December will soon begin, and with it comes the holiday season.
How does one deal with holidays in hokku? The same way one deals with a season. A holiday verse is like a miniature seasonal verse — in other words, it should express the character of the holiday, how it manifests — with emphasis always upon Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.
The most important holidays of the year come in December — in the winter. Why is that? It is because in older times, when people lived closer to Nature and the seasons, December was the time when the days were at their shortest, and darkness seemed to threaten the world. So people needed a time of hope and cheer and encouragement, and they began to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun in the darkest part of winter, telling themselves that light and warmth would come again to the world.
Some of us still celebrate the holidays in that old way — remembering and celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the wheel of the year when the days stop growing shorter and begin once more to grow longer — Wintersonnenwende, as it is called in German — the time when the sun “turns” in winter, and the light of day again begins to lengthen. In English it is often called the Winter Solstice, from Latin solstitia, meaning the time when the sun “stands still” — that critical point when it seems to pause in the lowering of its arc across the southern sky before reversing.
There should be nothing new in this to students of hokku, who will remember that when either of the two elements — Yang or Yin — reaches its ultimate point, then it changes into its opposite. That is exactly what happens at the Winter Solstice. The growing yin of decreasing light changes into its opposite, and the “yang” day begins to grow longer again in comparison to the “yin” night.
I prefer the old term “Yule,” which is the word still used in Scandinavian countries for what others may call Christmas. Have you ever thought that celebrating the birth of Christ near the time of the Solstice is just another symbolic way of celebrating the encouraging return of light and hope? The early Christians just adapted the older holiday to their use, so “Christmas” is just Yule under another name — as we see in the line from the well-known seasonal song,
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.
And of course the other line,
See the blazing Yule before us.
The “blazing Yule” is of course the Yule log, an old tradition of the holiday, obviously connected with light and warmth.
So the Winter Solstice is Yule, and the whole holiday period is Yuletide — the time of Yule. I tend to think of it as the Twelve Days of Yule, beginning with the day of the Solstice and continuing on to New Year’s Day. That whole period for me is Yuletide — a time to be happy and hopeful.
It is also a time to think of others, which is something that is particularly emphasized in the wonderful old black and white movie based on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol. In spite of the latest Hollywood effort, the absolute best and definitive version of this kindly story is that in which the British actor Alastair Sim is “Scrooge,” the stingy, “rational,” selfish part of all of us. So do not bother with other versions — just go that unsurpassed old version — and be sure it is in the original black and white, not any “colorized” attempt. It teaches us that the holiday time is not a time to focus on the “self,” but rather a time to focus on others. That is a very “hokku-like” attitude, and very much in keeping with the spirituality of hokku.
So, whether we call it Yule or Christmas or Noël or something else, the holiday season of December can provide some interesting hokku if we pay close attention to it.
Take one of the most pleasant seasonal songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Regular readers know that I often lament the use of metaphor and simile in verse, but it is really just the misuse or poor use of it to which I object. It is used very effectively in these lines. We could make one or more hokku of it, of course dropping the similes:
Earth is hard,
That is a bit like the early hokku of Sōgi that present two things unified by a third, which in this case is the first line. Making hokku like this does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the original verse, which had a different purpose. And no matter which one likes better, we can still enjoy our own efforts based on an original, for example,
We should generally only write hokku based on other verses if they also faithfully reflect the character of the season and our own experience.
So as the days of Yule approach, we can think about not only winter hokku, but also holiday hokku, a subcategory of their own.
“December” comes to us from Latin, in which it means simply “Tenth month.” It reminds us of old Quaker reckoning, in which the months were numbered, as were the days of the week. For the Quakers, December was “Twelfth Month”
Going a bit farther back, our ancestors were more expressive — “Yule Moon,” “Wolf Moon,” and “Winter Moon,” as well as “Holy Moon.” “Moon” is the origin of our “month,” which was originally based on the phases of the moon.
So December, “Yule Month,” is the first “real” month of Winter. As part of winter, it again raises the possibility for good hokku of contrast — light amid darkness, warmth amid cold, and other such things. And it brings with it the possibility also for holiday hokku.