Whether you are a Christian, Jewish, a neo-pagan or celebrate Kwansa, all the ‘deep mid-winter’ festivals have one thing in common. At this darkest time in the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrate light.
Jesus is revered as the ‘Light of the World.’ In Hanukah Jews celebrate the ‘Festival of Lights.’ Pagans recount the tale of how the Corn King, having been cut down and sacrificed at Harvest, is reborn by the Great Mother; even though the winter solstice is the shortest day, it marks the return of the Light and lengthening days.
Interwoven with this theme of light is the urge to remind ourselves that the earth will wake up out of its long sleep with new growth.
Psychologically, it makes sense that many of us with European ancestors, drag indoors any bit of evergreen to remind ourselves that no matter how cold it is outside, life always renews.
It seems that many of our mid-winter customs involve this form of sympathetic magic. Light candles and remind yourself that the days will lengthen. Deck the halls with boughs of holly and keep the memory of spring growth green.
Here in Ireland our winters are relatively mild by North American standards. We might have a day’s snowfall of a no more than five inches each winter. That tends to melt off in lower elevations within a day or so.
What is often a surprise to visitors from North America is the darkness. At Christmas it is twilight by 3:00 pm. A very smudgy, sludgy dawn breaks after 8am. Days are often overcast so that daylight feels to be at a very low wattage. This is not a country for people who are prone to SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). If the Irish are reputed to be a melancholy race then it is all down to longitude and latitude.
It’s particularly important to haul yourself out to walk on dry days and soak up what rays we get. It is during these walks close to the High Days that I begin to assemble nature’s greenings for wreaths.
Most people use wire coat hangers to make a frame for the wreath. I have the option of going outdoors and cutting an appropriate length of willow, or sally as it’s called in Ireland. Given our boggy land willow is rampant; it also is nature’s way of draining soggy land. The incredibly flexible sally can be bent into shape and secured with a bit of raffia.
This is spruce plantation country so evergreen is plentiful. So is holly and ivy. I prefer to leave the holly berries for the birds. A painted hazel nut makes a handy stand-in. The absolutely Irish flourish to any holiday wreath, however, is gorse.
Gorse, or furze, sometimes blooms as early as December although some years we may not see it until after the holiday is over. Its flower is an absolutely brilliant gold colour. Out on storm riven moorland the winter gorse is like a beacon telling us that spring is coming soon.
It’s a shout of joy, nature’s reminder of Light in the world.
Last year my neighbour and I got together to make our Yule wreaths.
She had hay from her own field to make the shapes. I had the willow for the frame. We both had a collection evergreens collected from our own townlands, the Irish name for our country localities flung outside the boundaries of village or town.
The gorse flower, carefully pruned to avoid the needle sharp stickles, filled the shed with its characteristic scent that is a blend of vanilla and coconut. We added the spruce and holly and ivy. But the gorse flowers were the showstoppers. Their golden flowers, not traditional for wreaths, made a real splash of light during the overcast mid-winter days.
Along with the candles lit in our windows on Christmas Eve, the gorse on the door wreath sent out the message â€“ The Light has returned!