Winter Solstice approaches--the longest night and shortest day of the year, when cold and darkness reach their peak, and light and warmth seem weakest. The sun, which each day has risen and set a little further to the south, now seems to stop in its tracks.

But Yule, the Pagan festival that honors the Solstice, is a very powerful moment of turning and a time of deep renewal. For now the sun will begin to rise a bit earlier each day, and set a bit later. At first the change will be almost imperceptible, but within a few days or weeks, we will clearly know that light is returning. Enfolded in the darkest hour is the seed of spring and rebirth.

I can't think of a time when we1ve needed that promise more. Although Pagans come in many political persuasions, many of us are deeply disheartened by the outcome of the Presidential election. I've spoken to hundreds and hundreds of people during my book tour this past autumn; most are looking to the future with fear and despair.

Yet rather than dwell on anger, I want us to consider the Solstice promise. We Pagans don't have comforting Bible verses to turn to in times of spiritual need--but we have something perhaps even better. We can turn to the natural world for teachings, strength and hope. That is where the promise of Solstice appears, because the darkness and the return of the sun's light remind us that the wheel always turns, that the darkest hour may well be just before the dawn, and every death holds within it the potential for a new opening, a new birth.

Whether our concerns are personal or collective, the rituals we celebrate on Yule can help us move from grief to empowerment. This year Solstice falls on Dec. 21. We in the Reclaiming tradition of Witchcraft celebrate on the eve of the holiday, beginning at sunset on the 20th. I'd like to suggest a ritual that includes four themes: Cleansing, Fire, Community, and Birth.

Cleansing: Solstice is a good time for letting go. In the Bay Area Reclaiming tradition, we gather at the beach just before sunset, cast a circle, and plunge into the freezing water to cleanse and release anything we don1t want to carry into the new cycle. Those who don1t want to plunge can meditate on the waves while remaining warmly clothed. The shock of cold, the wild wind on bare skin, the play of light on the water, are exhilarating and consciousness changing. But there are also those who practice a warm water tradition--who prefer to cleanse in a hot bath, or even a hot tub or sauna. A group can simply put a bowl of salt water in the center of the circle, and speak or wail or cry into it. However you do it, take some time on this night to meditate on what you want to let go of, and to release it.

Fire: Fire on this night feeds the energies of the sun and the light when they are at their lowest ebb. The old tradition was to burn the Yule log, a special log of sacred wood, all night long in the fireplace. We have a big bonfire at the beach, and warm ourselves, drumming, chanting and dancing around it after the plunge. If you have no fireplace nor possibility for a campfire, a ring of candles on a plate can work well. After you've done the work of releasing, take some time to fill up with the warmth and energy of fire, to reignite hope, energy, commitment to work for change, to strengthen our ability to use anger for creativity and transformation.

Community: Yule is a time for family and community, to be with those we are closest to, to share meals and songs and stories. We hold a vigil at our house that begins after the beach ritual and goes on through the night. We tell stories to the children (see Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Tradition, the book I wrote with Anne Hill and Diane Baker, for suggestions). And we bake bread, giving everyone a chance to knead dreams and hopes for the new cycle into the loaf. As the bread rises through the night, it resembles the swelling belly of the Goddess pregnant with the sun and the new cycle.

Community is our support in hard times. So this Yule, do something to strengthen community. Gather with friends, make food together, share stories of courage, of transformation and of hope.

Birth: The sun rises, reborn on Solstice morning. The wheel has turned. The new cycle is begun. Having grieved, let go, and filled ourselves with the fire of gestation and renewal, strengthened by the support of our community, we can now turn our attention to what we want to bring to birth. Frustration can keep us fixed on loss and worried about the future. But magic teaches us to hold a vision, to fix our minds and intention on what we want to create. So take some time to envision what we want to bring through in the new cycle, for yourself, for your community, for our country and the world. Call in all the power of the returning light to feed that vision, and then celebrate the dawn. In San Francisco, we go up to one of the high hills in the city to greet the sunrise, to sing and chant, and then go home to eat the bread we1ve baked, and to sleep.

Hard times can be strengthening times--which make us realize how much we do need each other, that can spur us to new levels of engagement and imagination. With courage and vision, we can bring to birth a world of beauty, balance and delight, with liberty and justice for all. In fact we must, for the sake of that interwoven web of life we hold sacred.

May the promise of Solstice, the light born out of the dark, show us a clear path and give us the fire and heart to walk forward with courage, vision and hope

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