During the winter a lot of nature dies back, so things that remain green become powerful metaphors for the journey through the darker, shorter days. And this is the shortest of them — the Winter Solstice; a time brimming with associations, images and archetypes.
It includes themes of solitude and deep contemplation, mindfulness of the narrative of death and (eventually) rebirth. At the solstices the sun stands still and the Winter Solstice is the beginning of the astronomical winter.
It’s a time rich in traditions, some of which have made their way into other festivals of light, like Christmas.
Bringing in trees
In his illustrated poem, ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’, T S Eliot talks about how we can retain the spirit of wonder into adulthood:
There are several attitudes towards Christmas, Some of which we may disregard: The social, the torpid, the patently commercial, The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight), And the childish — which is not that of the child For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: Let him continue in the spirit of wonder […]
This spirit is certainly helped by participating in simple traditions that make us focus on the rhythms of life and which add meaningful metaphors to those rhythms.
The history of putting up trees in public spaces or bringing fir trees indoors for this season is long and disputed and there are antecedents like the wooden Paradise Trees, paraded on December 24 to remember Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, in Mediaeval Mystery Plays.
There are stories of miracles, like that of St Boniface cutting down an oak being apparently used in connection with a human sacrifice and a fir springing up in its place, or of the Christ-child visiting a poor family incognito and leaving a fir branch as a gift of thanks for the hospitality, and associations with the tradition of yule logs, particularly through the trees of Riga and Tallinn in the 15th and 16th centuries, which were danced around, then cut down and burnt.
Trees decorated with food and candles are certainly known by the 18th century, as Goethe’s description in his 1774 novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, shows.
From Rome to Scandinavia
More widely, bringing in greenery goes back a long way, certainly to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was originally on December 17 but gradually expanded to become several days.
After the harvests and in honour of the winter sowing and the god, Saturn, it was a festival when social norms were relaxed or even overturned (a household king might be chosen on the basis of who found a coin in a cake and servants and slaves took full part and were often served by masters). It was a time of feasting, music, and gifts (often candles), all of which made their way into Christmas traditions by the 4th century.
Holly was a symbol of the god Saturn and decorating with greenery part of the festivities. It’s also associated with protection and so was placed around windows and doors. Mistletoe has links with both Norse and Druid traditions, a protection from storms and evil (though much less is known about the latter).
In the Norse myth associated with Balder, mistletoe was the only thing he wasn’t protected from, so he is killed with an arrow of mistletoe. The tears his mother, the goddess Frigga, weeps, become the white berries that revive her son to life and so the plant is blessed and becomes a symbol of peace and of bestowing kisses.
Greening our writing and our lives
Greenery is full of life. Green foods nourish us and, surprisingly, we share 99% of our DNA with the lettuce. We really are deeply connected to all things, as this poem by Lucille Clifton says with lyrical power:
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot. the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and i taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Evergreens dignify the cold, dark months. And ‘greening’ is a wonderful way to think about the creative life germinating within us.
What are your memories and/or associations of Christmas trees, wreaths and seasonal greenery?
- Do you decorate with greenery in this season?
- Is it just another task / tired tradition or can you relocate the wonder in it?
- In what ways is your writing alive and green and in what ways does it need greening?
A Yule log for the shortest day
Today is the winter solstice. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of the Winter Solstice:
The planet tilts just so to its star, lists and holds circling in a fixed tension between veering and longing, spins helpless, exalted, in and out of that fleet blazing touch. Last night Orion vaulted and spread all over the sky, pagan and lunatic, his shoulder and knee on fire, his sword three suns at the ready — for what?
I stood at the window, the bay window on which in summer a waxy-looking grasshopper had breathed puff puff, and thought, I won’t see this year again, not again so innocent, and longing wrapped round my throat like a scarf … Is this mystery or coyness? A cast-iron bell hung from the arch of my rib cage; when I stirred it rang, or it tolled, a long syllable pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones, and I couldn’t make it out; I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note, but couldn’t catch the consonant that might shape it into sense. I wrenched myself from the window and stepped outside.
Traditions associated with Solstice are somewhat murky, but the Yule log appears to go back to Norse and Saxon cultures. This is Bede, writing in the 8th century:
They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. (De temporum ratione)
These ceremonies included burning a Yule log. In many places the log was huge enough to burn through twelve days (so might be a whole tree), with the leftover ash kept to light the next year’s log and attributed with many protective qualities. In other places (like France), the log was burnt in pieces over the twelve days, and in the West Country in the UK would be a bunch of ash twigs. However it was practiced, the burning represents death and new life, the coming of the sun again, and traditionally logs should be foraged or given as gifts rather than bought.
Stepping back for change
As the year turns, a lot comes our way — families and relationships (whether wonderfully supportive or not) take huge emotional energy, as do friendships; we face illnesses, sometimes life-threatening or stripping away the quality of life, in ourselves and others; we balance work and the fast pace of modern living with needs for an inner life and a creative life; we have domestic concerns and a thousand-and-one other things competing for just a bit of us until sometimes we realise there isn’t one bit left over for the next thing, but still have to keep going. Even if life is going extraordinarily well and we feel continually blessed, there can still be a pace to this that we need to rest from.
The Solstice is a good day to step back, even if only for an hour or two, and give yourself time to think in stillness and quiet; a time for spiritual nourishment (whatever ‘spirituality’ might mean to you). Going inward in retreat is not a rejection of the world and responsibilities and love, but a way of storing energy for whatever life throws at it — think of it as your stash of squirrel nuts for the winter. It’s also a way of giving yourself the space to process emotions, to absorb and contemplate what is going on in your life at the moment and how you want to move forward — by doing this deep considering we become more considerate, less likely to be reactive or to project our shadow parts onto others.
Transforming ourselves within is continual work, but this is a day to mark this work, which is rich and fertile. This is Anne Lamott:
We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.
Change begins deep inside. What often prevents change is that we remain trapped in limiting conceptions of ourselves. These conceptions can come from within, from clinging to being self-righteousnessly right rather than risking an understanding that would require a lot of thinking and transformation. Or they can come from the expectations of others. So often people have a fixed idea of who we are and it’s deeply discomfiting to them if we begin to show signs of change. People can invest in us staying the same and, at this time of the year, this can include how we are expected to play certain roles within family or community events that have always been done in a particular way.
So taking some time to contemplate how you will be the person you want to become is integral to this season. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saul Bellow noted:
Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.
This is how Jeanette Winterson puts it:
Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world — it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level … Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all … We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.
We do have an an inner life, and that inner life needs to have respect and needs to have some nourishment for itself. And that’s why art can never be a luxury — because, if it is, being human is a luxury; being who we actually are is a luxury. Life can’t be about utility — it has also to be about emotion, it has to be about imagination, it has to be about things for their own sake, so that this journey of ours makes sense to us and is not simply something that we’re rather fretfully trying to get through another day, another week, another month — that pressure that we so often feel … Reading books really does take your hand off the panic button, it allows your breathing to return to normal, it allows you to occupy the space isn’t entirely ruled by other people’s demands and by utility.
Today, take some time to stand still with the sun and consider:
- How do you nurture your inner light and life?
- What part does your writing play in constructing who you are and who you want to be?
- What needs to die back to give your inner life the space it needs to flourish?
Call to become your story
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