Tag Archives: mistletoe

The Sun Returns…

…and other metaphors of Christmastide

victorian_calendarsanta

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 22

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide

At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

NEWGRANGE

Newgrange today, aerial view

Newgrange today, aerial view

There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

***

MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.

“And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
some disguise and go from house to house, for
revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

Maenad

Maenad on Wheel of Life

She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.

Decorative mistletoe

Decorative mistletoe

“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”

“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”

And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”

 

* * *

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

Refrain

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)

Yule log

Yule log

“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

* * *

Wassailing

Wassailing

WASSAILING

Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

* * *

TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

Assignment 22.1

Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

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Finding Your Place in Creation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 3
Chapter 1: Finding Your Place in Creation

I created this course and book…

(a)  for individual readers who want to write and live poetically, and

(b) as a text for adult and advanced-student workshops in poetry-writing, self-discovery, and self-expression.

 

By reading and discussing the text and doing the assignments, you will learn to write poetry that is both artistic and disciplined; learn about yourself through poetry-writing; and write poetry to participate in your own creation (or “co-creation” or “evolution”).

Ð

It is my hope that this book will help you live a fuller, happier life. You’ll experience the joy of creating something worthwhile and giving beauty to the world—no work of art is really completed until it’s shared.

 

Beyond that, writing poetry can be a form of meditation. It anchors you to the here and now, freeing you from worry and regret. It helps you process your experiences and circumstances. It reveals inner feelings and desires.

 

It can even help you find your calling. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations (Boox X), “Everything exists for a purpose—a horse, a vine, even the sun. What then is your purpose?”*

 

From a Darwinian or a spiritual standpoint—take your pick—you are here because the Universe needs you, the way a meadow needs clover and grass and bees and earthworms. You are an essential part of the vast ecosystem. Your talents and deepest desires should guide you to your place in Creation.

 

Mistletoe, literally “dung on a twig” in the Old Saxon language, is spread through bird excrement, and it attaches itself to tree limbs where conditions are favorable. To the Druids, oak mistletoe was sacred because it was rare—mistletoe was much more common on apple trees.

 

Unlike mistletoe, human beings make choices that determine where they land and what they do.** If your wants, skills, and interests were not given much attention when you were a child, you might have grown up thinking they didn’t matter much. Perhaps you’ve made major decisions—whom to marry, where to go to college, what to study, what kind of work to do—more out of obligation or coercion, or to please others, than out of deep desire or a sense of calling.

 

Eventually you may lose touch with your wants. Parents, especially, find their lives governed by their children’s needs. Some choose parenthood with their eyes wide open—parenthood, for the moment, is their calling, and they joyfully make the necessary “sacrifices.” Or they find ways to integrate their own passion for, say, ballroom dancing or growing fruit trees, with child-rearing.***

 

It’s not uncommon to find parents, especially mothers, suffering from empty-nest syndrome when the kids are gone and the daily routine is no longer relevant. The house, so recently a hub of youthful activity, is too quiet. The freedom, once longed for, is too scary. Mom feels superfluous.

 

The universe still needs her, and it is prodding her latent talents and desires. Writing poetry is a way to bring her sleeping passions and creative energy to the surface, as a spring bubbling out of a rocky hillside releases water from deep underground into the sunlight.

Ð

This book has three parts.

Part I

Concepts of art, poetry, and the self. Here I try to corral an unruly herd of meanings into a more or less delimited vocabulary. You can’t just throw words such as art, poetry, spirit, ideal, perfection, growth, and self-knowledge at people without saying what you mean. We are talking about the nature of reality here, not the price of grapefruit.

 

My assertion that reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are “more real” and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs and the mail I keep getting from L. Ron Hubbard, even though I have told the postal service a thousand times that I am not “Margaret Campbell,” even though I have returned the items C.O.D. to L. Ron himself — is hardly original.

 

I draw from the works of Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Carl Jung, and Marcus Aurelius, and from quantum physics, the Old and New Testaments, and many other sources. I am indebted to whoever it was — I can’t find the reference — who wrote an article about Kabbalah describing how the universe splintered at the moment of creation, hurling innumerable shards into space, and how every act of kindness, or mitzvah, puts one of the shards back into its proper place, helping to repair the broken cosmos. And I am grateful to the Book-of-the-Month Club for sending me a book that I forgot to not order, The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher who has worked with western neurologists and physicists to investigate the science of meditation.

Part II

The poetry-writing section of the book, where readers and students will learn the forms and conventions and techniques of poetry and will practice using them. If you have ever taken a poetry-writing course, you will find little that is new or surprising in Part II except, perhaps, my tendency to go off-topic if a gust of wind through my open window carries the scent of something that might be the first drops of rain on a dusty road miles away, or it might be the washing machine overflowing again in the basement, and since it is much more likely to be the washing machine and I will eventually have to deal with it, I keep writing, as if rain on dusty roads were a metaphysical anomaly equivalent to rank upon rank of angels singing paeans in the sky.

 

You might find, also, that Part II focuses more on simile and metaphor, among the many devices that poets use, than your earlier poetry course might have done.

Part III

Poetry-writing as a way of knowing, expressing, and creating oneself. Because you will have read Part I, you will understand what that means, and you will realize that what you are reading here is not empty rhetoric meant to seem profound and important but is a preface to joy.

We will be working with a definition of poetry that, especially in Part III,  includes beauty as a criterion. We will learn to gather the loose, impotent, entropic bits of energy we possess and apply them to the intentional creation of beauty. We will be exemplars of our art. We will be inspired by the certainty that beauty and grace exist not only in the product of artistic endeavor but also in the endeavor itself.


* The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a lovely little fable about the way the Universe directs us toward our destiny.

** Obviously, some people, individually and in groups, have more freedom to choose than others. On the other hand, many people who live in free societies are unaware of the innumerable choices they do have. The real or imagined opinions of others—“What will people think!”—are a common, and often unjustified, constraint.

*** With tragic exceptions, most parents do the best they can most of the time, even when parenthood sneaks up on them unawares. I made a lot of mistakes but I rolled with the punches and loved being a parent because I got to be a kid a lot, because I like ballet recitals and soccer games and eau de sweaty-little-boy and little girls playing dress-up, and snuggling in a big chair with a storybook…. But I had my moments of resentment, martyrdom, fury, and attempts to escape. Fortunately, there was always someone around to either call me on it or pick up the slack.

—-

Go to Lesson 3.1 Assignment
Go to Lesson 4