Sometimes I can feel my pagan ancestors rising up inside me.
Oh, I know. I am a very modern American, living in the far too overcrowded Northeast. I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and went to college in that teeming city. What pagan past?
I was raised as a Catholic: how “anti-pagan” can you possibly get? I went to church in a nice modern building. I learned to pray under bright electric lights.
And yet, sometimes I can feel my ancient pagan past rising up inside of me, speaking of fears and dreams and magic that is a part of my bones. A pagan past that somehow has never been smoothed away by education or social interaction or modern technology.
I feel it on hot summer nights, when the moon rises over the wetlands behind our house. When I lie awake to hear the sounds of rushing water and hunting owls and cicadas crying in the woods. On those nights, the world of pagan spirits seems benign and gentle, and I am lulled by its pull on my heart.
But in winter, I feel those ancient spirits in a darker and more frightening way.
In winter, the wind and the night conspire to remind me of how my ancestors once felt about the shortest day, and the onset of the darkness.
I live in a place where there are woods almost all around me. For three seasons of the year, this is a great gift. I see deer and fox and raccoons and pheasants wandering under those trees. For three seasons of the year, the woods mean abundant life, and peace and health and comfort. We listen for the “peepers” in spring, to signal that the great awakening has begun, and that everything is about to burst into bloom. In summer, we listen for the sound of hunting owls, the calls of coyotes, the singing of night birds. And in the fall, sometimes we can even hear the smacking sound of antlers as deer and moose turn on the testosterone and fight for the best of the females.
For those three seasons, it feels exhilarating and exciting to be a part of the natural world.
But in winter, everything is so different.
In winter, I look out my kitchen window and I see the spindly shapes of the leafless branches, the sinister twists of the trees against the glowering sky. In winter, when I look into the woods from the safety of my deck, I hear the sounds of branches creaking and of wind moving restlessly through the pines.
In the winter, the woods are dark so early, and there are so many shadows. I look out to find the moon, but when it rises from behind the frozen wetlands, it looks as if it is covered in frost.
When I go outside in the early winter light, I find strange tracks in the snow, and I imagine the dangerous predators who stalk around our house while we sleep.
When I come home after dark, to our quiet, nearly empty neighborhood, and into my quiet, nearly empty house, I feel the ancient winter spirits nipping at my heels and I shiver in fear until I am inside, and the fire is lit and the kitchen is filled with good warm smells.
At those moments, on those dark winter nights, I can understand why the ancients celebrated the beauty and hopefulness of the evergreens. I know why they honored “The Green Man” with his ever lasting life and his ability to stand up to the darkness.
I am in no hurry to take my Christmas tree out of my living room, or to throw out the baskets of pine boughs on my hutch.
My pagan self is resisting the angry bite of the swirling snow as I light the candles and simmer the soup, and throw another log on the fire.
Happy Winter Solstice. Happy New Year. May we all endure until the coming of spring!