigating and cleansing aspect of this magical time.
Let’s have a look first at what we are doing here. Fumigating or smudging has been an age-old ritual to cleanse an area or an aura for many centuries, possibly going back into Pre-Christian times. But we don’t have to go back that far, because we know, for example, that in remote Alpine hospitals, rooms were smoked out with Juniper to cleanse the air of infectious agents still in the 1930s. And, more prominently, farmers to this day smoke out houses and stables during the Raunächte. The fumes are not only ridding the air of bacteria and viruses, but also and most importantly of bad spirits, those that kept your ambitions at bay last year already .
So, what to do? You’d need dried herbs and incense, a heat source, and a container that holds both, where the smoke can freely expand into the rooms. You might want to use something that’s easy to hold without burning your hands, and that is large enough to hold some ember (or an incense charcoal). In the Alps, we use a small pan for that. If you cleanse out the house with a group of people, you might give one of them a broom to sweep the bad spirits out the house as well.
Typically, we use a mixture of Mugwort, the Machtwurz or “power-root” (where the power refers to that of magic), Juniper (for health) and some dried tree sap (fir, spruce, or larch). I get the sap directly from trees when I take walks in the wood. Since it’s a tree’s defense mechanism, I don’t scratch it from open “wounds” (or worse, cut into the tree to make the tree issuing sap).
There are usually enough tree stumps where you can still find clusters of sap, with the added benefit that it may already be dry. Mugwort and other herbs are best collected at the Summer Solstice or between August 15 and September 16 (the Frauendreißigt). I have had the best results with drying when bundling them up into bunches not thicker than I can hold between thumb and index finger, with both their tips still touching. I hang these bunches in a dry place where they are not exposed to the sun. The Juniper twigs can be just be laid on a flat surface, but also without exposure to sunlight.
The sap should be put on the ember/charcoal first, and the herbs on top, so that the latter don’t burn too fast. With that in the pan, you (and your family and friends) walk from room to room, from the most backwards one to the one closest to the front door. All the while, you’d hold the pan in front of you, blow into it to heat up the ember, and add tree sap and herbs as needed.
What folks also often do is make some noise while fumigating the house, with cow bells, drums, even by banging with cooking utensils on pots and pans. Anything to get these lingering spirits out and gift them back to the outdoors. If you are really fancy and so inclined, you could come up with your own spell while smudging and making all that noise!
This is a fun event and should include anyone in the household (although the teenagers may refuse and rather stare at their electronic gadgets). As such it may just be followed by a feast.
All this is done either during any of the twelve Raunächte following the Winter Solstice, or – and this is when I am doing it – on the very last one, the Perchtlnacht. But more about that later…