The darkest night of the year is almost upon us. The nadir, the bottom, the grave, the tomb — and the womb. We are sliding gently into this zero hour, lighting our candles and fireworks to keep away the creeping shadows.
Christmas is a beautiful celebration, and a deep understanding, of the light within darkness. There is no greater light than a new life.
Much of our Christmas — the tree, the reindeer, the candles, the Yule log — was imported from Germany and Scandinavia. And many of their Christmas traditions have their origins in the not very distant pagan past.
One such mid-winter festival of light was Lussinatta, Lussi night. Lussi was a she-demon (and cat-lover) who led a wild, bunch of ogres and trolls across the Scandinavian winter sky, scooping up those unwary enough to be out in the deepest night. The best defence against Lussi was light — so you put candles in the window to keep her away.
Of course, Lussi’s night became Saint Lucy’s Day, one of the most famous and gorgeous folk-festivals in northern Europe, in celebration of the patron saint of the blind, glaziers, and some say, writers. On this day in Scandinavia, a girl is elected to embody the virgin martyr. She dresses in white and, wearing a blazing crown of candles, leads a procession of other girls and boys, dressed as stars or trolls or angels. How this Italian saint became an icon of Scandinavian identity who knows, but it’s curious that the song sung by Swedish children at this time is to a Neapolitan tune. Santa Lucia is, of course, also the patron saint of Naples.
The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
Swedish Santa Lucia Song
Here is a recipe for Lucy’s Cats — golden saffron buns brought to your bed on Saint Lucy’s morn, 13 December, by your ever-loving eldest daughter. The symbolism? Ingesting the light? According to the old calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice.
So wicked Lussi, leading a Wild Hunt through the sky, segues into lucid Lucy with her starboys. In pagan times, Lussi rode around between the winter solstice and Yule, a time when Odin rides the night sky with his own pack of hounds, and in this country, Herne the Hunter with his jingling bells canters through the old forests. These are, of course, descriptions of primal energies, energies that are easier to see or feel when it’s dark outside. Lussi sounds a lot like our friend Lilith.
And maybe that is part of the point. These energies are always with us, but we have the opportunity now to see them for what they are. We can sing carols, light up the tree and turn our backs on the dark, or we can peer out with the inner vision, like Saint Lucy, and confront our demons.
This winter solstice is exceptionally profound. It is also the night of the New Moon, so even the reflected light of the Sun will be extinguished. Your own burning candle will be more important than ever.
In this annual battle between dark and light, we are certain that light will win. The little holy glow of hope, the flame of recovery, life — these burn through the dark night of the winter solstice, not just reminding us to hope and have faith, but as emblems of faith itself. The days will grow longer.
And when we experience our own personal, painful midwinters — midwinters of mind or heart or soul — we need that one point of light to pull us through to spring.
Hear Annie Lennox singing In The Bleak Midwinter.