The winter solstice is almost upon us just as the first heavy snow buries the forest and house under 28 inches of snow. I never look forward to this shift into the cold, ice, and snow, although I do wrap myself in peaceful silence, sitting by the fire dreaming as twilight turns to night. My Norfolk Island pine and tipped balsam wreath shimmer with tiny stars. The scent of balsam soothes my senses and purifies the air. This month above all others is my time to honor the trees… I am keenly aware that Bone Woman and Old Man Winter are rising with the moon, whipped up by Northwest winds.
My scientist and naturalist friend, a member of one of the seven Indigenous Sioux tribes agrees with me that winter solstice is a dangerous time, one of the reasons in the old European way that everyone is masked while acting out winter solstice stories. These tales may vary in content but all have the same root. Shadow is on the move. Masks protect the people, the risk of exposure to danger is minimized in this way.
In every version I am familiar with the four directions and elements are addressed with gratitude and respect beginning with the element of fire. The rest of the elements, forests, animals, birds, fields, mountains and meadows are invited in and thanked. Prayers for protection are a fundamental aspect of this turning. The experience of being at the bottom of a vortex feels heavy to the initiated, those whose storied past contains present and future – or those who are open and have allowed themselves to be taught by nature.
I came to these celebrations of the year through myth and ecofeminism adapting each according to my dreams, myths, experiences with animals, plants and people, all nudges from nature. There are eight festivals that acknowledge the sacred turning of the seasons, and all occur around the same time comprising an equilateral wheel. All are of pre -Christian origin practiced by Indigenous and countryfolk throughout the world.
In this country the Christian Christmas has become a consumer holiday for most, one without discernable meaning for me. There is, however, one advent story that I like. Around 1200 AD Saint Francis of Assisi authored the First Nativity Scene. In some places it is still common to see a cardboard or plastic display of Mary Joseph and baby Jesus housed in a stable with animals milling about.
When I was a small child, my Italian grandmother took me to a live nativity story, one that was acted out on the town square. I remember that night with a clarity that decries my 77 years. Mary, dressed in pale blue stood just behind the rough straw manger in which a baby lay. Joseph stood to one side of her. I recall a wooden staff in his hands. There was music in the air and the animals, donkeys, and sheep roamed in the area. All were free. To the left of the humble thatched dwelling three magnificently jeweled ‘wise men’ were waiting in the shadows, and to the right there were shepherds who also held crooked staffs.
The story goes that Mary was ready to give birth and there was no room at the inn and so the couple ended up in a barn -like structure where Jesus was born amongst the animals. A star was leading the wise men to the creche to honor the birth of a prophet while shepherds watched over their flocks.
Although I left Christianity behind a long time ago, I still love this tale partly because animals were included. However, today I see hidden elements – the frighteningly destructive pattern that lies hidden behind this myth as it unfolds. From this tale it is possible to discern that from his birth onward Jesus was an Outsider who would become a radical preacher that believed that love would conquer all, a man who lived a life predicated on betrayal, and one who would eventually be crucified for his beliefs. Not a happy ending.
The worst part of the story from my point of view is that Jesus somehow got twisted into this ‘holy lamb of god’ taking on people’s sins and forgiving them. All people had to do was to admit to sin . . . Who made this up? People who refused to be accountable for their own actions for sure. Jesus was forced to take on the burden of sin-eater even after his death.
The myth of the scapegoat lives on.
Perhaps equally destructive is the idea that love ‘conquers’ all.
How did this seemingly benign and so often sentimentalized story carry such an underlying dark message without people seeing it? Perhaps some did and this story of betrayal and crucifixion satisfies the need for truly victimized people to be mirrored, at least unconsciously. For example, oppressed Native American and African peoples still choose Christianity even if they also stay in touch with their original beliefs. Jesus was born with his instincts/ body knowledge intact (surrounded by animals). He expressed and acted out his own struggles with darkness throughout his life. Two of my favorite sayings of his come from the Gospel of Thomas:
“He who is close to me is close to the fire”.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Words to ponder.
The more ancient and universal solstice stories inform us that light and darkness exist as one continuum and that we are moving back and forth between the two poles all the time. The fact that Jesus was born in the spring when his pretend birth occurred during the winter months reveals how important it was for Christians to squash winter solstice and its accompanying darkness. The winter solstice acknowledges the need to turn inward to reflect during the dark months of the year, moving close to the fire in every sense of the word.
Winter solstice tales teach us about the importance of acknowledging the powers of darkness and the reality of shadow without being possessed by either of these forces. The need for protection is invoked with good reason along with masked dancing to humor the spirits as fires are lit to light up the night. Maybe we need to become masked dancers?
A good Indigenous example is the Heyokas who are Sacred Beings belonging to the Sioux culture of the American plains. Heyokas portray many aspects of sacred beings. They fool around; they ask difficult questions and say things others are too afraid to say. The point is to look at things in a different way.
Heyokas function as both mirrors and teachers at the same time, using extreme behaviors to mirror others, inviting people to examine their own doubts, fears, hatreds, and weaknesses. Encouraging us to participate in shadow work. These beings also have the power to heal emotional pain; the power of which comes from the experience of shame. Heyokas sing of shameful events in their lives, beg for food, and live as clowns. They provoke laughter in distressing situations of despair and provoke fear and chaos when people feel complacent and overly secure, to keep them from taking themselves too seriously or believing they are more powerful than they are. They are always masked figures and are associated with lightening. They are children of the fire…
Having participated in many Pueblo celebrations I am familiar with the clowns whose masked actions are hilarious sometimes, and not so at others. As a person who takes life too seriously, I know that I need to invite these sacred beings into my own life to redress my own imbalances.
As I create my own ritual at this winter solstice turning I ask to be opened to the power of sacred clowns.
BIO: Sara Wright is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.