When the sun sets on solstice night, we hurl our faith into the darkness, vowing to hold fast until the return of the light.
Ancient European people staring up to the cosmos didn't understand a round and tilted world spinning around a central star, turning and returning. They just knew that the world operated on a predictable pattern: the days get very short and the nights very long, and then the light comes back and the days slowly begin to lengthen and brighten in an annual cycle.
Winter cold and darkness kill. Food stores stretch thin, fire and heat hold the line against freezing, and inclement weather can limit the ability to resupply and find help. Predators starved of easy game get bolder as they get hungrier, and creep towards human settlements they'd otherwise avoid. A dark winter night, and what you have to survive it, forces you to confront all the decisions you made in your times of plenty. The coming of sun and spring feel like a benediction and a validation of your ability to survive.
We built elaborate rituals around this annual balance between the light and the dark. Some people assigned identity to the cycle, with Oak and Holly kings rising and falling. Some laid the year out as a wheel, and hung practices and social conventions upon it. We created celebrations of family and community because human connection drastically increases the chances of surviving the darkness.
Many cultures developed elaborate rules and practices around hospitality; the expectation that a kind stranger would take you in if you found yourself unsheltered was as critical as the expectation that the stranger you took in wouldn't slaughter your family in their beds.
And the darkness became a time for rest and domestic comfort, for rebuilding and repairing to prepare for the coming seasons. My Germanic ancestors sat by the winter fire telling stories as they made or mended tools they would need for the year's hunt and harvest.
As the understanding of astronomy and geography increased and ancient people began to understand the reasons for the cycle, the rituals persisted. I am a modern, science-loving pagan, and I know why the sun comes back. I do not doubt its return.
Yet every year, I sit in the winter solstice morning sunshine and give thanks that it has.
Why? Because I too need the reminder, more often these days, that the dark times pass and the light comes again. That there is time for rest and mending. That even though we don't all survive every dark time, our chances of it grow if we hold faith and connection, and share with one another -- be it food, shelter, or story.
We are in a time of remarkable loss, uncertainty, and grief. It has become very easy to feel helpless in the face of the world as it is, because that world appears to be spinning out of control along multiple axes. It is very hard right now to believe this long night will end.
It's all right to be afraid. It's all right if your faith is shaken. It's all right if you're struggling to believe in a brighter day. That fear we feel is as old as humanity.
So are the tools we use to oppose the fear: community, hope, shared stories, time for rest and mending, and faith -- be it in gods, ourselves, or one another. Our celebrations are as old as our fears, for good reason.
As this Yule sun beams down after the longest night, let it inspire you to hold fast, my beloveds, and love one another, and we will carry as many through as we can, together.