Winter Beginnings – journeying into darkness

Winter Beginnings – journeying into darkness
Samhain to Winter Solstice (End October to 20th-23rd December)
Samhain marks the end and beginning of the Celtic year. Life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth and the winter months are the darkness from which light emerges. All around us life is drawing into itself; animals hibernate, trees lose their leaves and seeds sleep dormant in the Earth – promising potential of growth.

We too should take time to rest and rejuvenate ourselves. As the winter evenings become longer, it gives us time to reflect on the old year and incubate the seeds of ideas to come.

Why Some Trees are Always Green
A Cherokee Story – as told by Michael J Caduto & Joseph Bruchac in ‘Keepers of Life’

“Long ago, when the plants and the animals were first made, they were told to watch and stay awake for seven nights. All of the animals and plants wished to do this, for they knew that if they did not sleep they would be given some sort of special power.

The first night passed and all of the animals and plants stayed awake. It did not seem hard to them and some of the animals and plants even began to boast about how easy it was.

When the second night came, it no longer seemed so easy for all of them and some found it hard not to fall asleep. When the next night came, some of them could stay awake no longer, and by the fourth night, nearly all of them slept.

When the seventh night ended, only a few had stayed awake. Amongst the animals, only Panther and Owl had not slept; so they were given the power to see in the dark. From then on, Panther and Owl would be able to prey on those animals which had failed to remain awake and watchful and now must sleep each night.

Among the plants, only Pine, Spruce, Cedar, Laurel and Holly had remained awake and watchful. Because of this they were given the power to remain green all year round and their leaves would hold great medicine. All of the other plants would lose their leaves each winter because they did not endure the test. Not only this, but they would also have to fall asleep until the warmth of spring returned again.

So it is that to this day, when young men go out to fast on a hill and pray for their medicine, they remind themselves that they must stay awake like Pine, Cedar and Holly. They must look into the dark with the vigilant eyes of Panther and Owl. For great medicine never comes to those who are not watchful.”

Evergreen trees keep their leaves all year round and continuously lose and replace leaves as they age. In wintertime, when other plants and animals seem dormant and asleep, the evergreen trees provide us with a reminder of the life within all things. Midwinter decorations traditionally are made from foliage of evergreen trees and the custom of bringing a special coniferous tree inside to celebrate winter dates back to ancient Roman times and their Saturnalia festival.

Tree of the Season – Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

‘The Holly and the Ivy,
When they are both fully grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The Holly wears the crown.’

Holly is one of our best-known evergreen trees and is a familiar sight in hedgerows and the understory of many native woodlands. It is slow growing and shade tolerant and has smooth silver grey bark. Its familiar glossy leaves have spikes around their edges if they grow on lower branches where the threat from grazing animals is greatest, whilst the leaves on the uppermost branches are much smoother. Only the female trees produce the bright red berries, an important food source for birds in winter.

Uses – Holly wood is pale, hard, dense and fine grained. It is difficult to split and tends to crack when drying but can be used for small carving projects and takes stain well. In the past it has been called ‘English Ebony’ when dyed black. When well seasoned it is an excellent firewood. Holly leaves traditionally were used to treat colds, catarrh and as a diuretic for any urinary infection. Holly berries have been used as a strong (violent) purgative!

Folklore – Holly is recognised as carrying life through the dark season as the ‘Holly King’ character. At Midsummer he battles and victors over the Oak King (and so the day get shorter and darkness rules) until midwinter where he loses the battle and the Oak King rules again (and so the days lengthen and light rules). This endless battle continues to keep light and dark in balance, and the two ‘kings’ are the same; two sides of the same coin. Holly is also sacred to Mother Holle, Queen of the underworld (or ‘Hel’) in Norse folklore and also recognised within Arthurian legend through the green knight. Holly is believed to protect from evil, poisoned thoughts and lightening. It is considered unlucky to fell a whole tree, but bringing in branches over the winter festive season has been commonplace.

Wisdom – Holly represents the potential life force from darkness, the incubation of ideas and inward reflection. Holly promotes balance, brings about transformation and restores direction.

Make a Winter Wreath
The circular wreaths that adorn our doors or encircles our candles at this time of year are rooted in ancient symbolism. The circle represents the wheel of the year and the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. The circle could also be seen as the Sun, who is reborn at the winter solstice to claim his throne as the days get lighter once more. It is nice to make your own wreath each year to celebrate.

Resources: Thin lengths of green (living) Willow, Hazel, or Dogwood (Bendy and straight growing species), collection of evergreen sprigs, berries and cones e.g. Holly, Ivy, Pine, green gardening wire or natural string.

  1. Make the base of the wreath by gradually ‘persuading’ the lengths to bend by softly bending the wood fibres (if done too strongly the lengths will snap). Bend the thicker end of the first stick into a circle and use its thinner end to wrap around itself; it should hold itself in the circle shape. Add in more sticks in the same way by wrapping the thin end around the circle, ensure to stagger where the sticks begin and end to make the hoop an equal thickness throughout.
  2. Decorate the hoop with the foliage collected. Anchor the base of sprigs by weaving into the hoop or using wire/string. If using pine/fir cuttings try to lay the twigs all in the same directions so they overlap continuously. Loose cones/berries can be secured onto the hoop by tying wire/string around their base.
  3. Tie a piece of string or ribbon to the top of the wreath so it can be hung up.

Seasonal Stories Through the Year:
Winter Beginnings – Journeying into Darkness
Winter’s Ending – The Returning Sun
Spring Beginnings – Light Becoming Balanced with Dark
Spring’s Ending – Awakened Energies
Summer Beginnings – The sun reaches its zenith
Summer’s Ending – The beginning of harvest