Yule will soon be upon us! And Heathens begin celebrating Yuletide earliest among Pagans because of a growing tradition called Sunwait. This modern tradition is maybe a few decades old, and it originated in Sweden. Sunwait is a mix between Christian Advent wreaths, the runes, and Thorsheldg, a Swedish Heathen tradition. It has only taken hold in the US within the last five years.
The inspiration for Sunwait came from Christian Advent wreaths. German priests started Advent wreaths in the 1800s as a way for children to count the weeks until Christmas. These circular wreaths have four candles that are lit on the four Sundays prior to Christmas. Each candle represents something for the season: hope, peace, joy, and love. During each lighting, participants might recite a specific Bible verse for one of these four virtues.
Sunwait has six candles for the first six runes of the Futhark. People have either carved or painted the runes on the candles themselves or the candle holders. The Swedes hold this small ritual on Thursdays to await the sun’s return at the Winter Solstice.
Kira Tolman, author of Becoming Wanderers, mentions an alternative to celebrating Sunwait on Thursdays. Instead, her family celebrates Sunwait so that the sixth candle is lit on Mother’s Night, the evening before Yule. They celebrate the end of Sunwait in the same ritual that they honor the dísir.
Kira brings up the point that recons can focus too much on reconstructing historical fact. I would agree – we need to be able to breathe life into our traditions; they’re not just ornamental wall hangings.
While I agree that we can’t overly focus on reconstruction, and while I like her method of incorporating Mother’s Night into Sunwait, I do have an argument for celebrating Sunwait on Thursdays.
The Argument for Thursdays
While many Heathens simply see Thursday as “Thor’s Day,” it is much more than a case of interpretatio romana. This is where Thorsheldg comes in. It is a part of Swedish folklore that has sustained itself through the generations, including Christianization.
Jan Tjeerd wrote more about this in his article on Huginn’s Heathen Hof. Apparently one of the organizers of the Sunwait Facebook page stated that Thorsheldg was celebrated by Scandinavian families into the 1800s. These families welcomed pagan gods — particularly Thor and Frigg — into their homes on Thursday nights.
Furthermore, in Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition, Johannes Garbbäck surveys the history and practices of Scandinavian folk magic. He notes that spells are usually cast on Thursdays.
And when discussing the essential parts that make trolldom (magic) work, he had this to say: “During the course of a week the day of power is Thursday, since this was the day when the old tings were held in which the ancestors and deities came down and up to help in the passing of judgments.”* These tings were local to regional assemblies. This is how Scandinavian cultures settled disputes and made political decisions. They were also the sites of public ritual.
There is evidence that throughout Scandinavian history, Thursdays were used for public and private ritual, public hearings, and magic. I would argue that Thursdays should be the holy day of the week for Heathens, akin to Christian Sundays. You don’t have to honor Thor on Thursdays, but Thursdays were certainly important.
I realize I have not provided a lot of evidence here, but I also don’t think many Heathens would disagree that Thursdays are an important day of the week. And while other pagans do not need to care about the significance of Thursdays, I still encourage non-Heathens to celebrate Sunwait on this traditional day of power.
How Do I Celebrate?
For anyone interested in celebrating Sunwait, grab six tea lights and simply carve the runes on the face of each light. While there are many pretty pictures of Sunwait candles, you don’t need something fancy to celebrate. Note that the first week of Sunwait this year starts on Thursday, November 12th.
For the first week, you light the Fehu candle. For the second week, you light Fehu and Uruz. And so on until you light all six candles. Many people read the below rune poem, which honor Sol/Sunna, while they light their candles.
You could also read from any of the historic rune poems when lighting the candles. Alternatively, you could read a story from the Eddas or Sagas that you feel represents that rune. The blog Forn Kunskap suggests meditating on each rune during a Sunwait ritual.
This could get as complicated or be as short as you want. This is a new tradition, and there isn’t much written about HOW you should celebrate Sunwait. A lot of it is open to interpretation.
For the Non-Heathens in the Room
In Gifts of the Wyrd, a popular Heathen podcast, the host explains that his husband has an interesting Wiccan alternative: five candles lit five weeks prior to Yule for each of the elements and for ‘sprit.’ Although the shape of this Wiccan Sunwait isn’t mentioned, I imagine it would be in the shape of a pentagram. I’m sure other pagans can come up with other clever ideas to adapt this practice to their path!
Ultimately, Sunwait is about the returning of the sun, and how we welcome back the sun. It only makes sense to light candles in the darkest time of the year. That’s something most Pagans, and most people, can get behind.
This tradition is catching on more and more every year. I think it is a beautiful and fun way to welcome in Yuletide. It’s important to remember that while we are reconstructing religions from the past, we are also modern people taking part in the creation of modern religions. So try Sunwait out this year! Feel free to adapt it as you need to. Our religions cannot live in the Iron Age and neither can we.
“Advent Wreath.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath.
Kira Tolman. “Sunwait.” Becoming Wanderers. http://ethicaloddities.com/2019/11/16/sunwait/
Jan Tjeerd. “Crafting Yule Traditions with Väntljusstaken (Light-Anticipation-Candlesticks).” Huginn’s Heathen Hof. http://www.heathenhof.com/continuing-vantljusstaken-light-anticipation-candlesticks/
Väntljusstaken / Sunwait candles. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/vantljusstaken
Johannes Garbbäck. Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition. Yronwode Institute for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology. 2015. Pages 40-41.
William Goetz. “Årsväntan.” Forn Kunskap. https://fornkunskap.wordpress.com/2014/11/23/arsvantan/
John “Jan” Hijatt. Väntljusstaken – Sunwait Candle Lighting. Gifts of the Wyrd. https://giftsofthewyrd.podbean.com/e/vantljusstaken/