Serious UPG* alert.
There are 5,000,000,000,001 holidays this month. (I counted.) And as every pagan knows, the greeting “Happy Christmakwanzakah” doesn’t account for the one thing most December holidays center around – the solstice. As GG pointed out earlier this week, the solstice is the longest night of the year. Long ago when I realized this, I always thought it odd. Shouldn’t the longest night of the year be at the end of winter? The day that turns life around and brings back the light should be the first day of spring, right? But no, the sun’s birth ushers in the dead season.
Heathen Jul (or Yule) is a holiday that I don’t understand. Adam of Bremen and other Christians who watched the celebration have documented the rites – the blót sacrifice, the party, the fact that it was the most important celebration of the year and lasted twelve days – but I have a hard time pinning down what I consider the most important part: why they had it. Yes, it was some sort of blessing for the new year and it had something to do with the solstice… but that’s not WHY. In the Pagan Wheel of the Year, Yule is the adopted name for the Solstice celebration, and Wiccans celebrate it as the birth of the sun-god that was conceived at the spring equinox – the birth of our hope that even in the dark of winter we have the promise of spring.
I’ll get back to that in a minute.
I had a friend recently ask me, “How is Samhain the New Year? That doesn’t make any sense.” It’s true that a lot of Wiccans (and other pagans) call Samhain the witch’s/pagan new year, and I had to think about her statement for a moment, because I agree with her (here comes that UPG thing)… Samhain doesn’t feel like the beginning of anything.
But it does feel like the end of something.
And that got me thinking about how in our modern world, we celebrate the New Year on January 1st, and we all stay up late on December 31st so that we can watch when 11:59:59 (the old year) changes to 12:00:00 (the new), and with no wait, no work, no chaos, and no fuss the old is destroyed and the new reborn. But how many things in life are really like this? One second that changes everything? One second that destroys and creates in a flash. It does happen, don’t get me wrong. But rarely.
So my answer to her was this, “Samhain isn’t the beginning of the new year; it’s the end of the old. The new year doesn’t start until Yule. The end and the beginning are separate.”
“Oh,” she answered. “That makes more sense.”
And like that, my friend’s confirmation turned some vague UPG into life according to Jax. (Tremble in fear.)
I don’t think I’m alone or completely unfounded in this idea, though. When something is destroyed, chaos happens – even if there is a plan in place for what comes next. We are an unabashedly nostalgic species. As humans, we cling to the old (even if the old wasn’t good for us) and we fight against change. We need time for the pieces to be well and truly blasted and the dust to settle before we can move on to building something new.
Right now, when the old year has expired and we hide amid the chaos, folk custom says that The Wild Hunt rages as Odin leads a procession of the dead (or the ghostly hounds called Cŵn Annwn howl on the heels of fae king Gwynn ap Nudd or many other versions from across Europe). You can hear the dogs barking as they come, collecting souls that haven’t found their place yet, finishing the “clean up” with noise and clamor as we huddle in fear, terrified of being swept up into the storm.
And then comes Yule. Rock bottom. The darkest it gets. And amidst the chaos, it is this day, of all days, that we find the courage to get up and light a candle to welcome back the sun.
Yule, to me, is the great celebration of the resiliency of the human soul. On the day of the year when we should most be huddling terrified under the covers, Yule is humanity saying, “Eff you, universe, I’m throwing a party.” Yule is our blind, unrelenting faith that the universe will one day right itself combined with our blind, unrelenting faith that we are strong enough to endure until it does.
And that’s why I think Yule, or however you want to name the solstice, is one of the most celebrated holidays the world over. And one of the most important.** Bad times will come. Change will happen. Chaos will ensue. Most of the universe is out of our control. What is in our control is how we react. So light candles, gather with people you care about, eat the best meal you can put together, and thumb your nose at chaos and darkness by celebrating with joy.
May the Wild Hunt pass you by unscathed, and may you celebrate with joy this Yuletide season.
**There’s been so much talk recently about bullying and teen suicide, and some wonderful campaigns have sprung up, like the It Gets Better Project , that promote this same Yuletide message. We NEED holidays that emphasize endurance and finding joy in the face of bad times – the Wild Hunt chases each of us down in different but equally terrifying ways.