Outside the doorstep of my New England Victorian house is a hemlock tree with branches grown heavy over the decades, drooping almost to the ground, gravity gathering her towards Mother Earth. In the winter, wet snow clings to her, sculpting the frozen white shadow of a face, arms, and body of a crone Goddess that can last for weeks when the cold sets in for the season.
Over the years, she has become my own household winter crone Goddess, usually appearing in late December after the first storm when the heavy flakes bring down power lines and stop civilization’s turnings for the day. As I imagine it may be in those times and places where every house has its small statues of the Goddess who tends to the family’s spiritual and mundane needs and is, in turn, tended to by the family, having my household winter crone Goddess nearby gives me a sense that she is with me in my everyday comings and goings yet is also a manifestation of the Great Goddess emerging into Earthly form for my comfort and illumination.
In younger years, my winter crone Goddess was simply a Goddess who represented the abstract death aspect of endless cycle of life/death/rebirth. To earlier inhabitants of the land I live on in New England, winter’s destructive power to take life was a constant presence. Food might not hold out until spring brought early crops. Being caught in a storm or running out of fire wood might mean death from the cold. Disease could wipe out entire families in a week. Even in my own time, in my own family, death always seems to come between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox when winter’s mortal grip is so unwilling to let go.
For many years as my winter household Goddess and I dwelled next to one another, I thought about all these things without really experiencing them in my soul’s belly, without welcoming my household Goddess into the household of my own self. Then, on one of the coldest days of late February some years ago, an unexpected medical diagnosis poured over me the truth that I might be at the end of my time here on Mother Earth. After that shock, and months of ingesting death in the hopes of grasping more years of life, my body and soul integrity that had been so instinctive in early years was lost. I was a ghost, mere bones and shadows. I was halfway between struggling to remain alive and keeping my eye on the door to death. All my life I had perceived that door out of the corner of my eye while focusing on my everyday life. I had not seen enough of what lay beyond the door, if anything, to find peace in my new knowledge that it had been with me always but that I had chosen not to see it.
For a year I lived in panic that the future might bring more medical disaster. Spring arrived, then summer, then fall, then winter, and with the snow, the winter crone Goddess appeared at my doorstep again. Each day as I passed in and out of my house, she was there, reminding me that I was not alone, that every human being who has ever lived has experienced at one time or another this same confrontation with the certainty of passage from this world.
More than that, as I learned more about death by reading book after book by doctors, hospice workers and others who have attended hundreds of deaths, my winter crone Goddess transformed. It seems, while certainly some deaths are painful and violent, when death comes naturally and in its right time, often our last moments are peaceful and happy as the spirit kicks off a body that is now like an old shoe that no longer fits. I came to understand that the winter crone Goddess’s true power is purely destructive only if we look at her actions solely from the viewpoint of our culture’s fear of death. While the winter crone’s power of death can be like an avalanche or volcano, it is also like a spell cast on us so that we might make a journey joyfully to a place we need to go. In truth, from another perspective, she is like a blessing mother lovingly lulling her child to sleep.
As I gazed out my window during that time, I came to respect Her as a Goddess who gives great and profound, frequently previously unseen, truth. Without the cover of green leaves and blossoms, the winter landscape is bones and sticks and hides nothing. When you see the trees and plants wither, and the life-giving waters freeze over, you are reminded that you will not live forever either and suddenly your life, your actions, your beliefs, and those of others, can become very clear. I came to view myself and my life through a crystal-sharp lens, seeing truly the value of each day as well as how cloudy my vision had become as I had tried for so long to peer past assumptions that my life would continue as it was forever.
As nature’s voice spoke to me through the winter crone Goddess, she also brought the amazement of the beauty of the snow, billions of flakes each unique and exquisite, existing for just a moment on a finger or windowpane before melting into oblivion. She heralded the profound music of the silence of a winter’s evening when birds, animals, and humans are inside and quiet and only the inaudible hum of the planets and stars surrounds us. Truly, she is a Goddess of infinite love to provide these for us.
I began to notice that in rare moments, a quick remembrance of joy began to come upon me. A sense of expanded horizons, of tranquility and wonder, would break into my worries and the coldness of my days. These were like the first green shoots of spring, which, as for those who lived on this land before me and whose survival of winter was never sure, were the essence of grace.
After some weeks passed beyond the Solstice, I began to move my focus to the other side of my house where there is another tree, a large maple, perhaps a century old or more. From late spring to early fall, it reigns over the garden, protecting with shade and a home for birds, squirrels, insects, and other life. At times, when the light is just right, you can see the lovely face of a Goddess emerging from the bark. It becomes my hearth, the center around which my outdoor activities turn. I came to see that it was also a household Goddess, but that of the other side of the year, of summer.
I stand in the center of my home and, with the seasons, turn like the Earth as it moves around the sun, to face the summer Creator Goddess. As I do, I see yet another aspect of the winter crone Goddess, that of rebirth. Without withdrawal of life into the womb of the Earth for a season, there would be no new life. For many of the plants of New England, without winter’s cold and the insulating snow, they would not grow up through the soil again in spring. In the eternal cycle, spring always follows winter and the winter solstice, when the light begins to grow again, is the true season of coming back to life.
Those moments of joy are signs of my body and mind also coming back to life like the buds and first tendrils of spring, recovering and renewing. Like all of us, I do not know what the coming year will bring. Yet, when snow ushers the winter crone Goddess back to my doorstep, I will be reminded again that each day must be cherished and that someday, maybe decades into the future, I will jump on the back of Her broom and fly away with Her to another realm. But when the Solstice comes back around in the circle, I will also remember that, long after I am no longer here to tend to my garden under the maple tree in the garden side of the house, the winter crone Goddess will still bring the springtime.
Each year, as I rush past my winter crone Goddess with my arms full of presents for family in the weeks leading up to the Solstice, I think about the gift-giving traditions of this time. Besides Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, gifts are also given during the Hindu Sankranti, and in ancient times, Saturnalia was also celebrated at this time and included gift-giving.
My winter crone Goddess also brings Solstice gifts — power, truth, grace, and rebirth. My challenge as a human is to take those Solstice gifts and make them part of my every day life, the realm of the household Goddess, and then, in turn, give them to all I meet. May we all, as we celebrate the Solstice, be winter crone Goddesses for one another.