I'm not Wiccan, but I find beauty in their sabbats and esbats - days throughout the year filled with symbolic meaning to represent the changes in nature. I've always thought my favorite of these was Samhain (pronounced "SOW-en" where the "sow" rhymes with "now"), which everybody else calls Halloween. This is the transition of fall into winter. The harvest is over, and now come the cold months. I never really cared about that aspect. It was always more the costumes, the eerie thrill of it all. It's hard to resist the lure of Halloween: shadows lurking, ghosts and beasties, so many mysterious things that can never be fully explained.
That, and the candy. You can never go wrong when candy is involved.
So yes, Samhain - Halloween, or All Hallows Eve - is still probably my favorite holiday to celebrate. Costumes, candy, spooky fun. You really can't beat it. But when it comes to what these special days stand for, I think my favorite is Yule. But why, exactly?
Pagan friends of mine are quick to rant about how ancient Christians "stole" the pagan festivals, moving church holy days to the same days to win converts and make the transition from paganism to Christianity that much more appealing. ("Look - you can still party. Just party with US now!"). It's true. Jesus was most likely born sometime in April, or September. Those are the two I've heard bandied about the most, but every scholar seems to have a different interpretation. Still, it's very unlikely he was born in December, and certainly there would be no way to know if it was on the 25th.
But whoever it was who decided to celebrate Christ's birth side by side with the pagan Yule festival was something of a genius. Symbolically speaking, they fit together like two corresponding pieces of a puzzle.
Pagan Yule is celebrated not on the 25th, but on the winter solstice, the 21st of December. This is literally the darkest day of the year. Light is at its shortest span, and night is at its longest. It is a gloomy time, cold and bleak. The land will bear no crop. The weather is harsh and unforgiving. This is the epitome of defeat, of the lowest one could possibly go. But that's why it's significant: because it's the turning point. On Yule you can know that though you live in shadows, you've reached the blackest, coldest, most difficult hour and survived. To rephrase a Florence and the Machine song: "The dark days are over."
Yule stands for hope in the midst of greatest despair, and Christmas stands for the arrival of salvation. Good news when you would least expect to hear it. The beginning of something better. The coming of the light.
I stood outside a couple nights ago in my driveway, staring up at the sky and cursing under my breath. There was a lunar eclipse - the first time in over 300 years that it's happened on the winter solstice - but you wouldn't have known it from where I stood. The night was moonless. There were no stars. All were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds.
Which made the dark of this darkest night of the year press in a little closer. Which made me shiver, all the more aware of the cold. Which made the world outside feel for a brief moment like one giant empty room. I felt small and alone, dwarfed by the void, insignificant in the midst of it all.
But that was then, and already the days are growing longer. Already things are looking up. So I'll celebrate Yule and Christmas, celebrate hope and light. I'll hold my candle to the dark and watch it glow.