Midwinter: The Return of the Light

IMG_0825

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.

Herbal Rituals: Pine

IMG_0771

It is a new month and a new plant to explore in Judith Berger’s Herbal Rituals. The focus plant in December is pine, which is already quite prevalent in mundane celebration this month. I was thrilled to find some beautiful white pines in our local park, well away from the roadways, and private enough for me to gather some needles ethically without having to explain myself to passers-by.

December is the end of the Gregorian calendar and in a lot of traditions, the winter months were not considered actual months at all. They were somewhat of a time outside of time, when people would largely hunker down, eat food from their stocks from the harvests, and spend time in community. Particularly in northern latitudes, it would be a dark and cold time, and it could get dreary, I imagine.

Pine, in Berger’s book, is not only traditionally associated with December holidays, but also has uses in warming, nurturing, and grounding the body and spirit during this cold and dark time. But they are also associated with light and illumination. In Scottish tradition, “pine candles” or chunks of resin-rich pine fatwood are burned in their saining ceremony, particularly in rituals for newborn babies. So pine, as an excellent natural fire starter, can also represent the return of light, which begins at the end of December with the winter solstice.

Pine makes an excellent infusion or decoction, rich in nutrients that are particularly good against ailments common in winter. Or it can be infused into vinegar, honey, or both as a pungent tonic. Perhaps I will explore these other preparations after my next foraging trip, but for this batch, I went a different direction.

I decided to look at the warming and grounding properties of pine in my preparations this month. I used Berger’s infused oil recipe to create a pine-infused olive oil that I can use as a warming massage oil during the dark, cold months. The aroma will be soothing to my spirit while the oil itself will bring blood into the areas of my body that might grow stiff with cold and inactivity. I chose not to include the additional evergreens in her recipe, partly because I did not mange to forage all of them, but also because I found the scent of my pine needles just so intoxicating and wanted an oil of just that beauty.

I also decided to infuse some of my magnesium bath salts with pine needles by alternating layers of salts and cut-up needles in a jar and letting it sit for a few weeks. This will make a beautiful ritual bath for midwinter. Bathing is one of my favorite ways of grounding and releasing tension and negativity, and like many others, I find myself somewhat overwhelmed with the darkness of the time of year.

At the same time, the period between Samhain and midwinter are personally more difficult because it is a convergence of anniversaries of grief-filled events in my life, so I often find myself in need of a warm cocoon to which to retreat and replenish my energy. Perhaps I will find that peach in the boughs of my pine medicines.