In our modern world, we tend to take light for granted. We’re used to living constantly amidst all manner of human-made lights. We seldom reflect on the fact that for most of human history our only sources of light came from the sky and from fire. We easily forget that there was a time when torches were a new invention, oil lamps were valued possessions, and chandlers toiled so people could see in the night by candlelight.
Our ancestors bedded down at nightfall, for the most part. Of necessity they lived their lives finely attuned to Nature’s cycles – of light and dark, then later the cycles of sowing and reaping. They knew that their lives depended upon the Sun, so they created rituals to ensure its annual return.
In fact, marking the return of the light was so important to them that at least 5,000 years ago some of our Western European ancestors built megaliths such as Brugh na Bóinne in Ireland and Maes Howe in Scotland. Brugh na Boinne, or Newgrange, is a mound near the Boinne River (named for Boann, a cow goddess) comprised of a passage leading to inner chambers carved with spiral designs. The builders constructed the mound so that the light of the rising Sun on Midwinter morning shines a shaft of sunlight deep inside to illuminate the innermost chambers. Although only a limited number of people can experience this remarkable occurrence from within the mound, today, in the cyber age, millions of viewers can see this phenomenon live on Solstice morn from anywhere in the world via webcams placed inside the mounds.*
Some ancestors decorated their dwellings with evergreens; they cut a tree and decorated its branches with twinkling little candles. Today, if we’re ecologically minded as we should be, we use strings of LED lights. This tree represented the World Tree that unites the Underworld, the Middle World, and the Upper World, and it never dies.
I think humans are hard-wired to gather around fires, especially during the long nights of Winter. Other ancestors gathered round a Yule log -- Yule is a Scandinavian word usually taken to mean “wheel” -- to keep warm through the cold longest night of the year as they sat together, while bards and elders told stories, musicians played and people sang and danced, ate and drank.
Somewhat like the Salvation Army and other charities do today for those with fewer means, the poorer folk trekked from household to household, singing wassail songs in exchange for hot wassail and bread or other food.
We Pagans, at least the majority of us, view the Winter Solstice as the night when our Great Mother labors to bring forth the reborn Sun God. We see in images of Mary and the baby Jesus something ancient and primal, an icon that speaks to us.
In my tradition, we gather on the beach at sunset on the longest night of the year, and as the Sun goes down over the waves, we all plunge into the ocean as a ritual purification; then return to warm up at the big waiting bonfire in the sand.
Later we return to homes, often lots of us in one home, where we sing Yule carols, light candles, drink hot brews. We feast and eat Sun cookies the children have baked. We gather near the fireplace telling and listening to stories, playing games, perhaps doing divination.
As dawn approaches, we go outside and gather in the high places around the Bay Area and sing and sing and sing up the Sun – often in the rain, but always we can see the lightening skies.
When we perform these acts – when we sing the carols, trim our trees, light candles – we reenact the things our ancestors did, we reconnect with them, and we honor our heritage. Celebrating Midwinter together allows us to reaffirm the continuance of life.
In the spirit of the season, I’d like to teach you a little chant as a Yule gift from Pagans to the interfaith community. The words are by American poet e.e. cummings. I don’t know who made a chant of those words, but we have been using them for the past 30-plus years and it seems to be working fine.
i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth**
* Webcams have been mounted in these megaliths in years past. People are chosen by lottery to have the privilege of being inside the mound at sunrise.
** Unfortunately, I don't have the expertise yet to record this chant to share it here.
I wish all a joyous Solstice, warmed by the loving hearts of friends and family and a toasty fire.