(Image by Catherine Hyde.)
In my last post, I wrote about building a new folk culture based on our native traditions. This seems especially urgent to me now, surrounded as we all are at this time of year by the consumption-driven madness that calls itself Christmas. Even here in the wilds of Connemara, it isn’t possible to escape it. Turn on the radio or the TV, and we’re deluged by ads urging us to buy, buy, buy. Burn the planet, so that for one lunatic day of the year we can wear red hats and snowflake-embroidered sweaters and drink and eat more than is moral, frankly, and imagine everything is perfect and there’s nothing wrong with us – we’re all quite sane, honestly, and we’re sure the planet will be just fine. But we don’t need to ask for whom the jingle bells toll: they’re tolling for us – have been for decades – and still we can’t seem to help ourselves. Buy, buy, buy.
If ever we needed to reinvent our approach to this season, it’s now. Because that’s what we’re supposed to be acknowledging and celebrating here: the season. Whatever other religious rites and symbols might have been bolted onto it, this winter holiday is about winter, and all of the things that are happening around us at this time of the year. Very specifically, it’s about a real astronomical event which happens every year: the Winter Solstice. Winter Solstice happens during the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s elevation in the sky is at its lowest. The word ‘solstice’ literally means ‘sun stands still’, for at this time the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and to change little in position. ‘Winter Solstice’, then, actually refers to a single moment; for this reason, other words are often used for the day itself: ‘midwinter’, or simply ‘the shortest day’.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
from ‘Burnt Norton’, T.S. Eliot
The significance of Winter Solstice is two-fold: it’s the darkest point of the year, and yet it’s also the moment at which we begin the journey back from that long darkness and into the slow, sometimes painful but ultimately joyous, return of the light.
For most people today, Winter Solstice is at best a curiosity, and at worst a complete irrelevance. But it wasn’t always so. There are many myths and stories about the birth and rebirth of gods which occur at this time, and about battles between the darkness and the light. Here on the westernmost fringes of Europe, we know that Winter Solstice was significant to our ancestors because of the great monuments which were built to acknowledge it: monuments which were aligned to the sunrise on the day of the Solstice (at Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in Orkney, for example). Fires used to be lit at midwinter to welcome the return of the light: the death of the old sun and the rebirth of the new. And lighting those fires was an act of faith, because Winter Solstice occurs at the height of what was historically a time of great uncertainty: starvation, disease and death was common during the cold and barren winter months.
Our ancestors may have lived in the long-ago faraway, but the great cycles of the planet and the great cycles of the natural world are just as relevant to us today as they ever were. ‘Modern’ as we imagine ourselves to be, there is something in each of us which still fears the long dark, and Death seems always to stalk us here, in these shadowy days between Samhain and Imbolg. Once we understood these patterns, and the teachings which follow the rise and fall of the year. But once we were married to the land, and understood many things which now are lost.
I think it’s time we began to understand them again.
Perhaps we’ve abandoned our focus on the season because we fear the long dark. And the long dark is fearful because we’re afraid that one day, the light won’t return after all. Our logos-obsessed intellect tells us that it couldn’t be so – but the mythos which lives on in our imagination and physical senses knows that it’s perfectly possible that it won’t. In this time of global darkness, that fear is more visceral than ever. And on a more personal note, we know full well that one day we won’t wake up to the light; one day we’ll get permanently stuck in the dark, and die.
The dark might be fearful, but it’s part of life. And like all parts of a well-lived life, there’s a richness and a beauty in it which offers both revelation and transformation. Our unease in the dark reflects our fear of endings, as well as our anxieties about new beginnings – and it’s a natural enough response. It’s not something to be avoided: it’s a sign that we’re still breathing, still alive to the world around us. It’s time to stop shuffling through the dark days, medicating ourselves with excess. It’s time to become fully alive to the world around us. It’s time to fully engage with the season.
And yes, for our ancestors, midwinter was very much a time for feasting. The animals had been gathered in, and after months of hard work in the spring, summer and autumn fields, now it was time to rest. But although they might have known the value of a good feast, our ancestors also knew when to stop. They knew when enough was enough, and how to hold the sacred balance between give and take which maintains life for all.
We do not know these things any longer; we’ve forgotten, and forgotten well. We buy our toys and gadgets, and use them like sawdust to fill up the gaping emptiness at our centre. And then we wonder why Christmas is always such a disappointment – why it never quite seems to live up to the promises the advertisers made to us. Where was the snow, and where were the reindeer, and the glittering stars in a truly dark night sky? Where was the real, fully lived magic? And, focused as we always are on assuaging our own all-too-human alienation from the living world around us; and fixating at all costs – at any cost – on our messed-up relationships or emotional ‘process’ or our tortuous pathways to personal ‘wellbeing’, we certainly don’t make time to grieve for the polar bears starving in the Arctic due to man-made climate change, or to think about what we might conceivably do to stop it. We just buy another plastic-wrapped bauble, and say to hell with the oceans: it’s Christmas.
So it’s okay to feast – but only if you understand when enough is enough. And only if you’ve thought about how you’ll survive once the feasting is over, and it’s the famine road which stretches ahead. More than anything, then: before the feast, always make sure that you understand what it is to fast. Because survival depends on preparation, and preparation depends on knowing what is essential. It depends on knowing how to find out what is essential, and that means letting the long, cold dark strip you down to the bare bones. Let winter strip you bare like an old oak tree. Let the final leaves that you’re clinging onto fall. Let it all fall, and see what still keeps you standing.
Winter Solstice is a time of renewal. It’s a time to immerse ourselves in the cycles of nature: of death and rebirth, of darkness and light. It’s a time to think about change and transformation, and to appreciate the still point in the rich, fecund dark before the next cycle gets fully underway. Above all, it’s a time to step out of your head sometimes and let your body – that soft, honest animal part of you – fully embrace the long, cold dark. Without that, you can have no real understanding of what the light even means. So promise yourself this, today: that through the rest of this winter season, you’ll stay awake to the land around you, and to the nonhuman others who inhabit it with you. And that, when the light returns and the famine days are over, and the great cycle of growth begins again, you’ll braid yourself a wedding ring from newly cut rushes, and marry yourself to the land.
Grey Heron Nights
In 2014, I decided to create a personal tradition which would encourage me to focus in on the gifts of the winter season in the context of my own developing life, from year to year. Here’s what I wrote on this blog, back in 2014:
There is an old Greek myth about ‘halcyon days’. The idea springs from a story about the halcyon (from the kingfisher family), about which Aristotle has this to say:
‘The halcyon breeds at the season of the winter solstice. Accordingly, when this season is marked with calm weather, the name of “halcyon days” is given to the seven days preceding, as to as many following, the solstice … The halcyon is said to take seven days for building her nest, and the other seven for laying and hatching her eggs.’
In this land I inhabit there are no halcyons to brighten our winter solstice; instead, the bird of the season is the grey heron. We live by the side of a river which harbours succulent trout; it is no surprise that we share our space with the heron. But they have been especially active recently, and early each morning when I come back from my long dawn walk with the dogs, a heron rises up from the side of the tiny bridge across the river which leads to our house and flies off over the hill behind us.
The heron, or crane, is one of the most frequently mentioned birds in Irish mythology, and it has many associations, but at this time of year for me the most relevant is its connection with the Cailleach – the old hag of winter. The two are linked in part because of the heron’s harsh, wailing cry, but also because of a number of stories which link the two together. And so it is a bird of old age and longevity, and like many birds that are associated with water, it is a guide to the Otherworld. In Welsh mythology, three cranes protect the entrance to Annwn, the Underworld. It is said that cranes dance in circles, and so their dance is associated both with the movement of the sun around the sky, and the circle of life, death, and rebirth through which they guide us.
I’ve always loved the idea of halcyon days, but halcyons form no part of the traditions that spring from my land. Herons, on the other hand, do, and their mythical associations are relevant to this season of the long dark. I do not celebrate Christmas; it has no meaning for me. But I celebrate solstice and the other cycles of the year, for the solstices and equinoxes are real astronomical events, and the quarter-day festivals between them are grounded in the seasonal realities of the land on which I live. We know relatively little about the ways in which our ancestors marked these cycles and seasons, and besides, our lives are different now. It seems to me that we might create our own traditions, equally grounded in the places we inhabit and the lives and stories of the creatures who share it with us. Such traditions can become acts of re-enchantment: creating both wonder, and a sense of connection to the land.
And so the new tradition I have created for myself for this season, and which I offer to you as a gift here, is that of Grey Heron Nights. For this and the next thirteen days, seven to solstice (this year, on Sunday December 21 at 23.03 UTC/ GMT) and the seven beyond, I’ll share something short here, some reflection on the land and the season, some story, some act of connection. Like the mythical halcyon, for seven days I’ll build my nest and for another seven I’ll lay and hatch my eggs – but they will be the eggs of the grey heron, of crane, companion of the Cailleach. And so in this act of deep reflection, this season – which has been so effectively subverted into a season of crass commercialism, consumerism, and consumption – becomes, for me, both re-enchanted and firmly rooted in the real, visceral beauty of the long dark.
Back then in 2014, and again in 2015 too, my Grey Heron Nights centred around a mythical character who unexpectedly presented herself to me: her name was Old Crane Woman, and she had stories enough to go around. This year, Old Crane Woman is taking a break; she has other paths to tread, and by the time Winter Solstice comes around in 2018 you’ll find her telling those stories of hers in a bright, shiny new illustrated book. But I plan to continue my personal tradition of a fourteen-day cycle of seasonal stories and practices; this year I’d like to share those reflections here, as I continue to explore what this season means to me, and to think about authentic and grounded ways of celebrating it.
In the UK and Ireland, the 2017 Winter Solstice falls on Thursday 21 December, at 22.22 GMT. And so the first of my Grey Heron Nights posts will appear this coming Friday, December 15, seven days before solstice, and the final post will appear on Thursday December 28. If you’d like to be sure of catching them, pop over to the right sidebar alongside this post and sign up to follow this blog by email. I hope they enrich your midwinter, and provide both inspiration and food for thought.
Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. It’s dark out there. So let’s dance.