Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty One

Day Twenty One

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice this year falls tomorrow (22nd of December), and is the shortest day of the year. The date on which the Solstice falls is slightly variable, from the 20th to the 23rd though it is rare for it to fall on the 20th or the 23rd (there’s complicated reasons why it varies and I’m scared of getting the explanation wrong and looking stupid, so do look it up). The word solstice comes from Latin, meaning the sun stands still, and that is what happens. For a few days, everything is held in this strange holding pattern before the days begin lengthening again. For me, there is a huge relief in this.

Sunrise on the winter solstice is a powerfully moving moment; the reality of watching it can be cold, wet and somewhat of a damp squib if you expect magical rays and invisible choirs.

I wrote the following poem last year and it sums up the feeling of expectancy and emptiness that I experience at this time of year:

Hallowed hollow

I will hold a space

A dark space

An empty place

A hallowed hollow,

Cupped between hands

Hidden between breaths

Lost between heartbeats

Harrowed from soul-falls.

I will hold a space

Without prayer

Without hope

Without desire.

Hallowed hollow ~ a poem for the Winter Solstice

Hallowed hollow

I will hold a space

A dark space

An empty place

A hallowed hollow,

Cupped between hands

Hidden between breaths

Lost between heartbeats

Harrowed from soul-falls.

I will hold a space

Without prayer

Without hope

Without desire.

The Winter Queen

The Winter Queen

She came softly on the trailing edge

Of fevered dreams and sinking sleep,

Face a mask of opaque ice, her eyes

Blue-bright as a sunlit glacier.

Hair as soft as swan’s lost down

Filled with pearly Honesty and skeletons

Of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Her wreath was of frozen holly leaves

Dotted with berries of bloody red

And dusted with traces of white hoar frost

Like glitter on a Venetian mask.

Her clothes the rags of summer splendour

Faded by the autumn skies

And ripped to ragged ruin

By gales and snowstorms yet to come.

Around her throat withered rowan berries

And rock hard sloes dried to stone

The meagre treasures hanging still

Amid the shaking hedges here.

Her staff a shaft of blackthorn, bare

Of leaves but bearing thorns and buds

Hard and tight as clenched fists

Defiant of the clutch of cold.

Her voice was hoarse with winter storm,

Yet soft as a draught under my door,

Insistent and full of power

Commanding me to obey her words.

The creatures of the wild will need

More food than my late sister did provide,

For my realm and season will persist

Past the time when buds should break.

Take my rowan beads, and hang them

Where the birds will feed

As signal that you will be their friend

Though my reign be far too long.”

I woke. Her touch upon my face

Turned skin to leaden hue like death.

Sunrise on the Solstice ~ the view from the Cave

Sunrise on the Solstice ~ the view from the Cave

The embers of the fire are barely visible as I crawl from my bed, eyes still gummed from sleep. Heat emanates from the fire-pit, but it’s lost its strength, and I’m aware I’m only just in time. The long night has chilled the cave to almost freezing, and the ashes in the fire-pit have scarcely any life left in them. I take a handful of finely split kindling, and I place a tiny piece on with great care, blowing softly to try and coax the dying fire back to flaming life. The cave is almost completely in darkness, only the reddish centre of the fire-pit gives any light. I banked up the fire before I settled to sleep, and before I lay down, I deliberately blew out the flame in the rough clay oil lamp that is usually left to burn all night. Only the fire was left, hidden under slabs of peat, an act of faith that it would stay alight through the longest night.

I blow, my face close to the warm ashes, but I can feel the heat dying away, and my heart sinks. If I cannot rekindle the fire, I may freeze to death. The fire is what keeps me alive, warms my body, cooks my food and scares away predators for whom a lone woman high in the mountains is a convenient meal otherwise.

I scoop the final whitened sticks that have some heat yet left in them, and scrape them together and lay more of the kindling onto the heap and blow. My breath raises ash, and I want to cough but I must keep blowing, steadily.

Just as I realise I cannot blow any more, the wood begins to glow read, then silently and softly explodes into flame. I cough, finally, and find I can breathe more easily now that the new wood is catching. I watch intently as the fire leaps from twig to twig, and at the right moment I begin to pile more on, bigger pieces steadily until the blaze is crackling away and I can sit back on my heels.

In the new light of the restored fire, I can see my own breath curling in the air in thick clouds. I am just in time, for the cave was becoming desperately cold. Beyond the cave entrance I can see the stars still, but they are fading and I know it is time. Dragging my warmest clothes around me, I pick up the cold lamp, and using a taper, I light it. The oil is animal fat, rendered until it is almost clear, and I have tried to mask the smell by adding pine resins.

Outside it is colder still. There’s a wide area beyond the cave mouth that is a half-moon of soft pale sand, but it’s lost under a layer of snow that crunches as I walk to the outside fire-pit. I have kept it mostly free of snow, digging it out, and a few days ago I dug out both snow and old ashes, and covered the area with pine branches lopped from trees near the path. There is a layer of snow on top of the deep green pine needles but I take care it does not fall into the circle of stones as I lift the branches away. Last night, before the final rays of sunlight were lost in the forest below, I laid a fire here, ready to light, and covered it again. I watched the light die in the sky, and felt my eyes become dark too.

The stars are going out as I watch. One by one they vanish until only the North Star is visible, her light fainter by the moment. At the point when the last star’s light is gone, I can see that the sky has become empty. The wind blows, edged with ice, and I glance at my oil lamp, set on one of the stones that surround the fire pit. The flame wavers but the wind does not extinguish it. The forest below is silent, except for the wind in the branches, and it is as if the whole cosmos is waiting. I can see an owl, waiting, perched on a branch high up, watching me but she is silent and still. Nothing moves.

My feet are becoming numb, encased in thick boots that keep the snow out but not all the cold, but I do not stamp them. Like the owl who keeps sentinel, I remain still and silent.

At the far eastern edge of the forest that spreads out below me seemingly without end, the sky has become paler. Pearlescent, with an icy pink glow, the horizon seems to warm, and the rose gives way seamlessly to deep red then orange, and as I take a deep breath, the very first rays of light beam across the frozen dark of the forest, and I kneel in the snow, touching the flame from the lamp to the kindling in the fire pit.

As the fire catches with a scent of pine and snow, the light reaches the semi-circle in front of my cave, and for a single moment, the flame of my fire and the flame of the newborn sun are one.

The sun stands still this day, and all else pivots upon it but I have lit my fire, against the long dark that is still to come. This day will endure and pass but all that come after it will be daily that tiny bit longer as the light grows and summer begins her journey back to the land. I go inside to tend my fire and to wait.

Solstice Prayer


Solstice Prayer


Breathe in; the moment has come

To hold your breath within your heart.

Silence, while the light becomes so still

You can hear the tiny cracks as dawn breaks.

This moment, the light has travelled far

And pauses before starting that slow return

Growing greater by minute increments

Invisible at first but sure and steady

In the agonising climb to another height.

Like a pendulum, the year has swung,

Reached that still point of lowness.

The rising sun weak with worn gold

Shot through with crimson blood

Peeps above heavy clouds and

The moment passes, as always,

And we breathe out, knowing that

The darkness is turned away.



Solstice: Saluto Sol Invictus!

Solstice Dance

21st December 09


The year finally turns

Pirouetting en pointe

The Dancer meets the Dance:

I am renewed


I have been waiting for this day since the evenings began to creep in back in September; and yet, now it’s here, I feel no different. The poem isn’t a lie but it isn’t how I feel.  It may well be the truth, a statement of reality that I have to slowly wake up to. But the walk I had today, in woods and beach frozen and layered with snow, makes me feel that winter is still going to grip my soul a long while:

Solstice haikus

21st December 09


Snow on dark holly

Sunlight on ice, sparkling bright:

Lovely but  so bleak


Silence fills cold air

Crunching feet on frozen snow:

Stillness reigns again.