Passing Time: YuleGuest Post, · Categories: Passing Time Rituals Series
Welcome to the eighth and final article in our rituals series. I went with the modern pagan wheel of the year calendar because several of us are familiar with it and it evenly breaks up the twelve months into manageable chunks of time. There will a mix of spiritual and secular practices and observations for each holiday–I can’t promise ahead of time if any will be weighted more one way or the other, but I’ll do my best to include something for everyone. I’ll post these the Wednesday before the holiday date. Thank you to the contributors! You are invaluable.
I celebrate Agnostica. A totally made-up*, non-secular holiday. As a result, I can do no wrong, because my holiday has no performative expectations. Whatever I want, is what the holiday is about. That may sound selfish, but I see it otherwise. This time of year is full of performative expectations and obligations. Not just obligations to do things and give things, but to also FEEL things. Being required to feel things a certain way… never ends well.
Agnostica gives me permission to let go of the things that don’t work and enjoy the holidays as I see fit. Even if that means not celebrating at all. I’m not screwing up Christmas! I’m celebrating Agnostica! I’m consciously figuring out what I want in this season and letting go of the rest. For me, this year, this means donating to the charities my friends care about, buying some fancy whiskey and cider with my household, pursuing a non-holiday-related household goal, sleeping in on my days off, and enjoying the pleasure of a nearly empty movie theatre on New Years Eve.
The Yule season is full of suggestions of more activities and responsibilities than is possible for even Santa Claus to do, so I’m going to suggest that you put your feet up on something, play “F*ck That: An Honest Meditaion” on YouTube, and consider what you want. Let the logical spirit of Agnostica give you permission to let go of those performance expectations. Whatever you do or don’t do… it’s okay. Happy Agnostica!
* See Nukees online comic strip for the inspiration.
From Lee Thompson
Cursing the Darkness
“PreCursor” (which is hilarious because we had to choose the weekend before the solstice, thus Pre-)
Friends, what a long strange journey this has been. We, and our little planet, have journeyed some 584 million miles over this last year. We find ourselves at a point in space similar to, but not exactly at as the same spot as we were last year. And a time that is similar, but yet not the same.
Annoyingly, we find ourselves again in a time where the days are getting shorter. The dark is rising. Trump is the president-elect. And now we find ourselves here, looking at a sunset at 4:19pm. This is beyond stupid.
How did we get here? Did someone tear a tag off a mattress? Did someone run a yellow light? Is it a general lack of fiber in our diets?
Nothing so petty. Our problems are astronomical in origin. Our culprit is again the planet’s axial tilt, at 23.4 degrees, which at this time of the year is pointing almost exactly away from the sun. Which leaves us with short days and short tempers.
This problem of axial tilt is not limited just earth. The planets in our solar system have a nearly random assortment of axial tilts – Venus is fact, is upside down and rotates backwards. This careless attention to axial orientations smacks of extreme incompetence, which is (as we know) indistinguishable from malice.
What shall we do about this? This rising dark? The feeling of encroaching malice? We are not the only ones to face this problem. Many cultures the world have invented ceremonies for just this situation. Their common theme is a fear that the light might never return. You could say the intensity of the celebration is related to the level of anxiety of the people performing it.
The Germanic tribes that brought us Yule celebrations, tended to kill livestock and smear themselves with blood. The Romans took 5 days off, literally deleting days from the calendar, and got drunk. In ancient Greece, women would tear a guy apart and eat the pieces (although, admittedly, that might not be a good example, because the women generally have more to be angry about). The atheists, on the other hand, have an annual awards dinner.
There is another theme to these ceremonies, that of rebirth, that if humans do successfully intervene, somehow the light will return. The Inca believed they were literally descendants of the sun, and partied to encourage return of their ancestor. In the Chinese festival of Dongzhi, they believe there will be more daylight and positive energy flowing through the universe. The Buddists celebrate the Budda achieving enlightenment.
Our gathering is based on the observation that a collection of friends is a source of light in any time of darkness, and that at this darkest day of the year – it requires our collective efforts as good friends to repel it.
Last year we lit candles and cursed the darkness, and amazingly, it worked! Well, for a time. This year, I think it’s time to double down and curse more emphatically. And with audience participation.
And so, to you, irritatingly very dark day, repeat after me:
We flick our Bics in your general direction!
We reject your axially-mediated attempts at repression!
We cast light on the world because you are clearly not up to it!
And here’s to better and brighter days to come!
[process: Mr Crow reads this, with audience participation as indicated. We gather at the Umass Sunwheel – a tiny lovely stone circle that marks the shift of the sun and moon through the seasons. As local conditions permit, candles are lit using cheap cigarette lighters, and held or hurled towards the setting sun, with a fair amount of profanity. The tentative plan for this year (2017) is to locate some road flares to help with the general lighting ambiance. The celebration could certainly include warming beverages, with or without alcohol. After we are wet, cold and finished, we repair to a Chinese restaurant and eat a LOT of hot (spicy) hot (warm) food in company.]
Mankanauts, we have reached the end of the year!
The Winter Solstice is marked by holidays in cultures all over the globe. From the deranged consumerism of Christmas in America, to Dōngzhì in China and Taiwan, to Yaldā Night in Iran and the Shalako ceremonial dance of the Zuni here in New Mexico, where I live, humans feel the need to recognize the longest, darkest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the turning point of the winter. Original-flavor Yule celebrations were heavily impacted by this; livestock were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed through the end of the winter, the year’s booze was brewed and ready, and ancient folks went balls-out with feasting: one last hurrah of abundance in the coldest, thinnest part of the year.
Yule speaks to me in a special way, as I think it does to most folks who were brought up with Christmas as the biggest and most important holiday of the year. There’s something primal about family traditions, the childhood anticipation, and gathering your tribe together in the heart of winter. Even though I’ve never lived anywhere with a winter worth the name, even in softer climates, the earth still winds down and goes dormant, gathering its energies to return again in spring. Psychologically, psychically, we are brought to the edge, down to the bones of our lives. Midwinter feels magical, even to my secular, atheist, skeptical ass.
My personal Yule ritual is re-reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
Hogfather is a novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, in which the personification of Death and his granddaughter Susan must take over for the Discworld equivalent of Santa Claus, the Hogfather, who has been the subject of a very unusual assassination attempt. It’s a very funny, powerful book with a lot to say about children, children’s stories, belief, and human nature.
Pratchett describes the Hogfather/Santa as, “your basic winter demi-urge. You know…blood on the snow, making the sun come up.” Behind winter solstice celebrations all around the world, there’s a kind of desperation, a valiant last stand against nature. We gather together with our friends and loved ones to protect ourselves against evil, against famine and freezing, and we eat and make merry because we know that the sun will return, and god damn it, we’re all going to be there to see the snow melt.
It’s been a pretty desperate year for a whole host of reasons. What do we still have with us, on the longest, darkest night? What will we hold to ourselves, and what fuels our fires through the starving months?
I don’t believe in much, which has actually made it tricky to write these ritual posts. I don’t practice any faith or believe in a higher power. But the core of what I do believe in is in Hogfather, and it is summed up nicely in an exchange between Death and his granddaughter Susan at the end of the novel. They’ve just spent several hundred pages keeping children’s belief in the Hogfather alive, holding his place in the collective imagination so that they can rescue him, so that the sun will continue to rise.
As it turns out, if they had failed, a meaningless ball of flaming gas would have risen instead. This revelation irks Susan to no end.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET– Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point–“
MY POINT EXACTLY. […] YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?
And so I’m going to gather with my friends and my partner, and sing songs, and hopefully light something on fire, and perform the ritual activities of a feast day in a religion I no longer follow, and celebrate the making of things that don’t exist. And I’m going to read Hogfather and think about blood on the snow, and the stubborn core that survives when all else is stripped away, and commit the power of my belief to making a better world when the sun returns again.
It’s the stories that we tell each other that bring meaning to our world, and the communities that we build that create the unreal. Truth, beauty, justice, kindness, responsibility, duty–we imagine them together. We do it here. Raising a big tankard of wassail to you, Mankanauts. It’s been fun going around the wheel with you. Now, let’s do it again.
I’m gonna admit right up front that I’m totally cribbing this ritual from the pagan group I used to attend in the 90s. But it’s a lovely ritual, especially if you have a large group of friends (at least some of whom are established night owls). The two biggest problems with it, from a practical standpoint, are 1) it really needs to be done on the actual night of the solstice (which is December 21 this year), no waiting for the weekend, and 2) it involves staying up from dusk to dawn–literally.
Know the time of the actual sunset (and sunrise the next day) where you live. Have on hand a long-burning candle (like a novena candle) that you can mostly leave unattended for the whole night. Use an atomic clock website (or download an app) to make sure you light the candle at the exact minute the sun sets in your area. The point is to ritually capture a bit of the light and keep it burning until the sun rises again after the longest night of the year.
After all, if someone doesn’t guard the light, who knows for sure if it will come back? This is a painfully accurate metaphor in These Trying Times, as well.
Once the sun is down and the candle is lit, it’s basically just time to party. Everybody brings food (a lot of it, to keep people’s energy up), scrying/divination tools, board games, etc. to entertain themselves and others. I vaguely remember my group having a dance party in the wee hours to help boost energy. If you feel like it (and the people in your group are hams), you can act out various myths related to the holiday.
Obviously if your social circle is small and early-to-bed types (or if you’re practicing solo and regularly get sleepy by 8pm), staying up all night isn’t gonna happen. It’s okay. Once you’ve reached your stay-awake limit, put the candle in a safe space, like maybe a bathtub or a deep kitchen sink, and get some sleep (I have never personally witnessed a novena candle break overnight but it’s possible and Safety First).
Set an alarm for a couple minutes before the sun is supposed to set (for those who slept and for those rare souls who were able to stay up all night but are now a little loopy from lack of sleep). At the moment of sunrise, blow out the candle and thank the sun for coming back.