Today is Yule, the winter solstice. More precisely, the actual solstice moment, when the orbit of the Earth begins to tilt the Northern Hemisphere back toward the sun, was last night, before midnight local time. But that made this morning Yule morning, the sunrise to celebrate. I suspect the European pagan tradition, like the Jewish tradition, began holidays at sunset--as a kid I knew Christmas Eve is the night of Christmas. Christmas dinner, the following night, seemed sort of misplaced. As an adult, I've come to the conclusion that, historically speaking, I was probably right.
Anyway, my husband and I went to the island to watch the sun come up over the ocean, as we always do, and opened presents this morning. Then we had a nap, and then we had pancakes. What is your religious affiliation? You've never told me. You did tell me that you have not been particularly religious as an adult, but I suspect you celebrate something in December, and that you were raised with one religion or another. I've noticed that religious orientation often outlasts religion in the mind, that even staunch atheists often have very specific ideas about the God they don't believe in.
Maybe I shouldn't ask you, though. It wouldn't be the right question about me, after all, for I am identifying myself less and less as belonging to any group. I'm tired of identity politics for myself. I'm tired of swearing allegiance, even conditional or temporary allegiance, to my own current opinion. It's not about me; it's about what's sacred and what's meaningful, and what works, and I'll honor those things where I find them, in church or on a beach, or in a graduate school lecture on ecology....
Although I will admit that Yule is, on the face of it, a somewhat odd holiday. For while the solstice certainly happens, the typical explanation for celebrating it, that it's about the return of light, the victory of light over darkness, is questionable at best. The typical story is that people used to fear that the day would just go on shrinking until everything was wholly dark and cold and dead. The people therefor lit fires and candles and brought evergreen plants into their homes "to keep the year alive," as the poem says. And "when the new day's sunshine blazed awake, they shouted, reveling."
Now, we can be sympathetic to the primitive peoples who thought this, but we know perfectly well that there is no chance at all of the day just diminishing into permanent night. Also, on the other side of the planet today is actually the day when the days start getting shorter. Perhaps there is cultural value in maintaining some ancient traditions regardless of the origin, but to the extent to which I am a pagan, I'm a convert. And so are most people in the Neopagan movement. That's what Neopaganism means; the Neopagan religions are those developed recently, and mostly by people who were raised as something else. Why on Earth would any sane person not only convert to, but actually help invent a religion where one of the major holidays involves worrying that the law of physics will just stop?
I didn't wonder about this until I had been a convert for several years, and I found an answer to the question I hadn't thought to ask.
I'd decided to celebrate Yule in the woods that year. This was long before my husband came along, and I figured that as long as I was celebrating by myself, I might as well do so on a backpacking trip in southern Pennsylvania. So I packed my sleeping bag and my food and my hammock, got a ride to the trail-head from my mother, and off I went.
I am entirely familiar with backpacking, but only in three seasons. I can deal with a certain amount of cold, but not true winter. I'm not unwilling, I just don't know how. In any activity, there are certain bifurcation points beyond which you're fundamentally playing a different game. As a sawyer, for example, I learned that there is such a point right around trees of ten or twelve inches in diameter. Try to fell a tree much above that, and you're going to need wedges because the increasing weight of the tree makes its behavior more dangerous and less predictable. I was trained to cut up to that size, but beyond that size I was not allowed to go without further training. My supervisor knew that bifurcation point was there, and warned me of it. Nobody warned me that a bifurcation point exists in backpacking where the temperature drops down cold enough to freeze carrots.
I didn't know carrots could freeze, did you? So can raisins. All the foods I had bright with me to eat raw, and which I had thought of as essentially dry, actually had enough water content to freeze, and freeze they did, as hard and unpalatable as rocks. So I could not eat without cooking. Unfortunately, I could not cook, either, because my stove was uncooperative, and as I fought with it in the dark, I could feel my core temperature starting to drop. In the woods, once you get cold, you do not get warm again. So I had to go to bed without dinner and stay there all night. The following day I learned that the daytime high could not thaw my drinking water, and I aborted the trip.
But that night that I went to bed hungry was the winter solstice. I was alone, and I knew that the night had turned colder than I was prepared for, but I did not know how cold it would get. The possibility that I could freeze to death occurred to me. I didn't think it was a very strong possibility--I had a zero degree bag, and I was not warm in it, but I wasn't exactly frigid in it, either. Based on having used a twenty degree bag for years, I had a good sense of how cold you can get and still be ok. But small or otherwise, the possibility existed that I wouldn't make it, and there was nothing further I could do about it. The warmest place I could get to was where I already was. There was nothing to do but wait.
Hammocks have the advantage of keeping a body off the ground, and they also swing, some, which is comforting. It's hard to be really afraid while being rocked. Also, though I had a tarp thrown over a line above my hammock in case of rain, on clear nights I could push that tarp back and sleep right under the stars, which is what I did. But there is no way to sleep from dusk till dawn on the winter solstice, even I don't need that much sleep, and anyway I was cold and nervous. So I dozed on and off, and spent most of the night watching the moon, just a day or two past full, cross the breadth of the sky behind the skeletal fingers of trees. One side to the other. It was beautiful. And when the new day's sunshine blazed awake, you can bet I reveled.
It occurred to me then that primitive peoples must have been pretty sure the sun would come back up (how could they know when to revel, if they didn't know which dawn was the beginning of longer days?). Even if they were a bit nervous about it and found the ritual comforting to their nervousness, they fully expected the sun to come up again; they knew winter happens every year, and spring comes afterward. What they didn't know was whether they, personally, would see spring. Like me, they were cold, with an uncertain supply of food, and there was no help for them if they had prepared for the season wrongly. And all they could do about it was wait. When the sun came up, they were not quite out of the woods (neither was I), but they had passed a turning point. Even though December is just the beginning of winter weather, the growing light would be cheering. They could look forward to something. They felt better. I certainly did.
The thing is, none of us know we will see the spring, even if winter is not for us particularly dangerous (and is not what it used to be, anyway). None of us know how long we've got here. Yule is a time to celebrate not just the dawn, but being here to see it.
So, I hope and expect you will see the spring, and that I will see you then.