Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule. It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.
That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day. Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.
Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days. Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday. For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter. Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that. And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is. In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.” One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is. The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.
Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better. The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.
Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:
DUST OF SNOW
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued.
In only a few days, it will be Great Yule, the Winter Solstice. This is the ancient holiday celebrating the rebirth of the sun when the winter night is longest. It is a time of dark and cold, a time when light and warmth and cheer are eagerly appreciated.
The name Yule is very old English, but it is also the ancient name still used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, though it has been generally shifted to refer to the later innovation, Christmas, which co-opted Yule and its popularity. Nonetheless, in its connection with evergreens and mistletoe, we still see its pre-Christian origins. In Scandinavia, Yule is spelled Jul, with the “J” pronounced as “Y.”
In the Scandinavian countries, Yule is still associated with the the creature called Nisse in Norway and Denmark, and Tomte in Sweden. The Nisse is a kind of domestic spirit associated with a particular house and family, rather like the Russian Domovoi. Nisser (the plural) are small, only about three feet or less in height, usually with a long beard and an often bright-red cap. They are kind when well-treated and fed, but demand respect and good keeping of the house and grounds. Another figure often associated with Yule in Scandinavia is the Julebukk, the Yule Goat. We see both Nisser and a Julebukk on this old Yule Card (used for Christmas). The Greeting on it is God Jul — “Good Yule.”
In Wales, the greeting at this time is Nadolig Llawen, meaning roughly “Merry Birth.” Welsh Nadolig and Italian Natale are related words both derived from the word for birth in Latin. In old Rome, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” was the Winter Solstice, so the “birth” in early times was not that of Jesus, but of the sun at Midwinter.
So for the Midwinter Solstice, one can still say “Good Yule” or “Glad Yule” or “Happy Birth” and mean something older and more Nature-oriented than the Christmas celebration.
We can see from the following illustration why the focus from ancient times was on the sun at Midwinter. From the Summer Solstice — Midsummer — the highest point in the sun’s arc across the sky, the arc gradually gets lower and lower, and as it does so the places of its rising and setting also move farther southward. Finally, at the Winter Solstice, the sun stops descending, and seems to “stand still” in its arc for a few days, that is, it gets no lower. At this lowest point in its arc, the “old” sun seemed to the ancients to be reborn, once again to rise in its arc across the sky until reaching its highest point on Midsummer’s Day.
Though as seasonal terms “spring” perhaps originated in the “springing” of new plants from the ground, and “fall” perhaps from the falling of leaves, If you think about it, the gradual elevation of the arc of the sun from Yule is its rising, its “spring” upward toward Midsummer. That is followed by the sun’s “fall,” its decline in the sky from Midsummer’s Day back to its lowest point at the Winter Solstice.
As mentioned earlier, Yule was rather “taken over” by the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas — though the latter came rather late. In fact it seems to have begun just about the time Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and adopted as the State religion. So we can say that according to available evidence, the celebration of Christmas seems to have begun during or shortly after the life of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century c.e.
It also appears that the reason the date for the celebration of Christmas was placed on December 25th is that it was already the very popular non-Christian celebration, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. That occurred on the Winter Solstice, which in those days was intended to be on December 25th. So that gives us our marker. Originally, Christmas was celebrated on (or very close to) the Winter Solstice in the Roman Empire, taking over the already existing non-Christian festival.
In those days there was no formal split between the Greek Eastern branch of the Christian Church and the Latin western branch. Both celebrated Christmas on the same day, December 25th. And even after the Great Schism that divided the two branches in 1054, both churches, Eastern Greek and Western Latin, continued to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th. That is because both still used the old Roman Julian Calendar.
There was, however, a serious flaw in the Julian Calendar. Every year it would inaccurately be off by another eleven minutes. That did not matter much at the beginning of its use, but after the passage of 134 years, all those accumulations of 11-minute error added up to the Julian Calendar being a full day off. Every 134 years, it was off by yet another day. So because of this error, the celebration of Christmas gradually moved farther and farther from the Winter Solstice.
in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Roman Catholics to use a new and more accurate calendar, generally called the Gregorian Calendar. This was after the Protestant Reformation, so for a while the Gregorian Calendar was only used by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox continued to use the more inaccurate Julian Calendar.
The Gregorian Calendar, unlike the Julian, more closely reflected the natural cycles of the solar year, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. It was not perfect, but compared to the 11 minute inaccuracy per year of the Julian Calendar, the Gregorian inaccuracy was only about 30 seconds per year.
Over time the use of the Gregorian Calendar began to spread even into predominantly Protestant countries.
England adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1752. That was some 24 years before America declared its independence, so that meant America went on the Gregorian Calendar as well and has remained on it ever since.
Now, how does all this talk of calendars relate to the gap of a few days in modern times between the Winter Solstice and the date of Christmas, December 25th?
By the year 1900 the Julian Calendar still used by the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia had become off by 13 days through the inherent flaw in that calendar system. That meant that when the Western churches were celebrating Christmas on December 25th, The Russian Orthodox church was celebrating it on what by the modern Gregorian Calendar would be January 7th. Now (and until March of 2100) the Russian Orthodox date of Christmas is thus 13 days behind, meaning 13 days after, the date on which Christmas is celebrated in Europe and America.
Which is the more accurate date? Well, given that the marker originally was the Winter Solstice, both are off, because as we have seen, Christmas, in Roman times, was intended to be on the Winter Solstice. Today by the Gregorian Calendar, the Winter Solstice actually happens about four days before Christmas. But the Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th is much farther off the mark, being thirteen days after the “Western” December 25th date, and even more beyond by the actual Winter Solstice. That is because Russian Orthodoxy still uses the Julian Calendar for the date of Christmas and other fixed festivals.
What all this means is that even though the Christian celebration of Christmas took over the celebration of the Winter Solstice, and even appropriated the ancient name “Yule,” nonetheless the date of Christmas and the Winter Solstice have not coincided for a long, long time.
All of this talk about calendars and Christmas can seem a bit confusing. But it does not really matter, if you happen to be one of those who, like me, have no interest in religious dogma of whatever kind, and who prefer to celebrate Yule as the ancient and present holiday of the Winter Solstice — a natural holiday — a Nature holiday. And what is behind celebrating the Winter Solstice is the “rebirth” of the sun in Midwinter, the return of light and warmth to the world after the “fall” of the sun to the lowest point in its arc — the time when it pauses in its decline before once more beginning its “spring” upward in its arc across the sky. And for that we have the very old accompaniments of evergreens and mistletoe and lights and warmth and good food.
Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar. The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.
After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku. But it is not. Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.
On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting. They go together very well, like this:
Our calendar begins with Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:
Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;
The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox: March 21 /22. In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;
Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:
SUMMER begins for us on: May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May. Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:
Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;
Our summer Midpoint happens on Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:
Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;
The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August. On Lammas our autumn begins.
For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st. 1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:
Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;
Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:
Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;
Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st. 1st week in November. Then on Samhain our winter begins.
Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:
Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;
Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:
Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;
Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.
And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.
Now, what does all this mean to us today? It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan. And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.
So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan. The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.
Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year. Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.
Such contrast is at the root of the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
“…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.
That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter. That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter. I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.
That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —
“… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas. There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others who may not call it by the same name “Merry Christmas.” The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.
My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season. As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing: The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity. To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter. That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring. And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.
So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol. Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us. The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life. That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality. It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.
So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,
“God Bless Us, Every One!”
we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation. We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean. But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death. Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,
“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.“
And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:
May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.
That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice. However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,
“… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life. It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well. It is a part of our spiritual journey.