Kindling Fire, A Midwinter Message

By Glenda | December 11, 2010

I am told that in a few weeks, on the evening of the winter solstice, there will be a full eclipse of the full moon. That the winter solstice—that time of the changing of seasons from the darkening to the increasing of light—coincides this year with the darkening eclipse and the re-illumination of the full moon seems especially powerful to me. The ancient meanings surrounding the solstice will be dramatically presented to us at a time when the world so much needs a turning toward the light.

The winter solstice is, of course, the time of maximum seasonal darkness, when days are shortest, when the earth is at its farthest point away from the sun. Throughout the world, peoples have always held ritual ceremonies at this time to “bring back the light.”

Of course, many modern people, with electric lights and central heat, have lost much of the sense of seasonal process that our forebears understood. Perhaps most people today, wrapped in “holiday cheer,” see no connection to this being a time of conscious sacrifice, of disciplined and rigorous ritual. Many do not connect the winter solstice to the new year ceremonies, or recognize that the placement of Jesus’ birth at the season of the winter solstice profoundly echoes what peoples had long understood about darkness and light, about nature’s cyclical process, and about their own important place in that process.

At this time of year, after autumn, when the trees have let go of leaves and the plants have let go of blossoms and seeds, and when animal families let go of their older family members, losing them to cold or to hungry predators, darkness descends. For the ancients it was a time of struggle, often of suffering, sometimes of near starvation.

This is a time when not only dried leaves and dead limbs but everything in nature seems to free fall wildly, helter skelter, downward and backward, blindly, into the moist living darkness, under accumulated layers of leaf mold and snow. Everything seems to “go to seed.” Winter comes with an apparent end to everything that is growing and blooming and fruiting. Winter can seem to be a time of dying back, and this winter even in our culture, it seems especially a time of hardship and loss.

However, winter has her own wisdom and profit. It is, yes, the time when Mother Nature does her strenuous winter housekeeping, clearing out the dead wood, blowing away dried leaves and decaying limbs, along with all else that is, perhaps, too old or frail or weak to survive her purging winter weather. But in this way, she clears a space for newness, for the maturing of the healthy and strong, and, at the same time, all those dried leaves and mulch create rich compost to nourish the new growth that will emerge in the next seasonal cycle of spring.

We, as a part of nature ourselves, can know that by entering consciously into the wintering process, into the psychological process of letting go and pruning back, by giving up certain personal excesses, we can prepare ourselves for new life too. During winter, because of the weather, we are more often inside our homes, with opportunity for quieting ourselves, letting the cleansing psychic winds blow through our souls, clearing out internal dead wood, making space for hearty and vital new life processes, and letting die back all those overgrown thickets of our normal conscious life. When we do so, we can know that spring will soon return for each of us, after the long winter, with new growth and new life.

Once, native peoples spent this time of year close together around their campfires, listening to the elders retell the tribal myths and stories, coming together in a special closeness that did not occur during the spring and summer, when the way opened for individual hunting and gathering, for traveling and being alone and abroad in the world. The time of winter tribal sharing was a time of special bonding and of the inculcation and fostering of spiritual ideas and values. Thus, despite the harshness of the weather, the winter had its powerful place.

Some of the ancient rituals at the winter solstice are powerfully meaningful. Here are a few quotes, among many I could recount:

“…No one knows for certain the year of the Nativity of Christ, or the month or the day. In the early days of Christianity some Christians kept Christmas on January 1 and some on January 6; others celebrated it on March 29, the time of the Jewish Passover…But in the old Roman Empire December 25 was the winter solstice and was regarded as the birthday of the sun, since on or about that day the days begin to get longer and the sun seems to get more powerful after its winter decline…The ancient Egyptians, we are told, used to represent the newborn sun by the image of an infant, which on his birthday they brought forth from the temples and exposed for all to see, saying at the same time, “the Virgin”—that is Isis, the “Queen of Heaven”—has brought forth! The light is waxing!”…Mithra, the sun-god of the ancient Persians, was supposed to have been born on December 25; so, too, according to some, was Buddha, and likewise Freya, one of the old Scandinavian gods. The Druids made the day their annual fire festival…and the mistletoe played a great part in the worship of the Druids. …At the winter solstice the old Norsemen used to kindle huge bonfires in honor of the great god Thor. …a magical rite intended to encourage and assist the sun in that time of his annual career when he was obviously feeling very ‘low.” …In England, and in many parts of Germany and France and other countries, the Yule-log used to be cut with care, dragged home, and placed on the hearth with loud rejoicings. When it was all burnt, its ashes were carefully collected to be strewn on the fields on every night up to Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and useful medicine. …And they had an old practice of keeping a half-consumed piece of the old log with which to light the new one the following Christmas. “ (Pike, Round the Year with the World’s Religions).
“…In the Sudanese kingdom of Wadai all the fires in the villages are put out and the ashes removed from the houses on the day which precedes the new year festival. At the beginning of the new year a new fire is lit by the friction of wood in the great straw hut where the village elders lounge away the winter hours together, and every man takes thence a burning brand with which he rekindles the fire on his domestic hearth…The Egyptians in antiquity celebrated the winter solstice as the birthday of the sun, and festal lights or fires were kindled on this joyous occasion.” (Frazer. Golden Bough)
…“At a festival held in the last month of the old Mexican year, all the fires both in the temples and in the houses were extinguished, and the priest kindled a new fire by rubbing two sticks against each other before the image of the god….Among the Esquimaux of Iglulik, when the sun first rises above the horizon after the long night of the Artic winter, the children who have watched for its reappearance run into the houses and blow out the lamps. Then they receive from their mothers presents of pieces of wick….” (Frazer. Golden Bough)

Somewhere also I remember reading that the ancient Mesoamerican peoples extinguished their home fires before the solstice fire was rekindled, and cleaned their houses and swept the dust and debris and all the “bad feelings” out into the street, and then some holy person came through and swept all of this clear out of the village, symbolically and literally, in preparation of the new year. And for the solstice feast, after the new fires were lit, cakes were eaten that contained a pin prick of blood, signifying the sacrifice needed by each person to make possible the on-going fires of life.

All of these rituals speak to the precarious nature of life at the edge of darkness, of the miracle of the light and new life, and of the attention, discipline, and sacrifice necessary to keep the whole thing going properly. The ability to create fire at will is one of the seminal skills of the human race, and the extinguishing of all fire is an awesome thought. The keeper of the light, of the fire, had at all times an awesome responsibility, keeping the coals alive or having the skills and means of making fire for the people was important. So this extinguishing of the fire during the solstice time was an act both of honoring the darkness and of faith in the ability to kindle, to create new fire. It was, and still is, no small thing to take up responsibility for the light and lightness.

Do we trust, I wonder, our own personal “kindling” process? Do we have ritual and ceremony to help us remember the sacredness and the many dimensions of meaning that the solstice had for ancient people? Do we have our own gift of “wicks” handed down to us?

How is light rekindled in your spiritual life when you are plunged into inner darkness? Does the light seem to come completely from outside yourself, accidentally, like chance fire created by lightening in a dead tree? In these dark days in the world around us, do you feel powerless, so that you can only wait and hope for light miraculously to reemerge?

Or have you, perhaps, evolved to the point where you have some insights and skills in the inner “fire-making” process? Have you discovered your own inner equivalent to rubbing two sticks together methodically and creating a new blaze of energy and light? The ability to kindle light in the midst of inner darkness is an essential psychological and spiritual skill.

How can we do this? By prayer? By a talk with a loving friend or counselor? By inspirational reading? By paying attention to dreams? By cultivating Chi? By yoga? By calling upon “All My Relations,” as the native peoples say to all the powers that be? What is your trusted technique for the recreation of light in the dark times of your life?

So many people today experience themselves as powerless. Our search for soul, as well as our search for meaning in a power-mad society, leads many back to an awareness that real power, real light, is actually available to us. Where? Well, name your term. Hebrews, Christians, Muslims all call the source of real power God. Native Americans call it the Great Mystery or Great Spirit of All That Is. Sufis call it the Beloved. Carl Jung called it the Self, with a capital S. Some physicists refer to it as an overarching field of energy. Some philosophers call it Great Mind. Ecologists call it the web of life. Maybe some people just call it Love, Compassion, Kindness. But, to be sure, spiritual teachers everywhere encourage us to cultivate spiritual power.

Ultimately, of course, all power is mystery, and our humility is our recognition of the small step we have taken on the path of spiritual power and insight. But how important it is to our spiritual and psychological health that we retain a sense of our connection to the Light, to God, to All Our Relatives, to Divine Love—however we choose to express the mystery.

Jesus said, “Ask, and ye shall receive.” Perhaps asking, speaking forth with integrity and intent, correctly, is part of the kindling process. As someone has remarked, the Buddhist rainmaker does not create the rain, he only allows the rain to fall. This powerful and essential act of choosing, consciously, to allow the cosmic energy to flow creatively into human affairs is illustrated at this time of year too, in the Christian mythos in the person of Mary, who does not create the Christ child, but creates the sort of life into which it can emerge, and chooses, moreover, to receive it and nourish it when it comes.

We can each, in our own way, with our own practices, create lives into which power and light can emerge, we can experience power for our own lives that helps us to be “kindlers” of light for the world.

So, in the days before this winter solstice this year, perhaps some of us may choose to spend some time honoring the darkening time, the wintering process, and the re-kindling of the light in our own lives. Whatever form this may take—fasting, increased meditation time, more active journal work, thoroughly cleaning home or office, extinguishing all lights and heat mindfully and giving praise for their return, or whatever—our experience of the winter solstice will be enhanced if we have prepared for it in depth.

For many years people once gathered at Earthsprings on the evening of the winter solstice. Even prisoners from the minimum security prison in Bryan, where I visited on a monthly basis, were brought to Earthsprings by the chaplain. Here we built a fire, just as ancients did all over the world as the darkness deepened. Sometimes we put out all the fires and lights and one of our number “made fire” in the old fashioned way, while the rest of us watched breathlessly this feat that was so essential to the lives of ancient people, but also so fraught with chance. Because my own personal life got swallowed up by circumstances, we have not had an official midwinter ceremony at Earthsprings for several years, but I always honor this sacred time, for I believe that the balancing of the dark and light is a powerful metaphor for my own inner life as I pray for light for the world’s soul.

So, today, I challenge us all to consider, how much confidence we have in this whole light and dark balancing process, and to think seriously about how we handle darkness, where we find sources of new light, how much we may wish to commit to acquiring more and more of this skill in the year ahead, and, of course, how we protect ourselves from inflation and “power madness,” and how we survive and thrive even in a dark time in our culture.

And finally, please know that while I sit quietly outside, watching, on the night of the eclipse of the moon on the winter solstice, saying my prayers and doing my own ceremony, you will be in my heart. My intentions will, as always, include the hope that your life is and will be in the coming year rich and full and blessed with abundant meaning, love, and opportunity for fulfillment of your own unique soul’s purpose.

Glenda Taylor
Earthsprings, 2010

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