When the ancient ones celebrated Samhain, now known as Halloween, the festival was not only the point marking the new year, but it also signified a time period during which the northern hemisphere would experience what they called "the long darkness."
With the Yule season only a couple of days away we now find ourselves situated at the edge of the dark abyss--Winter Solstice and the longest night of the year. This is a time when even the daylight hours are often gloomy, holding within them the possibility of winter storms followed by bitter and sometimes life-threatening cold.
Yule has long been a Pagan celebration, which dates back to a period before the birth of Jesus and Christianity; yet, it too concerns a birth of sorts as the Sun God is reborn to the Goddess. In more scientific terms, the date and celebration marks the time that the sun begins it's march back toward the equator and eventually, the Northern Hemisphere. The relationship between Yule and Christmas, which follows three or four days later is undeniable, and the reasons for fusing together the two way back in the fourth century are best left to history. Still, the darkness is ever present within both.
These are times when an icy cold entity inhabits the night and lurks outside our doors and windows hoping to gain access to our small bubble of warmth and security. These are times when one thinks twice before stepping outside for fear of allowing in the creature with its icy grip--a grip capable of causing misery and even death if not vanquished within a short amount of time. Like the mindless zombies in the film Night of the Living Dead, the cold is unrelenting in its efforts to gain entrance and cause havoc.
Yet, there is also great beauty during these long wintry nights. Just walk along some deserted trail as the full moon shines from behind the silhouetted but naked bodies of trees, stripped of their summer foliage. They stand like dark, ghostly entities casting their eerie but thin shadows onto the snow-laden ground; a picture right out of your favorite Christmas card--or Halloween perhaps?
And what about Christmas, that most popular of holidays in the western world? Is it not also a day of both joy and pain? I can still keenly recall the magic I used to feel as a child during the days leading up to the special event. For me, Christmas Eve was the culmination of weeks of preparation and waiting. In a sense, the following morning was anti-climatic; even though that's when we opened our presents. During the afternoon, our house would be teaming with extended family and relatives--on both floors. The smell of turkey lingered in the air and excitement was everywhere.
That was then and this is now, however. The magic long ago disappeared with the advent of adulthood and greater understanding. Most of those relatives who made Christmas such a special time have long ago departed this world, and those older ones who remain reminisce and long for something that can no longer be. It's a painful time for them; yet, how can those who no longer believe--who understand that the magic can no longer be created, assuage their sorrows? Even the music of the season, though exquisitely beautiful, is a painful thing. It very effectively transports our minds back to to childhood and recreates all that we felt during those simpler, more innocent times. So just as Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken's Victorian novel, A Christmas Carol, was forced to face the Ghost of Christmas Past, so are we catapulted into a situation during which, we must confront the phantoms of our own past; these bringing forth feelings of melancholy, uncertainty and perhaps even long-felt regret. Still, we know that it's not just the music or memories that impose these warm but sometimes painful memories and emotions upon us; rather, the darkness itself forces this upon us, for it compels us to look inward, ever inward.
There are no bats, vampires, zombies or witches associated with Yule or Christmas imagery; yet, it's a season teaming with Gothic aspects of its own; and for some, an annual reminder of the relationship between pain and pleasure even as we are haunted by the figurative ghosts of our past. As with the case of Mr. Scrooge, these in turn, present us with an opportunity to embrace the darkness, to learn the lessons it teaches us and perhaps, to come to peace with our past.
A happy winter solstice and Yule season to all!