Midwinter revels and holidays of light

"Go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go Kwanzaa, go Solstice!" So shout the brightly clad young models of a current TV commercial, as they leap about the screen like cheerleaders in their stripy sweaters and knitted gloves. Yet another seasonal advertisement by a multinational garment-selling conglomerate. But wait. What are the holidays mentioned in the ad again? Do they really finish their cheer with Solstice?

Holy moly.

Practicing Pagans are a minority in our area, but our community is growing. I am often asked how many there are in Western North Carolina. There's no way of pinpointing an exact number: There are folks who self-identify as Pagan and then there are environmentally passionate people who love the Earth and the outdoors. They may not call themselves Pagan, but they are happy to dance around a bonfire on the Winter Solstice. They tell me that they only find god when they're out in the woods, never in church. So I count them.

We Pagans are mindful that the holidays built around the Winter Solstice are holidays of light, no matter what the mythology attached to them might be. It's logical that the turning of the agricultural year is of paramount importance, regardless of your spiritual affiliation. After all, the returning light of the sun is the first indication that we can begin growing food again, that our tribal unit can survive the fallow season of the year.

The days lengthen and nights retreat, beginning at the Winter Solstice. This vital ingredient of the agricultural year is a predictable event in the cycle of the Wheel of the Year; certainly a savior we can count on year after year. The Romans called it the "Birth of the Unconquered Sun," and modern Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice as such to this very day.

Many of the traditional Christmas trappings — the ones that were on store shelves before you carved your Samhain turnip — come from an older and pre-Christian world. The decorated tree has roots in ancient Egypt and Greece, and mistletoe bears a Celtic and Germanic imprint. Even the virgin birth of a holy child has antecedents in the stories of Mithras and Dionysus and Horus, all solar deities and savior-gods.

The Winter Solstice marks the end of a season that should be devoted to rest and renewal, culminating in a bright celebration in December. Instead our commercial culture turns that concept on its ear, making the time between the final harvest at Samhain and the hinge of the agricultural year at Yule into a frenzy of activity, stress and overindulgence.

Nature always knows best and models for us what this dark time is for. As chickens and honeybees know, the dark is the time to gather in. I invite all of you to throw off the frantic trappings of the dominant — and often dominating — culture and do something rebellious during these remaining weeks.

Don't leap into the stressful madness of the season of giving. Say no to those things you really don't want to do anyway, and then say no to some of the things you do want to do. Stay home. Listen to — or better yet make — some music. Go to bed earlier than usual and arise in the darkness to face the new day. Let the rich velvet night, which John Florio calls "the mother of thoughts," be a place of refuge. And then welcome the young sun with joy and light. As nature intended.

Try using this time as the ancients did — look back over your year and ask yourself if there are things to be undone, people unthanked to whom you owe gratitude. Spend some downtime bringing yourself into right relations with your family, your community and your planet.

There is sweetness in the world, like the red-and-white stripes on old-fashioned peppermint. When you remember that, it makes it easier to forgive the guy who cuts you off on the expressway, to accept the differences of the people you meet who are not like you. The cycle of the seasons continues year after year and the bounty of the Earth supports and nurtures us.

What is there to fear when we are part of such a web of life? What can we not do when we work together as a community to bring honor to our ancestors, healing to our environment and peace to our species?

Be kind, love deeply, laugh when you can. Don't sweat the small stuff, and know that when the big stuff hits, you are not alone.

You have a tribe.

A native of WNC, H. Byron Ballard is a ritualist, teacher, speaker and writer. She lives on an urban farmstead in Asheville's historic West End.

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