Winter Solstice dawned an island of wet in a sea of dry days. As much as I loved the rain, I was worried that our firelight gathering under the stars would be washed away. We had another space to use, but still…After a while, I became tired of fretting and took my own advice: accept what was happening and trust that all would be perfect. I warmed our little inside space in case we needed it, and put umbrellas over the fire pit and wood pile. After that, there was nothing to do but wait. Minutes before my friends arrived, the rain stopped. I walked outside to welcome them, in time to see an enormous rainbow arcing the sky, and the golden light of the setting sun breaking through the clouds towards the west. The last rays of the sun shone on misted mountains and we stood for a moment, silenced by the beauty around us.
Whenever women gather, food is always thought of – spiced, mulled wine was put on to simmer, roast vegetable soup, rich and smooth, was waiting in the pot, lemon delicious pudding in the oven. That was for later – now for the fire. It came to life quickly as if eager to light our way, and we took our positions, planting incense and placing candles in each direction. Soon our attention was directed inwards and downwards.
I took the steps one by one down into the underworld, darkness wrapping me in its velvety arms and pulling me under. Down, down I went until the steps levelled out into a tunnel. Cautiously walking, groping with hands and feet, the tunnel walls melted away until I stood in the middle of a vast cavern. It was not completely dark – a fire flickered in a pit surrounded by log seats, and I felt reassured by its promise of warmth. Still, the space was large enough that the fire’s light did not touch the walls and I ran my hands along the rough surface, trying to get a feel for where I was. A flash of reflected light caught my eye, and I edged carefully along the wall, until I stood in front of a mirror. Gazing upon and then into it, I saw an old, old woman in a white head scarf, surrounded by children. I looked closer – is it…Mother Theresa? You never know who you’re going to meet here in the underworld :). She smiled when she saw me, and the children ran laughing towards me… and then into me. “They have great need of you and you have great need of them,” she said, pressing her fingers into mine. The image faded and I stood, wondering for a little while. I glanced over at the fire longingly for a moment, but another image in the mirror brought my attention back. It was me, in a rushing river, drowning, clutching onto a branch as thick as my arm. It wasn’t big enough to save me, and I was getting pulled under. “Here,” said a voice, and looking up I saw a rope, and saw the old woman (Mother Theresa?) sitting calmly on a little sandy island next to a small fire. In moments she had me wrapped in a blanket with a hot cup of tea. “There, isn’t that better?” she said, humour flickering in her eyes. “You need to stop clinging onto dead wood in the hope that it’s going to save you.” She pointed to the horizon, and I saw the rising sun, its red-gold orb just emerging from the night. “That is you,” she said. “Your ascendancy is just beginning.” She pointed above to the zenith of the sky, “That is where you are going.” And then she was gone, and I was back in the cave, darkness settling around me. I felt my way back to the tunnel, and then slowly I made my way up the spiralling stone stairs.
I blinked and opened my eyes, the flickering of the fire warming my face. I felt the softness of the sheepskin rug underneath me and and the presence of my friends beside me. We silently wrote, lit by flickering candle and firelight, the things we were ready to let go of. I thought for a moment, and unusually for me, I wrote just one word: FEAR. Walking over to the fire, I called on the elements: The South to take the fear from my body, the West to take the fear from my blood, the North to take the fear from my spirit, and the East to take the fear from my breath. I dropped my fear onto the fire and watched as the flames engulfed it in one bite. I felt fear, my lifelong companion, flow out of me and into the Earth. I felt fear disappear into the flames. For the first time, I felt the absence of fear. I felt like the rising sun, with nothing to do but shine.
Our mulled wine in cups warmed our hands as we exchanged gifts – as is customary at yule or winter solstice. There’s a deep part of me, the inner pedant-witch, that is satisfied that we are doing the correct ritual at the correct time. And then, soup. And sourdough rye toast, dripping with butter, and later, hot lemon pudding around the fire. Later, the children came out and toasted marshmallows, and then, like all good witches, we faded into the night.
Did you celebrate the solstice in some way? What part of the year do you honour with ritual?
Coming up…Winter Solstice recipes for the mulled wine, roast vegetable soup and lemon delicious pudding.