Sunday, December 20, 2015

Yule: a festival of Light.


I am almost ready for Yule. The cookies are baked (and mostly out of the house); the tree is up and decorated; the gifts are wrapped. Well, mostly -- I need to go out and pick up a few odds and ends tomorrow.

We wrap ourselves in hubbub at this time of year: concerts and pageants at church and school, cookie exchanges, gift buying and giving, travel plans, cooking and cleaning, lists and more lists. It's easy to forget, surrounded as we are by lights and noise and our self-enforced busyness, why humans first began to mark the winter solstice at all: the dying of the light.

Cultures all over the Northern Hemisphere mark celebrations at this time of year. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are the best known in the United States, but there are others. Encyclopedia Britannica lists several winter solstice festivals around the world: Dong Zhi in China, a family end-of-harvest celebration; St. Lucia's Day in Scandinavia; Saturnalia, popular in ancient Rome, although not so much anymore; Yalda, the birthday of the sun god Mithras, in ancient Persia; and Soyal, celebrated by the Hopi and Zuni in the southwestern U.S. They left out quite a few, of course -- including the celebration known by various Neopagan groups as Alban Arthan, Yule, or simply the winter solstice.

As diverse as these celebrations are, a singular idea stands behind them all: on the shortest day of the year, things look bleak for humanity. It's going to get cold, and stay cold for some time. It won't be as easy to stay warm and comfortable. Things won't grow as well, if they grow at all.

So they lit their candles and bonfires to call back the light. And today we do the same: we light our candles and our fireplaces, and limn our houses and trees with light.

As modern people, we know, of course, that the sun will return -- that if this Tuesday is indeed the shortest day, then the hours of light can only get longer from here. Much is made of the ancients coming up with these celebrations in fear that the light would never come again, but that seems condescending to me. I think, once ancient humans had lived through a few annual cycles, they would have been smart enough to figure out that the sun's return wasn't a fluke. Still, winter was a dangerous time of year, and it might have made sense back then to throw a party to appease the gods, so They would be encouraged to come back.

Even today, it's not a bad idea. So I suggest that each of us light a candle this holiday season. If nothing else, we'll make the world a brighter place.

And to further encourage you, I offer this song, which I listened to earlier today while wrapping gifts. Happy holidays, everybody.


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These moments of bloggy light have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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