Winter Solstice this year falls on Sunday 21st June. It is very often that this particular festival is a quieter one for many Pagans, we’re smack in the middle of the working year, and there’s quite a long haul between the last long weekend for the Queen’s Birthday (this year 8th June) and the next (here in TAS, some states get the October Long Weekend, or Melbourne Cup Day in VIC) national public holiday, Christmas, this year, a Friday. Typical. The next holiday is the actual date of Yule and a few days off the Winter Solstice, in the other half of the world. This at least makes Midsummer parties easier to coordinate, in some respects.
Yule, or Jul in Swedish, is a particular favourite of mine. It’s the only time in the year I just want everything to smell like Norska, log fires and roasted pork for a fortnight. At Christmas, everything smells like wattle and eucalyptus and beef sausages on the BBQ. Which is a very fine smell, don’t get me wrong. I understand that this is just an unfortunate part of being weened on Norse and Germanic fairytales. I won’t tell a lie, this is my Jul fantasy wet dream, just look at that Julbocken costume!!
Materialising such a winter feast complete with costumes with goat horns is certainly something I hope one day to do, when I’m closer to my family, when I’ve the funds and means to make that happen. (Mum still has the vintage Swedish Dalahorse, Reindeer figurines &et., accoutrements.) In the meantime, and this year and the last couple certainly, Jul is a going to be a quiet affair at home.
This is not to be lamented. In the first place I actually live in a place now where during the colder months I can look outside in the morning and see an actual snow capped Mountain. And on some days, as the colder months draw on, that snow cap lasts even through the day! And that certainly puts one in the appropriate mood. Most importantly, it allows me the time to meditate on the deeper aspects of Jul, not just for me personally, but on the very nature of divergent cultural traditions and keeping them.
On a personal level, Jul marks a significant time or anniversary in my journey along the Witchcraft Path. One I like to mark with quiet ritual communion with my Spirit House, and reaffirm certain commitments I have made to my Guides and Ancestors, as well as to those whom I have promised to sponsor along their path and through their learning. This sort of ritual observance is not a spectator sport, having the time to let loose my particular brand of fusion strong crazy is obviously why I am regularly an anti-social loner. It’s much more Witchcraft, and a bit less Pagan Seasonal Festival.
At the heart of that consideration are the dual sources of my very being I acknowledge in my practice: The first, my Ancestors, who I honour by weaving into my practice traditional remembrances; and the second, those Allies and Powers that come from the Land. A very heavy dose of Inspiration is required to blend such divergent things in a manner that makes any sense. Inspiration is best gotten in the ecstatic trance of the witch, in my opinion, and there in the Otherworldly journey, I am able to find and connect with the true nature of imminent spirits as they actually are in the Land and environment I live on and love. It allows me to find the places in which to plant, as it were, those more traditional European remembrances that will allow them to draw on the reddened, sap-rich Green Realm that resonate with their own currents.
It can find expression in strange ways.
For instance, around my home, at the edge of the wild as it is, there are many pine trees. The worst, Radiata Pine, from the Americas, which in Australia has gone well past plantation and garden and whose thick mat of needles poses something of a problem for the native understory plants. Though well suited to our climate, and a favourite of the Black Cockatoos, it is not wholly good for the bush. But it smells like pine forest ought. And every year I go out and harvest a small pine tree, a sapling. And leave an offering for the local Land Spirits. Obviously, as an animist, harvesting things in nature, particularly the chopping down of trees in the first instance is a problem. But in the case I get a two-fold benefit in first finding favour with Native Spirits by removing an exotic and harmful invasive species (it’s a small thing, but it is a thing and requires a bit of physical effort on my part, and is always in conjunction with the appropriate offerings for the Spirits of Place for the bounty they give) and I get a Christmas Tree!
Usually, one might find me advocating for a Native that might better serve for a European Custom. We, in fact, have many glorious native conifer species, the Huon, the King Billy, in Tasmania, and on the mainland the Norfolk Island, the Bunya and the Hoop. But bluntly, harvesting one for use as a seasonal motif in the loungeroom is not going to fast track you to Native Spirit Allies. And in some cases is an offence that could land you a serious fine. Growing one if you can, on the other hand, to serve such a custom, is a fine idea! Leaving an offering at a local specimen, or even adorning one (appropriately, be thoughtful, sustainable and degradable, people!) in your garden or a local park, also a fabulous idea. I have a little bit of Huon Pine both from the wood shavings from my craft (sustainably harvested by licenced timber wholesalers) and a wee bit of dried green from a friendly specimen in a local garden taken without any harm to the plant, that will serve in a ritual incense.
The tree I take is not harvested for destruction, however. It is worth pointing out, that though in abundance here, in its native land, it is considered endangered, and few wild species remain. In this way it connects me with considerations that, manifest locally with plants like the King Billy Pine (Athrotaxis selaginoides), are a global issue. It takes on a symbolic significance and stands at the centre of my circle, a focal point for a meditation of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, an avatar that remembers the Sacred Oaks and trees of Scandinavia and Germany, the Gods and Magic that they are connected with. My wand, made from my Jul tree the year that marked a specific event for me, a Radiata Pine, connects me with the myth as told in the Skírnismál, of Skírnir, servant of Freyr, who in the woods, found himself a magic wand, or potent branch with which he writes the magic charm upon Gerðr that results in Her acquiescing to meet with his Master, Freyr. The myth inspires a particular magico-religious rite that I first performed at the Winter Solstice some years ago now. Interpreted as a fertility myth, Jul seems an appropriate time to engage with such operations. As a magical operation as performed by Skírnir, it points again to the power won by daring and will, and the powers on which a magical operation might draw on. Wild powers. It’s worth noting that different scholars have interpreted both the potent branch and the Sacred Barri as being pine.
Trees stand at the centre of so many wonderful stories of the Great Spirits and Gods.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
~Hávamál, ‘Rúnatáls-þáttr-Óðins’ (stanzas 138-139), (Carolyne Larrington’s translation)
The Solstices are most obviously related to all things fertile and thus the Sun. The Skírnismál is regularly interpreted as a classic sky-god, earth-goddess coupling myth, which invariably brings about bounty, the impregnation of the earth. Wiccan mythos is most well known on this score, the Sun being conceived within the Goddess, and emerging at Yule, to be realised fully at the height of Summer, at Midsummer. Magically these myths are analogous to the bring forth of Inspiration & Wisdom, as we can see with Odin’s myth above, and even the emergence of the Serpent from Hell to tempt Eve with the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and various heroic journeys into the Underworlds to bring back a Sacred Treasure. Inspiration, Fertility, Illumination and the Sun are all linked together symbolically. Perhaps it is very sound to consider evergreen trees like pines as being of a particular potency and power, that might be associated with Gods who descend into the mound and who bestow protection and wellbeing even in death, as Freyr as Yngvi-Freyr did as described in the Ynglinga saga. It certainly makes a lot of sense when winter means most trees lose their leaves, few things grow, and ice and snow abound.
In Australia, it can feel like this symbol is rather less significant. We don’t have to worry about cold winters though we complain a fair bit. And we’ve a grand total of three properly ‘European-style’ deciduous trees on the continent. We live in an evergreen world, and we’re not short of a potent branch. There is a reason Australian arboreal beings all do fine munching on Eucalyptus leaves. But in fact, not all the denizens of the wild do, and there are needs to be met in the colder months which is why there are a number of winter flowering Gum Trees. It is here in these species we can find the Midwinter manifestation of the everlasting powers of Nature, Golden Inspiration, and Nature’s own Jul Gifts.
In Tasmania, you can look for these species:
- Yellow Gum (Eucalyptus johnstonii) – Autumn flowering
- Urn Gum (Eucalyptus urnigera) (uncommon sub-alpine) – Winter flowering
- Tasmanian Silver Gum (Eucalyptus cordata) – Winter/Spring flowering
- Mounttain White Gum (Eucalyptus dalrympleana) – Autumn flowering
- Barber’s Gum (Eucalyptus barberi) (rarer in the wild) – Autumn flowering
- Great Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) – Autumn flowering
If you can gather flowers from any of these in the cooler months, they make a great offering resonating with the chthonic powers, weavers, ancestors and Great Spirits that continue to serve as a vital food source when the Sun begins to move north and flowers and nectar are more scarce. (“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer” and “Autumn” are relative terms, which can shift depending on the general weather trends for the year.) There is also a very helpful guide for those on the mainland here.
Another tree to watch out for is the Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata) which flowers through the late summer and winter (and is in full show currently around my house). The yellow-green flowers are Solar in nature, I think, but the rest of the tree, leaves and cones, is rather Saturnian from my experience. And odd sort of mix that perhaps speaks to the strange nature of the Solstice itself.
At the other side of the year, Midsummer (and Beltaine) is a festival of flowers, fruits, nectar dripping, and best symbolised with the ribbon adorned May Pole, and the flowing waters. But Jul continues to be for me a Festival of Trees. Of the more masculine, Martial, Saturnian and Jupiterian powers of the sentinel and watcher trees, ancients and the Wild Powers of the Deep Bush. Inside the hedge it manifests itself with adaptations of older European customs, and outside the hedge I look to the potent evergreen powers and the Wardens that keep them. It is in a way, dual Yules, two things seemingly at odds, like a Solar Festival in Winter, linked by the symbols of the everlasting powers of Nature.
Whether your own practice is seasonal, magical, or both, whether it is a traditional affair or a one that incorporates many new practices, God Jul and a Merry Winter Solstice to you and yours.
This post inspired by the fortnightly prompt ‘Winter Solstice’ for Pagans Down Under.