Thoughts and musings of the wheel of the Pagan Year.
Yule: Looking For Light Within
What is bliss, Sarah Ban Breathnach asks in her extraordinary book Simple Abundance. For me, today, it is knowing my loved ones are warm and safe; seeing my youngest child's delight in last night's snowfall; my teenagers' glee in an unexpected snow day; and curling up on the couch to read with a cup of tea at hand and a fire crackling and popping in the fireplace. Outside there are no people: just leaves, squirrels, orioles, sparrows and the occasional stray cat hurrying to whatever under-porch shelter they can find. All is quiet here today, and the cozy rooms my children and I share bespeak a long-ago time.
With Samhain past, Yule beckons with juniper and citrus scented hands. My family celebrates both Yule and Christmas, and thanks to the incredibly high ceilings in our new apartment, my husband has decreed that we are going to have a huge tree, which despite its size will still be covered with ornaments, candy canes and gingerbread cookies. (Every year Josh tells me I can’t possibly fit any more on the tree, but somehow I manage. This year the trick will be managing to fill a tree nearly three times the size I'm used to. I think I'm up for the challenge.)
To me this is a time when families should gather and enjoy good food and good cheer. We light the sun fire with an invocation by Caitlin Matthews: I kindle this fire in the name of the Ancestors, and of the Holy Ones Who guard the world; May its flame warm us all and may its light remind us of the ever-returning sun.
The smoldering charcoal is brought indoors and the Sun Candle lit with its heat: I dedicate this fire to the eternal light of midwinter. May its warmth remind me of the Summer, and may its brightness be a guiding star to all kindly spirits who bless this season and this place with their presence.
It is here that I add my own quiet observation to the holy day, and light a candle dedicated to Hestia from the Sun Candle. As a mother and homemaker She is ever with me. Her candle remains lit even during our ritual work, so despite the fact that the Sun Candle is briefly extinguished, the sun fire never truly goes out.
Josh will brew a pot of Wassail, I and the littlest one will begin a batch of Elisa Kleven's sunbread, taken from her book of the same name. Check it out, even if you don't have little ones: her illustrations are whimsically divine, and the story is just about the best narrative of Yule I have ever read; we will gather in the circle to observe this, the longest night, and its inevitable conclusion, the sun's returning. The following poems, The Crone and The God of the Waning Year, can both be found in Jane Raeburn's The Pagan's Muse (Citadel Press, 2003), and are the pieces we use to invoke the Crone and welcome the God as we begin our candle lighting ritual each Yule.
She is an old woman working in a museum, dusting the artifacts, adjusting corners. She preserves the past. She saves history. She takes pride in her work.
She is a widow, and lives as widows do. There are times when she isalone.
She dresses in black, and pulls her garments close about her against the winter wind.
She takes in stray animals. She talks to them. She feeds birds.
She is the silent supper, eaten alone.
She passes unnoticed on the street.
She is the strength of years. She is the weight of wisdom. She has forgotten more than you can remember. She remembers more than she can forget.
She is the grey of old hair, the dryness of old skin, the thinness of old bones, the timbre of old voice.
She places roses on the gravestone, and picks off the wet, fallen leaves.
She is the calmness in the midst of depression, the dignity among sorrow. She knows loss, but she does not lose herself.
She is cobwebs and hot tea. She is dried herbs and small, grey mice. She isthe clear faded blue of the winter morning sky.
She is an old cat slumbering on the hearth.
She listens to bad news quietly, not speaking. She nods her head as shetakes in the words.
She is the ironic smile.
Think of her when the winter wind chills you. Think of her in the 3AMdarkness. Think of her in the sadness and stillness. Think of her strength, and find it within you, for she is your ancestress, and her blood runs in your veins.
She has lived many times, and she lives again.
Think of her, and know you're not alone.
The God of the Waning Year
Where is the stag of seven tines?
Where is the woodsman of the pines?
Where is the hunter of the fell?
Where is the wizard of the well?
Where is the green man of the leaves?
Where is the reaper of the sheaves?
Where is the master of the maze?
Where is the sun of autumn days?
Where is the god of corn and grain?
Where is the consort who is slain?
Where is the prince of hoof and horn?
Where is the one who is reborn?
The stag has fallen to the bow.
The woodsman lays the great tree low.
The hunter goes in search of game.
The wizard listens for his name.
The green man's lying on the loam.
The reaper's gone to harvest home.
The master stands where the center lies.
The sun slips down the autumn skies.
The god has fallen in the field.
The consort lies upon his shield.
The prince is past all reach of men.
The one is in the womb again.
Our Sun Candle is extinguished as the ritual begins. When we begin the house is enveloped in darkness as we sit, quiet, meditating on the grip the gloom hold us all in on the longest night. We then relight the sun candle, recognizing that the dark of the year is ending, rejoicing in the promised return of light and warmth. Each person in the circle lights a taper from the relit Sun Candle so they too, may become a beacon for the returning sun.
This is the lesson the Earth teaches us as we turn with the Wheel: no matter how dark it gets, the light always returns. The night will always end and a new day will always begin. Life is a struggle; we grasp and slip, fight and fail, win then lose. But hope, like light, is always present, if we have the eyes with which to see it. We are at the year's closing; as the Wheel turns around us the days grow longer and longer until we are dancing beneath the late sun at Litha. It is vital for us to understand that despite our reluctance and despair, we need winter's long dark nights. They are the time for us to turn inward, to journey back to the womb even as the God does, so we may become reborn at Imbolc, renewed, refreshed, and capable of fulfilling our role in this world.
We are always happy to open our home to others of like mind, Pagan or otherwise, who understand the significance of the long dark of the solstice. Our ritual is usually preceded by a feast of as magnificent proportions as I am capable of achieving and followed by a buffet of desserts, wassail, mulled wine and spiced eggnog for our non-drinking guests.Sadly, we have no apple tree to Wassail, but we’ll wish each other good health and happiness in the months to come and close the evening with an old English 'prize pie' and exchanging gifts with friends and family.
As the longest night wears on my children craft ornaments in the shape of suns, pears, apples and birds, and commence the first activity from an outstanding book titled The 12 Days of Yule (Shanddaramon, Astor Press, 2010), which, admittedly is a children's activity book, but my teenagers persist in keeping traditions, and I am happy to see them do so, as it means that many years from now their children will be doing the same. And so Yule eve will pass as a quiet breath in the night, and slowly, so slowly, with the arrival of the sun the following morning the days will begin to lengthen again as we make our way to Imbolc.
The morning of the Solstice begins with my family breaking their fast with the sunbread made the night before, then we gather in the circle to chant a litany for the Winter Solstice and offer our thanks and farewell to the Old King, welcome and praise to the Young King. We instruct our children in a meditation on the meaning of sacrifice and appreciation and then the circle is closed.
I include these details of my family's Yule celebration not as an instruction, but to offer you a glimpse into our hearts, and I would love feedback from readers. Perhaps next year a piece of your celebration will make its way into my family's tradition, and we will be linked in a tiny way in this Wheel we live and love in. I wish everyone a beautiful holiday, be it Yule, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or a combination of these. Enjoy the season of darkness, and the light that it brings.
For wonderful, touching reading in the few stolen moments we never seem to have enough of, I highly recommend any of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books, but most especially Simple Abundance and Romancing the Ordinary. The first is a collection of essays, one for each day of the year, and the second is sectioned into monthly essays. Reading Sarah is like sitting down and visiting with an old friend; my favorite essays are the ones she writes for December: focusing on love, joy, family and true happiness, she always adds a little extra sparkle to my holidays. Enjoy! ~NKP
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