Winter solstice

I volunteered to write a winter solstice ritual for the Sunnyvale UUFS this year as I had done last year, though I changed it substantially.  It’s ironic because although this time of year is the time to go inward, I usually spend it going from one holiday event to the next.  I particularly love choral singing, especially at beautiful venues like the memorial church at Stanford University.  I heard Chanticleer for the first time last night with my mom and step dad at the UCSF cathedral overlooking Golden Gate park.

In any case, I wanted to include this year’s ritual below for those who don’t know this side of me.  I’ve been interested in earth-based spirituality my whole life, and have participated in and written “pagan” rituals for the last 30 years or so.  Whatever your religious beliefs, I hope this brings you a moment of peace and a chance to reflect before year end.

There is a moment of silence that occurs in midwinter.  All alone under the stillness of a dark sky, we can get quiet enough to hear the whispers of the trees. In days gone by, the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night, brought with it not only the power of the darkness but the promise of light returning. On this day the sun appears to stand still on the equator. Winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is a chance to go inward and hear our deepest thoughts and most profound whisperings.

A 9th century Celtic bard wrote:
I have news for you: the stag bells
Winter snows, summer has gone, wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high
Deep red the bracken, its shape is lost
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry
Cold has seized the birds wings
Season of ice
This is my news

All over the world, people have enjoyed and celebrated this special time of year. In Iran, families would keep fires burning all night to assist the battle between the light and dark forces. In ancient Rome, solstice was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, or the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. During the solstice, Roma masters celebrated with their slaves as equals. In 300 AD, the bishop of Myra, later Saint Nicholas, used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Wanting to bring something of joy to poor children in his parish, he would slip into houses at night and in secret and leave gifts in the shoes of the poorest children.

In King Arthur’s tales, the Green Knight comes to Arthur’s hall as Christmas festivities are under way. He offers a strange game – that someone should strike the knight with all the other’s strength knowing that he in turn receive such a blow in a year’s time. Only Gawain is brave enough to accept the challenge, and he undergoes many trials before the tale ends. Once his head is severed, the green knight is able to pick it up and await the coming challenger – something Gawain is unable to do. The green knight is the incarnate spirit of winter, able to present the frightening challenge as a prelude to the battle for the spring maiden.

The Celts associated winter solstice with the Great Bear or Alban Arthuan, meaning light of the Bear.  The Bear was associated with the North, the realm of conception & incarnation, of inspiration.  The Light of the Bear was also directly associated with Ursa Major, the big dipper, whose stars shone through the darkness of Winter. When the Sun was at its lowest, the stillness of nature offered inspiration to enter the quiet of the people’s inner darkness.

Many traditions now associated with Christmas are believed to have originated centuries earlier with nature-based communities and indigenous peoples. The idea of Santa Claus flying through the air and going down chimneys may have been influenced by the first shamans who climbed high into the upper worlds and returned with gifts of wisdom and prophecies, as well as by Siberian Shaman, who came from cultures that venerated reindeer. The word “yule” comes from the Anglo-Saxon term for “wheel,” and in pagan Scandinavia, village people sat around bonfires all night burning logs from the previous year while drinking mead and listening to the stories of minstrel-poets. The evergreen that decked the house was introduced in medieval and resurfaced in the Victorian era, earlier meant to represent the lord and lady of the greenwood, who were honored by hanging green garlands from ridge poles in houses.

A modern Celtic harpist and bard, Adam Christianson, writes:
When harpers once in wooden hall
A shining chord would strike
Their songs like arrows pierced the soul
Of great and low alike
Aglow by hearth and candle flame
From burning branch or ember
The mist of all their music sang
As if to ask in wonder
Is there a moment quite as keen
Or memory as bright
As light and fire and music sweet
To warm the winter’s night?

The 12 months (A Slavic Tale)

There was once a widow who had two daughters, Helen, her own child by her dead husband, and Marouckla, his daughter by his first wife. She loved Helen, but hated the poor orphan because she was far prettier than her own daughter. Marouckla did not think about her good looks, and could not understand why her stepmother should be angry at the sight of her. The hardest work fell to her share. She cleaned out the rooms, cooked, washed, sewed, spun, wove, brought in the hay, milked the cow, and all this without any help. Helen, meanwhile, did nothing but dress herself in her best clothes and go to one amusement after another.

But Marouckla never complained. She bore the scoldings and bad temper of mother and sister with a smile on her lips, and the patience of a lamb. But this angelic behavior did not soften them. They became even more tyrannical and grumpy, for Marouckla grew daily more beautiful, while Helen’s ugliness increased. So the stepmother determined to get rid of Marouckla, for she knew that while she remained, her own daughter would have no suitors. Hunger, every kind of privation, abuse, every means was used to make the girl’s life miserable. But in spite of it all Marouckla grew ever sweeter and more charming.

One day in the middle of winter Helen wanted some wood-violets. “Listen,” cried she to Marouckla, “you must go up the mountain and find me violets. I want some to put in my gown. They must be fresh and sweet-scented-do you hear?” “But, my dear sister, whoever heard of violets blooming in the snow?” said the poor orphan. “You wretched creature! Do you dare to disobey me?” said Helen. “Not another word. Off with you! If you do not bring me some violets from the mountain forest I will kill you.”

The stepmother also added her threats to those of Helen, and with vigorous blows they pushed Marouckla outside and shut the door upon her. The weeping girl made her way to the mountain. The snow lay deep, and there was no trace of any human being. Long she wandered hither and thither, and lost herself in the wood. She was hungry, and shivered with cold, and prayed to die. Suddenly she saw a light in the distance, and climbed toward it till she reached the top of the mountain. Upon the highest peak burned a large fire, surrounded by twelve blocks of stone on which sat twelve strange beings. Of these the first three had white hair, three were not quite so old, three were young and handsome, and the rest still younger.

There they all sat silently looking at the fire. They were the Twelve Months of the Year. The great January was placed higher than the others. His hair and mustache were white as snow, and in his hand he held a wand. At first Marouckla was afraid, but after a while her courage returned, and drawing near, she said: — “Men of God, may I warm myself at your fire? I am chilled by the winter cold.”

The great January raised his head and answered:”What brings thee here, my daughter? What dost thou seek?” “I am looking for violets,” replied the maiden. “This is not the season for violets. Dost thou not see the snow everywhere?” said January. “I know well, but my sister Helen and my stepmother have ordered me to bring them violets from your mountain. If I return without them they will kill me. I pray you, good shepherds, tell me where they may be found.”

Here the great January arose and went over to the youngest of the Months, and, placing his wand in his hand, said: — “Brother March, do thou take the highest place.” March obeyed, at the same time waving his wand over the fire. Immediately the flames rose toward the sky, the snow began to melt and the trees and shrubs to bud. The grass became green, and from between its blades peeped the pale primrose. It was spring, and the meadows were blue with violets.

“Gather them quickly, Marouckla,” said March. Joyfully she hastened to pick the flowers, and having soon a large bunch she thanked them and ran home. Helen and the stepmother were amazed at the sight of the flowers, the scent of which filled the house. “Where did you find them?” asked Helen. “Under the trees on the mountain-side,” said Marouckla. Helen kept the flowers for herself and her mother. She did not even thank her stepsister for the trouble she had taken. The next day she desired Marouckla to fetch her strawberries.

“Run,” said she, “and fetch me strawberries from the mountain. They must be very sweet and ripe.” “But whoever heard of strawberries ripening in the snow?” exclaimed Marouckla. “Hold your tongue, worm; don’t answer me. If I don’t have my strawberries I will kill you,” said Helen. Then the stepmother pushed Marouckla into the yard and bolted the door. The unhappy girl made her way toward the mountain and to the large fire round which sat the Twelve Months. The great January occupied the highest place. “Men of God, may I warm myself at your fire? The winter cold chills me,” said she, drawing near. The great January raised his head and asked: “Why comest thou here? What dost thou seek?” “I am looking for strawberries,” said she.

“We are in the midst of winter,” replied January, “strawberries do not grow in the snow.”

“I know,” said the girl sadly, “but my sister and stepmother have ordered me to bring them strawberries. If I do not they will kill me. Pray, good shepherds, tell me where to find them.”

The great January arose, crossed over to the Month opposite him, and putting the wand in his hand, said: “Brother June, do thou take the highest place.”

June obeyed, and as he waved his wand over the fire the flames leaped toward the sky. Instantly the snow melted, the earth was covered with verdure, trees were clothed with leaves, birds began to sing, and various flowers blossomed in the forest. It was summer. Under the bushes masses of star-shaped flowers changed into ripening strawberries, and instantly they covered the glade, making it look like a sea of blood.

“Gather them quickly, Marouckla,” said June. Joyfully she thanked the Months, and having filled her apron ran happily home. Helen and her mother wondered at seeing the strawberries, which filled the house with their delicious fragrance. “Wherever did you find them?” asked Helen crossly. “Right up among the mountains. Those from under the beech trees are not bad,” answered Marouckla. Helen gave a few to her mother and ate the rest herself. Not one did she offer to her stepsister. Being tired of strawberries, on the third day she took a fancy for some fresh, red apples.

“Run, Marouckla,” said she, “and fetch me fresh, red apples from the mountain.” “Apples in winter, sister? Why, the trees have neither leaves nor fruit!” “Idle thing, go this minute,” said Helen; “unless you bring back apples we will kill you.” As before, the stepmother seized her roughly and turned her out of the house. The poor girl went weeping up the mountain, across the deep snow, and on toward the fire round which were the Twelve Months. Motionless they sat there, and on the highest stone was the great January.

“Men of God, may I warm myself at your fire? The winter cold chills me,” said she, drawing near. The great January raised his head. “Why comest thou here? What does thou seek?” asked he. ‘I am come to look for red apples,” replied Marouckla. “But this is winter, and not the season for red apples,” observed the great January. “I know,” answered the girl, “but my sister and stepmother sent me to fetch red apples from the mountain. If I return without them they will kill me.” Thereupon the great January arose and went over to one of the elderly Months, to whom he handed the wand saying: — “Brother September, do thou take the highest place.”

September moved to the highest stone, and waved his wand over the fire. There was a flare of red flames, the snow disappeared, but the fading leaves which trembled on the trees were sent by a cold northeast wind in yellow masses to the glade. Only a few flowers of autumn were visible. At first Marouckla looked in vain for red apples. Then she espied a tree which grew at a great height, and from the branches of this hung the bright, red fruit. September ordered her to gather some quickly. The girl was delighted and shook the tree. First one apple fell, then another.

“That is enough,” said September; “hurry home.” Thanking the Months she returned joyfully. Helen and the stepmother wondered at seeing the fruit. “Where did you gather them?” asked the stepsister. “There are more on the mountain-top,” answered Marouckla. “Then, why did you not bring more?” said Helen angrily. “You must have eaten them on your way back, you wicked girl.” “No, dear sister, I have not even tasted them,” said Marouckla. “I shook the tree twice. One apple fell each time. Some shepherds would not allow me to shake it again, but told me to return home.” “Listen, mother,” said Helen. “Give me my cloak. I will fetch some more apples myself. I shall be able to find the mountain and the tree. The shepherds may cry `Stop!’ but I will not leave go till I have shaken down all the apples.”

In spite of her mother’s advice she wrapped herself in her pelisse, put on a warm hood, and took the road to the mountain. Snow covered everything. Helen lost herself and wandered hither and thither. After a while she saw a light above her, and, following in its direction, reached the mountain-top. There was the flaming fire, the twelve blocks of stone, and the Twelve Months. At first she was frightened and hesitated; then she came nearer and warmed her hands. She did not ask permission, nor did she speak one polite word. “What hath brought thee here? What dost thou seek?” said the great January severely. “I am not obliged to tell you, old graybeard. What business is it of yours?” she replied disdainfully, turning her back on the fire and going toward the forest.

The great January frowned, and waved his wand over his head. Instantly the sky became covered with clouds, the fire went down, snow fell in large flakes, an icy wind howled round the mountain. Amid the fury of the storm Helen stumbled about. The pelisse failed to warm her benumbed limbs. The mother kept on waiting for her. She looked from the window, she watched from the doorstep, but her daughter came not. The hours passed slowly, but Helen did not return.

“Can it be that the apples have charmed her from her home?” thought the mother. Then she clad herself in hood and pelisse, and went in search of her daughter. Snow fell in huge masses. It covered all things. For long she wandered hither and thither, the icy northeast wind whistled in the mountain, but no voice answered her cries. Day after day Marouckla worked, and prayed, and waited, but neither stepmother nor sister returned. They had been frozen to death on the mountain. The inheritance of a small house, a field, and a cow fell to Marouckla. In course of time an honest farmer came to share them with her, and their lives were happy and peaceful.

Let us take this time to honor and connect with the darkness within, and with the light.  Take a moment now and let your gaze turn gently inward, scanning your body from head to toe and noticing any sensations or feelings there.  Become aware of the space around you – the sky above, the earth below, the land encircling you. As your eyes adjust, you find yourself in a dark forest under a night sky. There is no moon, and the dim starlight twinkles through the trees. Evergreen trees flank your sides, their boughs heavy with snow. Take a deep breath and smell the fresh scent of pine and snow. Listen: a deep hush lays across the land. All is still, as if waiting, breathless. Take a minute to feel this hush in yourself. (pause) Now notice that there is a small path between the sweet smelling evergreen branches. Snow falls upon you as you brush past. Smell the needles that silently crush underfoot. These green boughs store life energy and even now are preparing for the return of the sun. Feel their soft needles on your skin, smell their fragrance, listen to their stories. See the sparkle of snow in the moonlight, feel the brush of dry powder as the boughs loosen their load. Let the starlight awaken old memories and dreams from deep within you. Allow these dreams to surface as you walk along the forest path. What did you want to be when you were young? Did you lose sight of your dream? Bring it back to you now. Allow yourself to sit with it. (pause) Acknowledge your dream and talk to it. Perhaps you will rekindle it now. It is never too late. You see a small clearing ahead. In the center is kindling that has been set in a pit. There is a match there. You strike it and light the kindling, and in doing so you are lighting the spark of your childhood dream. Warm yourself over the fire and allow your dream to take shape. (pause) When it has come to fruition, you get up and continue winding your way through the woods. Become aware of an object in your hands, a gift from the forest. Commune with it and see what it has to tell you. (pause) What do wish to do with this gift? You can bring back with you, bury in the forest, free it in a stream, or burn it in the fire? Ask the object what it symobolises and how it can help you connect with this deep place within you. When you are ready, begin to transition back to this place and this time. Notice your feet on the floor, your body weight on the chair, your arms in your lap. Feel your breath. In your own time, bring your attention to back to the room.

As we light this candle, we bring illumination to the places inside us that are hiding in the darkness.  Thanks to the sun for its radiant energy and life-giving force.  Thanks to the plants for their hardiness and beauty, for their co-evolution with the human race and their generosity in offering animals food and healing.  Thanks to the animals for their example of how to live light on the earth, for those that sacrifice and are sacrificed to us, and for the wild ones as well as those with whom we have loving relationships.  May they all be blessed and may we remember the bounty which we have been offered, and find ways to repay the great favor.

Lord Alfred Tennyson: Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light:  The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die. Ring out the old, ring in the new,  Ring, happy bells, across the snow:  The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true. Ring out the grief that saps the mind    For those that here we see no more;    Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind. Ring out a slowly dying cause,    And ancient forms of party strife;    Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws. Ring out the want, the care, the sin,    The faithless coldness of the times;    Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes But ring the fuller minstrel in. Ring out false pride in place and blood,    The civic slander and the spite;    Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of foul disease;    Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;    Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace. Ring in the valiant man and free,  The larger heart, the kindlier hand;    Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us — Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
 And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
 This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!


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