Celebrating Solstice: Community and Connection to the Ancients
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
By John Scarborough
Margaret and I married in 1986, six years after she had collected responses to her goddaughters’ Christmas-time questions. A sampling: “Why are holly and ivy important? Why do we use red, green, gold, and white in our decorations? What’s a yule log? And what’s it got to do with Christmas?”)
Margaret collected poems and stories about how Winter Solstice was celebrated in England, France, Scandinavia, Italy, Central Europe, and Germany back in the days when “sacred” was not applied exclusively to Church traditions. She read widely, driven as much by her own curiosity as by wanting to describe for this generation the ancient traditions that, preserved in songs, tales, and dances, increasingly seem obscure and distressingly unscientific.
That collection served our circles of friends as the program for our own celebration of Winter Solstice for many years. In 2020, forty years after the first year in which she used that collection as the framework for celebrating Winter Solstice with her friends, COVID-19 and its social distancing rendered its public observance insupportable.
Eventually, others took up the host’s baton, wanting to share the burdens required to keep the annual celebration in Seattle going. When we moved to Ashland in 1999, we hosted a pared-down version of Winter Solstice there in our 1876 Victorian.
For the first several years, it seemed OK to light wee candles held by tin, clip-on candleholders affixed to our Christmas tree, provided we position it near the kitchen, just in case a few needles caught fire (they never did). We only kept the candles lit while we sang a few Celtic songs and rounds, with one person standing by with a bucket of water, just in case. We put away the candleholders and candles in the early 1990s only because our 1200 sq.ft. “grandmother’s house in the woods” was getting more and more crowded, year by year, increasing that ritual’s risk. No doubt it was a hazard, but its attraction, at least for me, had been its connecting us with celebrants in the distant past.
We would begin the program with the ringing of the Solstice Bell to seat everyone in a circle, most sitting on the floor, with chairs available for any who preferred them. We took turns reading aloud from the program that Margaret had compiled, A Winter Solstice Ceremony Since 1980. Margaret would read the first lines from the title page:
In the spiral of eternal return
We are the seeds carrying the
Secrets of our ancestors within us
We are the ancestors
We are the descendants
And the reading would continue, passing the Solstice Candle and program sunwise around the circle. Some thought the following was beautiful; others thought it was “weird.” Those who thought it weird had, I speculated, never observed on their own that in fact the sun does appear to stand still for two days before and two days after Winter Solstice:
For two days before and after the Solstice, the sun appears to rise and set at the same points on the eastern and western horizons. This time, observed as the center of many matriarchal mysteries, is the time when the Great Mother gives birth to the sun. The moon is full and occupies the highest point in its cycle; the Sun is at its nadir; and the constellation of Virgo rises in the east. From this position, the first month in the oldest known Semitic-Babylonia calendar, which begins with the winter solstice, takes its name: Muhur ile, the confrontation of the gods.
A favorite part of the ceremony was the Hogmany ritual, or cowhide ritual. In the ancient past, boys would carry dried cowhides and chant special rhymes, beating the skins with sticks and striking the walls of houses with clubs. We improvised. One of us – usually Ray Houser – with a lambskin or antelope hide thrown over his shoulders, representing all the boys, would beat on the front door demanding entry. The host would open the door and “tell [him] gruffly to go away”; the hostess, Margaret, would intervene and invite him in.
Once inside, the Hogmany Children (i.e., Ray) would move around the circle as everyone took turns beating him about the shoulders with canes of thin-gauge bamboo, which had been distributed as everyone sang:
Tonight is the hard night of Hogmany.
I am come with a lamb to sell—
The old fellow yonder sternly said
He would strike my ear against a rock.
The woman, better of speech, said
That I should be let in;
For my food and for my drink,
A morsel due and something with it.
The bamboo canes were a great improvement on the previous year’s equipage, when we had asked everyone go out to our woodpile to find an appropriate stick. To our horror, someone had picked up a board that had a nail in it. Ray, fortunately, was wearing a thick leather jacket as a cowhide, so the nail did not reach his flesh.
One of the main attractions was our sharing of stories, pictures, poems, etc. that each person would bring. We would pass the designated Solstice Candle from person to person; whoever received the candle would share their Solstice gift with all. One guest, who loved flowers, would bring very small pictures of flowers in his neighborhood, and walk around the circle, handing them out to everyone. Another guest brought a very large bowl with seawater gathered from Puget Sound, and with assistance pour a small amount over each guest’s hands, a way of purification. Another guest performed Gurdjieffan dance movements from the early 1900s. A mother’s, a dear friend’s death; how much Solstice – the gathering of the light – meant to them this year.
Some of these gifts took longer than others. One guest, who had recently started lessons on the conga drum, insisted that we listen not once, but twice, to a tape of his drumming. Another guest wanted to share a poem with us; having understood the need for brevity, she assured us she would only read the first part. The first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost is certainly shorter than the entire 10 books, but despite the beauty of many of its lines when read singly --
Dark'n'd so, yet shon Above them all th' Arch Angel: but his face Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride Waiting revenge
-- when we were spoon-fed all 798 lines at once, those who sought refuge by the wassail bowl, or fresh air on our back deck, were forgiven.
We informed our friends early in autumn of the date and time for our celebration. People shared their invitations with friends, and we began to see people we did not know, who had not been invited by anyone we did know. The host’s obligation appeared to be to welcome all, and we did. But the work required to prepare for the ceremony also increased, and we were all working folks. In one of the rituals, we distributed small amounts of whiskey. The host, hostess, and helpers all looked forward to the end of clean-up, which we would celebrate by finishing the remaining whiskey as we recalled stories, community news, and conversations we’d enjoyed across the evening’s festivities.
Eventually, others took up the host’s baton, wanting to share the burdens required to keep the annual celebration in Seattle going. When we moved to Ashland in 1999, we hosted a pared-down version of Winter Solstice there in our 1876 Victorian. We did not follow the original script, and tried to keep the guest-list at 20 or less.
Why celebrate Winter Solstice? Not many feel the urge to do so. Those who do, I imagine, have their own reasons. Mine are many. The translated ancient poetry, for one. We added verses from the Rig Veda, believed by scholars of Indian history to be the oldest Indian scripture. While not explicitly in celebration of Winter Solstice, this opening verse certainly fit:
High hath the mighty risen before the dawning, and Come to us with light from out the darkness. Fair-shaped Agni with white shining splendor hath filled at birth all human habitations.
We were given ceremonial time to reflect on what we were chanting, what we were pausing to hear, the feelings and inspirations of people across centuries, if not Millenia. I am still struck by how out of touch we are with the sky, the stars, the sun, and the moon. Including them in our songs, stories, and dances induced and induces the feeling of our proximity, even to galaxies that are millions of miles away. They are like members of our family. We’re made of the same stuff. Living under a roof may blind us to the night sky, but it’s still there. And, so far, so are we.
Qualifications of the creator
· Bachelor of Arts in French and English Literature, from San Diego State University
· Master of Arts in Modern French Drama, from San Diego State University
· PhD in 20th Century Women’s Poetry, from the University of Washington
· Certificate in Educational Assessment, from Harvard in ‘91
· Fulbright Fellowship, Status of Women in India, ‘91
The blogger makes free to add the years Margaret spent teaching at Edmonds Community College, where she introduced students to members of a local Native American tribe and collaborated with choral director Rick Asher in presenting original musicals that featured students singing, acting, and serving dinner to the audience.
Margaret also taught at the University of Washington and Whitman College. For the Washington Center at Evergreen State College, she did seminal work in designing effective seminars, presented in her widely circulated paper, Circumscribing the Seminar Space.