I am a North-man. If you are thinking horned helms and swords, you are watching too much TV. I mean I am a man of the north, a man who has lived a lot of my life in the high and the wild, in the places where you can break a steel tool by trying to pick it up when the weather gets too cold, where you sometimes need a tiger torch to free a tire mud-welded to the pavement when the wind shifts and five above becomes twenty below again.
Come the winter, the days get short, the nights get cold, and the rain comes. You burn through twice as much calories just keeping your body normal as you adjust to the chill, and maintain the normal activity level. Everything is wet, and stays wet.
I was a soldier for a lot of years. I learned to love living rough, spending weeks or months living in the mud, dust or snow, but this left me with an understanding of the realities of the seasons that the comforts of home and plenty take away from most of us. The realities haven’t changed. For a lot of people the truth still remains the same. Winter is the dying time. It is always trying to kill you, and the day you make a mistake, get wet and don’t get dry, don’t eat when you burned off the reserves you had, or, gods forbid, get sick when you were already marginal, it wins.
When I was a child, the Irish Rovers were a favourite of mine, and when I thought of Christmas songs, I thought of the Little Match Girl. Nothing to me sang of the truth of the season more than the song of Little Match Girl. The little match girl dying in the cold was a truth our ancestors stepped over in the cities every winter through the ages that left us with such historical legacies as public work houses, debtors prisons.
I am a Socialist. Most of Scandinavia is, for the North teaches that it is always trying to kill you, that if you do not stand together, you will die. It teaches you that you are responsible for your own first, but for others in the community as well, for alone, none of us is enough.
I am not a Communist, in fact I spent my salad years training to shoot at them, a war that may be fought yet if things keep going strange out Ukraine way. I am a believer in our constitutional monarchy, with rule through representative democracy, a division of powers between federal and provincial levels to balance collective needs and regional differences. I don’t believe we, as one of the richest nations on earth should have starving children, or those to whom falling thermometers may mean not waking in the morning.
I am a Heathen, not one of the Christians this song was written for. We do not suffer from the need to believe the world is as it is not. We do not have a trouble understanding the reality of the season is in fact the reason for it.
Cold and dark sap at the connections we have to life. Cold and dark drive us inside, away from each other. A time of privation and solitude, of depression and loss. A time the weak will die, those who have no strong connection may well stop fighting and pass even when they have the strength to go on.
We are commanded by the gods to wassail hard in the heart of the dark, to brighten each other with gifts, to exchange hospitality with each other and make merry. The flame of life is guttering until we fan it bright and hot again. This is the Yuletide, the meaning and the purpose of it. Odin as the Yulefather is a gift giver, but his punishment for those who break hospitality, for those who forget the reason for his laws are justly feared. We are in this together, forget it at our peril.
Those in our society who work the hardest, give the most. Those who are rich are farthest from the cold, the dark, and the cost. Those who have clawed their way up from it, or who have survived blows or tests that they feared might cost them all they had built look up on those who have little and understand that any help they give can make a difference.
A gift for a gift is the basis of heathen practice. Reciprocal gifting relationships are the foundation of our practice. We are reminded in the Hamaval of the uses of the wealth we have, little though it may be. For our friends we show our appreciation by exchanging gifts, and guesting, that those relationships we have found important to us are recognized and strengthened.
- Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,
As each for himself can see;
Gift-givers’ friendships | are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.
We look to our folk, to our people, to our community and we see those who have less than us, who do not enjoy the bounty that we do, and to them we offer not charity, not a beggar’s token, but a gift from one person to another, a recognition of another person as worthy of such a gift. We do not give to those lesser than us, we extend a gift to those we hope will one day be in a position to extend a similar gift to another in need, when they are in a better place. Paying it forward was our tradition a thousand years ago, and I hope it to be still a thousand years from now.
- No great thing needs | a man to give,
Oft little will purchase praise;
With half a loaf | and a half-filled cup
A friend full fast I made.
We say when we make our sacrifice, “From the gods, to the earth, to us. From us, to the earth, to the gods”. We seek by our offerings given to the land to complete the gift cycle, to close the circle between the gods, ancestors, wights of the land, and ourselves. We cannot pay back the gods for their gifts, so we show our gratitude by using those gifts to help those the teachings of our ancestors, and the wisdom of our gods and goddesses have shown us are in need. We honour our gods more by showing we respect their teachings than by offering the most potent of powers gifts that can have only symbolic meaning to them, but make real benefits to those in need.
- Better no prayer | than too big an offering,
By thy getting measure thy gift;
Better is none | than too big a sacrifice.
Heathens don’t choose between helping those in need and brightening the lives of those that are important to us. Both are important, both are part of what it means to keep the Yuletide. We wassail hard in the heart of the dark. We reach out to those who have gone silent, we renew the bonds that tie them to their community. We look out our window at the cold and damp and understand not everyone has a choice to be on this side of the glass, and that is actually not OK. I celebrate the Yule tide, I drink and feast, I gift and renew my ties with family and friends. I also do what I can for those in need, because there is not a lot except wyrd (fate) between me who gives the gift this year, and those in need who receive it. The north teaches you that the night is cold, dark, long, and ever so hungry. Those who face the night wondering if they will see the morn are never far from my thoughts this time of year. The dead are close to us at Yule, and those who are not tightly bound to life are too apt to join them.
We make our light blaze in the heart of the dark, we feast in the time of privation, we offer gifts in the time of want, because we will the folk to see through the dark times until the returning sun.