GREAT YULE: THE ANCIENT AND PRESENT HOLIDAY

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.

Photo: Matti Kovanen
Photo: Matti Kovanen

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.

solstice arc

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.

Glad Yule!

David

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IT’S ABOUT TIME: THE HOKKU YEAR

The seasons are very important to hokku.  But when we look a bit closer, we find we have both formal and natural calendars:

The old traditional European calendar — now a formal calendar — was divided into four seasons, each with a festival at its beginning, its middle, and its end.  The end point also marks the beginning of the next season.  I give it here using traditional English and Irish names.  The notation “The first week” indicates that the day on which it begins had some variation in old usage.

Spring:

Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  1st week of February.
Midpoint:  Spring Equinox, March 20/21.
End:  the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh).  1st week of May.

Summer:

Begins with May Day (Bealtaine).  1st week of May.
Midpoint:  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End:  The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1.  1st week of August.

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.
Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
End: the evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.
Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.
End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

We can simplify the traditional calendar for the purposes of hokku:

Spring:

Spring begins:  Around February 1st.
Spring deepens:  Around March 20/21.
Spring ends Around May 1st.

Summer begins:  Around May 1st.
Summer deepens:  Around June 20/21.
Summer ends:  Around August 1st.

Autumn / Fall begins:  Around August 1st.
Autumn / Fall deepens:  Around September 21/22.
Autumn / Fall ends:  Around November 1st.

Winter begins:  Around November 1st.
Winter deepens:  Around December 21 /22.
Winter ends:  Around February 1st.

Now you may be thinking that makes no sense.  Spring, where you are, may begin in May!  The preceding calendars are “formal” — the first astronomical and the second meteorological.   But in hokku, with its lack of artificiality, we may be flexible and informal.  The seasons are not the same in all places.  Winter comes earlier in mountain regions than in lowlands, and spring comes later.

The so-called “meteorological calendar” recognizes, for example, that though the time of maximum sunlight comes at Midsummer, nonetheless its effects are not felt until some four weeks later.  That shifts the seasons, loosely speaking, by about a month.  We then have a calendar like this:

Spring:
Begins:  March
Midpoint: April
Ends:  May

Summer:
Begins:  June

Midpoint:  July
Ends:  August

Autumn / Fall:
Begins:  September
Midpoint:  October
Ends:  November

Winter:

Begins:  December
Midpoint:  January
Ends:  February

Given these different approaches to the seasons, which is the writer of hokku to follow?

The answer is simple.  Use the traditional formal calendar for times and seasons and celebrations, and with that, use a “natural” and flexible calendar that  reflects the seasonal changes of Nature where you are.  We all know that spring does not really begin punctually on February 1st or March 1st or at the Spring Equinox in the natural world.  If you first see sprouts and buds poking through the earth some time in February, that is when your spring begins.  If it happens in March, that is when your spring begins.  Go with the natural climate and weather where you are, which may be very different from the natural calendar of other people living in other regions.  Some very warm parts of the world may have only two main seasons, a dry season and a rainy season.  One is their “summer,” the other their “winter.”

I live in a temperate and moderate climate much like that of the British Isles, so it is no problem for me to follow the old traditional calendar, with Spring beginning with its first signs in February — though in some years, February can be a very cold month.

The traditional calendar provides a pleasant way to maintain a connection with our ancestors and their seasonal times and celebrations, but we should pay close attention to the “natural” calendar where we live as well.   So we can celebrate the important old “Quarter Days” — the Winter Solstice (Great Yule), the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day), the Autumn Equinox — and we can also celebrate the old “Cross-Quarter Days” — Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and Samhain (marked by Halloween the night before).  But in addition, we always keep a close eye on what is actually happening in Nature, and on when it is happening.  That is our real guide to the seasons in hokku.

So here, without attached dates, is the “natural” calendar of hokku, which you apply to each year and region a bit differently.  But the order remains the same:

SPRING:
Spring begins
Spring deepens
Spring departs

SUMMER:
Summer begins
Summer deepens
Summer departs

AUTUMN / FALL:
Autumn begins
Autumn deepens
Autumn departs

WINTER:
Winter begins
Winter deepens
Winter departs

See how very simple it is?  When you see the signs of spring beginning in Nature, that is when it begins for your hokku.  When you see it advancing, that is when spring deepens in your hokku.  And when you begin to see the changes that signify its ending and the transition to another season near, that is when spring is departing in your hokku.  Just apply this principle to each season.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year.  You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm.  Yin is passive, Yang active.  Yin recedes, Yang advances.  Yin is wet, Yang is dry.  Yin is still, Yang moving.  Yin is silence, Yang is sound.  Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin.  At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite.  Yang first begins to grow within it.  So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite.  Yin begins to grow within it.  So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter.  Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer.  Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another.  As Yang increases, Yin declines.  When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines.  This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year.  We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring:  Growing Yang
Summer:  Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

All of this has profound significance in hokku.  Hokku is the verse of the seasons, so whatever the apparent subject of a verse, the real subject is the season in which the verse is written.

That means every hokku should manifest and express the qualities of the season.  That is why in spring we may talk about budding flowers, in summer about the heat, in autumn about falling leaves, and in winter about snow.  These are just some very obvious examples of seasonal manifestations.  The seasons actually manifest themselves in hokku in a multitude of ways, which is why the possibilities for hokku are endless.

David