Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bringing Light to Dark Places

Warmest Midwinter Blessings to all my readers

It's all too easy to feel frazzled and stressed during this time of year when the ancient sacred significance of the season has been overshadowed by the commercialism of "Giftmas."

Midwinter is the darkest time of year, the time of the Winter Solstice, when the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Here, in the North of England, the darkness feels overwhelming. The sun does not rise until after 8:00 and sets by 3:30. By 5:00, it's pitch dark. Now imagine experiencing this before the era of electric lights and central heating.

This silent tide of year has been marked by sacred ritual from time out of mind. Modern Christmas has roots that reach back before the dawn of Christianity.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the Festival of Saturn, with much merry-making, gift-giving, and "misrule," as the masters waited upon their slaves. People decorated their homes with greenery. Rich and poor alike joined in the feasting. In Northern Europe, Yuletide festivities marked the Solstice and the return of the light. In De temporum ratione, the Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote that the Pagan Anglo-Saxons began their year on December 25, on a feast they called Modranecht, or Mother's Night, marked by ceremonies that lasted the entire night. Mostly likely this feast was connected with the cult of the Matronae, the female ancestors.

Although there is no scriptural evidence to suggest that Jesus was born on 25 December, the early Church embraced this Solstice tide as fitting for the celebration of the birth of the Son of Light. Traditionally Christmas lasted for Twelve Nights, from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, once the old date of Christmas. During the medieval period, no villeins worked their lord's land during this time. In fact, their lord was obliged to provide a feast for them. As in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, medieval Britons enjoyed a reversal of the social order by crowning a Lord of Misrule, a common born man who lorded it over the gentry to guarantee hilarity for all.

This was a time of carol singing, games, and "guizing" - wild processions in animal masks that draw on the lore of the Wild Hunt that swept down from the sky across Northern and Middle Europe during the Twelve Nights. This kind of guizing still takes place every Christmas in the town of Kirschseeon near Munich, Germany. Mummers wear elaborately carved wooden masks and run through the woods in the Perchtenlauf, in eldritch celebration of the Rauhnaechte, the twelve nights of Yule, a time of much superstition, when it was believed that old Gods roared through the sky and the dead spirits walked the earth. The Perchtenlauf takes its name from Frau Percht, a figure that is closely associated with Frau Holle, who may have her roots in an old Goddess.

Traditionally the time for telling ghost stories was not Halloween, but the Twelve Nights, time out of time when all kinds of uncanny things could come to pass. Animals spoke in human speech. Water turned to wine. The future could be foretold. All spinning stopped and no wheel could turn. Time stood still. The world held its breath, awaiting the return of the light. In Glastonbury, the Holy Thorn Tree on Wearyall Hill bloomed on Christmas day.

This beautiful short film invites viewers to devote 12 minutes on each of the Twelve Nights to silent contemplation of the mysteries of this season. Anyone, of any spiritual tradition, can reclaim the numinous grace of this time out of time.

A dear friend of mine has reclaimed the beauty and power of Hanukkah. She read about how Hanukkah didn't really start with the Maccabees, how it was a much older holiday than that - and originally about bringing light to dark places. "So in every way I can," she says, "I use this season to bring light to dark places. Literally, figuratively, whatever. Sometimes it's just about watching the sun go down, turning on the light in the dining room, and saying out loud, 'Thank you for this miracle of light in my home after the sun has gone.'"

May all of us bring light into dark places.

Wishing you all a joyous Midwinter and a New Year filled with happiness and peace,


The newly released paperback edition of Daughters of the Witching Hill is now shipping! You can order it here.