Note; Yule is actually tomorrow. I've just decided I'd rather post about the holiday early than late. Yule was on a Thursday that year. By the way, some readers have been asking me if this blog is about to stop. I have no plans for it to stop. -- D.K.
There were only maybe twenty of us on campus on Wednesday--despite the advice of the senior student a lot of people had gone home for Christmas already--which was kind of a bummer, but at least it made dinner feel kind of cozy and family-like. 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'm not used to thinking of either of them in parental terms. But I liked
it. Yule night, I should say, is the night before the sunrise of Yule,
not the night after.
It also happened to be the first night of Chanukah. A few students here are Jewish, and more are pagans from a Jewish background--some of them call themselves "Jewitches." So usually the campus as a whole doesn't celebrate the Jewish holidays, but there are often small private services or dinners here, just like there are for Christian holidays. But today, the two combined. Before dinner, they lit the first candle of the Menora, with sung prayers in Hebrew. And apparently some of what we had for dinner was traditional for Chanukah.
After dinner, while I was helping to clean up, Kit and some of her students left--I think they went to the martial arts studio down the hall for a Wiccan ritual. When they came back an hour later, smelling of sage smoke and looking like starlight, they brought a lit candle and a lot more people. Kit's husband had joined her and some of the senior students were back, plus Nora and Kayla and Aidan, and a group of graduates. I guess most of them had joined Kit for the ritual, and the others just showed up at the same time.The candle was the long, pale gray taper that's been on the mantel-piece this past week, and Kit carefully returned it there.
"The Yule candle," she explained, looking pleased with herself. "It will burn all night, to hold the place of the sun."
"Not a Yule log?" I asked.
"I expect we've got one burning already," commented Arthur, pointing at the wood stove.
"Yup! We're burning oak tonight," confirmed Kit. The newcomers brought cakes and candies and a lot of alcohol. Apparently, we were going to have a party.
I was busy catching up with Kayla when Nora pulled at my sleeve and quietly pointed to Arther. He was sitting by himself, looking at the Yule candle, with an odd, sad expression on his face. Even as we watched he sighed, sighed again, and then he sort of crumpled in on himself, weeping.
"I don't know whether to give him space or comfort him?" Nora said. Kayla bit her lip and frowned.
"When we first got here," I began, "I saw him come in. He told Sharon he wanted to be here because his wife had just died and he didn't want to be alone. I bet she was still alive at Yule last year. Let's go make sure he isn't alone." And so the three of us brought him a fresh handkerchief and a plate of cookies and he told us all about his wife and their life together.
"It's a good thing this is the darkest day of the year," he said, finally, "It's about the worst I've felt all year. You never expect some things to just...end." I've never seen Arthur to break down like that. He's always so in charge of himself and everything else.
But while we were talking to him some of the others had collected their instruments and a sort of band had started up. All this light-heartedness was happening around us. More people had come in, so there were maybe fifty or sixty people in the room. There was a bit of a commotion, Kit was trying to refuse to do something and others were insisting. Finally she gave in and stood up and sang an a Capella version of Twelve Days of Christmas but with hand gestures--the sort of thing children learn to do for school Christmas shows. Each day had its own motion, vaguely related to the lyrics, and the whole thing was entirely goofy. Even Arthur was laughing, his tears not dry yet.
From there, the music just didn't stop. The band kept changing as one or more
members got up to dance and someone else sat down. Except for that first song, Kit wasn't really a center of attention, which was kind of strange, and, besides Greg, none of the other masters showed up. I guess the party was mostly a student-thing. Hours went by. Gradually people started leaving, including Kit, but the band showed no sign of stopping.
Around three in the morning I realized we were going to dance the sun
up, but I turned out to be wrong.
By five things were starting to calm down and I was getting tired myself. There were maybe thirty of us left. One of the senior 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 candle 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.
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.
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 was 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
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
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 the walk in the cold woke me up and I just kept going. Not everyone
did. Greg had gone to bed just after breakfast. I think the noise
bothered him some, he isn't a very outgoing person, and he's not exactly 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. 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.
Happy Yule, everyone.