Category Archives: Yule

Darkest Night, Deepest Joy

Ask a child to draw our spherical planet on a piece of paper or on a chalkboard and most likely what they’ll draw is a circle. How perfect is the circle? No beginning, no end. The shape that best describes our seasonal round. The seasons, a result of our planet’s tilt on its axis. Scientific evidence suggests that some four and a half billion years ago an object the size of Mars collided with our planet. This incredible, explosive impact resulted in a huge chunk of the Earth spinning off into space, becoming the satellite we call the Moon. The collision also knocked our planet dramatically off kilter, causing the Earth to orbit the sun on a slant. It is that slant––about 23.5 degrees––that creates our seasons.

And at this particular juncture tomorrow on the 21st of December––the Midwinter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere––the North Pole is tilted the farthest from the sun as it will get. It is our hemisphere’s longest night. The South Pole is tilted the closest to the sun as it will get, creating for the Southern Hemisphere the longest day. There, it is the Midsummer Solstice.

The precise moment of this event this year is at 11:28 AM Eastern Standard Time on December 21. If you are one who watches the travels of the sun in the sky, it will appear for a few days like the sun is standing still, getting no lower or higher, and this is the source of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” In reality, things are slowly shifting. Already tomorrow the days in our Northern Hemisphere will begin to increase in length proportionately with their decrease in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the constant sway back and forth, the constant exchange between hemispheres… the explanation behind our seasonal round that helps us count our days and years and gives us grounding as humans on Planet Earth.

The changing seasons, subtle as the change is here in Lake Worth, have fascinated me since I can remember. This great mechanical clockwork fascinates me, too. And so on the 21st in our particular spot on this amazing spinning planet––26.6168º North, 80.0684º West––Seth and I will light a fire to mark the solstice night. Seth will build the fire in the copper fire bowl in the back yard, fueled by the remnants of our Christmas tree from last year, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, shedding needles, drying, and still for all the world smelling like Christmas, even through spring and summer and fall, and it is good, it is right to have this reminder of Old Father Christmas in our lives all the year long. We will sit at the fire that he provides under the starry night sky and toast him with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. In this small way we pull down the celestial mechanics of our planet and bring it directly to our tiny dot in this universe, and into our hearts, too: the old Yuletide illuminating and welcoming the new, connecting us with the past as we continue to forge that circle, no beginning, no end. With it, we know that Christmas is surely almost here. And so we welcome Yule.

Image: The particular beauty of the science of the Winter Solstice, depicted in a chart created by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz. It is the Illumination of Earth by Sun on the Day of Winter Solstice on Northern Hemisphere [CC 2005 via Wikimedia Commons]. By the time the Earth progresses another six months on its annual journey around the sun, the sun will be illuminating the North Pole and the South will be experiencing darkness; that will be Midsummer Solstice in the North. Back and forth again and again… the subtle daily shift, the constant rearrange.

 

Faith & Hope & Sweet Release

TWELFTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Epiphany

I have always, since I can remember, been fascinated with the foil that is wrapped around chocolates. The process is always the same: I unwrap the chocolate, pop it in my mouth, and while I’m eating it, I take the foil wrapping and smooth it out with my fingertips against the table or any smooth surface I happen to be near. I like watching the foil transform from crinkled to smooth. Sometimes I save the smoothed-out foils. Sometimes I use them in projects, like the cover for the Christmas mixtape I recorded for Seth after I first met him, back in December of 1995. I miss mixtapes for many reasons… not the least of which is the artwork I’d get to do on the covers. A star of foil seemed just right for this tape that went to Seth and to a few other select friends I was missing that Christmas over 20 years ago.

The star is central to Christmas and to the journey of the Magi. As such, it is central to Epiphany, the celebration of this Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is traditionally considered the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. And with Epiphany, our Christmas celebration comes to a close. The Magi, those three old men, have traversed the desert, following that star, and they have arrived at the stable to bring gifts to the child. La befana, the kind Italian witch, has made her rounds, too. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. And now, on Epiphany, she resumes her sweeping, and sweeps Christmas away for another year.

Tradition would have us remove all the Christmas greenery today. But if you are not yet ready to part with your tree or other decorations, we can offer you another older tradition to follow, for some would consider Christmas to last until the First of February, which is Candlemas Eve. There is some strong basis for this in the Pagan tradition, as it is on the First of February that Yule gives way to Imbolc in the wheel of the seasonal round: it is a cross-quarter day, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

In our home, we close the celebration of Christmas on Epiphany night with a simple ceremony at the front door, outside on the front porch. We will gather up all who are in the home and we will each take turns writing with chalk on the lintel above the front door the numbers and letters and symbols of a traditional inscription. This year, it will read as follows: 20+C+M+B+17. These are the initials of each of the Magi (C for Caspar, M for Melchior, B for Balthasar), punctuated by crosses, blanketed on either side by the year. For me, the inscribing is always accompanied by a silent prayer that no one will be missing when we gather next to write the inscription again. All the year through, though Christmas be gone, still the inscription is there to remind us of Christmas’s presence as we pass each day through that portal. The inscription is a magic charm of sorts, protecting the house and those who pass through that doorway, harboring the goodwill and spirit of Old Father Christmas.

And so we follow that star. May it always be in our sights and in our hearts and in our dealings with our fellow companions on this old earth. And one last time this year, we say unto you: “Merry Christmas.”

 

I called that 1995 mixtape “Faith & Hope & Sweet Release.” There was so much new and wonderful music that year: “Now it is Christmas Eve” from Garrison Keillor, “By the Fireside” from Turtle Island String Quartet, and an original song for Christmas by Jane Siberry whose lyrics lent the mixtape its title. Our old pick up truck has a cassette player and we still listen to that mixtape each Christmas. It never grows old.

 

Brightest and Best

Some folks open their advent calendar windows in the morning, but we are more of a nighttime household; we like to hold the open window up to a light source in the darkness in order to illuminate the scene within. And tonight, in these wee small hours of Christmas Eve becoming Christmas Day, now that all the company has left, my mom and dad, my sister, my nephews, their wives and their kids… it is again just Seth and me and Haden the cat, here next to me atop a basket beside the Christmas tree. We opened tonight’s advent calendar window––the last of them, now that Christmas is here. The scene is lovely, as is the night.

This time each Christmas Eve, these moments when most of the folks around me are tucked into bed, are each year some of my favorite. Wishes abound this time of year for peace and for joy… and these are the moments when they seem most tangible. It is quiet and the darkness is, as Dylan Thomas wrote, close and holy. The lights we use to illuminate the midwinter night pierce the darkness with warmth. It may have been a month or more of madness leading up to this moment, but now that Christmas is here, there is not much left to do but enjoy its presence.

The nights now are their darkest but our hearts are open and our celebrations all focus on bringing light to that darkness. Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, all involve candles, all call down the light, all invite us to be a light ourselves, a light in the darkness. And this I wish for you: that you be a light, that you encourage that light in others. Pure and simple.

If I have it in me, and I think I do, I’ll be writing again this year about each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Just as there is more than one way of reckoning time, there is, as well, more than one way of reckoning these Twelve Days. We subscribe to the notion that Christmas is a season outside ordinary time beginning with Christmas Eve, blossoming into Christmas Day, which then moves into the Twelve Days of Christmas, half of which are in the old year, half in the new. Christmas is just beginning. Sit a spell with us, here in this close and holy darkness, and enjoy it. Merry Christmas.