Give me that old time religion

Upon one’s first visit to a Renaissance Festival, one might wander into a book stall and be surprised at the selection of books. Fantasy novels are snugged alongside books about pagan faith and mysticism. It’s a far cry from the usual fare at a typical American bookstore. For many, one of the most appealing aspects of Renaissance Faire culture is the love of pagan lore. Witchcraft, Wicca, and Druidism are represented and celebrated as the faiths of the ancients are revered.

By Becky Courington

As the last rays of light disappear beyond the horizon, I say a prayer and light a candle. I will tend this flame throughout the night, ensuring it never goes out. All other candles in my home will be lit from it, bringing light to each room throughout the longest and darkest night of the year. The Sun has died, and I wait for it to be reborn, keeping light alive within my home and within myself, my vigil an act of faith, a symbol of how I trust the cycles of nature to continue to turn and a promise that I will uphold my responsibilities within those cycles no matter how long it may take. Many hours later, my watch is rewarded with the turning of the Great Wheel, and I stand outside in the frozen winter air and sing to welcome the newly reborn Sun, to herald the start of a new cycle. The Winter Solstice has passed, and I have completed my most cherished and important ritual. At last, under the dawning of a new year, I may sleep.

In my heart and by my nature, I am a sunflower; I am always turning my face toward the light. I relish summer, even the scorching blaze it brings to my south Texas home, and I delight every June in the festivities honoring the Summer Solstice, reveling in its joyous celebrations of art and bounty. Despite all of this,  I never feel so spiritually moved as I do during the Winter Solstice, and I never feel so connected to my ancestors or to my path as a Pagan as I do during the longest night. It is the moment in time when I feel the Wheel of the Year perceptibly shift, and it is also the moment when I feel most assured of my place and my purpose upon that wheel.

What Is the Winter Solstice?

Scientifically speaking, the Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon that happens every year. It’s the moment when one of the earth’s poles has reached its maximum tilt away from the sun, which causes the sun to appear to stand still in the sky and heralds the longest night of the year. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this happens on December 21, give or take a day, and in the Southern Hemisphere, it happens on or around June 21. Although we cannot be certain exactly how long human beings have been aware of this celestial event, structures like Newgrange and Stonehenge, which were built to align with the sun’s rays on the Winter Solstice, tell us its celebration dates back at least 5,000 years, making the Winter Solstice mankind’s oldest known holiday. It is celebrated throughout the world and on every continent, even at the research outpost in Antarctica. 

In modern Paganism, the Winter Solstice is most commonly known as Yule or Midwinter. However, if you were to ask a collection of Pagans to describe its religious significance and how it is celebrated, no two answers would be exactly the same. Pagan is an umbrella term that encompasses a rich world of cultures and traditions that both span the globe and date back for millennia, and modern Pagans are just as diverse and eclectic as our ancestors. With the exception of Zoroastrians (practitioners of ancient Persian mysticism), most modern Pagans do not have an unbroken line of religious practice to structure our celebrations around, and thus many of the ways we observe the Solstice season are based on our best attempts to reconstruct what we think our ancestors did rather than continuing traditions that were handed down to us directly. Some adhere to specific ancestral beliefs, such as Hellenic Pagans who worship the Greek pantheon, and some, like myself, choose to draw from multiple traditions. Our midwinter holidays are based upon such historic sources as Saturnalia, a week-long celebration of the Roman God Saturn; the Festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti in honor of the Roman God Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun/Son; Rural Dionysia, a Greek festival honoring Dionysus; Meán Geimhridh, the Celtic celebration of the Solstice; and, of course, Yule, which was celebrated by the early peoples of England, Germany, France, Norway, and many other northern European countries.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the ways in which we observe the Winter Solstice, what we call it, and whether or not we consider it a major or minor holy day vary widely from person to person and tradition to tradition. However, because we are all honoring the same natural phenomenon and season, there are nonetheless common themes among our diverse individual celebrations.

Festivals of Light

The Winter Solstice marks the moment we leave the dark half of the year (when the daylight grows continually shorter) and enter the light half of the year (when the daylight lengthens with each dawn). We celebrate this rebirth and strengthening of the light in a number of ways. In my tradition, we tend a sacred flame throughout the night to ensure the light stays alive and the Sun is born anew in the morning. Such vigils are a common practice, with some choosing to spend the night in quiet meditation and others choosing to spend it in boisterous celebration full of drinking and song. Still others prefer to wake up at dawn to welcome the new Sun, trusting that it needs no assistance from them to be reborn.

Although the Winter Solstice is not technically a fire festival, fire nonetheless plays a big role in celebrating the Sun and the returning light. Sometimes the fire is metaphorically represented by string lights and other decorations, and others it is literal: Yule logs are a favorite tradition for many modern Pagans. Originally, Yule logs were pieces of found firewood (it was considered unlucky to fell a living tree for Yule) that were large enough to burn throughout the entire Solstice night without going out. These days, few of us are lucky enough to have access to a forest where we can scavenge our own fallen trees, so we make do with simply keeping the fire started with our Yule log burning throughout the night, or we burn one symbolically by lighting candles atop a decorative Yule log. The Heathen tradition (modern Norse Pagans) celebrates the Solstice as the first of twelve days of Yuletide (Jólablót) and keeps a Yule log burning for eleven nights afterward as well.

A Season of Giving

Gift-giving has taken numerous forms over the centuries and throughout cultures, from Saturnalia’s easily recognizable tradition of exchanging gifts and food to the Celtic tradition of wassailing (singing processions in which children blackmail you into giving them sweets lest they stay at your door and keep singing forever) to—a personal favorite—the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, a skeletal horse who appears on your doorstep and challenges you to a rap battle. The stakes of the battle are simple: If you win, the Mari Lwyd will leave; if you don’t, the Mari Lwyd gets to come inside and drink all of your alcohol. This may sound absurd, but I assure you it is delightfully real and still carried out today in Wales by Pagans and non-Pagans alike.

Beyond exchanging gifts with loved ones and family, many traditions put an emphasis on charity during the Solstice season. Our ancestors lived in very communal societies, and the Solstice presaged the famine months of late winter when food stores and firewood would become increasingly scarce. It benefitted everyone to ensure the members of their communities had enough to survive, and so gifts were given to neighbors to help them make it through the cold months ahead. This is as true today as it was centuries ago: Those of us who have plenty have a communal obligation to care for those who don’t.

Feasting and Greening the Home

The idea of holding a feast may sound paradoxical given what I just said about Yule marking the beginning of the most difficult time of the year, but as a celebration of both the returning light and of the longest, darkest night, Yule is a paradox by its very nature. It is the last feasting day until spring, when we will celebrate the first signs we have survived another winter, and it is both a final celebration of gratitude for what the year has brought us as well as a farewell to the abundance of summer and autumn when crops and livestock are plentiful. It is death and rebirth, darkness and light, all at once, both somber and raucous. 

In the modern world, many of us are fortunate enough to not worry about if we have adequate stores of food, and we can instead simply embrace the sharing of a meal with our loved ones with joyous gratitude for the blessings that allow us to do so.

Depending on where you live, winter can be remarkably still and solemn. The plants have all gone dormant; the wildlife has gone into hibernation or hiding. The most instinctive response to this world of unending white is to create a warm and comforting home to wait out the coldest months. Decorating with natural elements like cedar, holly, and ivy, all of which remain vibrant year-round, is the most logical choice, and our forebearers considered them symbols of Divine immortality. Mistletoe in particular was believed magical by early Celts and was thought to aid fertility. (Mistletoe is poisonous, so if you would like to use it in a ritual to promote fertility, please do not ingest it.)

Honoring the Darkness and New Beginnings

Although light is celebrated at the Solstice, it is the time of year when darkness is at its strongest. Pagan traditions do not typically cleave to the idea that darkness is bad and light is good; it is neither. Just like the light, it is an essential part of life. The darkness invites us to rest and to reflect; it asks us to slow down; it gives us time and space in which to heal. Yule is a perfect time for self-reflection and meditation, and we go into the darkness when we search for ourselves. The long, dark hours of the Solstice night provide a time to discover what we want to take with us into the new year and what we want to cast into our fires to be burned away, left with the ashes of the old year.

The majority of modern Pagans consider Samhain (Halloween) the beginning of the new year because it marks the end of the growing season, but there are also many who honor the new year on the day after the Winter Solstice when the solar cycle begins anew. Magically speaking, it is an auspicious time for new beginnings. The first time I dedicated myself to a Goddess, I did so under the first rays of a newly born sun, swearing that I would be Hers from that moment until the sun died again on the next Winter Solstice. If you find yourself standing at the head of a new path, the day after the Solstice is the perfect time to take your first step.

As the light grows in the days following the Solstice, it is also a time to grow the light within ourselves. It is a time to challenge ourselves to burn more brightly, and to bring more warmth to those around us. This Solstice season, I invite you to kindle that light within yourself. The night is dark, and it is long, and it is cold, but everywhere, there are fires lit. Everywhere, people are pushing back against the dark. 

The dawn will come at last, and I will await it faithfully, with fire within me. Blessed be.

For further reading, may we suggest: Yule, from Llewellyn.com. A beginner primer, from Llewllyn’s Sabbat Essential series. A charming read (https://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9780738744513). Also, Danielle Prohom Olson’s essay on the Deer Mother, while much more focused on a specific part of midwinter lore, is absolutely exquisite: https://gathervictoria.com/2017/12/15/doe-a-deer-a-female-deer-the-spirit-of-mother-christmas/

Becky Courington is an award-winning author and scholar who is surprised every morning when she wakes up and remembers she is a marine geology editor. She technically earned three degrees, but SMU insisted you can’t triple major in English no matter how many credit hours you have in different areas of focus, so she officially has only one. Her hobbies include sewing, sculpting, writing, acting, and starting kitchen fires, and she wants to know if you’re registered to vote.

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