Yule is not the same as Christmas. Instead, it is a European pagan holiday on or around the winter solstice that merged with Christmas when Northern Europe was Christianized. Modern Wiccans and some others celebrate it on the winter solstice as a distinct holiday. It is basically all those parts of Christmas that don't really have anything to do with Jesus. I had known pagans celebrated Solstice before I got to the school, because I'd had some Wiccan friends in high school, but we never talked about religion much, and they always called it Solstice, at least when they talked with me. So I didn't know Yule meant something specific besides Christmas until I got to campus and I celebrated it for the first time. I've always celebrated it afterwards, and I still celebrate Christmas, too. With the baby coming, my wife and I are going to have to figure out how to have family traditions that make some kind of cohesive sense.
Anyway, there were only maybe twenty of us on campus the day before Yule, since a lot of the people who had stayed on campus after Samhain had gone home for the holidays. I was a little surprised, because we'd been encouraged to be there for Yule, but I was also kind of glad. We had a little Yule dinner around the beautiful old table in the Great Hall dining room and we all fit around it. Kit and Greg both joined us for dinner and helped cook, and they sat at the head and foot of the table like parents--which was strange, as I was not used to thinking of Kit in maternal terms and I had never really connected with Greg. But I liked it. Yule night, I should say, is the night before the sunrise of Yule, not the night after.
After dinner, more people started to arrive. Kit's husband came in, along with a lot of students and a couple graduates. I think we'd swelled to at least forty people before ten o'clock and a full party got going. There were trays of candies and cakes, a lot of alcohol, and dancing. Kit and her musician-friends formed a kind of band whose composition kept changing as one or more members got up to dance and someone else sat down. I was a bit surprised that none of the other Masters appeared, but this party seemed to be mostly a student-thing. It got pretty raucous and it just didn't stop. Around three in the morning I realized we were going to dance the sun up, but I turned out to be wrong.
By five I noticed that Kit was no longer part of the party. I didn't know when she had left. Things were starting to calm down, and I thought maybe she'd gone to bed. I was getting tired myself, and I had to remember that Kit was past forty. One of the older students called us all together and suggested we all climb the mountain to watch the sun come up. Greg would stay behind and watch over the oak logs and bayberry candles that still burned. The only thing was, we had to be utterly silent, not say anything until the sun actually came up. I knew a ritual activity when I heard one, I think we all did, so nearly all of us put on a couple of extra layers, pulled on our boots, grabbed foam pads to sit on, and walked out into the crusty, early-season snow.
We had flashlights, and it is hard to get lost in such a bit group, so hiking in the dark wasn't bad. It was strange not talking, though, moving with such a large crowd in the dark and hearing their breathing, their footfalls in the leaves and the snow, and nobody talking. We climbed to the top of the ridge behind the school to a lookout area where the trees had been cleared to give us a view almost straight down the valley to the east. By that time there was a definite glimmer of dawn; the eastern half of the sky was a luminous blue, with the ghosts of grey clouds just visible here and there. We all settled down to wait.
And heard music.
Someone, somewhere behind us, was playing "Here Comes the Sun" on a tin whistle.
Charlie! I looked around, but could not see him in the gloom under the trees. He finished the song and immediately began it again and this time, after the first few bars, was joined by a guitar. That had to be Allen. I hadn't seen him in weeks. I still couldn't see him, though the air was growing brighter all the time. The song cycled through, over and over, gaining instruments as it went: a violin, a tambourine, and a drum. The masters had all come. It was light enough now that I could probably have seen them if I'd looked, but the dawn was so close I was watching the horizon for the sun. One spot as growing brighter and brighter so that I kept thinking is that the sun? Is that it? Like when you're on an airplane taking off and you wonder if you've left the ground yet until suddenly it's obvious that you have. The sun came up and split the weird pale light of dawn and at that moment the song that had been repeating itself over and over again reached its beginning and it was obvious that we should all sing. Most of us knew the words--I did, I knew all of them.
Sun, sun sun, here it comes! we sang as the sun indeed came. I'd never paid any attention to sunrise before, but now it felt like a victory over darkness, like some sort of achievement. We did it! And when we were done singing we all jumped up and hooted and hollered and hugged like our team had won the Superbowl or something.
And we were completely freezing, having sat in the cold for the better part of an hour. Fortunately, the Masters had not just brought their instruments, they had also brought vast quantities of hot chocolate, cider, and coffee. Kit passed out ginger candies, golden as the sun, and caramels made with cayenne pepper. By the time we all got back down to the Great Hall, breakfast had appeared and so had dozens of other people, including the "sprouts," the children and nieces and nephews of the masters, all playing with new toys and eating cookies and candy. The almost monastic quiet of campus in winter was gone. I'd been up for over twenty-four hours at that point and was pretty fried, but I was also twenty, so I just kept going. Not everyone did. Greg had gone to bed just after breakfast. I think the noise bothered him some, he wasn't a very outgoing person, and he was by no means young. Most of the masters fell asleep on the couches for at least a few minutes, and some took naps. Around noon, we found Kit curled up asleep under the Yule tree and her husband picked her up and carried her off to bed like a child. It was very sweet. I don't think she was exactly sober at that point, and she didn't wake up except to wrap her arms around her husband's neck, smiling. I wished I could have offered to help carry her, but of course I could not. It was years before I even admitted to her I'd seen her looking so cute and vulnerable. She would have been mortified.
Happy Yule, everyone.