What is your hope based on?
This is the last post in my series about activities for the eight holidays throughout the wheel of the year. We are now at the winter solstice.
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the winter solstice on the 21st of December. There are a few traditional threads that weave through it all:
- Christmas/Yule of course, the Christian holiday as well as the feast of giving gifts and being cosy
- the beginning of winter
- the return of the light in the darkest of days
- Nature‘s hibernation
- on its shadow side kitsch, commercialism and for some a heightened sense of being lonely
My thoughts about this day crystallised into the following main themes: Optimism, withdrawal, regeneration but also community and agency or self-efficacy.
In the following paragraphs you will find suggestions that may help you experience these themes more tangibly, also some descriptions of my own activities and experiences. I will keep adding new thoughts and ideas in the future.
These days, it gets dark quite early in the afternoon and the Northern German winter does not exactly seduce you to step outside your door. The autumn winds have taken most of the leaves from the trees in my region and lately it was surprisingly cold so that everything got a good freezing through. There have not been large amounts of snow worth mentioning.
Close by, there are many sloes and initially I had planned to pick some after the first short frosty periods in November. On one of my walking rounds at the beginning of December I realised however, that the bushes had been all but completely emptied. Either someone had felt even more peckish for some sloe jam than I was, or the animals had eaten them. Seeing as I have a good number of jars of rosehip jam in my pantry, I feel generous about the sloes. Next year I will observe them a bit more carefully to find out what happens to them. Funnily enough, there are still many wild rosehips glowing dark red in the hedges.
What does your neighbourhood look like at the moment? Do you have snow? Do you also notice how 5pm masquerades as deep night? Which fruit still cling to the branches in your area?
Gardening in the winter
The following is an inspiration for next year: There is a German tradition of cutting a few branches off fruit trees on the 4th of December and putting them in a vase inside your home. These so-called Barbara branches will then be in bloom around Christmas and thus be an ideal representation of hope for the return of Spring.
I did not get around to do much in my own garden the last few weeks and then the cold came. I really hope that the barrels that were still holding rain water are going to survive the expansion of the ice. After this very dry summer I was so happy to be able to collect a good amount of water and later forgot or maybe did not have the heart to tip it out.
A lot of the old brownish plant bits are still left standing also because I heard this helps the animals. Next year I want to rethink and sort out what kind of winterproofing I want for my garden. And for myself.
One of the few activities still going on is serving seeds for the birds and squirrels. And marveling at the beauty of the holly bush in my front yard. It was planted by the family who lived here before us and it so wonderfully fits the season. We also took a few clippings for our Advent wreath.
Between the solstice and New Year’s Day I will sit down and plan a bit ahead which vegetables I want to give another chance and dream about how I am going to integrate steps into the inclined bit of lawn that connects the patio and the actual garden. Also I want to decide on a border that will help me keep the slugs and snails at bay. Apart from that I can foresee a session with a little fire in the brazier and that is going to be it for my garden in 2022.
What is the current state of your garden, balcony or windowsill? How have you winterproofed your garden? Which plans for next year’s planting are slumbering away in the back of your mind?
Meditating in the winter
Apart from my own meditation there is a broad variety of other choices to be found online, covering different styles and durations. I would suggest the search terms “winter solstice“ or “yule“ in combination with “meditation“. There are also yoga flows suited for the occasion, especially relaxing flows or just repeating Surya Namaskar until you feel satisfied. Another option would be to create a fitting atmosphere and just quietly meditate on one or more of the themes of the day.
There is no lack of crafting tutorials for snowmen, Santas, angels or candle arrangements. Maybe for a change you might like to make your own incense cones? There is a recipe here which says that the cones have to dry for a couple of days. But then they don’t have to be lit on the actual day of the solstice. Like the Barbara branches, this is also something to keep in mind for next year.
If I can manage it in time I would like to make a miniature stone circle from salt paste to use in my focus. But that really is all for my crafting this time of year, which really is supposed to be about getting comfortable. So less may be more, especially around Christmas.
I made a mini cardboard easel for my focus which I can present different pictures on throughout the year following these instructions originally meant for making a phone stand. Now I am going to create a new picture to put on the easel to focus on during the following weeks. This is also great for displaying a card for the day.
Listening to or making winter music
The current holiday has to be the one with the longest list of music and songs of all genres, vocal or instrumental, traditional or modern. Being a big fan of the season myself, in the beginning of December I start listening to a lot of this music all day long. It amazes me to see how many versions there are of all the old and new Christmas songs.
I will list mainly pieces that offer a different perspective or are more about winter and darkness rather than “traditional” Christmas lore.
We will start with winter set to music by Vivaldi, Haydn and Glasunov. All three of them express their own personal relationship with winter, the freezing processes in nature and the festive season. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel composed a series of pieces one for each month of the year. Her “December” evokes images of someone walking through a blizzard and then enterin a safe and warm building where variations of a Christmas song are played. On my search for fitting music I came across an exciting instrumental album by Miguel Berkemeier called “Music for Yule – Winter Solstice songs“. He mixes modern, classical and archaic style elements and borrows from traditions from a range of European regions.
Metal never disappoints, so you can find a large number of cover versions of Christmas songs, much to my personal delight. The band August Burns Red are not the only one to have put together a dedicated Christmas album. It includes covers but also original pieces like “Flurries”. This instrumental is about a child who unwraps presents and discovers that one of them is a sled. The child then goes outside for a wild sledding session in the snow. Swansong also offer a composition of their own: With majestic riffs and impressive camera flights across a beach and a snow covered forest, “Winter Maiden” tells us about some kind of Snow Queen ruling over her frosty land in a coastal area without ever aging herself.
In my actual collection of old school CDs I also have one by Loreena McKennitt and one by the Medieval Babes. Here are two songs I picked out as examples: “Good King Wenceslas” and “Carol of the Bells.”
There are many popsongs about darkness and winter. “Sounds of Silence“ Simon & Garfunkel is actually about offering resistance under adverse conditions and about trying to overcome the separation between humans.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silenceSimon and Garfunkel, Sound of Silence
To me this fits the subjects of community and agency. In times of darkness and cold, the best we can do is to take care of each other and stay connected.
“Winter“ by Tori Amos connects wintery acoustics with the topic of how the relationship with her father keeps her warm on the inside but does not save her from growing old and after many years asking herself where all the time has gone.
I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter
I put my hand in my father’s gloveTori Amos, Winter
I would like to end this list with Gaia Consort’s “Secret womb of night“
The circle cast, the dream is sown
And even hand in hand sometimes we face the night alone
From our darkness light will grow
Put your ear to her, the night might even whisper up her secretGaia Consort, Secret womb of night
Even though this could just as well be said about any night of the year, it seems particularly relevant to the winter solstice. The darkness is the place we retreat to by ourselves to be able to return with new light and new realisations. Sometimes we have to be very quiet to hear what is actually important. On the one hand, the intensity of the song seems to contradict this message. On the other hand, at the same time, maybe it does not. I for one am sitting here with a big grin and goosebumps and looking forward to the longest night.
If there is one novel jumping up and down in front of me for attention these days, it is “Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett. At the beginning of the year, I also mentioned this book in another context. In Terry’s Discworld, its version of Santa Claus is abducted. Death ends up in the predicament of having to substitute for the Hogfather to ensure that at the moment of sunrise enough people believe in the sun’s returning. The story includes a lot of “HO! HO! HO!”, silly office parties as well as a few sociocritical thoughts about the injustice of how presents are distributed among different people. Eventually, there is a literal life and death race between the Hogfather and his antagonists and in the end most of the people involved have learned major lessons. In 2006 the novel was made into a film, which of course I have on DVD and watch every December as a tradition.
Not all poems that fit the occasion are explicitly about Christmas. I remember reading this first one in school when I was young. The mixture of tiredness and tenacity fascinated me. The narrator considers going to sleep, some would say giving up and dying, but there is a very convincing reason for him pulling back from those thoughts and going back to his everyday life because he has promised to keep going.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.Robert Frost
The second poem manages to lyrically summarise my main thoughts about the winter solstice: The experiences and rituals going back millennia, the warmth of being among fellow humans, the promise and the dreamlike quality of winter:
The Shortest Day
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us—listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome, Yule!Susan Cooper
These are the questions that might be helpful to ask yourself or the oracle of your choice around the winter solstice:
- How have you made your home and yourself winterproof?
- What gives you hope and what is your own contribution to your hope for brighter times?
- What is your hope based in, either within you or outside of you??
- Whom do you love to think about?
- Whom would you like to give a meaningful gift to?
- Which particularly lovely gift did you receive this year?
- How can you keep this gift safe?
- What do you dream about in this long time of quiet and darkness?
Focussing on your most important findings
I will put together my own focus, gathering all my findings and then add a picture of it here.
What about you?
What are the most meaningful answers to the questions above, the most fitting quotes or poems? Is there a piece of music that you can condense into a word, a phrase or a symbol? Did you find an object outside that deserves to be showcased on your focus?
Do you have a tradition for the winter solstice on the 21st of December? How do you handle the current dark and cold season?
Thank you so much for reading and I wish you all the best and a fantastic new year 2023!