Before we go on, let's get the elephant out of the room: I don't celebrate Christmas.
No, I have nothing against Christmas. I grew up with it, and it was a holiday that I looked forward to every year: some of my happiest childhood memories involve helping my grandmother decorate the tree and make her famous Christmas fudge, as well as going with my grandparents to see the local theater company perform A Christmas Carol. I also grew up in a staunchly Christian family (my grandfather was a pastor at the Church of Christ) so in addition to reindeer and elves and colored lights, my childhood Christmases were peppered with nativity scenes and church plays. While I never felt comfortable in the Christian church -- even as a young child, I always felt like I didn't belong there, and that the faith of my upbringing wasn't the right path for me -- the sentiment of peace for the world, goodwill towards others, and hope for a brighter future that came with the Christmas season deeply resonated with me.
As an adult, I celebrate Yule, which is the neopagan holiday that marks the Winter Solstice. For the uninitiated, the Winter Solstice marks the point where the Earth tilts to the farthest point away from the Sun on its axis, marking the day with the shortest ours of daylight out of the whole year. (By contrast, the Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year.) After the Winter Solstice has passed, the days will gradually begin to grow longer and brighter again until the Spring Equinox. The Winter Solstice usually happens sometime around December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere and June 21st in the Southern Hemisphere. While modern Yule celebrations draw inspiration from numerous ancient Solstice traditions from northern Europe, the Winter Solstice has been celebrated in some form or fashion by cultures across the globe for millennia. (You can learn more about some of these rich traditions here.)
It makes sense that the Winter Solstice is celebrated the worldover, and that ancient humans treated this day with great reverence. Before the days of electricity and central heating and supermarkets and Doordash and streaming services, winter was rough for most people; the days were cold and short, the nights dark and long. Game and wild foods were often scarce. Depending on how the harvest had gone earlier in the year, families and communities may or may not have had enough sustence to tide them over until spring returned. The return of the sun after months of post-harvest cold and darkness would have been a welcome relief to them -- a promise that no matter how long or hard the winter, spring was on its way once again to bring light and warmth and the beginning of a new cycle back to the world. It was a time for hope, cheer, and sharing what you had with others -- our ancestors understood that their individual survival was directly tied to the community's survivial, and they acted accordingly.
While Winter Solstice celebrations may not be widely recognized in popular culture (in America, anyway), it is interesting to note that most of the major winter holidays also carry the theme of light coming to bring hope and grace to the world: the candles of Hanukkah represent the miracle that kept the temple lights burning during the Maccabean revolt, Christmas honors the birth of Jesus as a light (savior) for humankind, and Kwanzaa celebrates the rich traditions of the African diaspora and the ability of the Black community to continue to shine bright in a world where they face so many forms of systemic oppression. Whatever you choose to celebrate during this festive time of year, light and warmth and peace for the world are themes that we can all rally behind.
In addition to the return of the light and the promise that spring (my personal favorite season) will soon return, I love celebrating the Winter Solstice because it gives me an opportunity to reconnect with my ancestral cultures. I have heritage from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England, Germany, Sweden and Norway - cultures that boast very ancient and very festive Winter Solstice traditions. It's not only fun to learn more about the spiritual and cultural practices of my ancestors and the ways that they honored the natural world around them, it's also an important part of my anti-racism practice.
For the most part, Euro-Americans are estranged from our ancestral homelands and cultures and spiritual practices, and we don't really have a cohesive cultural identity within the United States. This creates a vacuum, an emptiness, a longing to belong to something that drives many of us to engage in harmful behaviors. At best, we may partake in cultural appropriation (a topic worthy of an entire blog of its own, but if you're unsure what it means or why it's harmful, here's a helpful article on the topic to get you started). At worst, we may join white nationalist hate groups that offer a sense of pride and identity based on nothing more than the arbitrary characteristic of skin color. I firmly believe that an active and engaged anti-racism practice (and no, I don't mean "not acting racist," I mean actively pushing back against racism in your daily life whenever and however you may encounter it, which also means being honest with yourself about how you may consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racism yourself) requires us to unsettle our lineages.
What lands did your ancestors come from? What languages did they speak? What stories did they tell? How did they pray? What drove them to leave their homelands and their cultures behind? How did their story change when they arrived in a new land? What role did they play in perpetuating colonialism and white supremacy - or working to dismantle it?
In order to create a brighter future for our communities and the world, we have to understand where we come from and what brought us here. Connecting with our ancestors in whatever ways are available to us allows us to learn from both their mistakes and their successes, and reminds us of our own rich cultural heritages. My Winter Solstice traditions are one avenue I work within to do just that. Especially this year, when we are all hoping for a better post-2020 tomorrow, I believe that our ancestral traditions have much to teach us about community and holding onto hope when the world looks bleak and dark.
So this weekend I'll be making Welsh wassail and leaving (LED) candles burning on my windowsill all night, as is the custom in Ireland and Scotland to send a beacon of welcome to strangers and visitors. I've had my tree and my lights up since the middle of November and will leave them up until the end of January (in the same spirit as the Swedes, who leave their holiday lights up for months during the dark months) and I've already mailed out Solstice cards to my beloveds who I'm sorely missing this year. (Fun fact: the tradition of sending holiday cards got its start in England, where it was introduced by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 as a way to simplify the old tradition of sending a Christmas letter to family and friends.) I'm disappointed that I won't be able to visit any Christmas markets or attend any Yule or New Year's parties with my loved ones this year, but I know that the distance we're practicing now to keep each other safe will make our eventual reunion all the more joyful. I'm saining my apartment with pine smoke and baking gingerbread and sugar cookies from my great-grandmother's time-honored recipe. I'm divesting from consumer capitalism and purchasing gifts and decor from small businesses and creators who are suffering due to the pandemic, and making reparations where I can by giving my dollars to BIPOC creators. I've stuffed my partner and pets' stockings with limericks giving hints to what their gifts are (yes, even the pets, don't judge me), another Swedish tradition that I absolutely love. On Solstice night I'll be lighting candles (in lieu of the traditional bonfire) and sending prayers out for a joyful and prosperous 2021 (the gods know we all need it), and in the morning I'll sing and ring bells to welcome back the sun, just as my ancestors did for thousands of years. That light and that hope that guided them onward through the winter still exist for all of us now, in this twenty-first century time that we're upon.
No matter what your faith or cultural background, I hope that you're able to find and hold onto a little bit of that same light. After all we've been through this year, let that glorious Solstice sun remind us that there will, in the end, be spring.