There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –
“Yule” (jul) means “wheel” in Norse. The Norse looked at this time of year, facing the darkest and longest night, “Mother Night,” as they called it, and told a story of the night the goddess Frigga left her spinning wheel and labored long and hard to give birth to the light of a new year.
Hiding in the Christian advent wreath is Frigga’s wheel. And the mistletoe? Well!
Odin, the All-Father, and his wife Frigga (or Frigg or “Fria” in Old Saxon) had twin sons, Baldur and Hodur (or Tyr,god of war).
Hodur was a dark and moody boy, a cold loner who spoke to no one. His brother Baldur was a beautiful, radiant boy, and all the gods loved him (excepting one, named Loki).
One day Baldur came to his mother and said, “Mother, for these past seven nights, each night I have had a dream, and that dream shows me that I will die, killed by an arrow made from the branch of a tree.”
As you might suspect, Frigga was very, very worried about her darling boy, and went around to all the trees of the wood, speaking to each one of them and imploring them, “Please, whatever you do, please do not kill my lovely boy Baldur.”
And each tree in its turn promised Frigga that no harm would come to him by one of their branches.
But in her worry and haste, Frigga failed to speak to one family of the woods—one tree—the mistletoe, which grows without having its roots in the earth.
And so it was that Loki—the terrible trickster among the gods, and the only one of the gods who resented Baldur’s radiance and cheerfulness—fashioned an arrow of the mistletoe and, going to visit dark Hodur, Loki said, “Here. Try shooting my marvelous bow! Here’s an enchanted arrow. Try shooting it over the roof of the house.”
And so dark Hodur shot the arrow made of mistletoe. And who should it hit, standing on the other side of the roof beam, but Baldur his brother, who bled to death, writhing in the lush green grass.
Her weeping was so terrible that Odin the All-Father at last could stand it no more, and so he saddled up his horse and rode all the way to the domain of the dead. There, he found Baldur and brought him back to the land of the living.
And so it is that in midsummer, in all the lands of the North, on those nights when the light never really goes away, there is great feasting, celebrating the sunny god Baldur, though people know that already, even on the longest of days, Hodur is notching his murderous arrow.
And in the darkest nights of winter we celebrate Baldur’s return to Frigga’s womb, because on the darkest night, called Mother Night, Baldur will be reborn, thus slowly bringing the light and warmth back again.
This is the celebration at Winter Solstice. And we remember Frigga, the great goddess of the hearth and of fertility, each week in English, with “Fri-day,” “Fria’s Day.”
I suspect nearly everyone feels a bit of desperation sometimes, looking out the window at what is supposed to be the afternoon—and it’s dark out there. It’s night. It oppresses, as Emily Dickinson says, “like the heft of cathedral tunes.”
Yes. Winter feels like a really long church service. Baldur is dead—slain by the mistletoe. That wily trickster Loki has won again and darkness and sadness rule the land.
Wouldn’t it be nice this time of year if we had something to look forward to?
Well, by golly, the ancestors thought of that. In lots of different traditions.
All those candles mean . . . something.
Perhaps Odin is saddling up his horse again.
And Mother Night will soon go into labor once again.
Or perhaps it’s a peasant girl from Palestine.
Or Demeter wailing for her lovely daughter Persephone.
Or some other mom perhaps happy to be beating the IRS deadline.
Whatever. Whoever. It’s good—even for the most protesting of Protestants—to celebrate the circles and cycles of time because they mark a symbolic space in the chaos of reality, and add meaning to the passing of our lives.
And meaning . . . in the winter dark, meaning is a good thing.