I’ve always put up a Christmas tree. Despite the halfhearted participation (and groaning) of my boyfriends, I’ve faithfully, right after Thanksgiving, headed out and bought (or here on Vashon, cut down) a tree to lug home. It’s a ritual I rarely miss.
After visiting India some years ago I returned home in the winter and the notion of putting a bauble-laden tree on display felt absurd. This is a rite of passage for anyone who ventures to India: Your brain cells are rearranged and you never view your world, or its customs, the same. I know that was true for me as a Westerner. Christmas in America, after the dust and squalor of India, felt gluttonous. So I skipped the holidays that year — though I missed having a tree in the house.
I enjoy the act of arranging the colors, textures and lights on a tree. It’s similar to making a painting, the alchemy of conjuring art. Simpler, but no less magical. I especially love the ricochetting of light amidst the ornaments, as it envelops the tree at nighttime. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that the ritual of displaying a tree is a sacred act — although I’ve never fully understood why.
Most of us are familiar with the historical origins of the Christmas tree. Its association with the pagan rite of celebrating the solstice. When the light of the Sun ‘returns’ in the Northern hemisphere and begins its increase and ascent, the radiance grows stronger and longer through the ensuing months. Trees would be displayed to honor the burgeoning of light and life. And the fruits and trinkets that would decorate the tree honored the bounty, the wish of a successful harvest in the year to come.
And yet the historical perspective never impressed me much. I mean, none of those facts would drift through my mind as I’d lounge on the couch in the evening — no matter my age — and stare at the tree until I fell asleep. Nope, another set of mysterious associations would encircle me and send me into a reverie. And it wasn’t until I came to the conclusion of one of my favorite books this year that I began to make sense of my devotion.
Martha Heyneman‘s book The Breathing Cathedral is a fantastic interweaving of the cosmologies of Gurdjieff, Dante, Aquinas, Stephen Hawking and others, into a new model, a new interpretation of the universe we inhabit. I was drawn to the book because, as a longtime student of Gurdjieff’s teachings, I was intrigued to see how Heyneman, a zoology student turned poet, was bringing Gurdjieff’s teachings forward and marrying them to the world of science.
The last chapter of her book is titled O Christmas Tree, and at first the subject — the family Christmas tree — seemed an odd way to summarize all that she’d explored in the previous chapters. But in the end I understood completely. Read more
The exact moment of this year’s Winter Solstice occurs early morning tomorrow, here in Washington, though many of us will celebrate tonight.
I created this mix several years ago — a collection of hymns, chants, Medieval carols and songs — a music compendium to mirror and celebrate this sacred moment in the Earth’s time cycle.
The Solstice, the night of the longest night, also marks the return of a slowly growing luminosity, as Winter begins in the Northern Hemisphere and radiance gains in prominence.
Light has always symbolized awareness and consciousness, as well as life-giving, creative properties. And in a very real sense we are each bodies of light, with the Sun Absolute as both our source and sustainment. And that link is not simply symbolic, it is literal.
For many astrologers the Winter Solstice is a demarcation that defines the start of the New Year. How we experience this evening (and tomorrow morning) provides an essential hint as to the theme or signature of the year ahead. Both universally and personally.
I will take a more sporadic approach to posting on Astro Inquiry in the coming week, as travel and gatherings with friends will shorten my time on the computer.
Solstice Blessings to each of you!
If you would like to hear more details pertaining to the Solstice, from an astrological perspective, I highly recommend my friend and colleague, Jessica Murray‘s recent radio interview (from December 19) where she shares a slew of insights into this magical moment — and the upcoming year, 2014.
The art work featured on this mix is by the talented Krista Hout. Ms. Hout spent her formative years in the forests of British Columbia, where she trained in fine arts and classical animation. Her paintings explore the relevance of archetypes in folklore, using inspiration from storybook illustration, folk art, animation and vintage kitsch. Krista’s work has been shown at galleries throughout the United States. You can explore more and order prints directly from her website Kristahout.com.
Today on the island it’s bitter cold.
Bitter cold. It’s a cliche, but really nothing else will do. It is bitter, biting cold. And snow has been forecast for the weekend.
When I moved from Hawai’i to Washington many years ago, 18 years ago to be exact, the reality of living in a city where snow was a possibility was novel.
And then it happened, my first year of living on Capitol Hill with my boyfriend. It snowed so much there were people on skis out on the street, just to move about. And kids, non-stop, screaming as they sledded down Thomas Avenue on flipped trashcan lids. The echo of that keeps pinging around my head today, again, such a novel happening.
Buses were stalled, willy-nilly all about the city. Like a scene from a disaster movie. And I remember Alex and I walked to the Cinerama theater that afternoon to see — what? — one of the Star Wars movies? Or maybe not. But I do remember the world ceasing; the shocking quiet, the peculiar light — because of so much snow.
Obviously, Christmas was wonderful that December. From Hawaiian palm trees to Seattle street lamps piled with mini-mountains of white.
Watching that sight — of the streetlamp with the snow ridge up top and the halo of light that illuminated each particle of ice that fell into its nimbus — in the night, from our bedroom window, hedged-’round with old-fashioned Christmas lights (the big bulb kind) — it all feels timeless. Now. 18 years later.
As we prepare for snowfall on Vashon.
Time and Christmases past collide into one another; or pile-up into a stack is a better way of putting it. Most likely because our sharpest memories come from the excitement, the wishes, the colors, the sounds, the change of heart in our caretakers — all of those marked sensations and impressions — related to the season. How odd. The mystery of memory and Christmas.
Ouspensky once noted that as we look back on our lives we recall, easily, the moments that we were most awake and alive — immersed in essence — because those were the actual moments that we were imbued and present. If essence isn’t present then what is there to remember? Why bother? It’s all a blur when we sleepwalk through life. So that notion has always made sense to me.
So the bitter cold made me pull out my old red long-johns that Alex had given to me as a Christmas present that first Christmas in Seattle in my first big snow. And I walked for miles around the island this afternoon, swearing that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, mid-way through my walk, when my face was numb and discomfort was giving way to regret. But I forged on.
Got home and the cat was howling for dinner. She knows nothing about the season. Just tuna.
And I lit the lights around the Buddha.
I’ll probably do the same tomorrow, in the fresh snow — go for a walk. Light lights when I get home. Feed the cat. It’s something we do here in Washington.
December 15th was always a big day for me when I was a kid, it was the date a small radio station in West Covina, California, not far from where we lived, converted their playlist to non-stop Christmas music. Holiday tunes that played 24/7 until the stroke of midnight on December 25.
Today, that sounds like one of Dante’s Circles of Hell, but back then (and when you are 13-years-old) it was novel and something unique to anticipate. Christmas music hadn’t been commodified into a haunting, unrelenting prompt to shop.
Both of my parents in that household (my dad and my stepmom) were heavy drinkers, especially around the holidays because my dad despised the season (it meant spending money; my dad being a parsimonious Aries, with Moon in Cancer [why are Cancers so often cheap?]) and my stepmom, a sort of ‘fallen’ Catholic, liked to throw ’em back to forget about having abandoned Jesus.
As the oldest sibling (and most sober person) in the household I had to manage everything “Christmas”: Pestering my dad to purchase a tree, goading my brothers to help decorate it, forbidding our two Dobermans from entering the living room to gnaw on the garland. Have you ever seen tinsel entwined in a dog turd? I have.
Anyway, that station that played Christmas music non-stop kept me on point. Aside from the usual excitement kids have about that “magic day”, I was also a music aficionado — so a cycle of songs that returned annually, always sounding pristine, fascinated me. It also honed my ear for really good Christmas songs versus the obnoxious shrill stuff — which eventually mutated into an epidemic right around the time of Mariah Carey‘s first holiday album. Nothing against that LP, but it seemed to open the floodgates on all of the glissando-manic, glory note-chasing kitsch that’s ubiquitous today.
I’m putting together three mixes for you this Christmas. This is the first one. Volume 2 will follow next week sometime, and then towards solstice I’ve a collection of sacred music that should make for a perfect audio detox after you’ve dragged your ass home from the last mall to chill and attempt to connect to that eerie voice of the silence that coincides with the longest night.