I’m sure you’ve noticed we’re deep in the “holiday season,” our yearly exercise in excessive expectations. Contrary to any purported “war on Christmas,” it begins to feel like Black Friday now begins on Thursday before we’ve swallowed our last bites of pumpkin pie. By now, lines form, credit cards max out, “seasonal” music flows out of every storefront and strings of light sparkle everywhere. I love the fun and have no intention of “Grinching” out on you, but another part of me yearns for something quieter.
This Friday, December 21, is the Winter Solstice, also called Yule, which is either the first day of winter or “midwinter,” depending on your tradition. Winter is the season our ancestors had to survive, so welcoming it has a primal aspect we often miss in the middle of procuring cards and bows. Friday is, in fact, the shortest, darkest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere), but celebration is in order: this very short day is the same day the scales tip back, and every span of daylight from now until midsummer will be a tiny bit longer than the one before. It’s the rebirth of light!
While I love cards and bows as much as the next gal, I do wonder how we might put the actual Yule back in Yuletide. Well, if Santa can make a list, so can I!
1. Honor the Dark
Friday is the longest night of the entire year. To me, there’s a silent holiness to the long dark, a place to dream deeply. I like to honor it by burning frankincense and myrrh, and stepping out of the action for a moment to be perfectly still, maybe even on my back under the covers, inhaling hope, exhaling fear, attuned to the subtle shift from one thing to the next. Every birth begins in the dark. If you’re lucky, you might barely hear that secret movement–not Santa’s reindeer on the roof (though that’s fun too), but the Goddess in her darkest aspect as she births the sun.
2. Make Light
Yule began as an indigenous midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples to honor the return of light, and this important seasonal shift has been an auspicious day for humans around the globe. Persian Mithraists celebrated the birth of their Sun God, Mithras, on December 25th. In Sweden, the goddess Lucina, the Shining One, was celebrated on December 13th. My own ancestors lit Yuletide bonfires to honor Odin, the long-bearded god. The deities of Yule include all newborn gods, sun gods and mother goddesses, including Brighid, who taught smiths the art of fire tending. Her flame, like the flame of new light, pierces the darkness of the spirit and mind.
This Friday, the sun is reborn (hard as it may be to believe when dusk falls at 4:15). That new light is precious and delicate. Coax it forward with candles, a fire, a Yule log, bright twinkles. Then pause and consider what other newborn possibilities may be only just tapping your shoulder. Honor rebirth, renewal, beginnings, little things that get much bigger when they’re properly tended.
3. Get Warm
Survival, for some of us, may be a less pressing concern than it was to our ancestors, but even sitting on the couch in my drafty Brooklyn apartment, I admit the cold feels unkind. Death is literally ten feet away out my living room window, and I must participate in the rituals of warding it off. What are those? Well, hoarding warmth, of course!
The Roman festival of Saturnalia was held on the Winter Solstice, where boughs of evergreen would decorate houses. If you have to, turn up the heat (if you have it), but why not explore other angles? What could be more heart-warming than to haul in an evergreen tree and light it up? What’s more survival-invoking than hats and sweaters and socks, in reassuring colors like red and green and gold? What’s more comforting than to adorn ourselves and our surroundings in the layers of life? So build a fire and hang wreaths, mistletoe and holly. Stud an orange with whole cloves, and encourage yourself with symbols of ongoing life, health and hope at the bottom of the cold, dark season.
If you have the means, buy gifts for everyone you know (especially from small businesses ;)), and gratefully receive the gifts you are given. But make gifts too, edible and inedible, expert and amateur-hour! Save a treat for the postman. Offer your seat on the train. Donate to causes you care about. Reach out to people in emotional and physical pain. Offer your attention, your ear, your kindness. Reflect on gifts and what they mean. Friday initiates the season of scarcity, and it is a time-honored tradition to invite abundance by extending it. We’re all in this together!
Beginning at the Summer Solstice, the Holly King–who also appears as The Ghost of Christmas Present–presides over the diminishing light. Friday is his last night on earth! (His counterpart, the Oak King, will rule the next half of the year as the light grows ever longer.)
Climatic solstices are merry moments for stoking our spirits in whatever form we give them. So gather. Share. Raise a toast to the Holly King–he’ll be back! And sing. Be merry. Invite joy with your voices. Sing for consolation and comfort of those in despair. That newborn light will take some time to come of age, and in the season where we have traditionally feared for our survival, what makes more sense than to warm our throats with hot drinks and encouraging songs?
While you’re at it, raise a glass of your mulled wine to Cailleach, that austere old hag of winter. She is not a goddess of any one thing, but a deity who is both transcendent and immanent, connected with rivers, lakes and wells, the sea and storms, rocks and mountains, mammals and birds and fish, trees and plants, the Scots’ “old wife of thunder.” Where better to appreciate her stark perfection than here in the harsh season? Cheers!!!
Eat! Craft a meal. Roast something. Make cookies and cocoa. Enjoy an apple, a rutabaga. What’s more fortifying than to fatten ourselves, as much as we are able, against the elements with food and sweets? When you nourish your loved ones and yourself, you honor what sustains us. Put your faith in the abundance that new seasons will bring, celebrate sweetness, and pass it around the table.
List checked! As for me, on this Yuletide, I’ll burn incense of pine and cedar to honor introspection. Then I’ll stoke the new light with a red candle, sip a mug or two of grogg, warm my throat with carols, bask in the physical warmth of the fire and of other bodies gathered near, extend the emotional warmth of gifts, tangible and intangible, and feast on food and fun. Then I’ll pause for a quick, silent nod to that newborn light that won’t stop growing until I thank its astonishing bounty on June 21.
If cultural norms require you to navigate inflated expectations, at least remember that you are included among the people you are called to care for. So take a deep breath of cold air, and once your to-do list is scratched off, enjoy the stunning sleep weather! The light is growing, so you better rest up. Merry Yuletide!
3 red apples
3 oz brown sugar
2 pints brown ale, apple cider, or hard cider
1/2 pint dry sherry or dry white wine
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger strips or lemon peel
Core and heat the apples with brown sugar and some of the ale or cider in an oven for 30 minutes. Put them in a large saucepan, add the rest of the spices and lemon peel, and simmer on the stove top for 5 minutes. Add most of the alcohol at the last minute so that it heats up but does not evaporate. Burgundy and brandy can be substituted to the ale and sherry. White sugar and halved oranges may also be added to taste, as well as whole star anise. Makes enough for eight.