Reflections on Yule (and Other Winter Festivals)

Dec 24th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles, Nature Mystics, Work in Progress

RebeccaBy Rebecca Beattie

My mother collected strays. At one time it was the seven feral cats that lived around our house, each named after its most distinctive characteristic. There was Jet, Pa-Cat, Moustache, Paws, Nosey, Rickets, and Piggy. Another time it was the homeless man who lived with us for six months, while he went through the very painful and life-threatening process of withdrawing from his alcohol addiction. Once he was well enough, his favourite pastime was to go off walking across the moors all day, kept company by our English springer, Henry. Henry was a pedigree, and even had a very grand kennel name, and he was chosen ostensibly for being the runt of the litter, with his spindly little back legs. Or as my mother would have it, he chose us.

When the local state school threatened to swallow me up and spit me out, we were privileged enough as a family to be able to send me to an independent girl’s school thirty miles away in our nearest city. At the end of each school day, I would put on my uniform beret and coat, and walk three streets away to the hostel for ‘naughty boys’ that my mum worked in. A stroll down the main high street always took time, as homeless people, street drinkers and police officers alike all knew her by name (and vice versa) and stopped to chat, while local people looked on, slightly aghast. Her other jobs involved working in a drop in for people struggling with alcohol addiction, running a hostel for women visiting their loved ones in prison, prisoner re-settlement on release, and training the local police in how to deal with domestic abuse.

As I grew to young adulthood, people would often ask me if I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and I would always sniff, and say, ‘No. I am going to be an actor.’ And to be fair to my younger self, I was for quite a few years. I longed for the creative life, and, in my heart of hearts, I knew I did not have the bravery or the wisdom to follow her, because I could not switch off my sponge-like sense of empathy. Some of the situations my mother dealt with would make your hair curl, and I knew I would not be able to do what she did, and still be able to sleep at night. The truth is, I don’t think she slept at night either. It was only after I lost her, when I studied at the College of Psychic studies that I learned how to tell the difference between my own emotions and other people’s. After studying Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) for several years I could finally learn to switch off the current in both directions, and also manage the residual emotions left over, but it took quite a journey to get there.

The supreme irony is that life is never quite what you expect. Returning from another poorly paid acting job during the Millennium, I needed to earn some money pretty swiftly to keep the wolf from the door. I had spent several months living on my savings while I toured around the home-counties with a small troop of actors putting on twice-daily Macbeths, and, coupled with the expenses of a small film-making collective I was part of, my formerly comfortable savings were now non-existent. After several weeks of weird and wonderful temporary positions, the employment agency asked me very nicely if I would take an assignment that no one on the books wanted. Apparently they were all too scared to do it, and they had all turned it down. On my first morning at the drug dependency drop-in, I announced to the amused staff there that they should not get used to me, as I was only staying for a month. I was an actor, and would be taking off for my next acting job very shortly.

That was fifteen years ago. I am still there. Since then, I have maintained the same (ever-evolving) job alongside my creative, spiritual and studying lives, although nowadays the small drug service (that was) is now a large charity that helps those whose lives have been torn apart by all addictions, and I am not the same person I was fifteen years ago. I did continue to act for several years, and fitted it around my ‘day job’, and then gradually I stopped acting and started writing, realizing that I preferred to be the queen of my own creativity, and not wait for someone to make the work for me. For a while the day job was something I resented, why couldn’t I earn a living through my creativity alone, instead of grafting away in a slightly run down, unglamorous, ungodly job? But over time, I have realized that working there whilst maintaining my creative life helps me keep grounded, and constantly learning. It’s like the fertilizer that helps me to grow. And it’s really not ungodly at all. I handle my emotional sponge-like qualities by preferring to work in the background, rather than on the frontline. I believe that our actions are like little gusts of wind across the surface of a lake; as the breeze fans out with its own momentum, the ripples spread widely across the pool. As individuals, we may not be able to change the whole world, but we can at least, through service to our own communities, change our own little corners of it. The work I do behind the scenes makes it possible for the frontline staff to help people to make direct changes in their lives. I always enjoy coming out of the office and in to the frontline services whenever the opportunity arises, chatting to whoever is around, but it suits me to stay backstage these days.

I have an airy head and a very active imagination, crossed with a propensity to melancholia, and I have learned how important it is to have something in life that can act as a lightning rod. An afternoon in one of our services can be enough to encourage me to poke my head out of the clouds from time to time, and remind myself that I am fortunate, as I know I have choices. I may live in a tiny shoebox on the outer edges of the metropolis, life may not have turned out in the way my younger self expected it to, but I (like all of us) am the mistress of my own fate and the creator of my own reality (and the creator of my own creativity). If I can be the lighthouse in somebody else’s darkness once in a while, then I am fulfilling my oath to service, living by the values that my mother taught me, and I am also lifting my own darkness, just a little bit. You can’t hold the lantern aloft without its light illuminating your own path as well. I am clear that the ‘do-gooding’ that I inherited from Mum works for me too. Don’t believe the folks that try to have you believe it is all about selflessness and service (although that is undoubtedly part of it). Seeing someone else to start to reach their own potential, or having that light-bulb moment, or the lifting of that invisible but weighty pressure from their shoulders is very rewarding. Some days just helping someone to make a cup of tea for him or herself is enough. I am sure it is no accident that my mother has similarly influenced most of my other family members, and we are all birds of a feather. My sister works with the elderly, my sister in law volunteers in a food bank, my husband works in the NHS, and, at the ripe age of seventy-five, my dad is a volunteer at his local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

I suppose that means that this month I am reflecting on the role of an Urban Nature Mystic, as an Urban Human Nature Mystic (although you can do this rurally as well). In my middle adult years, I have also learned the importance of balancing that (earth) grounding time, with my (air) creativity, things that inspire me (fire), time with my (water) beloved ones, and my (spirit)tual practice. It’s the pentacle that makes up my world. I also need time in natural spaces to bring me back to myself, to clear my head, balance my emotions, help me walk things out, and propel me on to the next creative project. It’s a delicate balance. In winter it can be tempting to push the focus to the interior life (i.e. indoors, in the warm) and neglect or turn away from the outside world, but the natural world still has lessons for us, even at its barest time.

In winter the physical path of the Nature Mystic becomes dominated by form and by texture. The grass underfoot crunches with the frosting that coats every blade, and the trees reveal the beauty of their bare branches, stretching out across the void towards each other. Even your breath takes on texture as it becomes visible in the cold air. The pathways become waterlogged with rain, and mulchy with the rotting leaves of autumn, while the pigs on the city farm frequently wear mud stockings. Smells are very loamy and earthy. Colours become muted – browns and greens, clear blues and white, and black. Tree trunks become more visible, and the gnarly texture of the bark invites us to touch it, to trace the lines and shapes, coated in fine green moss, and embraced by boughs of ivy. Hedgerows now only have the jewels of their berries left on their bare branches, with little greenery left.

In 1917, Mary Webb wrote,

The most ethereal forms belong to winter; hers is the beauty that the leaf has when substance and sap are gone, and only the frail white outline remains. This is the best time to learn the proportion of things… In a winter landscape – especially in a wood – there is the same kind of purity that the Greeks saw in the unclad human form; it is like a young athlete, ready for racing, with his flowing garments flung aside. It is an education in restraint; after seeing it, one cannot forget the fine severity beneath all natural beauty. [i]

As Webb observed, in winter we are able to see the beauty of form in a way that we can’t at any other time. At other points on the wheel of the year, the form is bathed in leaves and foliage, but just now you can see the strength and delicacy of the bare lines.

In the deepest part of winter we too become naked, and vulnerable, and facing the darkness all around us often facilitates facing the darkness within. Cat Treadwell has written an excellent book about living with depression, Facing The Darkness, which makes an excellent case in point, and explores this affliction within the pagan worldview. As Cat explains, times of darkness give us a moment of pause, and of refuge, and while the black dog can visit at any time of year, my experience is that some of us can often be most vulnerable to his attacks in winter. The short days and the long nights often bring a sense of introspection, as we evaluate the year that has passed, and the young and athletic one is still just around the corner and out of sight. Then at Midwinter, or Yule, we face the longest night.

In circle at this time we extinguish all the lights, and honour the darkness, before kindling the smallest candles once more, to invite the light back into our lives and celebrate the light that is to come. In other words, we do not deny the darkness; we embrace it. Other traditions celebrate the Holly King and the Oak King as they give battle. In most traditions the world over, there is a festival around this time to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun / Son, and the bringing of enlightenment. While Modern Paganisms celebrate the birth of the Sun, the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of the Son. Judaism celebrates Hanukkah, the festival of lights that commemorates the miracle of the temple light that stayed alight through eight days when there was only enough oil for one night. Buddhism has Bodhi Day at the beginning of December, which celebrates the day that Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. The common theme that unites them all is the birth or bringing of light (literal or otherwise) into the darkest of times.

While most people bemoan the fact that Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier each year in our capitalist society, a friend and fellow Nature Mystic recently commented that, for her, the earlier the better. Lighting up the darkness in the middle of winter is a good thing, not a bad one. Whatever your perspective, the intention of the Midwinter festival is to bring a ray of hope, although for some it has the opposite effect. For those missing a loved one, or indeed a whole family, it can be a very challenging time. One way to take the emphasis off personal sadness is to re-direct it towards service instead. One bright soul I know, who was formerly a Barnado’s boy[ii], spends each Christmas volunteering for homeless charities, and their need for volunteers at this time is great. If this appeals to you, check out the Crisis at Christmas website[iii] for more details (in the UK) or your nearest Homeless charity in other places around the world. Wherever those shelters exist, they are always in need of support.

There are many ways in which the Nature Mystic, both urban and rural alike, must step outside their own bubble from time to time, and provide much needed help. And this does not need to be big and dramatic. Look for those who are most vulnerable around you, and just take a little time to reach out. This might be as small as stopping for a few moments to chat to the elderly man on the bus, who may not have much human contact on a day to day basis, or giving unwanted possessions to local charity shops. Or it might be taking the time (and the £3) to buy that copy of The Big Issue. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, or something that might embarrass the giver or the receiver. The other inspiring event that is being organized this year is The Reverse Advent Challenge – the idea of giving away a gift for each day of advent instead of receiving one. As an Urban Nature Mystic, a Wiccan and the daughter of a very strongly ethical upbringing, this is one thing I feel very strongly about. All over the world, when our news is filled with such sadness and fear, any light we can shine in society has to be worthy of giving. This is why I love the path of Modern Paganisms: we do not sit behind convent walls, but get out there in our communities, reaching out and making a difference in people’s lives.  One brief glance at those volunteering and working hard for the Pagan Federation demonstrates this. We have officers giving their time and energy in all sorts of ways, and supporting our community without much fanfare at all.

Without sounding too much life an infomercial, or a trailer for that old Christmas favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life, whether your support is small or large, Midwinter is a time to connect with and reach out to our fellow human beings and those in need. What seems to you like a small gesture might be the one thing that changes the course of another person’s life. And to be honest, Clarence Oddbody was pretty on the mark when he said,

‘Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’

Striving to leave a hole behind you is a pretty noble purpose in life. And if you are wondering what happened to the man who came and lived with us and walked the moors with Henry, he got well again, thanks to the head start my Mum gave him. And now he helps others to get better. For the last twenty-five years or so, he has been tirelessly part of the Recovery Movement, and has mentored other people through the twelve-step program. Ripples upon ripples, upon ripples.

[i] Mary Webb, The Spring of Joy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1946) P191

[ii] A British charity that runs children’s homes


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2 Comments to “Reflections on Yule (and Other Winter Festivals)”

  1. Cait says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog, Rebecca, and wondered which course you followed in Psychic studies. My reason for asking is that I also have a sponge-like empathy and feel it is holding me back from certain types of work. Cait

  2. Hi Cait,
    Being an emotional sponge can make life quite a battle. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence being told I was very emotional or too emotional, if you read the sub-text. There are a few things you can do to ease the pressure and make things a little easier on yourself. I think of our emotions as being a bit like a chalice. Each time something happens it adds some water to the chalice, and if you don’t empty it out regularly, eventually it spills over. The exercise I mentioned in an earlier blog about letting everything go into a tree is a good way of emptying it out, but the psychic development work I did also helped me to recognise the difference between my own genuine emotions, and other peoples’ emotions I was picking up. It’s quite important to do some work to help you to feel your own body – something like yoga, Pilates or one of the martial arts. Once you are familiar with how your own body and emotions feel, you start to recognise when other things start creeping in. You can do things to shield yourself, like using certain crystals. The Psychic Development work I did was at the College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, and I learned under a terrific teacher called Becky Walsh, who is now in Bristol. I studied over the course of a couple of years – starting with an introductory session and then building up through basic, intermediary and advanced. It also incorporated a lot of mediumship work, which also helped me to hone my sense of what is me and what is someone else.
    Where are you based Cait? Perhaps we can find something local to you?
    Does that help at all? (Perhaps it is something I should explore a bit further in my next entry!)

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