Sometimes known as Yule, this is the longest night of the year, at the darkest depths of winter. A time when light must come from fires, candles, and within ourselves. Most cultures and religions hold some kind of fort-night long celebration during this season, to bring light and warmth into the world by gathering friends and family together. To the coastal natives of North America, this is a season of pot-latches. To us this is a time to gather together with friends, feast on the bounty of last summer in firm belief of the promise of the next, and to share the light in the darkness through gatherings and gifting.
My favorite gifting gathering is what I would call a house-lightening, making it particularly appropriate to this time of year when we seek to pool our light in the darkness of Winter's longest nights. This is a gathering of the tribe, the whole community coming together in the home of a host who shares the wealth of his home with all, giving away to those who can use them those items which have lost functionality in their current home, or which call to the giver to gift them to another. Each item still of worth has a use and a home, and this is the chance for the mathoms of the past year to find new homes.
Each household would host a house-lightening or other gathering of family and friends, centering the conviviality upon the warmth and light of the Yule Fire in the darkness. At the heart of each Yule Fire is the Yule Log, a great log which will last through the entire night's fire; at the end of the night, or the next morning, the last 2 pieces of this Yule Log are salvaged and saved for the next year. One piece is used to kindle the Yule Fire the next year, and the other to kindle the next Year's Fire on Sun-Return. This brings a little of the Old into the New on each occasion.
This season of darkness culminates in a final celebration, known as:
This is the day upon which the increasing length of the day, heralding the return of the sun, becomes noticable to all. This is the final celebration in the Winter's darkness, a blow-out celebration of the rebirth of the Sun from his rest beneath the busom of the Earth. Images of the Sun as a Child reborn from the dark womb of the long Night He has spent beneath the Earth.
A new fire is kindled from the new-born Sun; a glass is used to focus his infant fires within a handful of tinder. When this spark is brought to full strength in the new year's fire, the last piece of the previous year's Yule Log is added to the fire, to bring the old into the new, and allow the new to begin afresh, uninfluenced until it has strength of its own.
Known to the Celts as Imbolc, this is the time when the bleak barrenness of Winter first begins to ease its death-grip on the land, and the first harbingers of Spring return, with the promise of new life to come.
The heart leaps in gladness, and the first seeds of the Summer's crop are sown indoors, to grow and strengthen under the feeble Spring sun as magnified by glass or human intervention. This is the time when the land is handfasted to the one who will work it, causing its fertility to bring forth life to sustain our life. A promise is made by the land and the planter, each to each.
This is a good time for handfastings in general, as it is the time of newest faint beginnings. The faint new light of the returning Spring is often heralded with its twin faint light, the light of candles. This time of year is recognized in many ways, all oriented around candles and the promise of Spring: the Candlemas (or Candle-Mass) of the Roman Catholic Christian church, wherein the year's supply of candles is blessed for use in the sacred rituals, Santa Lucia day, celebrated by the wearing of a candle wreath by a young maiden, even Groundhog's Day recognizes the turning point of Spring that comes at this time.
The promised new life of Spring has begun to arrive, and floods over the land in a tide of new birth, new babies, and the seedling shoots flush the land with a spreading green blush of life in Mother Nature's cheek and busom. This is the time known to the Celts as Ostara, or the British as Eostre, eventually to enter the Christian calendar as Easter; all are holidays of birth or rebirth, the rising from death of the land. This is the balance point past which Spring is in ascension and the warmth and life begins to return.
More seeds are started for summer's planting and harvest. Newcomers are welcomed into the community with all new life - this is the best time for them to come into an agricultural community, so that they may be included and planned for in planting.
This holiday is one of the products of fertility; babies, eggs, lambs, chicks, new life in all its ties to our own life. Celebrations of this holiday should orient around the young; egg hunts, etc.
Known as May Day in the Northern Hemisphere, or Beltaine to the Celts, this is the time when fertility comes to the fore in the form of engendering life, a time when the fields are blessed by the rutting brought on by the rising sap of life in man and beast and bird and green growing thing. This is a time of joining, seed and plant to fertile earth, man and woman together in all their diverse combinations; the culmination of the coupling to set seed in the animals for the coming year, and the time at which seed and plant are set at last in the open soil.
The people come together in a common cause; fields are tilled, the earth is planted, and the community rejoices from the blessing of the fields to the final post-planting blow-out. For much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is the point of last predictable frost, from which all planting dates are calculated.
Traditionally, throughout history, the fields have been blessed by the fertile unions enjoyed in them before planting, by man and woman as well as bird and beast. This fertile energy has been thought to encompass those who participate in the blessing of the field, making this a propitious time for couple seeking children from their union to participate in the blessing of the fields.
This is the longest day of the year, the day when the Sun is at his height, ruling our days with his flooding light, lessening our need for sleep. This is a time for markets, and gatherings, for singing late into the night, for the trading of the Winter's craftsmanship, and the writing of new songs and stories of the people to share around the Winter's fire when the Wheel turns again.
The planting is done, the Spring has passed, and we mark the point of balance, the breath between planting and harvest, the long, slow, lazy days of Summer at it's height.
The time of the birthing and earthing Green Mother Nature, whose new life has dominated the spring, is moving into the time of the Sun's ascendance. He pours his life out on the land, into the fertile earth, swelling his golden rays within the burgeoning kernels of corn growing heavy upon its stalk.
The Sun's rays sink lower on the horizon, foreshadowing his decline into his Winter's rest and renewal. His gift of self has been put to good use by the swelling fertility of life upon the land, and the first of his gifts are coming to our hands as his coming death and renewal grows evident.
This is the time when the first of the Summer's crops are being brought in, and the feasts are fresh, bursting with the glowing life within them.
When the first feasts of the harvest are brought in, the very first fruits are devoured by a people hungry for fresh food, in honor of the gifts of Earth and Sun, and in clear evidence of faith in the richness of the harvests yet to come, that there will be plenty both for now and to put by for the coming Winter. Eat, drink, and be merry, for the year soon dies, and we must renew ourselves within the womb of home again.
This is the last of the harvest of the planting, and the end of the Sun's ascendancy. Day and Night are equal once again, and the births of the beginning of the year are being balanced by the deaths of plants to feed them.
It is at this time that the Sun's outpouring comes to a head - a head of grain on a stalk of straw. The great grain harvests are brought in, and the end of the growing season may be marked by the symbolic death of the Year King, a male figure made of straw, with a head of grain in both those places where males have heads. The figure is erected in the center of a circle cleared in a field of grain, surrounded by a ring of mud, as a firebreak. The two heads of the Year King are harvested with a scythe, just as the grain harvest he is made from and represents, and set aside for their separate uses. The grain that is his seed is the best of the seed grain, chosen for this purpose when the figure is erected, and will be used to plant the next year's crop. The grain that is his head goes to the brewers and bakers, to make the cakes and ale which are the fruits of the harvest of the grain. The ale goes to the head, hence the symbolism.
At the end of the celebration, when the crops have been brought in, and the partying risen to its height, the mud ring is created, giving all an opportunity to wallow naked in the mud, painting themselves and each other with it, perhaps even having waterfights before the whole community together is rinsed clean of sweat and mud and chaff. Then the Year King is harvested like his brethren, and the straw figure is set alight. In the course of the night's celebration and release, the sparks of the fire return the energy of the land to the sun from whence it came, and the ashes are mixed with the soil to enrich the land.
The cycle has balanced itself, and the Sun is sunk from work to rest. His fruits recede from the land, leaving her bare bones to clothe themselves in the spare flesh of the Winter. This is the time of the culling of the herds, that their flesh may feed us over the Winter, and their numbers be reduced to strengthen the herd, and reduce the number of stomachs to strain the stores.
With the passing of the herds, the veil between the world of life and death draws thin, worn by their hooves, and Herne and his Hounds return to the world to harry them on. We mourn the passing of life that is necessary to feed us, and we mourn all life we have lost that had meaning to us. This is the night when our thoughts draw us close to those we have lost, and we mourn our departed.
Like all life, however, we feel a need to assert our vitality in the face of death, and this is also a time of celebration, for the harvests are rich, and the herds can take the culling and profit from it in added strength with each passing year and generation. So we honor their strength, and our own life in the face of death, with a celebration after our need for mourning is met. Images of the dead often pervade these celebrations; we invite them in to join us in our night of revelry, on this night when all are thinking of their dead, are they are drawn close by our own strength of feeling.
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