From mid- to late December, people from many times and places — from the ancient Hopi to classical Rome to medieval Europe– raucously reveled in a world turned upside down. For a few short days each year, everyone would sing and dance, mock the powerful and holy, and escape their cultural roles and responsibilities with merriment, play, and joyful abandon. As I begin to think about planning my family’s holidays, I consider how far from these wild and outrageous bacchanals are our sweet, sedate and maybe overly sane year-end celebrations.
Some of these older, unruly traditions have a distinctly sacred female face. According to John and Caitlin Matthews’ book, The Winter Solstice, among the deities celebrated at the Saturnalia during this time was the mother goddess Ops and the woodland goddess Strenia. One goddess especially associated with this time of year, however, is the Celtic Cailleach, The Queen of Winter, who received mid-winter sacrifices and offerings. Cailleach is a creator Goddess, ruler over earth and sky, who is able to transform herself from an old woman to a young woman as many times as she wishes. She is envisioned as a “hag,” wizened and wild, but also wise and powerful.
I wish I lived in a time and place where all normal activity stops and truly dissolute revelry is expected and encouraged at least once a year. Only two moments of my life come to mind that really qualify for this honor. One was in the 1980s, when my roommate and I marched in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade*. Another was about 10 years ago, when I attended a Goddess Gala that included a most amazing culminating evening festivity.
What made both of these memorable experiences a sacred revel was that they were not only about high-spirited joy and pleasure, but true enactments of stories of coming from winter’s desolation into a hard-won light. Life in the Village in the AIDS-stricken 1980s, as I remember it, sometimes seemed to be a daily litany of horrifying sickness and death of those who had been the most full of life, creativity, and soul. As I marched with the bands and dancers, I sensed that, for that one night, those around me were defying the fate that was stealing so much from them, declaring that their spirits would overcome mortality even if their bodies could not. Similarly, the element of the Goddess Gala that I remember most was meeting Kali (really a woman dressed as Kali of course) in the dark woods as we went in groups to the celebration. Each of us had to decide how we would get past her and on our way to the ceremonial bonfire. The only answer was to dance with her, to embrace our fears and revel in the wheel of life, death and rebirth, to come together, as we did an hour or so later, in spirals of women dancing for all the generations of women before us who could not dance or express who they truly were.
Maybe this sense of coming out of the darkness of the long nights into the light is what our Solstice seasonal celebrations are missing as we politely gather round dinner tables and trees and open gifts or even quietly wait for the Solstice sun. Perhaps we have forgotten how to truly welcome the light by giving ourselves over to song, dance, and revelry because we no longer allow ourselves to experience the essence of the deep nights, whether physically due to the omnipresence of electric lighting, or spiritually as our culture has grown ever more hesitant to look death and tragedy in the eye and confront it.
The Winter Solstice should be a time of great healing and renewal as we integrate into ourselves all that we have been through in the past year and get ready for light of the coming New Year. All over the world, chaotic creator goddesses from many traditions teach us that the only way to truly be reborn is experience and acknowledge the sorrow in our lives and face our fears. When we dance and sing from pure joy of living in the face of heartache and loss, we can bring all that is best in us to transform winter’s hardship into the light of hope and wholeness. Is it any wonder that so many of the wrathful creator goddesses like Kali and Durga are envisioned in dancing revelry? Or that both the Greek Demeter and Shinto Goddess Amaterasu were coaxed by bawdy songs and laughter into bringing springtime back to the world that they had plunged into barren winter?
This holiday Solstice season, even if I do not revel as I once did, I will honor Cailleach and all the reveling Goddesses and think of them when I see the lights on my tree or in the bright winter sky. When I look into the eyes of friends, family, and strangers around me, I will try to remember the long, gloomy nights they have overcome to gather at these quiet celebrations with me. And maybe I will find just one truly outrageous, riotous and completely inappropriate act to do each day.
*In case anyone is wondering, my roommate went as the Doctor in Dr. Who, circa Tom Baker, and I was Sarah Jane.