Right now, the sun is setting before 5 PM here in the mid-Atlantic and the days are only getting shorter. A season normally marked with family gatherings, festive events, circles, services, and bustling shopping malls looks a little different this year. Yuletide 2020 is shaping up to be a quieter, smaller, and more solitary affair. That doesn’t mean it packs any less of a punch, though. In fact, if we look a little closer, there’s an opportunity here for a Yuletide rich with meaning as we walk through the sacred darkness of the season.
When I was a tweeny, I went on a church trip to New York City. My group was staying in the Cathedral of St John the Divine: a glorious, soaring, gothic-style building of high arches and beautiful stained glass. We spread our sleeping bags out on mats in the on-site gym after a busy day of sights, sounds, and working in a soup kitchen. I’m a lifelong insomniac and per my usual, I could not sleep. So, of course, I went exploring.
I found the staircase up to the sanctuary and walked into the dark, echoing hall. The gothic arches above me faded into complete darkness, a forest of sculpted stone trees reaching into the endless expanse of night. It felt like the cathedral spread out forever on all sides of me. At the far end of the sanctuary, a single beam of light lit the gold altar from up high. The shining beauty of that sacred object in the cool, silent, empty darkness lanced through my spirit like flame. I knelt on the floor, on the smooth stone, and breathed in the holiness of the miracle of light within the dark. I understood with my entire Self the idea of reverence in that moment.
When I think about Yule, I think about that sight – the shining of that which is holy in a sea of darkness. About the way hope, renewal, and second chances are born out of the dark. Yule is the moment when we know that the night will not last forever. We see that it was part of a pattern, and that the sacred sun, the fire at the heart of our galaxy, remains constant. We hold the thread of light even when the darkness makes us tremble, and we know if we follow it, we will emerge once more.
This kernel of meaning at the center of Yule is not dependent on large gatherings, shared meals, or piles of gifts. Like most deep truths, it lives quietly in the heart, warming us from within.
So how do we take the simple truth at the heart of Yuletide and dive in? I have some ideas. The truth is that I’ve been downscaling Yuletide for years. I love the holiness of the season rather than the hustle. Here are some practices I’ve found to be rewarding, nourishing, and connecting.
Nothing captures the idea of light in the darkness quite like a flickering flame on the altar. Consider creating or adapting a candlelighting ritual that repeats (a bit like an advent calendar) as we tick our way toward Yule.
The Heathen community is seeing the rise of a new-to-us tradition called Väntljusstaken or Sunwait. Each week leading up to the Solstice, a candle is lit on a specific day of the week (Thursday for most participants) and a poem, stanza, or meditation is read. Then, the season and reading are contemplated while gazing on the flickering light of the candle. The candles can be inscribed or anointed, and the ceremony can include many different things depending on the people participating (storytelling, songs, journeywork, etc). At the close of the ceremony, the candle is snuffed. Then, the next week, the prior candle is relit as well as the one for the current week until all candles are lit at Yule. There is more information about Sunwait here.
Sunwait is one of many options for a candelighting ritual. Make space for contemplation, for cultivating the awareness of the holy nature of these shorter days with your own variation, or by following along with one you discover.
The early sunset and longer nights mean that there is more time for looking at the stars. They, too, are lights within the darkness and their shimmering beauty shows up even more when the nights are long. Download a free app like Google Sky to identify the stars you see. Learn the winter constellations and some of their stories. Remember that there is more than one name for each of our constellations. Although westerners frequently use Greek or Roman mythology for the constellations, there are many beautiful star stories from different cultures. Our mythological companions in the winter sky offer us company as well as mythology. Watching their slow tread across the sky and the way they shift with the passing nights is another way to deepen into the heart of winter.
If it is warm enough to do so where you are, make time to walk in nature. Observe the changes around you. Notice which birds and animals remain and what plants still show leaves and berries. If you live in part of the world with deciduous forests, enjoy how much further into the woods you can see. Feel the winter sun on your skin and soak up some vitamin D. Savor these moments outdoors, and then likewise savor the moments of returning to the warmth and shelter of your home. Consider visiting some pandemic-protocol-friendly spaces. Are there holiday light displays near you? Are there trails that stay passable in winter? Get outside and root into the rhythm of winter in your part of the world.
Reflecting the natural world inside our homes can be a wonderful practice that helps us connect to the deeper themes of Yuletide. Consider redecorating your altar for the season. Winter colors like blue, silver, and white can be beautiful and soothing. You could also reflect the environment specific to where you live. Bring some early winter nature inside – pinecones, spent seed pods, evergreen branches, mountain laurel leaves, ivy, etc – and then plan your altar according to those colors and textures. The theme of light within darkness lends itself to the use of twinkle lights as well as candles. If you enjoyed redecorating your altar, consider expanding to other areas of your home.
In older times, this part of the year was spent indoors with immediate family and closest companions. The sharing of stories and songs to pass the long nights was common. We even hear its echoes in some of the carols:
“There’ll be parties for hosting/Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow/There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories/Of Christmases long, long ago”
It’s okay if you don’t know any stories off the top of your head. One practice my partner and I enjoy is reading aloud to each other. We take turns, passing the book back and forth while snuggling on the couch. You can choose a favorite story or a completely new one. Light a few candles and settle in for storytime.
Gifting practices this time of year can be burdensome, especially for the large number of people whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. This might be the year to rethink how you approach gifting. If you are part of a family gift exchange, consider shifting to a name-draw so you gift just one other person. If you do intend to purchase gifts rather than make them, try to purchase from small, independent businesses. When we focus on just one person, or a smaller number, it not only reduces expenses – it allows us to give more consideration to the specific gift we are offering. Many people are moving further away from accumulating ‘stuff,’ so gifts of food or beverages might be something to talk about with your family as well.
I wish you a sacred, soft, healing Yuletide. May we all use this time of the inward spiral to find the light at the center of the season. Do you have an idea or practice that supports a more inwardly focused Yule? Share it in the comments!