By Scott Willoughby
I’ve never really been what the gang over on Santa Claus Lane might describe as “Christmas-y.” But I’ve always thought I’d make a decent pagan.
Never having formally studied paganism, I’m not entirely sure why, although I do enjoy hanging out in the woods quite a bit, especially over a good Yule log. And that seems like a sort of membership requirement.
While I’m not particularly adept at counting down shopping days, I’ve long been acutely aware of solstice cycles. It helps that my first born emerged on the first day of summer. Right along with a stellar caddis hatch that still pretty much comes off like clockwork on her birthday.
The complementary winter solstice is slowly bearing down on us now, creeping in at a glacial pace that somehow belies the chaotic crush of Christmas. We’re entering the deep freeze, the shortest sunlit day of the year and the certified start of our longest season in the Colorado Rockies. I like to joke that this pivotal day, when our world tilts farthest from the sun, is my second-favorite of the year. That’s because there’s nowhere left to go but up. Every ensuing day until the first day of summer will be just a bit longer.
Reversing the sun’s ebb on the horizon certainly calls for a celebration of its own. True, these are historically the “famine months,” but given the modern conveniences of 2018, that dreary designation applies more to the trout than it does to most of us, a scarcity of angling sustenance notwithstanding. While it may be hard to celebrate hanging your fly rod above the hearth for winter, the pagans figured out long ago that this truly is the season of rebirth.
The day has been recognized for centuries with grand tribal gatherings, typically centered around bonfires kindled to help the sun with its task of warming the Earth. Now that the phenomenon of the solstice has been lost on much of the world, we’re saddled with awkward office parties, Black Friday victory dances and celebrating ugly sweaters as a substitute. But hope remains.
My own little clan has managed to salvage a few semi-sacred rituals, including heading up to mountain headwaters for an annual public lands hunt in the nearby National Forest for a tannenbaum to drop on the living room floor. Hunting for trees is considerably easier than most other quarry, since they don’t move very fast and the ranger will actually hand you a locator map if you ask. So it’s a good one for the kids. Armed with a bow saw, snow pants and a backpack full of snacks, every December we manage to emerge from the forest with a fir that would make Charlie Brown proud.
It’s also worth noting that “Midwinter” traditionally marks the time when most of the wine and beer made during the year is finally fermented, as long as we’re restoring ritual. So, dilly-dilly and all that.
But, truth be told, I’m more fixated on the cyclical aspect of this celestial celebration, and the correlated connection to life-death-rebirth deities related to the sun gods. For many of us, fishing is something of a spiritual endeavor, after all, grounded in the cycles of life.
It’s a tradition passed down through the generations, seasonally born anew like the fish and the seemingly magic transformation of the aquatic insects surrounding them. Those bugs lie dormant now, beneath the rocks on the wintry stream bottom, awaiting a change in the sun’s angle and intensity to create the appropriate conditions to emerge, spread their wings and multiply before passing on to add another link in the chain sometimes still known as the Sacred Circle.
Christened by new fallen snow, nature’s cathedral offers ample inspiration for contemplation of our Sacred Circle come the cold, dark days of winter, and appreciation both for days gone by and those to come. If nothing else, the solstice serves as the ultimate annual milestone, pulling us over the hump on the downhill slide toward summer.
So grab a goblet of grog, throw another log on the fire and savor the sunset. The feast will soon be underway.
Scott Willoughby is TU’s Colorado field coordinator. He lives and works near Vail.