Sunday, December 21, 2008

"A yule fog fills the sky--Yuletide. "

"A yule fog fills the sky--Yuletide. "
-Michael P. Garofalo, Cuttings

"The Winter Solstice, arrived at sunset tonight in the Northern hemisphere. The word winter solstice derives from Latin, meaning Sun set still in winter. Northern peoples called it "Yule”, (Yule Lore ) when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half.

Depending upon your attitude, you can think of the solstice occurring either on the shortest day or the longest night of the year. It's a great metaphor for life. Some see life as half full and a golden gift. Others live as if it more than half empty and drearily dark. I choose to think of this day as one of light. Starting tomorrow morning at sunrise, the sun climbs just a little higher and stays a little longer in the sky each day.

For we modern day humans, this night is dark and cold, only until we turn on a light or turn up the furnace. But the mystical nature of the solstice has been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. The layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archeological sites like Stonehenge and New Grange in the British Isles attest to the importance of this moment; the primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been aligned on a sight-line framing the winter solstice sunrise (New Grange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

The winter solstice was critically important because ancient communities had to prepare carefully to assure that they would live through the winter. Starvation was common between January to April, called the famine months. The midwinter festival was the last feast before deep winter began. There was feasting because most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. It was nearly the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available because food preservation was so difficult. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The celebrations usually began, not at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous evening.

Coinciding this year with Solstice, sundown today marked the beginning of Hannukkah, the “Festival of Light” for my many Jewish friends. I think perhaps that this celebration while not as old as the Yule of my ancestors, is more important than most who call themselves Christians, realize. Because frankly, there would not be a Christian religion if it were not for the Jewish religion. And there might not have been a Jewish religion were it not for the Macabees.

Hannukkah celebrates the 165 B.C. miracle of oil for the temple menorah lamps when the short supply of oil lasted many days past when it should have given out after one day. At the time, the Jewish religion was outlawed by the Greek empire, which preceded the Roman empire. But the Jewish Macabees refused to obey. They lit the lamps. The lamps burned for eight days. And the Jewish religion and it's people survived.

Today it's dark. But think about the light to come.

"So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!"
-   Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

©2008 Jan Johnson Wondra

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