The Rauhnächte: The Twelve Nights
The Rauhnächte (also Raunächte or smoke nights), are the twelve nights; inner nights or sub nights that in the European tradition are attributed a special importance. Usually, it is the Twelve Days of Christmas from Christmas Day (December 25th) to the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), and occasionally other periods, for example those between St. Thomas’s Day and New Year’s. According to popular belief, the stormy forces of midwinter withdrew in the night of January 6th, which marked the time when “the wild hunt” went to rest at the end of the rough nights.
The etymology of the word Rauhnacht is controversial. According to one view, it goes back to the Middle High German word rûch (“hairy”), which is still used today in this meaning in skinning as “rough goods” or “smoked goods” for fur goods. It would also refer to fur-clad demons who are up to mischief on these nights, or perhaps to rituals around livestock. Another derivation of the word Rauhnacht comes from the traditional smoking of the stables with incense by the priest or the farmer.
The custom probably has its origin in the calendar after a lunar year. A year of twelve lunar months comprises only 354 days. As in all simple, “non- intercalating lunisolar calendars” (i.e. all lunar calendars that do not insert entire lunar months in a multi-year rhythm as leap months in order to stay in line with the solar year), the eleven days missing on the 365 days of the solar year—or twelve nights—inserted as “dead days.” These are days “outside of time,” in particular outside of the lunar monthly calculation.
Such days are often widely assumed in mythologies that the laws of nature have been overridden and that the borders to other worlds have therefore fallen. In many cultures that use such a calendar system, this period of time is often associated with rituals and folk customs. It is also assumed that the customs around the “winter return” at the end of Mardi Gras are related to this. They represent an intercalation with regard to the beginning of the year with the spring equinox.