by Angeliska on December 20, 2012
The winter solstice is nearly upon us – this one so trepidatiously anticipated as a harbinger of either the end of the world, or the beginning of a new era of human conscious – depending on you talk to. For me, this is a moment to stop, to take a deep breath, to light a fire. I want to nestle in my little nest, to gather friends and beloved animals around me, to sip mulled wine and burn away everything I am ready to let go of. The solstice is a time of wonder, of ritual, of candles lit under shivering stars.
I found a wonderful book recently that has been very inspiring reading as I’ve been preparing my celebration. I’ve included some illustrations and excerpts from it here in this post:
The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas
by John Matthews (with contributions from Caitlin Matthews).
I love this excerpt from the introduction:
“The Solstice is a time of quietude, of firelight, and dreaming, when seeds germinate in the cold earth, and the cold notes of church bells mingle with the chimes of icicles. Rivers are stilled and the land lies waiting beneath a coverlet of snow. We watch the cold sunlight and the bright stars, maybe go for walks in the quiet land. . . . All around us the season seems to reach a standstill — a point of repose.”
From the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – one of my favorite things in the whole world.
“At this point we shall discuss the order of the steps by which the soul descends from the sky to the infernal regions of this life. The Milky Way girdles the zodiac, its great circle meeting it obliquely so that it crosses it at the two tropical signs: Capricorn and Cancer. Natural philosophers name these ‘the portals of the sun’ because the solstices lie athwart the sun’s path on either side, checking farther progress and causing it to retrace its course across the belt beyond whose limit it never trespasses. Souls are believed to pass through these portals when going from the sky to the earth and returning from the earth to the sky. For this reason one is called the portal of men, the other the portal of gods: Cancer, the portal of men, because through it descent is made to the infernal regions [to life on earth]; Capricorn, the portal of gods, because through it souls return to their rightful abode of immortality, to be reckoned among the gods.”
– From A Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, written by the medieval scholiast Macrobius (5th cent AD) The Dream of Scipio was a cosmological section of Cicero’s work, On the Republic, which did not survive as a manuscript, but was found beneath heaps of tomes in the Vatican library in the 19th century. What was found, however, did not contain the Dream of Scipio, which is only preserved in the commentray by Macrobius. Alas.
“Shaman, will the sun be reborn? Will we have a good harvest? Will we catch enough fish, will there be enough meat to eat, will the reindeer drop enough offspring to keep us through another year?
What will the new year bring for us, for me? Tell us, shaman, make your journey and bring us the gifts of your seeing!
You are the bringer of gifts, the protector, the magician, the future is yours to see, the sack on your back carries the gifts of the future and the past — tell us, shaman, tell us.”
“The many animals that throng the Winter months are particularly present during the Twelve Days of Christmas, those days in which guising is performed, when we walk between the worlds, masking and veiling our features so that animal spirits can moves through us and among us, bringing their gifts and challenges. These customs embrace us all, for we are all still animals and are all part of the pattern of ancient ‘wildness’ that threads through the celebration of Midwinter.
This is itself a reflection of a once powerful but now neglected sense of oneness between human beings and the natural world that was our environment before we began to build cities and gather together in amorphous groups. That this ancient wildness is still there, only a little but below the veneer of our civilized lifestyles, is apparent by the number of traditions still in practice that involve dressing as animals and performing ancient rituals.”
– John Matthews
“On those days the heathen…put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces. Some are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men… furthermore, it is those who have been born men who are clothed in women’s dresses…and effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments; they have bearded faces, yet they wish to be women… ”
– Caesarius of Arles, 6th century A.D.
“If a cosmic tree points the way to heaven for us every Christmas, Santa Claus undertakes the magical flight of the shaman. He is sometimes said to be responsible for erecting the Christmas tree sky pole himself. Descending vertically down the chimney Santa returns by the same route back to the roof. Our chimneys, like the cosmic axis, carry him from one realm to the other…”
May your Winter Solstice be full of magic, hope, and wonder.
“Hope is at the very core of the Winter Solstice. There will be hunger, darkness, fear, loneliness, grief and suffering. People die, cities crumble, rivers freeze and green things wither away (except for evergreens, of course, which is why we treasure them) – and throughout it all we go on hoping that better days will come, even if we can’t imagine what those days might look like or where on earth they will come from. We go on hoping, tending the hidden suns deep inside of ourselves even as our bodies freeze, our stomachs grumble and our hearts break. We go on tending that tiny flame even after it seems reduced to nothing but cold grey ashes. We go on tending that tiny flame as if our very lives depend upon it – and you know what? They do. Our lives do depend on tending that little flame, that hidden sun. They really do, and in order to tend that flame we have no choice but to wait with it in the darkness from time to time.”
Before There Was Christmas – A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys, delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, December 20, 2009
Related posts from winter solstices of yore: