GLAD YULE: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

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.

GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!

 

David

TROLLING ANCIENT CAROLS IN YOUR GAY APPAREL

Though there are many “secular” songs for the holiday season such as the very popular “White Christmas” (written, oddly enough, by the Jewish Irving Berlin), there are also numbers of older songs which, even though one may not have the slightest interest in Christian dogma, are traditional and very often heard.

My point in mentioning this is linguistic. I have noticed that many people, even those who have heard or sung these songs all their lives, are not quite sure what some of the words mean.

It is not a matter of mishearing, such as thinking that “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is actually “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night.” It is a matter of not knowing what certain old terms mean, because the words are no longer used in everyday speech.

So as a preface to the holiday season, here is a discussion of such often puzzling words in some old Christmas carols.

Let’s being with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” This is not, as some kids think, a song about an angel named Harold. “Hark!” is an exclamation meaning “Listen!,” “Turn your attention to the sound!” In old literature we often find the related “hearken,” as in “Hearken to my words,” meaning “Listen attentively to my words.”

So the lyrics are saying “Listen! The herald angels sing…” A herald is someone who proclaims a message, often a message sent by royalty or some other state authority. So “herald angels” are official messengers sent to bring and proclaim a message.

Later in the song come the words “With th’ angelic host proclaim…” “Th'” is of course just an abbreviation of “the.” But what is a “host” here? It does not mean a host who entertains or takes care of a guest or party, as used today; instead it comes from the old meaning, “a multitude of soldiers,” “an army,” though in this particular case “heavenly host” is generally just understood to mean “a multitude of angels,” a “great crowd of angels,” with no emphasis on “army.”

The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” sounds at first as though it is addressing angels, but it means simply “We have heard angels high above.” And when it speaks of mountains “echoing their joyous strains.” “Strains” is the problem word here. Today “strain” commonly means either to filter something or to damage a muscle; but in this carol it is a plural noun meaning the phrases of music sung by the angels; today we would just say that the mountains “echo back their joyous song.”

And of course many people have no idea what the carol means when it goes off into its long Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a in Excelsis Deo. That is because it is Latin, derived ultimately from the very old Vulgate translation of the Bible. It has nothing to do with a girl named Gloria, but means instead “Glory (Gloria) to God (Deo) in the height” (in excelsis) or as the King James Bible gives it, “Glory be to God on high.”

People happily sing the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” but they almost never understand what it means. It does not mean “God give you rest, merry gentlemen”; instead, it uses the word “rest” to mean “keep in a certain condition.” So “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” means “May God keep you merry, gentlemen.”  “Merry” is a very old, but now seldom-used word in English (I always think of the old line from the Liber Eliensis (c. 1175), Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely ða Cnut ching reu ðer by — “Merry sang the monks at Ely as Canute the King rowed there by”).  And when it finishes up with “O tidings of comfort and joy,” “tidings” means “news.”

And then there is the popular “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” “Deck” here means “to ornament, to adorn.” So it is referring to putting up branches of the holly tree in rooms to ornament them. And then comes the now-notorious “Don we now our gay apparel,” which originally meant simply to put on bright and colorful or festive and cheerful clothing. It continues with “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” “troll” meaning here to “sing with a full and merry voice” the very old carol of the Yule time, Yule having become the “Christmas” season.

“See the blazing Yule before us.” means “Look at the burning Yule log (in the fireplace) in front of us.” The burning of the Yule log in the fireplace at Christmastime was an old English tradition. “Strike the harp” means “Pluck (play) the strings of the harp.”

A word often heard in regard to the Christmas season and in some Christmas carols is “Noel.” It is borrowed from Middle French (and Anglo-Norman), and signifies “Christmas.”

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

GLAD YULE!

Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice — Wintersonnenwende — Great Yule.

Ian Capper [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ian Capper [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

With that long-celebrated day, the sun will then begin to rise higher in its arc across the sky, the days will slowly but surely grow longer, and light and warmth will return to the world.

In the hokku Wheel of the Year, the Winter Solstice is at the very bottom — the most Yin time. But on that day a spark of Yang becomes apparent in the darkness and cold of Yin, and will begin to grow. All since Midsummer’s day, Yin has grown to dominance in the year; but now Yang will grow and grow until it becomes dominant. We will now be on the rising turn of the Wheel of the Year instead of its falling.

Here are a few lines from an old carol appropriate to Great Yule, the Winter Solstice:

TO DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend,
That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

Let Misery pack, with a whip at his back,
To the deep Tantalian flood;
In Lethe profound let envy be drown’d,
That pines at another man’s good;
Let Sorrow’s expense be banded from hence,
All payments have greater delay,
We’ll spend the long nights in cheerful delights
To drive the cold winter away.

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now;
If wrath be to seek do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow.
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks,
Both beauty and youth’s decay,
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

David

COMMENTS

Ash commented on GLAD YULE!

This is a wonderful carol & really lifts my spirits just as the Yang rises & grows. Where is this carol from? What are its origins?

*
David replied:

The text dates at least to the early 17th century.
The tune is 17th century.

You will find some free MP3 renderings of the tune here (some with words):
http://mp3skull.com/mp3/drive_cold_winter_away.html

You will find more verses and information on its history here:
http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/drive_the_cold_winter_away.htm

It is a very pleasant song when sung in a lively and happy fashion, and it should be much better known.
*

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Every year about this time I like to re-post this:

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.

ghchpr

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.

English: Ilex species; Common Holly. I noticed...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 season, 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 the altered 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.

David

GLAD YULE!

In two days — December 21st — comes Great Yule, the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  It is the bottom of the Wheel of the Year, the point at which the forces of Yang are at their weakest and Yin at its strongest, through the effects of that will not be felt for about another month.

wsolstitiajpg

It is also the time, as our ancestors knew, when the arc of the sun across the sky is at its lowest point, closest to the earth.  They saw this as the time when, as things in the universe looked to be at their most gloomy, the sun was then reborn, and so its arc across the sky would begin rising higher and higher, the days would begin growing longer, and warmth and light would gradually return to the world.  No wonder it was seen as an important time to celebrate and “make merry.”

Later, of course, the Christian Church took advantage of this, and began celebrating what it decided to be the feast of the birth of Jesus close to the time of the Solstice.  That is not surprising, because the day of the rebirth of the “Unconquered Sun” was an important celebration in Rome at the beginning of that millennium, and Church officials “co-opted” it to take advantage of that, with their notion that Jesus was the “Sun of Righteousness,” and that he, as a god, was born at that time too.  Of course no one really knew when Jesus was born (or even for sure if the Jesus as depicted variously in the New Testament even was ever a definite historical figure), but at that time all was politics and propaganda. Even churches began to be  erected with an East-West alignment.

You have probably heard the old Gregorian chant once used as a lead-in to the Christmas season, now often sung as a carol at Christmas,  O Come O Come Emmanuel, referring to Jesus.  One verse of it (in Latin) is:

Veni, veni, O Oriens;
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras.

Come, come, O Rising Sun
Shine on us in your coming,
Dispel the clouds of night,
And drive away night’s shadows.

With no change at all, that verse would make a good Yule song.

Yule, then, is a time to rejoice in the knowledge that the cold and privations of winter will not last forever, because the sun and light will return, and we will no longer see the old and harsh face of Mother Nature, but shall see her once more as the beautiful young maiden of springtime.

Yule brings us light and hope and rejoicing at the time of greatest darkness in the world.

Glad Yule, everyone!

David

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...
Illustration by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(I posted this some three years ago)

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 the altered 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.

David

AUTUMN-WINTER IN THE HOKKU YEAR

Autumn

As I have written before, in hokku we make use of two calendars:

First, there is the “natural” calendar, which varies depending on where one lives.  For example, in my state,  autumn comes earlier in the mountains than in the lowlands.

Second, there is the old, traditional calendar, which is very much the same in the West as it was in the Japan where hokku was first created.  In this calendar we use traditional terms such as Samhain (pron. SAW-win) and Yule.

Now that we are moving into autumn by the “printed” calendar, here is a look at autumn/fall and winter according to the old traditional calendar, with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days:

The End of our summer in the traditional calendar happens on the evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa (pron. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

AUTUMN/FALL
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.

WINTER:
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 yearly cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) at sunset on 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 as our hokku calendar, we shall essentially and with only insignificant 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 the old 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.

Of course there is much more to say about the place of autumn/fall in the writing of hokku, so through this season I will be discussing more old autumn hokku and what they mean for the writing of hokku today.

Keep in mind that hokku originated in a temperate Northern Hemisphere region, and so this calendar reflects that.  In the Southern Hemisphere, and in non-temperate climates, the hokku year must be adjusted accordingly.  For example, some countries do not have four distinct seasons.  Instead, they might have a rainy season and a dry season.  Hokku should fit the climate and place and environment in which it is written.

 

David

SNOW AND THE POETRY OF NO POETRY

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst.  Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here.  But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:

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.

One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity.  In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry.  That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now.  All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme.  Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far.  In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:

No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

It is almost a hokku.  In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:

No sky nor earth,
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.”  Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.

I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:

The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand.

Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about.   In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.

For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow.  Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two.  There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer.  That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.

I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.

David

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

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

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.

David

DECEMBER AND YULETIDE

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:

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

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,

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow
.

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.

David