There is a story that I have heard over and over again for so long I do not know of the first time I heard it. It is told in the winter when people gather together. It is told in the texts I studied as a child yearning to see deeper into the past. It is told by the words used directly to share it. It is told indirectly by the assumptions other stories base their words on that include it.
In this story, my ancestors live in a large European forest. The setting is a time before the roads of Rome reached up and swallowed the forests. Or maybe it is a time before the Church of Rome reached out and snuffed the fires of Yule. Or was it at a unnamed time in the past when my ancestors lived in caves and hunted mammoths with spears? Maybe it was all of these, or none of these times.
Whenever it was, my ancestors in this story are standing vigil through the night because they know how easy it is to succumb to the cold of winter. They are all well aware of the uncomfortably close path Death walks with them, especially in this season. Many of them are afraid the sun will not return as it visits them less and less each day. So they come together around the fire to sing and drum with all their might to summon back the golden light of life. If they do not perform this essential rite, all present know that they may not be favored with the return of the life-giver and his benevolent light.
Sometimes the people go to the top of hills to be closer to the sun and to more fully bathe in the light once it arrives. Other times they greet it from within a clearing or inside a mound. Wherever they are, a great cry goes up the moment the first rays touch their faces. In that moment they know they have successfully called back the sun and the light and the life. They are immeasurably relieved and excited at this feeling. What better thing to do but feast in this moment?
While my ancestors in that story are eating together in celebration, I would like to tell another story. This story also includes ancestors and a long night followed by a short day. But some of the details are a little different.
Many of these ancestors of mine also live in a cold northern land with dense forests and heavy snowfall. However, some of them live in moderate climates on the edge of vast oceans. Others live at the side of great rivers that wind lazily through wide grasslands. These different groups do not share a language. Some of them are not even aware of each other’s existence. Yet at this time in the story, when the shortest day is followed by the longest night, all of these different groups in their different places do have some things in common.
The setting for this second story is both broader and more specific than the setting for the first story that began this post. In some places this story goes on much longer than in others. In all of these different climates, times and places, my ancestors have been singing and dancing and drumming for many days already. Their life is often full of uncertainty and death is very present, just like the lives of the ancestors in the other story. But they do not drum out of fear and they do not dance with the belief that they need to call for the future arrival of the sun or it will not happen.
Most of their food comes from plants and animals whose migration and growing patterns are not governed primarily by solar cycles, and they know the sun is not at their command. The paths of the stars, the currents, the moon, the tides and the winds are the primary features of their marking of time for practical purposes. These ancestors of mine are extremely canny and very aware because if they weren’t, they would become food for another animal that was. All of them in all of the climates they inhabit know how to find food or move to a new place where this can be done, no matter what season it is.
The dances at this time of year in this story are dances of joy. And wherever they are being danced, other things these widely separated people have in common can be found. The color red adorns their bodies, their clothes, their places of celebration. Bare feet beat a rhythm on the earth as strong bodies delight in the power of their twisting and turning, spinning and jumping. Sticks, rattles, clapping hands or other percussive rhythms aid the dancers. Songs and chants spiral out into the night.
All of these ancestors are putting just as much effort and energy into their actions as the ancestors in the other story striving to summon up the sun. These dancers are just as concerned that their efforts succeed as those are. Yet their goals are slightly different.
These dancers, singers and drummers are working to align the spirit of their people with the spirits of the great cycles around them. Put another way, they know very well the sun will return. But they also know with equal certainty that they may not be able to travel into the wisdom and healing that is coming if they are not in the right state to receive these gifts when the first rays arrive on the morning of Winter Solstice.
By the times this happens, the stars, the rain bringers, the moon, and many others will have already had their dances to honor them and bring the people into alignment with their paths. This morning after the longest night in this story is part of a special sort of cycle that is about the balance between the Great Mother of the Earth and the Great Mother of the Sky. When this is in tune, the Great Mother of the Waters works well with her sisters. There is enough water and therefore enough food. The people don’t have to move very often and they can get to know one place on a deeper level.
When there is imbalance in this cycle, the Great Mothers are focused on other things and no longer provide enough for the people. There is drought, or flood, or earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions and everyone must leave or die.
All that is alive has a part to sing in the song that is this cycle. The part of the people dancing during the longest night is to work to help maintain the balance within this greater movement they are part of at least as much as they work towards the comfort of their family. For those among them who have been a part of this for many years, this is really one and the same. They are dancing to give so that they may take part in the exchange that comes from giving fully and receiving the same response.
As the night slowly gathers the deep blue of dawn and converts it into the pastel colors of sunrise or the light gray of a cloudy dawn, the dance and the music builds. Everyone in the caves, on the shores and high in the mountains now has another thing in common.
They are pushing themselves deeper into ecstasy so that they will be able to dance with the powerful figure with the lion’s eyes when he arrives among them carrying his long wooden pole and his uncontainable boisterousness. They dance themselves into higher and higher levels of awareness so that when he joins them they will be ready to speak his language of life.
These ancestors in this story dance because they know that when he joins them they have the capacity to fly together between the realms of Land, Sea and Sky and to work the joyful magic of balance with him more easily than any other time of year. He is the multi-faceted traveler through the doors left open within paradox and he is the one dancer who never needs to be painted red. He was born with that color as a gift from his Mothers. Nobody can summon him. He laughs at those who have tried and runs circles around them when they try to describe him fully or find his boundaries. But the dancers can and do reach so deeply into themselves and the gifts of their time and place that they are ready to walk through the door at his side when the first light opens it wide. They could not do this if they felt fear and dread. The dance through the time of many stars is how they lose these things that weigh them down so that they can fly if they need to.
There can be so much in a story. Telling one does not automatically make another untrue. For me it is more important to attempt to understand why I am telling a particular tale and who will receive the gifts of the telling. These two stories both have their place and time. One is simply more common than the other. I like to look into what is uncommon for the gifts of what has been left behind, so I hold these two stories up together to honor this day after the longest night.