Hardly any other custom reminds me of the quiet last days before Christmas as much as burning incense on St. Thomas’ Eve, the traditional way of getting in the mood for the Twelve Nights. Not far from the house where I grew up, there is a small chapel under a large pine tree. I used to go there with my grandfather to burn incense in the chapel. It was usually bitterly cold winter nights, and the only source of light on our way to the hill on which the chapel stands was a lantern. Once there, we burned incense over charcoal in a small pan until it glowed. Then we returned to the house and burned incense in all the rooms until they were covered in a thick whitish mist.
Today, a good 15 years later, the scent of incense still takes me back to those nights. I have kept up the tradition of burning incense, friends have brought me incense blends from various Arab countries from their travels, which have their very own scent compositions. Burning incense is a ritual that is not only limited to Europe. In Arab culture, for example, clothing is still traditionally disinfected and freed from bad smells by being smoked. Before traditional ceremonies indigenous peoples of North America used to burn incense in the rooms in which they took place and the people who took part in them in order to free them from bad energy. In India, incense has been used for thousands of years in Hindu ceremonies and rituals as a sacrifice to honour the gods.
This short historical foray shows that the beginning of incense probably goes back to the beginning of the first civilisations and that the collected knowledge was passed on over generations. Thus, people increasingly recognised which plants and resins were particularly suitable for incense burning. Through the Celts, the later Germanic tribes and Christianity, incense was also practised in our country and continued from generation to generation until today. Nowadays, incense is burned in Catholic churches for high festivals, and the so-called “church mixture” is used for this purpose. It is an incense mixture of styrax, myrrh and other resins. These high church festivals are not only in the run-up to Christmas. In the same way, incense can also be used at home at any time, for example, when a death occurs or during the flu season.
Here in our region, many people burn incense in their living rooms or also in the stables where the cattle are housed during the Twelve Nights to get rid of old and bad things and to bless people and animals. The period between Christmas and the first days of the new year is deliberately chosen to get rid of old burdens and to start the new year well. The incense mixtures consist of various herbs such as juniper, sage, spruce resin, etc., and almost everyone uses frankincense as a fixed component in the incense burner.
Burning incense in the period from 24th December to 5th January is a mixture of traditional mythological customs and religious rites, a not uncommon phenomenon. Literally, this period used to be called “dead days”, as they represented the difference between a lunar year with 354 days and a solar year with 365 days. Thus, the Celts created 11 intercalary days and 12 nights that virtually did not exist. According to the belief, the laws of nature were suspended during this time and the gates to another world would be open. Thus, by consciously dealing with the Twelve Nights, one could positively influence the coming year, since each night symbolically stood for a month.
Today there are only 3 or 4, depending on whether you count St Thomas’ Eve as well:
- (from 20th to 21st December)
- from 24th to 25th December
- from 31th December to 1st January
- from 5th to 6th January
The myths surrounding this mysterious time have changed little. My grandmother always refused to hang out the washing during the Twelve Nights, because it could bring bad luck for the coming year. When I was a child, I liked the legend that animals could speak during the Twelve Nights and that you could predict the events of the coming year from your dreams.
If you have acquired a taste for this tradition, you will need a few simple utensils and ingredients to burn incense in your home:
- Smoking pan or other fireproof container (alternatively, a pan or small bowl that is no longer needed can be used).
- Charcoal and tongs for the charcoal
- Some sand on which to place the charcoal (this is especially important if a small bowl is used instead of a pan)
- Incense (any resins or herbs can be used here, if you are not sure which ingredients harmonise well with each other, you can find numerous recipes on the internet and also tips on which herbs have a disinfecting, clearing effect etc.)
You can find smoking utensils at the Wallig bookshop in Radstadt, for example. If you are looking for good herbal mixtures, Anja Fischer and her blog Gänseblümchen and Sonnenschein are the right place to go.
First, heat the charcoal until it begins to glow. You can tell that the temperature is right when a white-grey layer forms around the piece of charcoal. Now the incense can be placed on the charcoal. Here, as mentioned above, you can use ingredients according to your taste, but make sure to use only natural substances. Synthetic fragrances could irritate your olfactory system. After smoking, the rooms should be well ventilated to let the old substances leave the house together with the smoke.
I hope you find this short introduction useful and wish you the best of luck with your incense burning and a wonderful pre-Christmas season and happy holidays!
photo credits: Marlene Habersatter