‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a ‘sacred and festive season’ marked by Christians between Christmas Day (25th December) and the Epiphany (6th January). It was instituted by the Council of Tours in 567 to mark the period between the birth of Jesus and the revelation he is God incarnate on the visit of the magi.
For me, as a Brythonic polytheist who venerates Gwyn ap Nudd as Winter’s King, the mid-winter holy days have always felt particularly special and sacred. They begin with Eponalia, on 18th December, the feast of the horse-goddess and midwife of the sun. This is followed by the Winter Solstice, 21st / 22nd December, the height of Gwyn’s reign and presence within the land. 24th December is Mother’s Night and, although this is traditionally an Anglo-Saxon festival, one I associate with the Mother Goddesses such as Matrona/Modron and Anrhuna. 25th December is the day of the rebirth of the sun-child Maponos/Mabon. Then the next twelve days are a time of rest and celebration based around casting out the old year and welcoming in and preparing for the new.
Over the past few years I have noticed an increasing number of other pagans and polytheists exploring ways of marking these holy days. There are existing traditions of using them for divination. From my mum I learnt of the tradition of recording one’s dreams and linking them numerically to the calendar months. Cailtin Matthews has suggested using the Twelve Days for reading nature omens in a similar way.
In his essay ‘On the First Day of Christmas, the Dead brought back to me…’ Lee Davies connects the Twelve Days with Gwyn, the Wild Hunt, and the dead, who ride out to clear the ground for the New Year and also bring blessings of prosperity. He speaks of the koryos tradition in which people not only embody but ‘become the dead’ – a possible root of the misrule associated with the Twelfth Night.
With this in mind I decided to use the Twelve Days as a period of more intensive prayer and prayer writing for Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn and the dead with whom he rides out on his hunt through the winter months. This resulted in a series of visions and visionary dialogues. Here I share a selection from the twelve prayers.
Twelve Days of Prayer
is to open
the little box of the heart
to let in the god who cannot fit within
two sides of a membrane
flap, dissolve like
between the worlds
when you ride from the mist
on a creature somewhat like a horse
two hounds with teeth within teeth
all the countless uncontainable
monsters of Annwn
this little box
I sometimes call a heart.
When it bursts and otherworlds
spill forth I know it is
so much more.
You are ghost.
You and your legions.
You clothe yourselves
in cloud, in mist, you move
through our world like the wind.
Sometimes we hear you passing through.
Sometimes we sense only your silence
as you fill our vales with neither
your presence or absence.
Sometimes I feel ashamed
of my flesh and my fear to follow
you into battle in the wars that
rage on between the worlds.
Could it be that I’m afraid of death?
Of seeing my ghost looking back at me
as I write this poem from amongst your kind?
“You wear your flesh and your fear well.”
You speak in the voice that turns gold to leaves
and flesh to dust and skin to paper bearing
an elegy on the heels of your host.
“Fierce bull of battle,
awesome leader of many,”
I find myself whispering
Gwyddno’s words as though
they were the beginning
of an ancient prayer.
“Who will protect me?”
“I will protect you.”
Your armour is a night
of stars and each of them
wields a spear against
my deep demonic fears.
I am awed by your strength
as I am mystified by its origin
for to whom does a god turn?
To whom does a god pray?
I see a bull striding majestic
down a passageway of light
into the infinite brightness
of a star, a heart, a fortress,
the Otherworld within his chest.
I come to pray
when I want to scream.
If I could comprehend you
could I contain the spirits within?
I fear to scream is the obliteration
of all prayer until you show me
how you tend to all the silent
and the unsilent screams
for a scream is prayer
I pray to you
as your awenydd
as your inspired poet
speak of my restlessness
the jangling of spirits within
my intimation I could be
so much more and you say:
“Poetry is more than rhyming words.
Awen is more than human speech.
The soul of the earth is living poetry
and each soul itself a poem breathed –
part of the divine breath which keeps
the rivers afloat, the mountains high,
the deer running through the woodlands,
the birds in the skies, the flowers growing
upwards turning their heads towards the sun.
And has the power to transform it all –
hurricanes, volcanic flames, tidal waves,
the death-wind from a nuclear blast creating
the wolves with glowing eyes and the monsters
with limbs where there should not be limbs
spoken of by awenyddion of long ago.
It can destroy (or fix) everything.
Why do you think I keep the awen
in a cauldron in a fortress that disappears
that spins that is shrouded by mystery and mist
and is sometimes known as the towers of the winds
and sometimes as the whale’s belly?
There is nothing more – I should know
for I have sought, I have hunted, with every
hound of Annwn beyond where the winds
of Thisworld and Otherworld blow beyond
the Universe and its moment of conception and
come back with nothing on my bloodless spear,
my hounds with nothing in their empty jaws,
bearing nothing in my empty hands but
knowing a little more about nothing.
One cannot be any more and about nothing
there is nothing to be said so be happy
as you are, awenydd, whilst still
a bearer of the divine breath.”
is a shining bow
washed in the light
of the New Year’s sun.
I pray for the strength to draw it.
I pray for the patience to carve the arrows
each engraved with the words of a spell.
I pray for the focus to shoot true,
mind, body, and bow as one,
straight to the heart.