Yule: the Big Picture

Yule is of course a joyous time for celebrating love and family and the return of the Sacred Sun. But it also marks the end of the cycle of the year and the beginning of a new, and it is this I’d like to address today.

I often talk about the “arc” of the year instead of the Wheel of the Year, because in my conceptualization of how a human life maps metaphorically onto the year’s cycle, there is an important segment–the period between Hallows and Yule–which we never experience at all, because they are the time of Decomposition and Recomposition. They are what happens after we die, and before we are born.

Pagans often talk about the “rebirth” of life*, but let’s face it: in reality, life is never reborn. New generations of life spring from the remnants of the old (and dormant creatures like deciduous trees and bears and so forth wake up in the Spring, but they were never dead to begin with), and that’s not the same thing. A new generation is new life, not life reborn.

So I think a lot about the sacred Mystery of this time of the year, when I mark the amazing process by which the formerly alive are disassembled into component molecules, and then taken up for reassembly into new life in the bodies of life already established. The bacteria and fungi and insects and echinoderms and so forth that facilitate this magical change are often ignored or slighted, but without them we could not possibly be here: their service has enabled our existence.

So I think of this time as the time of decay and pregnancy; of the dismantling of the old and, from its remains, composition of the new. Arguably the greatest and most magnificent of Life’s many astounding and magical tricks: literal transformation of the dead into life.

So yes, deck those halls and light that tree and burn that log and bake those goodies, and hold your loved ones in your heart even if you can’t hold them to you this year, but spare a thought to the sheer wonder that is the making of new life.

When the baby Sun is born on the solstice it reminds us: the new is coming. But it always comes composed of the old, laden with history and memory, burning all the more brightly for the merry journeys it has taken through cycles and cycles of living on this so-blessed, so-remarkable little planet Earth.


* Though I have always suspected that this word figures in Pagan songs so much simply because it rhymes with “Earth”.

Image: “Yule King” by Michael Kerbow

Rituals in Quarantine

So, there’s this pandemic. And it’s going crazy in a second wave.

There’s plenty to say about failure of leadership and idiots who won’t wear masks because Freedumb and the whole sad story of this year, but it’s already been said elsewhere and it’s not the focus of this post.

No, this post is about how we can use video conferencing platforms to conduct group rituals, easing the personal impact of sheltering in place from the pandemic on the near-universally beloved celebrations of the solstice holiday season.

Yes, many of us are Zoom-burnt. We’re having to do our work, maintain our relationships and so much more through the virtual window that more of it sounds wearisome.

But this is how we can connect now, safely. This is how we can keep those fragile fires burning in our relationships, and particularly in relationships that are a part of our religious/spiritual practices. It’s better to see our beloved faces and hear our beloved voices than not to do so. So here are some things I have learned about doing rituals on video conferencing platforms.

Preparation

Because video conferenced rituals require interaction with technology, it can be helpful to have attendees prepare for a ritual in advance to help them be in the right mindspace. Suggestions include fasting, bathing, grounding, meditation on a theme, and/or preparation of materials for the ritual.

Focus window

One of the great things you can do with a Zoom call is to log into it multiple times. When I’m leading a Zoom ritual, I log in twice: once with my laptop,  and once with my phone.

I do this in order to focus the phone on a Focus I have constructed for the ritual (I use gaffer’s tape to affix the phone to the back of a chair and point it at the Focus). This creates a participant window of the Focus and allows participants to look at this collection of symbols: it creates a central point of attention for participants even while I am participating in the ritual through the laptop.

Shared physical activities

The “action” of the ritual works best if it involves activities that participants can do at home: lighting a candle to start the ritual or evoke a particular meaning, for example, or pouring water into a chalice, or tying knots in a cord: something physical that makes the ritual more than just information mediated through a screen. I highly encourage inclusion of some kind of physical activity for all participants in your online ritual

Incorporation of screen sharing

Screen sharing is great, and it can enable you to present media that will augment your ritual. At Yule, you could use one of those fireplace Youtube videos (wonderful crackling sounds!), or a guided meditation, or anything else that inspires emotion and atmosphere. At my ritual circle’s Hallows ritual, we used this video (volume muted) to create a field of candles that we walked through in a guided meditation, each of which signified 200 lives lost to COVID. Be creative! There is a lot of powerful imagery available on the web.

Performances

Recitations, readings, and invocations work great over Zoom! Just have everyone else muted and let the performer do their thing.

Singing and playing music are great, too…if you turn on “original sound” and thereby shut down the filters and echo cancellation and all the other nifty audio effects that Zoom offers. Have ONE performer present the music: video conferencing has inherent lags that make it impossible to sing in a chorus. Have everyone else mute themselves and sing along!

Cakes and ale

Sharing food and drink is a fundamental human way of making common cause and creating community. It is warming and pleasurable to have a time of sharing food and drink at the end of a virtual ritual–a time to experience the joys of wine or pomegranate juice and chocolate, say, and have a bit of a social chat.

Which brings me to…

Social time

After the ritual, incorporate time just for visiting and socializing and spending unstructured time together. This is not extraneous: we need our social interactions with others and the opportunity to visit and converse is an essential component of an online ritual gathering.

I hope you’re able to share meaningful experiences remotely with your loved ones as this pandemic persists. Stay safe and healthy!

Got some other great ideas for online rituals? Put them in the comments!

Holy Days

OK, to start with let me just say: they’re all holy.

Every unique, magnificent, rare and extraordinary day of your life, whether you sleepwalk through it or not, is a holy day. Because there are only so many of them, and then you are gone forever.

So try to keep it in mind: every day is a holy day.

But a special day, what we usually call a holiday–a Sabbath–whether invented or traditional, is a moment when we step out of routine into ritual: whether it’s convening a meal with loved ones at Harvest or erecting a decorated evergreen at Yule or lighting candles for Hanukkah.

We have now entered a time, the season surrounding the Winter Solstice, when people throughout the world have created special days to celebrate. Some of them are old traditions, and some new; some are sober and serious, and some fun and silly, and some a little of both.

And, in the spirit of eating life with both hands, I encourage you to celebrate as many of them as you possibly can.

We’ve already had Wolfenoot, which was created by a 7-year-old and that is all the reason you need to adopt it. No hate, only snootboops!

Soon comes Krampusnacht, December 5, in which demon anti-Santas dragging chains whip bad little boys and girls and pop them in a sack to haul them away.

Seriously.

The Winter Solstice goes without saying. The Darkest, Longest Night, the Birth of the New Sun!

And then there is Festivus, which is silly but we love it in our house. Erect that aluminum pole and air your grievances!

And that gets us to New Years, which, frankly, I do not consider the beginning of the year (that would be the Solstice), but it’s certainly a time that many observe and celebrate with rituals like champagne toasts and countdowns to midnight.

And just when things are starting to be gray and grim following all the festivities of December, there is SLOGG.

There are many more holy-days of many traditions at this time of year. Those I list here are those I celebrate, but you may find others as well.

A flurry–no, a blizzard–of special days is before us.

I encourage partaking of as many of them, and as much celebration and happiness, as your month can possibly bear.


Image: Winter solstice at Stonehenge