There’s something special about the Midwinter festivals, as the days shorten and the dark deepens. But is there a part of us that deep down is afraid of going down into the dark… does this underlie the anxious busy-ness that sweeps over the nation, the excess of glitter and sparkle and buying and consuming? It reminds me of a recent trip to Kent’s Cavern in Torquay and how good it felt to walk away from the neon lights of the official cave tour and into the quiet darkness of the caves themselves. It felt restful to return to the womb of the earth and be invisible and hidden for a little while. Emerging from such depths is like a new birth and the visible world is met with renewed appreciation and a sense of re-enchantment.
This celebration of the dark and resting in that liminal space before the year turns and the sun begins to wax again, was the underlying theme for me in our Midwinter Gathering this year. As a Christian and a priest, I find Advent can be a crazy time and by the winter solstice I can feel on the edge of collapse. As we shared our collaborative wisdom around the circle there were plenty of voices acknowledging the difficulties and challenges that can come with this season. It’s a time for gathering up the bittersweet fullness of the year with its losses and painful memories alongside achievements and celebration. Perhaps it’s also an opportunity for letting go and opening to new beginnings.
Our Russian story of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga expressed such themes much better than I can. As a young girl, Vasilisa loses her beloved mother and is mistreated and separated from her father by her cruel stepmother… and yet something of her mother’s love and her own inner wisdom remains active, even if only nourished by a few crumbs, in the form of a doll her mother gave her, that speaks to her in times of need. Vailisa has to face her own journey into the depths of the dark forest in search of fire. The wonderful and terrifying wild winter Hag, Baba Yaga, in her chicken legged hut tests Vasalisa’s courage, her instincts and intuition. She has to engage with sacred tasks of cleansing and nourishment, creativity and discernment, contemplation and enquiry (I love this part of the story – learning to ask the questions that matter…) and so be able to reclaim her own power, as she carries back the fiery skull from Baba Yaga and acts to transform her life and bring her wisdom back to share with her community.
I like what Clarissa Pinkola Estes has to offer in relation to this story, especially her thoughts about letting go of the too good mother and reclaiming the wild mothers and our own wild soul. Like many women, I’m still finding my fury, my ability to say ‘no’! I’m still learning how to turn my fiery skull towards the inner and outer forces that oppress and leave the life I ‘should’ lead and trust instead in a way of living and creating that I love.
Fired up by Baba Yaga and fuelled by our ‘bring and share’ feast of a lunch, we were ready for creativity. For some this was quiet time for contemplation and journalling, while for others there was a veritable cottage industry of craft making at the kitchen table. Beautiful lanterns were created from ordinary jam jars with tissue paper and pressed leaves and Green Dragon Barn became scented with orange and spice from making pomanders. Meanwhile a few of the ‘cauldron crew’ were creating an Advent/Solstice spiral out of evergreens ready for the final part of the day.
So our day together drew towards a close with meditation and ceremony. In meditation we travelled back in time to walk ancient paths with our ancestors, following the Druid spirit animal of the winter solstice, the bear, into hibernation in the caves. As we settled deeper into stillness, we let go into the deep, quiet, underground darkness of the longest night… and after a period of silence, we imagined the rays of a midwinter winter sunrise illuminating the cave of the soul. We then emerged from this inner journey as the sun was setting in the outer world with rich, fiery colours along the horizon.
So our ceremony felt perfectly timed as we literally walked one by one into the longest night. Spiralling in to the centre to light our individual candles from the central flame and then spiralling out and each choosing our own place to set our light until the spiral had become a community of little lights shining in the darkness. We closed with some final words, poems and songs as the last candles were lit on the Christmas tree.
May all beings be free
May all be beings be held and hidden, blessed and rested in the dark depths of midwinter
May all be beings be tested, gifted and filled with creative fire
May all beings return to the bright centre and being rekindled, return to life
May all beings be free
And Isabel’s poem follows:
The Shadow of the Year: Solstice
When the sun stands still for six days,
Rising late over the horizon and setting early,
The shadow of the year is at its longest.
As the sun stands still behind me at the solstice
I stand still and cast my mind back
Into the many loved and unloved years of Christmas past.
The family furniture with frays and cracks,
Stands open to the rising of the sun.
The perfect alignment of the entrance
With the sunrise on midwinter day
And the back wall of the furthest room
Invites the penetration of new life:
Light finding its way into the long darkness,
Dust motes in the sun beam, shadows quickening.
(20 December 2014)