Today while we mark the shortest day of the year on the Northern half of the planet, my friends in Chile, amidst ongoing protests, celebrate the end of the school year, Christmas, the New Year, and the summer solstice all at the same time. The lead-up to Christmas in Santiago is hot blazing sun until 10 pm, stores open late as people bustle through traffic and crowds, gift shopping in shorts and sundresses. Christmas itself is spent at the pool or the beach. Surreally, all the while, shops are decorated exactly like they are in the Northern Hemisphere: evergreen trees (usually plastic), sparkly lights, and employees dripping sweat from underneath their cozy Santa hats.
During the 5 years I lived there, it was far easier to acclimate to snow in August and springtime Thanksgivings than to Christmas at the summer solstice. Because so much of Christmas comes from ancient pagan winter solstice celebrations, symbolic relationships with the darkness and returning of the light don’t make sense in the summer.
This year I’ve been digging into these traditions as a way to connect more deeply with nature and our collective heritage. I’ve come across a few that appeal to me as a gardener, and that I suspect you all might like too. Here they are:
Decorate with greenery! Evergreen boughs (aka Christmas trees and wreaths) were symbolic of immortality because they don’t “die” in the winter. Holly was an invitation to nature sprites and good fortune. Mistletoe represented the seed of the divine, and was harvested by Druid priests at midwinter. Pagans symbolized the year as a circle, and used wreaths to symbolize the turning of the seasons.
The Yule log is another pagan precursor to Christmas trees. It was a large log brought indoors and burned through the entire 12 days of Yule (from now through the calendar New Year more or less) to honor and welcome the return of light. Traditionally, one should not buy a Yule log, but harvest it from one’s own property, or receive it as a gift. Serendipitously, I learned this on the very day that the neighbor’s tree trimmers left us with the prunings of a large redwood tree to use as our indoor decorations. A more modest version of the Yule log is to drill holes on top of a log to hold candles, and burn those every day through Yule. (Does that remind anyone of a Menorah by chance?)
Finally, and this is the ritual I’m feeling most this year: Observing sunset and sunrise on the longest night of the year.
Solemnly bidding goodbye to the sun as it “dies” on the longest night of the year is a time to ask yourself what dies with it this year? What are you mourning? What are you glad to leave behind?
These last few months, I’ve been feeling a powerful shift inside myself as I let go of habits that no longer serve. I’m looking forward to a slow ritual over the days of Yule (or the 12 days of Christmas, or the 8 days of Hanukkah, if you will) of consciously sloughing these off in order to make space for the new. I’ve long known that my vision for myself and for Orta were smaller than they should be. I’ve had a sense that my place in the world is bounded by unseen forces inside myself. I suspect this is true for many of us, women in particular. Though I could see it logically (for years now), I had no idea how to change.
The first part of the shift happened this summer. I put quite a bit of energy into goal setting. (Some might call it manifesting, I call it being clear on what you want). I used this tool from Beth Kirby for overall life goals, and I used the framework from Kotler on Marketing to make specific business goals.
More subconscious changes have been popping up in unexpected moments. One day, this fall, while reading a self-help article on the internets, I had an epiphany. I said to myself, “I don’t read self-help, I motherf--ing write it!” Which isn’t true in the least, but it sure made me feel better, and I felt a palpable shift in my place in the world. Try it. It's actually kind of fun.
Most recently, I had a surprisingly clear sign of this shift. When the neighbor’s tree trimmers were here, I stood up for myself in a way I never have before. The project manager (a gray-haired white guy in his 50’s) needed access to our yard, and kept calling me “sweetie” and “dear.” I let it go because that’s what I always do, but it felt bad in a familiar way. When he called me “dear” again the next day, I stopped him, and told him it’s not ok to use diminutives with people you don’t know. (Unless you’re old and frail enough to need help crossing the street, imho.)
It was the first time I’ve ever, in my whole life, pushed back against this kind of pervasive, gentle, and yet deeply undermining sexism. His reaction surprised me. He apologized profusely, and explained that he’s working on it. He thanked me sincerely for helping him learn how and when to change his habits.
We’ve all heard it a million times: You have to believe that you are enough, you have to stand up for yourself, you have to believe that you can succeed, don’t hold your own self back, overcome your fear of success / failure. All that self-help business. And I always thought I was fine in that department, until I started shifting in ways that are still mysterious to me. Now I see that for all the years I’ve been talked down to, I accepted it, even as I saw it happening and didn’t like it. On some level, I understood myself to be worthy of the treatment I received, which was often pleasant enough, yet carried a message that my place in the world was, and should be, small.
This solstice, I’m releasing my excessively accommodating habits. (Don’t worry Mom, I’m not releasing good manners entirely! Just working on not being a pushover.) I’m also mourning for my younger self, who didn’t know she was holding herself back.
I’m planning to get up to see the sunrise after the solstice to welcome the sun and opportunity for growth in the new year. It’s less of a New Year’s resolution (because those don’t really work anyway), and more of a commitment to making space for new energy.
In recognizing the inherent discomfort in releasing the old to make room for the new (not to mention the traffic and the shopping), it’s easier for me to react with kindness and the spirit of the season. The point isn’t that it’s an inherently happy time of year and we should naturally feel joy. The point is that, in the rhythm of the seasons, this is the darkest, scariest time. The pagans knew it, and gave us rituals that are still here today to help us get through the darkness and celebrate the return of the light.
These purple podded peas are still producing in the wimpy December light! If ever there was something to give us faith in the coming spring it's peas!