16 Dec The Winter Solstice and the Rebirth of Light and Hope
It was nearly midnight as we walked in the velvety dark. There were no artificial lights, but stars illuminated our path on the narrow country lane. When I spoke, my breath condensed in puffs before me, lingering for long seconds before dissolving. We could hear the crashing waves to the north, guiding us forward to the east. The wind swept through, rattling the dried beech leaves still clinging to the trees on this longest night of the year.
Miles and I were staying for the Christmas season in a hamlet just outside of Ribadesella, a fishing town on the northern Atlantic coast of Spain. We approached the town and its lights, then a sweeping beach, and a bridge which crossed into the heart of the settlement.
The town’s harbor had a promenade decorated with the region’s ancient mythological characters. One in particular had drawn my attention: the exquisitely beautiful xana, ancient Asturias’ expression of the mother goddess. I waved to her as we passed by, on our way to the nearby church where locals were gathering for a night of sacred and popular song. This was our destination for a winter solstice celebration.
The church was small, with a single nave. It radiated with luminous gold and red from the altar of saints, its angels seemingly doubled in size from the surrounding candlelight. The place was packed, everyone dressed in a festive mood and warm clothes, wrapped up against the cold. It was the middle of the night, and no one was in a hurry. Sleep would wait.
With a capable choir leading the way, we filled the church and we filled our lungs with song. Mostly we sang in Asturiano, this region’s Romance language, expressing the culture’s deeper stories, experiences and nuances. Some songs celebrated the miraculous birth of the son of god. Some praised his celestial mother. But many songs were about fishing and farming and village life; about falling in love; about walking through forests on a moonlit night.
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On this threshold night stepping into winter, I always think of watermelon.
In my family, we followed an ancient Zoroastrian tradition from Persia—having a watermelon in winter to share and eat on the winter solstice. I recalled stories from my Persian grandmother about the watermelon from the summer’s harvest being set aside in cellars under blankets of straw to hold for the winter solstice. That day, other long-lasting fruits of the harvest, such as carrots, dried nuts, and pomegranates, were also added to the festive table.
That table, filled with dishes piled with nuts, and rich in red tones from cut open pomegranates and watermelon, was the gathering place for a night when no one went to sleep until dawn. We entertained each other with stories and with poetry, especially from the mystical poet Hafez. The Persian name for this celebration is shab-eh yalda, the night of birth. (Some scholars think that Yule, the old English word for Christmas, comes from the Persian yalda.)
This idea of birth, of the sun and of returning light, has been with us a long time. Many, many centuries ago, ancient Persians and and then Romans called the light Mithras, a personification of the sun.
It is said that Mithras’ rebirth occurs the morning of the winter solstice, after the longest night leaves us mortals uncertain of the sun’s return. When Mithras rises, the great celebration reaches its climax, and then everyone—at last—can go to sleep.
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In Asturias, the connection to the cycles of the seasons manifested itself in the cheerful and unhurried stories sung past midnight.
Outside, the xana on the harbor had a story to tell, too.
Once upon a time, she was—and still remains—the guardian of nature. To those who protected nature, the xana bestowed gifts—vigorous health and beauty or coal turned to gold. But anyone who damaged the forest, ocean, rivers, or mountains, would find their bodily beauty turn sour or their gold turn to coal.
The xana was associated with the earth and lived in it. She would appear as a beautiful but formidable woman, combing her hair near a stream that flowed out from a cave. Some of the nearby dolmens (megalithic tombs) in this region are associated with her, many of them marked with another of her names: moura. Some of the dolmens in the north, as well as further south across Iberia, are aligned with the winter solstice setting sun; others with the rising or setting sun of the summer solstice.
The cycle and dance of returning light in winter is a theme across many faiths and traditions. The sun’s birth, death, and rebirth was a big deal to ancient peoples, not only in Spain and Persia, but all across the world. It was, and is, perhaps the single most essential phenomenon around which all life depends.
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After a standing ovation from the participating audience, the church’s chorus launched into their final Asturian song. Everyone sang the Asturian anthem together, proud of their region and its ancient rhythms, harkening to the cycles of sea and earth.
Eyes bright and cheeks rosy, we poured out into the early hours of morning. True to ancient tradition, we proceeded not to our homes and beds but to the village pub, passing through the forest path from which we had come.
At the pub, instead of watermelon, we partook of the Asturian harvest fruit—apples—in the form that they preserved best, hard cider. To accentuate the cider’s taste and to open its bubbles, people did traditional over-the-head pours. I watched as a friend lifted the cider bottle over his crown and held a glass with his other hand near his thigh. Lightning flashes of golden liquid hurled out of the bottle and shot into his glass. I thought of the sun and my heart swelled.
From communal stories and the gathered cheer, I could feel the ancient and ever-repeated cycle of birth—of the god of the sun, of the god of light, of the ever-present goddess of nature I felt viscerally when walking through those woods this night. And I found that not only does light return to the world again and again, but so does hope.
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