Midwinter: The Return of the Light

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Whether you call it Midwinter, Yule, the Winter Solstice, Mean Geimhridh, Alban Arthan, Mother Night, or any number of other names, the celebration of the longest night is a celebration of the return of the sun. Interestingly, I think this has been the natural festival that I have been celebrating for the longest in my life. No, not because we celebrated Christmas while I was growing up, but because I learned from a young age that this “first day of winter” was the day when the days started getting longer and brighter.

My father used to bring his guitar to play songs during our Christmas dinners with family and he loved to sing The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” after going through some typical Christmas songs as a reminder that this was also the time when the sun was returning. Later in my life, I was a long-distance runner, and would wake up early in the morning to go on my run before class or work, and I would count the days leading up to the solstice because the sun’s return meant that I would have more time to run without having to leave before sunrise.

In folk tradition, the end of December and beginning of January (or the end of the Gregorian calendar), was a time of feasting and celebration. In Scottish tradition, Nollaig and Hogmanay are celebrations of Christmas, the new year, and the return of light. They will bless their space and possessions, and recite prayers for the season, using their unique syncretic blend of Celtic deities and Christianity.

Like much of the dark half of the year, it was also a time during which the fairies were supposed to be active. On Hogmanay, you’re supposed to protect your house with boughs of holly to deter them. In Norse tradition, the winter solstice was also the time of the Wild Hunt, which has be adopted to some extent into Scottish folklore.

As I mentioned at Samhain, the popular misconception that winter was the lean time of year is disproven with the widespread feasting at Midwinter. This is the time of year where there isn’t a whole lot to do in order to make food. The harvests have been reaped, it is too early to sow, the cows have probably gone dry for the year and the cheese made. It is a time of leisure and enjoyment of your stored bounty. Time enough to work when the world warms again.

This year, our traditions are disrupted by the pandemic and we aren’t going to celebrate Christmas with family, but we are still able to take off Nollaig, the week between Christmas and New Year. So while most of our festivities will start on the 24th, I have made some space to celebrate the day of the solstice, and the return of light and warmth to the world.

In addition to my pine-infused bath soak, to bring warmth to my body, I’ve made two cypress bundles to use for smoke cleansing my space: one for Midwinter day and one for Hogmanay. I’ve also set aside a special candle light for a Midwinter vigil. Beyond that, there will be plenty of special baking, perhaps including some family recipes. I hope your holiday season is a blessed one.

Samhain: Happy New Year

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It is no accident that I chose to launch this space on Samhain. In the pagan world, Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new. It is the beginning of the cycle of a year that represents death, and the time from Samhain until the Winter Solstice is a liminal time, a time of change and preparation for rebirth.

It is also the time of the Cailleach.

I will pen a proper introduction to the Cailleach later this month, as the first in a series of dives into deity figures, but at Samhain, the Cailleach takes over the influence of the season and brings us into the dark half of the year. Despite the fact that the days have been shortening since the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, around the end of October is when I really start to notice the shift. And it is the end of the harvest season, which is why daylight savings time ends around this time, plunging us into every-earlier evening darkness.

And in this time of darkness, we not only look to bring the light to soothe our minds, but we reconnect with the aspects of death. The traditional Jack o’the Lantern was a wandering soul, with an ember in a carved out turnip to light his way, a flickering eerie light, if my experiments with carving turnips are any proof. It is the time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the thinnest, and a time for divination, ancestor work, and shadow work. A time to sit and contemplate.

One way that I’ve chosen to mark this holiday is by doing a lot of work to connect with that Otherworld and my ancestors. I’ve taken some courses, about which I will write later this month, that have helped me reconnect both with my personal genealogy journey, as well as my own intuitive understanding of how my ancestry informs my practice. And the Cailleach is the divine representation of that deep, crone ancestor who came with the land. So as I sit in the times of darkness, before sunrise or after sunset, I am sitting with the departed and the deep ancestors.

But it also a celebration. As I said, it is the final harvest festival. We often think of the end of autumn and into winter as the lean and sparse times, the hungry times of the year, but there was an interesting section on a podcast I listen to on the history of Britannia, where the creator talks about harvest practices in the ancient world. Our ancestors were not foolish, and they knew they did not have our robust food supply chain. They knew they had to preserve their food. So the late autumn and winter were the times of plenty. Right after the harvest was brought in, it was prepared for storage and the stores would be full. A wise society with a robust production would have plenty of food to last through the winter and into the spring until the new plantings yielded plenty again.

So while Samhain may have marked the time when our ancestors might have found themselves without the fieldwork that occupied them during much of the rest of the year, they were not starving. In fact, it’s possible that this was the time that they had to create dishes from their stored food. Think about the traditions of baking around Yule and you’ll see that it doesn’t make sense for this to be the entry into the lean times. So Samhain, for me, is an entry into a time of homey cooking, baking, and other around-the-house crafts that keep us cozy as the weather brings in a chill. The world outside might begin to look dead and skeletal, but it is merely resting, in hibernation, conserving its energy to burst forth in the spring.

Blessed Samhain!