December 25, 2008

The Spirit of the Yule-Tide

Well, it's been a beautiful Yuletide, as always. I love this time of year; the cold and darkness rises to the peak of its icy grip, only to witness the most ironic things from the human beings it surrounds: complete re-assertion of our bonds as families and friends. The darkness sees our generosity with one another; it sees us gather before warm, flame-lit hearths, as we sip egg-nog and ale, and have large, sumptuous feasts. Everywhere you go, even in our Christian culture, people are trying to resolve issues with family and friends, trying to extend something of what they call the "spirit" of the season.

But what is the truth about this season's "spirit"? It is ancient beyond words or knowledge- truthfully, the source of this winter solstice celebration is a power beyond our belief or understanding. But we human beings do what we can do- we experience the power of this time through language and symbol, and through customs passed down to us from times that were very different than times are now. There is mysticism here- powerful strands of the uncanny Weird come together in the weave of this season, and every person of substance, no matter their faith or thinking, still feels it.

Our Christian contemporaries would have us believe that this time is about the "birth of Christ"- what they fail to see is that this season is only about that to them. To countless ages of people before the creation of their religion, and to countless people now, it is about something else. A person of depth has to consider the fullness of any situation- or, at least, as full as we can manage given our limitations as people- and a person of depth has to see what the generations gone before have said about this time, if they would truly understand.

This dark season of solstice is the most powerful time of the year for some very important reasons. The depths of darkness are more than just cold and dangerous- they are a reversion to the "other side of life"- to the actual realm and world of the dead, and the unseen world. While Christian culture is terrified of this natural and normal side of life, the Pagan world approached it with more wisdom and acceptance. In so doing, they understood something amazing- they saw the paradox of this season, and in so seeing, were able to capture something of its timeless power for their own good and the good of the world.

The ancient Romans named the time of Winter Solstice "Saturnalia"- the religious festival of Old King Saturn. In Roman myth, King Saturn ruled the "Golden Age of Man"- the time before history when human beings lived in peace and harmony, and there was no want. Every year, at this time, the Romans re-created King Saturn's reign, and they came together in harmony, celebrating and acting very much like you see people act now- being more generous, more hospitable, and Roman masters even let slaves temporarily suspend their duties, and live as equals during the Saturnalia.

This "Saturnalia spirit" is not placed at the dark solstice for no reason. In the depths of darkness, winter, and death, what do we find? Outwardly, we see hardship and fear. Inwardly, however, there is light and harmony. Death was, for many Pagan people, a return to the Gods, a return to the ancestors, an entry into peace. Death allowed people to cross the line that kept mortals and Gods separated, and which kept the living and the dead separated. It was a return- literally- to a timeless condition; and in a timeless state, all "points in history" are available to the dead. That means that the Golden Age- in all its fullness- is also available.

Death is a pass-way into the Unseen, and to all the amazing possibilities of that condition. Only those who refuse to accept this, and who remain overly attached to their former lives cannot access the boundless resources and possibilities that death presents. Thus, Yule is also the time of ghosts and haunts, the most dangerous spiritual time of the year. Those with a penchant for dark sorcery will find more than their share of power to access- but woe to them if they are not strong enough to ride the power, and it overtakes them. The Bucca is dancing at Yule, they say; and he will dance them into blood-splatters on the wall if they lack the force to handle this brutal time.

Death loses its sting when people accept it and see what it hides under its dark cloak. People who can look below the surface see that golden horizons await after the long voyage at the end of our days, if we are noble and if we die without regrets or fear. To have the "Golden Age" re-created at this time of Solstice is to bring together the best and fullest with what appears to be the darkest and the worst. These two things- these two extremes- are always found together because in completeness, in wholeness, they are always together.

Further north, in ancient Germania, the Pagan Yule-tide was celebrated; and we see some similar themes: the gathering together of the folk, renewal of bonds of family, the lighting of Yule-fires to give the missing sun the strength it needed to make its journey, and to be the "sun on earth" while it was gone. The fire of life persists in the face of winter and all its wicked, dangerous powers. The human spirit will not be daunted by the most fierce and deadly-seeming of Weird's many faces and masks. That is part of what it means to be a human, and to be alive. In darkness, the sun will return; it will be renewed- it will "Yule" or wheel around and start traveling up again, bringing life and more light to the world. Winter will end. All will be well and all is well.

Christianity's contribution to this ancient season comes in the form of the mythical drama of their "Christ child". The church simply could not destroy the power of this great and holy season. They were forced- forced- to set the date for the birth of Jesus on the same day as the birth of many other Pagan sun Gods and Yule-divinities. They could not stop Pagans from worshiping at this time; it is impossible to separate the spirit in humans from the spirit of nature and from the great and eternal Weird that is behind them all. No new idea of God, no new saviors, and no new religion that seeks to replace countless ages of worship and tradition can hope to succeed.

It never succeeded; given the fact that Pagan people still exist, it is clear that it never will. Pagan customs from the Yule-log to the Christmas tree are still in the homes of most westerners; the Pagan tradition of wassailing (Wassail = Be whole!) is still here at this time; even the dark notions of spirits from the north coming down, complete with "wild rades" of flying animals and elves- all Pagan in origin- are still with us. Some of our wilder "Christmas parties" are very much Saturnalian in their inner being.

But Christianity did bring its own new spin to Yule. For Christians, the darkness of the world ceased to be the cold and death, and became the darkness of moral depravity. The new "son" that is born at the darkest time- Christ- is the light of a new morality, a saving morality and message that will do what? Make all things right again. The "Golden Age" will be back, they said- when the world ends and is destroyed, and Christ collects his faithful, and their God re-creates the world anew. The Christ myth of the "birth of the divine child" fits into Yule quite easily; it tells the same ancient story, with a new moralistic twist.

Do not imagine that this new twist represents some "positive evolution" in human thinking about religion or morality. A new change is not always a better change, and even in the natural world, many lines of evolution are negative, harmful to the species so evolving. Evolution is not a "linear progression from worse to better"- it is just change, and change can sometimes run to madness and disadvantage. I believe it would have been far better for us had we never ventured into the entire "moralistic" range of universalist thinking- the subject of morality is not an easy one, no matter how much people in the past- and now- wanted to over-simplify it to a few rules and a few supposed "revelations" from a "supreme being". That is how they understand it, and how they dearly hope that it "really is", but not how everyone in the world does, and there is a good reason for this.

Some people in this world can still naturally see and feel that these topics are more complex than meets the eye. There is no cause to run to over-simplification and absolutism in the name of finding an elusive peace. Part of our human quest is to learn to deal with uncertainty. To give up that tension in the name of easy solutions is to give up on one of the most important aspects of our own minds and spirits.

Carl Jung said that Christianity was "psychologically true, but not historically true"- and I think finer words were never spoken. You can consider that for a while before you see how deep it really goes. As far as the "need for more moralistic thinking" is concerned, Master Jung also said that "Moral was a function of the human soul, as old as mankind itself"- we have always had moral thinking. Just a different sort of moral thinking than the current popular type. And in the end, we will have the kind of thinking we had so long ago, for the beginning and the end always come together. This is because reality is a whole, a circle, and perpetual.

The Pagan Gods of Yuletime- and the Christ God of Yuletime- are always those Gods that have a special relationship with mankind. Odhinn in the North was the "Yule-Father"- and he, like Christ, is the God who undergoes self-sacrifice for the good of humans and their world. Saturn was also associated with such sacrifices; the ancient Saturnalia once included the sacrifice of a man who took King Saturn's place. My thinking on the subject echoes with much of the wisdom of the ages- the Weird is all; it contains all. Something about the Weird loves life and loves humankind. The weird-power in humanity- in all of us- like the eternal spirit of us- has to undergo the suffering that we all experience. This is why the "gods who love humanity" always suffer and die in sacrifice. They, like we, are "crucified on the cross of space and time", i.e. mortal limitation. By doing so, the divine becomes human and the human can realize its own innate divinity.

Humans didn't suddenly "appear" because the Weird "wanted something to love"- such linear notions are absurd, fit only for people who can only think in straight lines of causality. We humans didn't "appear" one day. We- the spirit of us- was always here. It never "arose", for a perpetual thing cannot arise nor fall away. We exist- both the spirit of us in timelessness and the temporal "other side" we call our many lives and deaths. That's what wholeness is; both sides of everything, all together as one. It's always been that way. The Weird is perpetual. The flow of power is perpetual. Life's celebration is perpetual; life loves to live. Through our lives, weird-force loves; it enjoys; it suffers. As we do it, it does it, and this perpetual simultaneity is all.

The great Weird is not a "personal god"- it is the reality of all, experienced and even (in a way) created in this very moment- which is the only moment there is- through the complex interaction of parts, including the human parts and all their many joys and pains. In this way, even though the Weird is no "personal god" it is paradoxically the most personal thing of all- the great power of our being and becoming, perpetually so, as awake and intelligent as we are, as responsive as we are, and as eternal as we are.

Yule is the season in which the wholeness beyond our hopelessly divided perceptions of the "eternal" and the "temporal" can be grasped for one brief, beautiful moment. The "spirit" of Yule, the hint of Old King Saturn's glorious time, is nothing more than a hint of the timeless that stands beyond time. At this very, very thin time, we can sense it. The dead have already gone to it, and at this time, the dead are never closer to us. The Celtic festival of Samhain is how the ancient Celts perceived the same eternal event, coming as it did at the beginning of their winter.

Old King Saturn- and Old Father Jolnar or the Yule-Odhinn- are still with us. They represent, in one hoary old Godly form, the distant origins of the Old Man who brightens our children's faces at this time: Santa Claus. Santa, more than any other icon, represents the joy of giving, the jolly and ancient spirit of this season. He is a far more universal figure for all people who experience this time than a Jesus figure!

There are a lot of people out there- poor beggars that they are- who hate the fact that parents teach their small children about Santa Claus. They reason that the children are being lied to, and that the children must one day go through the hardship of having their beliefs evolve, of having their beliefs change (which is a kind of destruction, a death of an old way of thinking and a birth of a new one).

These poor souls who hate the tradition of "Santa" don't seem to understand the most crucial lesson of childhood and adult development: all people who grow and become more mature must lay aside their older understandings of the world and embrace new ones- better ones- more abstract and spiritual ones.

Yes- Santa IS real. The figure of Santa Claus isn't an actual man who comes in the Yule season and comes down chimneys to deliver presents; he is the embodiment of the spirit of this time. He is very real in that way- he "comes" at this time, and delivers joy in his own way; he encourages our generosity and happiness. He is Old King Saturn, come again in a new form. He is the Yule-Father. When we become adults, or when we grow older, we must all undergo a revision of our understanding of the world many times, and that is natural and normal. Santa goes from being a physical man to being the spirit of a time, and he is no less "real" for that.

Because what is "real" can exist in many, many ways. And that is a hard lesson for the materialistic dupes and unimaginative people of our age to accept. But it is a crucial lesson. Our dear "biblical literalists" need to learn this lesson, too- for, spiritually and mentally speaking, they have never advanced beyond childhood and immaturity with regards to how they understand the deep metaphors of their own religion.

In their pernicious ignorance and narrow-mindedness, they try to make life miserable for everyone around them. Those who are trapped at a concrete level of understanding always feel threatened by people who can think in more abstract ways. Abstract thinkers threaten them because they remind them that one day, they must and will have to grow up, themselves. They will have to give up the great comfort of their narrow views and get mature like the rest of us. Then, they will discover on the other side of that change, a new joy and comfort awaits- and a much better one.

But getting mature is hard. Anyone who has watched children grow up knows this; and some adults, sadly, never really mature in any real manner except for physically.

There is a magic, a real sorcery in the Yule-season. The Unseen world looms large, and it can be both terrifying and blissfully wonderful. The Unseen world and the Weird always are like that- full of every possibility and both sides of any duality. This is the time of year when the forces of chaos and misrule take the Crown of Summer and transform it into the Crown of Winter, but outside in these "Wolf Nights", somewhere, perhaps in a snow-covered hut around a warm fire, or maybe even in a manger somewhere, a new promise is born- that life will be triumphant over any darkness.

In that glorious promise, people of every faith have a reason to celebrate. They all have a reason to come together and consider the truth: in life, we are surrounded by dangers and by death, and it does not do to struggle against one another so. Peace and fellowship are needed if we are to strive against dark forces, and win. Peace and fellowship are all we can feel when we realize that the eternal spirits of all of us are going to be together forever- as we have always been together- no matter what we think of each other at this moment or on this day, thinking (as we are) with these mortal limitations.

In mythical thinking, we can say that "away in a manger" or off in a distant castle, the child of promise is born. But where is it really born? If not inside each of us, then nowhere. The Spirit of the "Divine Child" is nothing more or less than an icon of the divine spirit in us that is eternally young and everlasting. Get behind it, for it is the truth shining through the cracks of this complex time of many customs come together over many centuries. The taste of eternity that this season affords- and all the generosity, peace, and happiness it brings, is a message from the timeless. At the heart of life is peace, not a nihilistic void, nor pain. It is not just the spirits of the unseen world that can find renewal on the "other side", but our spirits now that can taste the timeless and be renewed every Yuletide.

Here, in the best of all times, and at the most appropriate of all times, I wish you a Glad Yule, a glad turning of the sun back to summer, and I wish you "Wassail"- to "Be Whole". Because you are whole- even the feeling you have sometimes of incompleteness is itself part of the whole. I hope that Santa Claus was generous to you- especially if you were a good boy or girl this year. I wasn't terribly good, but I still walked away from "ye olde Yule tree" with a bandit-sized bag of goodies. Life is good.


  1. A refreshing read, indeed my friend!

  2. Hi.

    This is very interesting, allthough I 'm still reading, there's a lot to think about. I have one of your books and I try to keep up with what you write on the internet. I am of slavic descent and I have been researching slavic and mainly polish holidays. I have found that many of the celebrations centered around the ancestors and that may slavic peoples included their ancestors in their celebrations. I think there were about five slavic pagan holidays that focused on the ancestors. The links i have are sadly in polish but I think this is an interresting read:

    This one is about the magical significance of the fern flower in slavic mythology:

    How to get rid of winter:

    This one is a good site about nordic witchcraft: