Friday December 19th 2014
Detail from the Penitent Magdalen by Georges De Latour

Detail from the Penitent Magdalen by Georges De Latour

The darkest night of the year is almost upon us. The nadir, the bottom, the grave, the tomb — and the womb. We are sliding gently into this zero hour, lighting our candles and fireworks to keep away the creeping shadows.

Christmas is a beautiful celebration, and a deep understanding, of the light within darkness. There is no greater light than a new life.

Much of our Christmas — the tree, the reindeer, the candles, the Yule log — was imported from Germany and Scandinavia. And many of their Christmas traditions have their origins in the not very distant pagan past.

One such mid-winter festival of light was Lussinatta, Lussi night.  Lussi was a she-demon (and cat-lover) who led a wild, bunch of ogres and trolls across the Scandinavian winter sky, scooping up those unwary enough to be out in the deepest night. The best defence against Lussi was light — so you put candles in the window to keep her away.

Of course, Lussi’s night became Saint Lucy’s Day, one of the most famous and gorgeous folk-festivals in northern Europe, in celebration of the patron saint of the blind, glaziers, and some say, writers. On this day in Scandinavia, a girl is elected to embody the virgin martyr. She dresses in white and, wearing a blazing crown of candles, leads a procession of other girls and boys, dressed as stars or trolls or angels. How this Italian saint became an icon of Scandinavian identity who knows, but it’s curious that the song sung by Swedish children at this time is to a Neapolitan tune. Santa Lucia is, of course, also the patron saint of Naples.

The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.

Swedish Santa Lucia Song

Here is a recipe for Lucy’s Cats — golden saffron buns brought to your bed on Saint Lucy’s morn, 13 December, by your ever-loving eldest daughter. The symbolism? Ingesting the light? According to the old calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice.

Winter Night, Alexei Savrasov

Winter Night, Alexei Savrasov

So wicked Lussi, leading a Wild Hunt through the sky, segues into lucid Lucy with her starboys. In pagan times, Lussi rode around between the winter solstice and Yule, a time when Odin rides the night sky with his own pack of hounds, and in this country, Herne the Hunter with his jingling bells canters through the old forests. These are, of course, descriptions of primal energies, energies that are easier to see or feel when it’s dark outside. Lussi sounds a lot like our friend Lilith.

Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, Georges de Latour

Detail from Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, Georges de Latour

And maybe that is part of the point. These energies are always with us, but we have the opportunity now to see them for what they are. We can sing carols, light up the tree and turn our backs on the dark, or we can peer out with the inner vision, like Saint Lucy, and confront our demons.

This winter solstice is exceptionally profound. It is also the night of the New Moon, so even the reflected light of the Sun will be extinguished. Your own burning candle will be more important than ever.

In this annual battle between dark and light, we are certain that light will win. The little holy glow of hope, the flame of recovery, life — these burn through the dark night of the winter solstice, not just reminding us to hope and have faith, but as emblems of faith itself. The days will grow longer.

And when we experience our own personal, painful midwinters — midwinters of mind or heart or soul — we need that one point of light to pull us through to spring.

Hear Annie Lennox singing In The Bleak Midwinter.

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  1. Cornelia Cooper says:

    What a beautiful, poetic soul you are! Thank you.

  2. Jamma says:

    Great post, Christina!
    I’d never heard of Lussi so googled her and was led to this French singer – Lussi in the Sky (SO many connotations there – is she who the Beatles were actually singing of?) … Check out this song by Lussi in the Sky … wish I spoke French so I could understand the lyrics, but the costuming/art direction looks pure Lussi/Lilith!

  3. Rachel says:

    I love this post; for me it is so appropriate, for I gave birth to my one and only son on 21st December, 18 years ago, and through the years, especially through an awful divorce and the difficulties afterwards, he was (and is still) the light in my life. Knowing I had this small child to care for and nurture kept me going. Now he is an independent young man and lives mostly with his dad, and I have my own life to create, which I’m finding quite hard after having him as the main priority in my life for so long.

  4. Blaine says:

    I so love the depth of your stories and reflections!! I am fascinated by old pagan rituals and folk stories and how they are a part of our lives today. Beautiful blog today. Thank you!!

  5. Pamela says:

    Thank you Christina for introducing me yet again to another hauntingly beautiful tune. Very appropriate given the energy of the moment.