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Happy Halcyon Days!

Re-thinking how to celebrate the Winter Solstice

Photo courtesy of Andrw Couturier, with permission
It was Black Friday and, boycotting the retail madness, I thought I would put up the tree. Yes, I mean the Yule tree, the Holiday Tree, the one that some insist should be called the Christmas Tree, the one that the media (especially “Faux” News) tries each year to turn into an icon of “The War on Christmas”.

So I went down to the basement and dug out all the paraphernalia.

I looked at the stacked boxes containing the huge artificial tree (assembly required), the 1500 lights, the tubs and boxes filled with decorations, the goddess Lucia with her crown of candles (who tops the tree instead of an angel), the garlands for the fireplace and wreaths for the doors, the table centrepieces and holiday towels, fancy candles and the list of cards to be sent… and I groaned.
Decorating for the holidays would take up three days of my life that I would never get back, and the un-decorating would take another day in January. I asked myself, “Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I even putting up a Tree? Does it have meaning for me?”

Yes, I know that throughout most of human history, at least for us in the northern hemisphere, Winter Solstice was a time to celebrate the turning point of the year. A time to celebrate the knowledge that the sun was returning and the cycle of the seasons would be repeated for another year, and life would go on. Ok. I’m fine with that.

There would have been a communal gathering, a great feast in a hall decorated with evergreen boughs to represent life continuing through the long winter, a Yule log that burned through the night, and probably a fair bit of mead and song and revelry. We would have partied through the night, and in the morning greeted the dawn with joy. And then we would have gone home to sleep it off, secure in the knowledge that we had turned the Wheel of the Year and life would go on. Beautiful!

But we don’t do that.

In our modern world, it’s a different time entirely. The season seems to kick off with Black Friday, that invasive, consumerist, feeding frenzy that crawled up here from the US – much like those ticks that brought us lyme disease.

From then on, this time of year turns into a crazy-busy whirlwind, full of pressures to buy and eat and drink and party and decorate and in every way to consume more than we need, or even want. The pressure to overspend and overdo leaves many of us emotionally drained and physically fatigued. Any hospital can tell you this is the peak time for family violence and suicide.

Why would I want to continue to participate in this privileged, artificial, highly commercialized, winter holiday custom?

Could there be an alternative that would be more appropriate? What could I do instead?

It should still be something that would celebrate the Solstice. The Solstice is a real event of nature, and we in the chilly north are happy to celebrate it.

But this natural event does not need to imply pressure to buy Solstice gifts. No Solstice music needs to fill the air, blasted non-stop from every speaker. The knowledge that the days are growing longer and spring will return is hopeful and heartwarming in itself.

So far, so good. But I wanted it to be something more, something new but somehow also nostalgic. That was when I vaguely remembered a myth that mentioned the Solstice and something called Halcyon Days.

Some online research uncovered the Greek myth, recorded by Ovid, Virgil and others, the myth of Alcyone.

The story goes that Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, had a daughter, Alcyone, who was married to Ceyx, the king of Trachis/Heraclea (a region north of Delphi). They were very happy together, and often playfully called each other “Zeus" and “Hera".

Ceyx and Alcyone
Detail from Ceyx and Alcyone
by Richard Wilson, c. 1768.
Angered by this sacrilege, Zeus caused a storm (you may recall he is the cranky one who throws lightning bolts) and Ceyx was drowned at sea. Alcyone saw his body washed up onshore and, distraught, she threw herself into the waves.

Moved by the depth of their love, the gods took pity on them and transformed them into birds. (If any of you are serious birdwatchers, you might know that, in reference to this myth, the scientific name for the Tree Kingfisher family is Halcyonidae, and the genus Ceyx is the River Kingfishers.)

In her new bird form, Alcyone built a floating nest upon the waves (some accounts say on the beach) and laid her eggs. Aeolus restrained his winds and calmed the waves for 14 days—the week before the Solstice and the week after—so that she could hatch the eggs in peace. The phrase “Halcyon Days” has since become a term used to mean a time of peace and calmness.

“Yes!” I thought! This ties together a natural event, the returning light of the Solstice, an ancient myth, and an inspiration for a new kind of holiday decoration.

Instead of putting up my huge artificial tree or chopping down a pine tree, I went out to the backyard and found a big branch downed by the wind. I stuck it in a pot filled with rocks, and added a few little glass stars.

Then I attached a picture of a halcyon kingfisher, glued to a cardboard backing and carefully trimmed. Done! This would be my “Halcyon Tree”, symbolic of the returning light of the solstice as well as a symbol of an interval of peace and tranquility amid the dark days of winter.

Just think, nothing to store but a symbolic bird and a handful of glass stars. I can always find a new branch, and looking for it would be a nice excuse for a walk in the woods. No need to kill a tree. No mountain of decorations to purchase and maintain. I like this!

I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to celebrate your Halcyon Days. However, the symbolism of my Halcyon Tree suggests to me activities such as the following:
  • Sleeping in,
  • Walks in the woods,
  • Lounging in comfy clothes (that’s my euphemism for pyjama days),
  • Curling up with a good book and a pot of tea,
  • Long baths with candles and soft background music,
  • Avoiding watching the news,
  • Letting the phone go unanswered (that’s why we have voicemail),
  • Simple meals eaten slowly... or relaxed gourmet experiments,
  • Listening to old, favourite records,
  • Jigsaw puzzles (who has time for that in their busy schedule?),
  • Getting lost in a creative art or craft project,
  • Casual visits, long chats and board games with friends,
  • Contacting faraway friends and family by phone or Facetime or Skype,
  • Avoiding those ubiquitous New Year’s Eve parties,
  • Escaping the expectations to buy, eat and do more than is comfortable.
Simply seeing my Halcyon Tree reminds me to do these things, to take time to rest, relax and renew. My Halcyon Days will reminded me to celebrate the intangible joys in my life, celebrate the people and the relationships I choose to have in my life, to think about the year that has passed, and look forward to the year that is coming.

We are not bound by other people’s traditions. We can choose the myths and symbols that frame our lives.

What will you choose?

Happy Halcyon Days!
Happy Solstice!

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