MODERN PAGANS, PART 2: WINTER SOLSTICE
by Joanna Poppink
The core of these stories is the winter solstice. In late December in the northern hemisphere, the earth has its shortest day and longest night. This annual seasonal event marks the shift from winter to spring, from darkness to light.
If we keep this in mind we can see connections between sacrifices, fertility rites, feasting, fires and our contemporary customs. We can understand the need for the solemn and sometimes frightening feast of dark ancestral spirits as in the Yule and Berchta celebrations. We can also understand the licentious, wild revelry of the Saturnalia and the Feast of Fools. We may even discover an appreciation for the tumult of our own emotional roller coaster ride as we careen through another Christmas season.
Winter is a dark time. Seeds germinate unseen in the quiet earth. Newly fertilized ova develop in warm wombs of women and animals. For life to burst forth in spring, fertilization must begin in autumn or winter. So the long dark nights of winter mark the time for life to fertilize life.
The beginning lives and souls that stir unseen in the dark wombs of flesh or earth may be new or returning. Forces caring for those moving toward birth demand homage.
The classic eve before any sacred and long-awaited morning is a time of vigil. We await the light, the sun, the Son, the birth, the stirring of another new beginning. It is a night of fertility rites.
The Wild Hunt of the restless dead, of German and Scandinavian tradition, is heard racing through the solstice night sky in the winter storms. Frey, the patron god of Sweden and Iceland, the god of sunshine, prosperity, fertility and the dispenser of rain, rides hard above the earth. He stands tall in his chariot drawn by his golden bristled boar, Guillburst. To honor them both the people sacrifice and eat boars' flesh. To create a sun in the night, they roll a huge flaming wheel down a mountain into the sea.
Centuries later, Frau Berchta, in Southern Germany, a little, ragged, old woman with stringy hair, beady eyes, a hooked nose and a large foot flattened from working the treadle, also rode the dark winter storm. She demands cleanliness and industry, especially between Christmas and Twelfth Night. She is a fierce creator and protector of fertility and new life.
She will do harm to the lazy who do not honor her work. Fierce Berchta often slips into nurseries to rock a cradled child who has been left alone.
In pre-Christian Germany, she is the white lady, beautiful Hulda the Benign. It is she who sends bridegrooms to maidens and children to the married. When it snows, people believe she is making her bed and quilt feathers are flying.
However, in old Germany and some regions today, Berchta is celebrated by both beautiful and ugly Berchten dancers who travel the countryside in December. They jump in the fields to drive out evil spirits and ensure fertility. The farmers must feed the dances so the fields will produce. And on Twelfth Night everyone must leave food for Berchta. If she is forgotten she will cut open the stomachs of the disrespectful, remove the food there and sew them up using a plowshare threaded with chains.
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