Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Blessed Yule

'Juno Lucina' from the Winter Solstice Gallery

Juno Lucina, Mother of Lights, was a Goddess of childbirth whose festival was celebrated with torchlights and bonfires in Rome in early December. As midwife of the miraculous Sun Child born at Winter Solstice, it was said she brought children to light.

Later converted to Christianity as St. Lucy, she found a home in Sweden, where Yuletide celebrations today still include the procession of the Lussibruden (Lucy Bride), led by a young girl wearing a crown of candles.

'Winter Solstice'
written by Glendower, 2000

Hail, Great Mother, Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel, Star Goddess,
Sky Goddess, Goddess of Rebirth, Full Moon Goddess.
Hear our prayers on this, the longest night of the Dark Season.

Hail, East, whence comes the first solemn winter light each day,
the gateway of the dawn.
Hail, Guardians of Air, givers of morning breezes scented with snow,
fir and cedar, spruce and pine, the evergreens that symbolize
survival in the midst of death.

Hail, South, the seat of passion, winter home of our feathered kin.
Hail, Guardians of Fire. Bring us the warmth of crackling hearth fires,
the heat of winter love before them, the comfort of winter wine in our blood.
Give us the cheer of festive candles and close friendships.

Hail, West, where lies the Great Sea and the source of winter storms.
Be gentle with us, we pray. Hail, Guardians of Water.
We ask your mercy, all we who have the salty taste of the sea in our blood,
we who are the human children of the Great Mother.

Hail, North, where sleep our animal brothers and sisters now,
watched over from silent shadows by the ancient mushroom and the brooding moss.
Hail, Guardians of Earth, whose halls are dark and wet, cold and waiting now,
festooned with crisp holly, mistletoe, and ivy.
Our prayers run through you on the holy streams, chanting icy orisons:
invite back the light and give us respite.

Hail, Center, the destination of the Great Wisdom.
Lead us by the hand along these dark winter trails
once again to life and safety.
We are children and we have been lost and cold in this dark forest.
Deliver us, we pray. Guide us and comfort us.

Great Arianrhod, thank you for your mercy once again.
The Season of the Crone now ends.
Thank you for giving us strength and patience once more, and for allowing us
to sit at the feet of the Crone to reflect and consider as the Dark Time passes.
Open now the way to the Vernal Equinox and the coming of The Bride,
we ask in humility and new wisdom. We bless She Who Teaches us with patience and love.

Hail, Great Goddess and Mother.

Winter Solstice
Lisa Hutchins, 1997

The winter solstice takes place on or about December 21 every year, and is the moment when the sun is at its southernmost position. For those in the northern hemisphere, this means that on the winter solstice the sun rises the latest and sets the earliest of the entire year. It hangs low and weak in the sky during the brief daylight hours, and daytime shadows are the longest. Because the day is the year's shortest, the winter solstice is also the time of the longest night.

Ancestral Celebrations

Solstice rites are one of our oldest celebrations, dating back to the dawn of modern civilization some 30,000 years ago. For ancient peoples, the winter solstice was an awesome, mysterious, and powerful phenomenon.

Those of us today who have ever pondered the ramifications of a cataclysmic event such as a "nuclear winter" or the aftermath of a giant meteor impact can understand how frightening it must have been to see the sun slip away every fall. Harsh winter conditions and scare food supplies made survival risky. Vegetation was dormant, migratory birds had long since disappeared to warmer climes, and many animals had vanished into hibernation. As the weeks drew closer to the solstice, it was a time of anxiety over ever-darkening days. What if the sun lost its vigor and never came back? Would light and warmth simply fade away forever? Would the earth be wrapped in eternal night and cold?

Early peoples, living at the mercy of a hostile environment- and also highly sensitive to natural phenomena-held supplicating rites to the forces of nature as a way of ensuring the return of longer, warmer days. To early cultures, the winter solstice represented the death of the old solar year and the birth of the new. Yule festivities, accordingly, marked this planetary turning point away from darkness and the blessed return to light. And although the comforts of today's modern civilization now shield us from winter's harsh effects, Western cultures continue-knowingly or unknowingly-to honor this tradition through Yule celebrations.

Interestingly, Christmas (and its attendant holiday, Easter) actually have roots in ancient beliefs going back tens of thousands of years. Many folk holidays and celebrations were absorbed into Christian culture in the early days of Christianity to make the new religion more acceptable. There was no consensus among early Church fathers over the date to use for Christ's birth. (In fact, as devout Christians know, there is no certain date for the birth of Christ. Current estimates based on historical and astronomical records put it at around February 6, 6 B.C.)

A December festival to celebrate the birth of Christ didn't exist until the fourth century when Christians simply adopted the popular Yule celebrations for their own use. Roman churchmen favored the Mithraic winter solstice festival, which they themselves had adopted from the Persians called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. On the old Roman calendar, December 25 (not December 21) was the date of the winter solstice. The winter solstice was also the traditional date to honor the birth of the pagan Divine Child, and Norsemen celebrated the birthday of their lord, Frey, at the winter solstice.

After much argument, Pope Julius selected December 25 as Christ's Mass, or Christmas, in 350 A.D.-in part to counter persistent pagan solstice rites, but also because people of the time were already used to calling it a god's birthday. (This proclamation was not without objection, however. The date was so controversial that eastern churches refused to honor it for another hundred years, and the church of Jerusalem ignored the date until the 7th century. And in an interesting twist, the fifth-century Bishop of Constantinople firmly believed December 25 was selected so Christians could celebrate Christ's birthday undisturbed while "the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies"!)

Even today, pagan and Christian belief is intermingled with Christmas celebration. Many traditions that are now a part of the mainstream Christian culture actually come from ancient pagan celebrations-rites such as decorating with evergreens, hanging ornaments on a tree, partaking of sweet confections, processions, gift giving, wassailing or singing carols, and the burning of the yule log.

Solstice Traditions

Winter solstice observances were held by virtually every culture in the world. Solstice rites were practiced among such diverse groups as Native South Americans, Celts, Persians, Orientals, and Africans. Solstice was known as Sacaea to the Mesopotamians, as the Festival of Kronos to the ancient Greeks, and as Saturnalia to the Romans. According to Norse traditions, the Valkyrie looked for souls to bring to Valhalla during Yule. Norwegians abstained from hunting or fishing for the twelve days during Yule as a way of letting the weary world rest and to hasten the revived sun's appearance.

In old Russia it was traditional to toss grain upon the doorways where carolers visited as a way of keeping the house from want throughout the rest of the winter. Ashes from the Yule log were mixed with cows' feed in France and Germany to promote the animals' health and help them calve. In Baltic regions today, corn is scattered near the door of the house for sustenance and ashes of the Yule log are given to fruit trees to increase their yield. Romanians bless the trees of the orchard on Yule with sweetened dough to bring good harvests. Serbs toss wheat on the burning Yule log to increase livestock bounty.

The most significant Yule tradition to persist over the centuries is the Christmas tree. Although the origin of the Christmas tree is generally ascribed to Martin Luther, its beginnings actually go back to pre-Christian times. Christmas trees are thought to have evolved from the rite of symbolically selecting and harvesting a "sacred tree," a practice found in many ancient cultures. Evergreens and firs were sacred to early peoples, including the ancient Greeks, Celts, and Germans. The first Yule trees were born when pagans went into the forests during the winter solstice to give offerings to evergreens. Pines and firs remained green while other vegetation lost their leaves and appeared lifeless during the bitter winter cold. Their mysterious survival and vigor seemed to signify a life force within which carried with it the hope of renewed life.

The pinea silva or sacred pine groves that were attached to pagan Roman temples also pre-figured the Christmas tree. On the night before a holy day, Roman priests called "tree-bearers" cut one of the sacred pines, decorated it, and carried it into the temple. In fact, the German word for Christmas tree is not Kristenbaum, or Christmas tree, but Tannenbaum, or sacred tree.

Church leaders from the early centuries of the Church all the way through Puritan society in 17th century Massachusetts condemned the custom of bringing decorated evergreens into the home at Yule time. The custom was so beloved and persistent, however, that repeated attempts to eradicate 'heathen' practices ultimately failed-and now these pagan traditions, which largely celebrate nature, are among the most treasured elements of the season.

Decorating the tree with objects resembling fruits, nuts, berries, and even flowers is thought to be a symbolic act designed to bring about the return of summer's bounty. In this way early cultures hoped to hurry the return of spring, and ensure survival through the rest of the harsh winter months.

Christmas wreaths are also ancient, and were traditionally made of evergreens, holly, and ivy. The wreath's circle symbolizes the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle. Holly represents the female element; ivy represents the male. Like evergreens, holly was believed to contain a mysterious life force because it bore berries in the middle of winter. Both holly and ivy were thought to have magical properties, and were used as protection against negative elements.

Kissing under the mistletoe is an old Druid tradition. Mistletoe was considered highly sacred by this culture because, as a parasitic kind of vegetation, it never touched the earth (growing instead on oaks and other trees), and also because it bore berries in winter when everything else appeared dead. Druids gathered the leaves and berries from special oaks with sickles made of gold. They called mistletoe "all-heal" because they felt it had the power of protection against illness and bad events, and also because they believed mistletoe spread goodwill. Legend has it that enemies meeting under the mistletoe cast their weapons aside, greeted each other amicably, and honored a temporary truce. White linen clothes were spread beneath the mistletoe as it was being gathered so none of it would touch the ground, lest its power be accidentally released back to the earth. Mistletoe berries were considered to be a powerful fertility substance. A kiss under the mistletoe meant love and the promise of marriage.

Burning the Yule log is perhaps the oldest of all Yule traditions, possibly dating back eons. Since the winter solstice was a solar holiday, fire in different forms was closely associated with it. Fires and candles were lit during Yule to give the waning sun renewed power and vigor-and also surely to provide sources of cheery heat and light during the darkest part of the northern winter. Even the burning brandy on plum pudding symbolized the sun's rebirth. Traditionally the Yule log was made of oak; in northern European countries, the log was massive enough to burn for the entire twelve days of Yule. It was selected early in the year and set aside, then at winter solstice decorated with sprays of fir, evergreen, holly, ivy, or yew. A piece of the previous year's Yule log was used to light the new Yule log. Once the ashes were cold they were gathered into powerful amulets, or scattered throughout the garden and fields to ensure fertility and bounty in the coming year.

Spirituality of Solstice

The spiritual ramifications of yule are profound for both neo-pagans and Christians. For Christians, the birth of Christ means a turning point between eternal death and eternal life. Devout Christians celebrate Christmas as the beginning of a new spiritual age of eternal life.

For neo-pagans, Yule is also a time of spiritual beginnings. Jul, or Yule, is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "wheel." The winter solstice is the turning point in the natural cycle of the year; this darkest night in all the year is followed by a day that will dawn just a little bit earlier.

Because Yule signifies the completion of the wheel of the year, the period around the winter solstice is considered to be a good time for spiritual work. Some neo-pagans believe the dark nights of winter are when the veil between the spirit world and the living world is the thinnest. It is therefore an appropriate time for self-examination and meditation on hidden energies-both the energies lying dormant within the earth, and also those within ourselves. Yule traditions celebrate nature's renewal, and help affirm our connection to the energy and power of the earth and the cosmos.

Nature's Enduring Cycle

The winter solstice demonstrates the enduring cycle of the heavens by an event that has been directly observable, year in and year out, century after century, for millions of years. The new year begins with the turning point of the winter solstice, as it has down through eons-an unending cycle of dark and light, waning and waxing, ultimately representing nature's birth, death, and rebirth. The winter solstice is a time to affirm our spiritual ties to nature through celebrations and traditions that are thousands of years old.

Whether celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Yule, we can all delight in the season as a time to renew family ties, take joy in our natural environment, reflect on the events of the old year, and look forward in anticipation to the new. As the winter solstice demonstrates to us, every ending is a new beginning.


Blogger Linda and Denny said...

Since my birthday is on the 21st, I found this post both fascinating and timely. Thanks!

3:42 AM  

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