Yule is one of my favorite holidays. Perhaps this is simply because it’s so commonly associated with Odin and the Wild Hunt within Heathenry and I love Odin dearly. Perhaps it is because I treasure the dark time of winter, the emotions evoked by the decorations and festivities of this time, and the sense of solitude that for me, comes with the shortening of the days. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two. I don’t know. For whatever reason, however, I gravitate toward those holy tides that fall in the dark time of our seasonal cycle, those that grace the months between the last vestiges of summer and the first true bleakness of winter. I find that this time has the power to both cleanse and nourish like no other time of the year can.
This is not all together a comfortable process. Indeed the final few weeks before the Solstice are, for me, a time of almost brutal interiority. There is something about those interstitial nights between the coming of Yule and the actual New Year that send me hurtling inward on a journey of paring down, paring away, and yes, even personal mourning—all this in the midst of external celebration. It is a sometimes puzzling paradox because Yule is a powerful time, for all that it is adorned with rituals of celebration and sharing; it is, at its heart, a time to seek both the darkness and the light alone.
For Yule we wait in darkness. We wait for the turning of the seasonal cycles, the procession of Sunna’s march across the sky, the driving back ever so slowly of the darkness of winter and we wait the return of the blessing of light. In the stillness of midwinter, we face a seasonal reminder of our ending; we celebrate our mortality in miniature, the microcosm of that final journey as our world spins inevitably first into darkness and then again into warmth and light. That darkness beckons us and it is a season of deepest mystery.
The mystery of the Yule season lies in its complement of bounty and terror. Darkness governs this time complete with an ingrained longing for light. We adorn our homes with evergreens and the evergreens with tiny lights. We light candles and seek the warmth of family and fellowship and this is one of the blessings of this holy tide, that it summons forth charity and a desire for celebration, for the warmth of friends and loved ones. Yule reminds us that once our ancestors would have huddled around a burning Yule log in their long houses, or a hearth fire in their huts. They would have huddled in forced companionship driven together by the unyielding necessity of escaping the winter’s cold and sharing the resources of tribe, village, and kin through the barren time when the fields lay fallow. Our world is different. We now have the luxury of seeking togetherness out or avoiding it at our whim. Yet the darkness outside the window at Yule, when the days are the shortest they will ever be, reminds us that even in the midst of plenty, we are alone. Even in the midst of celebration, we are part of that darkness too.
Yule is about the endless dance of opposites locked in their taut embrace. It is about the cosmic dance of light and darkness, Muspelheim and Niflheim, synergy and stillness, expansion and contraction, life and death all at once. The darkness holds those things up to us and we seek the light in terror.
Darkness can be a powerful teacher. It surrounds us from without; it burbles up from within reminding us of all we have lost, all we might lack, all those to whom we are “Other.” Yule is the holy time of that sacred Other—whatever that may be. We’ve lost the ability to frame this journey in any sacred context so instead, our loneliness, our alone-ness may strike us especially hard at this time. We may become that ‘Other’ even to ourselves. This is a blessing, a terrible, difficult, ultimately magnificent blessing for Yule brings with its mysteries a wonderful opportunity to open ourselves up, to lay ourselves down in joyful humility and gratitude, grace, and longing before that which is rendered Holy by this dance. We are given the chance to acknowledge that we ride within cycles ever so much greater than ourselves. Yule is about what we do with that dance of opposites within ourselves, how we make a tenuous, ever shifting peace with it –or not, and what we allow to bloom from that; for it is in the midst of that darkness that our souls and hearts and minds are made fertile soil for the grace of the Gods to flourish.
Mystics have known this all along. Across traditions, across time, across cultures there is a common thread binding those who seek the Gods in this way: an acknowledgement of the power of that spiritual darkness to enmesh, ensnare, and ultimately to drag one down into the embrace of the Holy. It is the blessing of barrenness hiding behind the festivities of Yule-time’s public face; and each winter we are given a powerful chance to court that barrenness for ourselves, to go within and see what really lies behind the masks we so deftly wear for others and for ourselves too.
The Wild Hunt is said to ride at this time, dead men all including the God who leads them. They shriek across the chill and stormy skies seeking out any who stray hapless into their path. Humility might save a person caught unawares, when the Hunt comes thundering down; the humility to bow ones head and recognize, as we so often fail to do in our frenetic and unbalanced world, that we stand shaking in the presence of the Holy. We structure our rituals carefully, and call our Gods with equal care, standing safe in the embrace of civilization and community consensus. It’s times like this though, when the Hunt rides mad and hungry through the darkness, casting ravenous spears into the flesh of our unconscious that we’re reminded how fragile and paper-frail our illusions of safety really are. The tales of the Hunt remind us that for all our efforts the Holy can come crashing through, or drag us helplessly into its world whether we will it or not. The Hunt reminds us that before the awe inspiring enormity of the Holy, we are very, very, very small and very vulnerable.
With the terror of the Hunt, we are given as well the warmth of the hearth fire, and the beckoning brightness of the festival lights, and the annealing fire of kin and community and, if we are very wise, and very, very courageous, so too we might be given the opportunity to recognize that it is that very vulnerability that makes our humanity so precious in the eyes of the Gods. It is that very vulnerability that makes our triumphs, our failures, our victories, our brave attempts at crafting our world, at living our lives so potentially valorous. With the light born out of the darkness to guide us, we are given the opportunity to re-evaluate our steps and perhaps change the course of our journey. The path and commitments that we have chosen can be illuminated ever more brightly with the darkness behind us; and with the blessings of that darkness and all the terror it holds, the blessings of hearth and home may grow. If we have courage.
Our lives are so much richer, filled with so many more undreamed of luxuries than those of our ancestors. We in the first world need not face this season of cold and dark with the fear of not making it through the winter for lack of warmth, lack of shelter, lack of food. We have enough, more than enough by the reckoning of our ancestors. Famine is far from our door but fear, fear remains. Oh we may have access to bounty that would make our dead weep, but we still know the cold, gnawing grasp of fear. Is there enough money? Will I still have my job in the New Year? How am I going to pay my rent? My mortgage? Will I be able to afford to buy groceries this week? Will I have to go on foodstamps? How will I survive? Will I ever be able to thrive?
Yule makes us take stock of our abundance and our ability to manage our resources. Thrift was a grace much prized by our ancestors because it ensured their survival and moreover the survival of the next generation. A stable household was a household well-managed, in which resources were not squandered or wasted. This too is part of Yule. It is the civilized portion, that which honors the graces of a well run home. This is the light that sustains when one must lose oneself temporarily in the darkness.
Ultimately Yule is about transforming fear: of loss, of hope, of hunger, of lack, of the darkness within our very own selves. It is a time to celebrate what we have, and a call to arms to be mindful that we use it wisely. We celebrate because we have something to celebrate be it only the victory of drawing our next breath. Yule is a time not just to honor our blessings, but to consciously allow them to flow forth from us to those who have helped sustain us in our dark times: friends, family, the strange on the street perhaps. It is a time to recognize that the darkness comes for us all, but so too does the light.
May your honored dead guide you through this Yule’s darkness to where the light awaits.