Winter Solstice and the Return of the Light

A festive cup with holly berries and evergreen leaves - Yule and the Winter Solstice are a time to celebrate the return of the light

The Longest Night of the Year

As I write this, around 5 pm on the Winter Solstice, the sky has been dark for about half an hour. Here in the Pacific Northwest, clouds obscure the stars and the moon.If I lived in the country, I would see blackness cover the land.

Even in the most isolated areas, though, houses are blessed with the electricity that keeps my own home bright and my computer humming. No matter how early the sun sets, if I want to, I can work well into the night. I need not gather around a fire, drinking mulled cider, and listening to stories, though I might be better off if nature forced my hand a little more. Then I might listen to the cycles of night and day, dark and light, cold and warmth that separate one season from another, at least in the North.

Although many of us are safe in our heated houses during the winter months, people who live on our city streets are at risk of dying from the cold. Long ago, entire communities could perish in the winter, from hypothermia or starvation. People missed the light. So they told stories that reminded them that they were not alone in the darkness, that the gods would help them, and that the light would return.

Raven Brings Light to the World

Some stories, such as one about Raven, told by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, explain how light came to the world in the first place. In “Raven Steals the Sun, Moon, and Stars,” everyone lived in darkness because the light was hidden away in the smallest of boxes, deep within other boxes, tucked into a corner of an old man’s hut. He and his daughter eked out a living there, though even for them it was never day.

Tired of bumping into things, Raven set off to search the countryside for the sun, moon, and stars. Finally, he discovered where they were. Then he came up with a plan.

Turning himself into a hemlock needle, he fell into a bucket of water the daughter was gathering from a stream. When she drank, she swallowed Raven. Once inside her, he nestled into her womb and turned into a baby.

She and the old man were delighted when she gave birth. They couldn’t see Raven, because it was dark, so they didn’t realize how much he resembled a bird. They just loved him. But Raven tricked them into letting him play with that smallest of boxes until, throwing the box into the air, he changed back to a raven, caught it with his beak, and flew away. Though he was chased by Eagle, he got home safely. There he opened the box. The sun, moon, and stars floated up to the sky where they shine for us still. [1]

A festive cup with holly berries and evergreen leaves - Yule and the Winter Solstice are a time to celebrate the return of the light

Coyote Steals Fire

Another trickster story, this time from the Karuk Indians of California, tells how Coyote brought fire to the humans.

It was the first winter. The people didn’t know how to stay warm or find food. They worried and complained, and Coyote felt sorry for them. After all, they didn’t have fur coats like he did.

But he didn’t think to help them until the children started to die. He couldn’t let that keep happening. He remembered hearing about some Fire Spirits who guarded a circle of flames, keeping them from everyone else. Maybe Coyote could steal the fire and bring it to the people.

So Coyote made his way to where the Fire Spirits tended their flames. Hiding, he watched for a few days to figure out what to do. He noticed that at the same time each day, the spirits would, for just a moment, leave the fire unattended. One day, during that short break, Coyote snatched some of the fire. It was so hot in his mouth, but he didn’t drop it. He just ran and ran.

Coyote was pursued, but he got away. In the end, he offers his gift to the people, teaching them what he had learned about fire from watching the spirits. Thus the people could cook food and stay warm. They even enjoyed a bit of light. In this way, they survived their first winter. [2]

Louhi Hides the Light

But these stories don’t tell of a light that is taken away as winter nears. In the Kalevala, though, a series of epic poems from Finland, we do.

Once upon a time, the sorceress, Louhi, hid the sun, moon, and fire. Having coaxed the moon and the sun into her arms, she carried them deep into the upper North. The moon she placed beneath a “rock of many colors,” and the sun she stuffed into “the iron-banded mountains.”

Not content with this mischief, she also stole fire, leaving the land barren of light and warmth.

Ukko, the first creator, tried to figure out what had happened. He wandered through the heavens, “seeking for the golden moonlight/ looking for the silver sunshine.”

But he could see no brightness anywhere.

Returning the Light

With lightning, Ukko made fire, but a ball of flame escaped and fell to earth, rousing the hero Wainamoinen. With his brother, the blacksmith Ilmarinen, he wandered the lands seeking the fire-child. As they sailed down a river, they were met by the ether-daughter, the “first of ancient mothers,” who told them how to capture the fire. After a long and difficult adventure, Wainamoinen and Ilmarinen brought fire back to the Northland.

Still, there was no moon, nor was there sun. The people continued to suffer. They begged Ilmarinen to fashion a sun and moon from metal. When Wainomoinen heard the striking of his brother’s hammer and discovered what the blacksmith was making, he said, “Silver will not gleam as sunshine,/Not of gold is born the moonlight.”

Only when he failed at his task would Ilmarinen listen.

So Wainomoinen went alone to seek the Fates and discover what had happened to the sun and moon. With their help and guidance, he found where the orbs were hidden, but though he fought off Louhi’s guards, he couldn’t get inside the mountain. He went back to his brother to have him forge some master keys. Then Ilmarinen set about to make a metal collar.

Before he could finish and the brothers could set off, Louhi changed herself into an eagle and flew to where Ilmarinen worked. She asked what he was doing.

The blacksmith replied that he was making a collar for the neck of Louhi so he could “bind her to the iron-rock of Ehstland.”

Frightened, the sorceress returned to the mountain, opened the portal, and released the sun and moon. Changing herself to a dove, she flew back to Ilmarinen and told him to look, the light had been freed. And the people celebrated. [3]

A Time to Celebrate

The return of the light has always been something to celebrate. Indeed, the end of December is filled with feasting and merrymaking.

Yule comes from the Old English word for Christmas day, gēol(a), and is related to the Old Norse term, jól, which refers to a festival that lasted the whole twelve days of Christmas. [4] At Yule time, we light fires, burn logs, eat, drink, and are merry.

In Rome, the holiday of Saturnalia honored the god Saturn with gift-giving, sacrifices, and a “Feast of Fools,” when masters served slaves and slaves ruled. [5] In England, Yule included a similar time of “misrule,” when the common people mocked their leaders and their religions, when they feasted, partied, and danced. [6] There were mummers and Morris dancers, Midwinter dramas, and staged dances to celebrate the coming light. [7]

The dark will not last forever. Neither hunger nor danger are the whole of life. There is time to sing, eat, laugh, and frolic. Even in the deepest, darkest time of the year, celebratory fires can keep the gloom at bay.

Darkness Within Us

Throughout the world, winter has been full of instability and insecurity. These days, though, it seems that hatred, anger, divisiveness, greed, fear, and anxiety are with us always. If we listen to the news, we learn about corruption, propaganda, intolerance, and violence throughout the world. Life has always been scary for people of the wrong color or nationality, wrong religion or sexual persuasion, yet in the last ten years, things seem to be getting worse.

I’m reminded of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages in Europe, countries around the world where collusion, corruption, and brutality have replaced the rule of law. I’m reminded of World War II, of eugenics, of fear and oppression, of the distrust of anyone new or different, that has been the human norm throughout our existence. For some reason, we must make scapegoats of someone. We insist on blaming others for our woes.

Yes, the world is dark outside. Sometimes it is dark within, as well.

The Light Always Returns

Yet the Holy Roman Empire fell. The Middle Ages was followed by the Renaissance. Germany lost the war. Regimes change. Sometimes, there are Velvet Revolutions, sometimes not, but no matter how it happens, every autocracy must one day give way.

Even if oppressive leaders are followed by tyrants, though, even if it seems governments will never serve the good of the people, there are, here and there in every country and every community, people of sensitivity and generosity. We have always created poems, paintings, songs, delicacies, dances, and much, much beauty. There is grace in the world, compassion, friendship, holy resistance, and joy. No matter how dark the night, the sun always rises. On the Winter Solstice, the sun might send but a glow into the air. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the sun peeks its head above the horizon for only a moment before turning back to where it came from and plunging the city into darkness once again.

Yet that is the moment that marks the turning. The days will lengthen. There might still be cold and snow, but even that ends eventually. The Winter Solstice reminds us that the light will return and new growth will sprout in the spring. Things will get better.

Yule is filled with joy. Disaster and horror are not the end. Love does win, and we can laugh even on the bleakest nights. So let’s dance, sing, and revel in the promise of the light.

Silence and Stillness

Because we celebrate, that does not mean darkness has no place in our world or in our hearts. Without the silence and the shelter of the dark, plants wouldn’t grow, animals couldn’t hibernate, and our spirits would never rest. Long ago, when the glow of torches or lanterns was at a premium, winter was a time of enforced stillness. Most of our Yule rituals come from lands where snow piled high and crops couldn’t grow. There were still chores, of course, and most farms had animals to feed, but the hectic pace of planting and harvesting was over. People could sit around the fire and tell stories. They could laugh together and feast.

Sometimes the Winter Solstice is said to be the moment when the sun stands still. Imagine being in Fairbanks and seeing that sun show itself, hover, then drop away again. That hovering is the stillness.

Just as the sun seems to wait in the sky before turning around, so, during this season, we have the opportunity to wait, be quiet, to still the chattering in our minds and hearts. During Advent, we wait for the birth of the Christ child; during winter, we wait for the birth of spring. Yet this fallow, waiting time is not wasted. It’s an opportunity to nurture our internal strength, hope, and light.

Some day, things will get better. We can trust that every time.

Nurturing the Spark Within

Without the destruction of winter, without the dead to become food for new life, spring could draw no nourishment from the earth. There would be no blossoms and no fruit. Without death there is no life; without destruction, there is no growth. Yet the sun is also there, within each of us. The fire that Coyote brought us burns in our hearth. It can also be found in our hearts.

If we look, we will find where light, love, and acceptance live in us and in everyone around us. If we are careful, we can fan that spark without blowing it out. We can return the light to the land. For a little while at least, we can live in peace with one another.

Winter is the time to seek that quiet place inside us where the darkness holds the seed of light. It’s the time to nourish our inner sunshine, using the still, quiet days to become the change we would see in the world.

During winter, we laugh, sing, dance, and learn, better and better, how to love.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Adapted from “Stories from Alaska and the Northwest Coast: Raven Steals the Light,” written down by Blaine Billman, http://www.northwest-art.com/NorthwestArt/WebPages/StoriesRavenStealstheLight.htm, accessed 12/21/19.
  2. Haupt, Lyande Lynn, The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, New York: Little: Brown, and Company, 2013, 48-50.
  3. Crawford, John Martin, trans., The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, New York: J. B. Alden, 1888.
  4. From https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/yule, accessed 12/8/19.
  5. Pesznecker, Susan, Yule: Rituals, Recipes, and Lore for the Winter Solstice, Woodbury, MD: Llewellyn Publications, 2015, 28.
  6. Ibid 30.
  7. Ibid 31.

Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplas

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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