Another December is here. Where did 2012 go? The lights are coming up around the neighborhood. Western Pennsylvania has already experienced its first snow. And that pesky event I used to look forward to, my birthday, will arrive this week.
For the first time in many years, I don't have a tree -- artificial or real (discovered the joys of a real tree for the first time last year). The season just doesn't feel right somehow. Something is missing, not just because I'm alone again.
There's a buying freezy all around me this year, as it seems to be every year. It's a shallow commercialism. Yet as I watch the lights and the stores hawk wares, I cannot help but think about my Celtic and German ancestors, people who honored goddesses and gods that are completely lost this year in the commercial celebrations around me.
We owe this entire season to these ancestors, to their customs marking the winter solstice, a day when the sun stands still in our perception as the planet turns from waning to waxing sunlight. The southern hemisphere will celebrate "midsummer," also known in modern neo-paganism as "litha." But here in the north, the old name, Yule, remains for the solstice.
2012 is a special year astronomically. The moment of Yuletide strikes on December 19th at 6:12am Eastern Time, the earliest such occurance since the 19th century according to the Old Farmer's Almanac. That means at 613am Eastern, the sunlight will begin to wax once more here in the north, a moment of rebirth: spring will come again (early).
Our Celtic-Germanic ancestors saw this pivital (literally) event in the year as very important, attributing it to a cosmic battle of two forces. In the mythology of ancient Britain, these two forces were personified by the Oak King (ruler of the light half of the year) and the Holly King (ruler of the dark half of the year). The holly king is the actual being/person behind the caricaturized "Santa Claus" and his white-washed Christian version, "Sant Nicholas." Both of these variations have one real purpose: to mask the Holly King and turn him into either a soldier of Christ -- or a funny figure for children.
But the seasons are hardly amusing. In Celtic belief, there are really only two seasons: light (when sunlight waxes) and dark (when sunlight wanes). In 2012, we saw the power of our planet wreck havoc on our lives through devestating drought and violent storms -- including and especially super storm Sandy.
Our ancestors were better attuned to our planet than we were, respecting its power to both uplift and destroy us. And so they saw the seasons as powerful forces, sometimes conflicting forces, giants in the playground battling around us.
Yule is a time of one of two of these great annual battles. Since the midsummer's day in June (or December if you are in the southern hemisphere), the Holly King has ruled the year, taking away sunlight and fostering plant growth. He has brought us the harvest we need to sustain our bodies. Now, at the end of his reign, he brings the land to rest and harmony, yielding power and authority to the goddess, now almost ready to give birth to the newborn sun.
At his heals is the Oak King, ruler of the light half of the year, now refreshed. As the goddess prepares to give birth, the Oak King rises up to challenge the rule of the Holly King, now an old man. The strength of youth is with the oak king. In the final moments before the planet turns, the oak king defeats the old holly king and takes his crown -- and his wife, the goddess. The spilling of the holly king's blood unleashes the power that helps the goddess through the last of her labors. Spent, he gives himself so that the child in her may be born and fostered by his rival whose warming light helps the child grow.
But one last task is given to the holly king before he breaths his last for his current incarnation: he is allowed to make his ride with his reindeer and give gifts to the people. Upon completion of this journey, the holly king passes away to be reborn and ready to face the oak king again in six months.
It is a beautiful legend. So why do we turn this story into a black friday, commercial frenzy? What is wrong with honoring the old ways and telling again the old stories of our Celtic and Germanic ancestors?
The holly king is a role model for men, a father willing to give his life that his unborn child may be born, live, and thrive. How many men are, when push comes to shove, willing to do that? How many of us ever love that deeply or well?
Instead of singing "jolly old saint nicholas," I think we should honor this story of love and sacrifice.
Now yes, I know we live in a world where Christianity allegedly rules things. Well, maybe politically, but I don't think so spiritually. Too many people who profess Jesus don't follow the core message of Jesus at all: love, peace, kindness, charity, acceptance, civility. Instead it is easier to demonize those of us who remember the old stories and see the beauty in nature, that spiritual quality to the planet that is there for us if we will just pay attention! Must nature destroy our homes before we honor her power?
As the reign of one king ends in favor of another, perhaps it is time to reconnect -- not by buying each other things -- but by sitting in the dark, as we neo-pagans do, waiting for the moment of Yuletide when a great miracle happens: the light returns to bring spring once more.
May you all see the quiet and amazing beauty in all the nature around you. May you find true harmony and peace!
Laurel A. Rockefeller, author
The Great Succession Crisis
E-Book ISBN: 9781476243344
Print book ISBN: 978-1479144808
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