My first ever Winter Solstice as a Pagan has turned out to be even more magical than I imagined.
The day began with watching the sun rise with my husband at Windmill Hill, the highest point in Gravesend (the great thing about watching the dawn at Yule is that you don’t have to get up too early to do it – the sun rose at 8:00 this morning). Due to the cloud cover and the houses and trees to the east, we didn’t actually get to see the sun, but that’s fine – I still made an offering of sherry to the Sun. At the moment of sunrise, my husband played Thus Spoke Zarathustra on his phone, which I’ve always found a perfect piece for representing the power and majesty of the dawn – but there was something quite comical about playing it when we couldn’t actually see the sun and it made us laugh!
We spent the rest of the day getting ready for my parents’ arrival, as I’d booked for us to all go for the annual carol concert at Dode Church, where we were married and handfasted. After enjoying some mulled wine, roast chestnuts and other snacks, we all went up to Dode.
The church had been especially decorated for Christmas, with boughs of evergreen and holly hanging here and there – including a huge arrangement above the altar with mistletoe hanging at the bottom. At the beginning, the church’s owner Doug explained the history of the church and the ancient village it once served, including their tragic demise through the Black Death. In memory of the people of Dode, the very first carol was dedicated to them and the electric lights in the church were dimmed, leaving only the flickering candle light. The carol chosen for this was “Silent Night,” the first verse of which (“Sleep in Heavenly peace“) was incredibly poignant when thinking of the people who used to live there. This was followed by a very lively and suitably medieval-sounding rendition of Gaudete, sung by a small a cappella choir (their only accompaniment was the occasional beat on the bodhran). The audience could then join in for the next three carols, which were Away In a Manger, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. This was followed by a haunting solo performance of Little Road to Bethlehem by a very young, very talented singer. After this, the choir sung one of my favourite carols – the medieval Coventry Carol. It was so beautiful and moving that I was almost in tears. We then all sung The Holly and the Ivy and O Come All Ye Faithful, and finally the choir sang a really fun round of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Right at the end, delicious mulled wine and mince pies were served, and we gave donations to the Children With Cancer charity.
This probably sounds like quite a Christian way to spend a Pagan celebration, but I really don’t see it any conflict with this at all. For one thing, Dode is not a consecrated church and it is in fact built on an ancient Pagan mound. This, in addition to the standing stones outside and the handfastings that Doug himself performs there, makes it a very Pagan-friendly place. I would even say that it’s one of the key places of Pagan “pilgrimage” in Kent. For another, my family and I really love carol singing – it probably comes from being ex-Catholics! Singing well-known songs about love and light with other people is a wonderful tradition that I’m not going to give up any time soon. Finally, I think the themes of many carols are very Pagan anyway, and it doesn’t take much imagination to interpret references to the baby Jesus as references to the rebirth of the sun. And songs such as “The Holly and the Ivy” are very Pagan anyway.
And the magic didn’t end when we returned. We heard the foxes making a lot of noise outside our house – perhaps their equivalent of carols to sing in the solstice! And then, my husband swore he saw a white fox. Anyone who knows anything at all about Shinto will know that the white fox is a very auspicious sign, especially for followers of Inari – perhaps the most auspicious sign of all. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t see it myself, but I’m really glad that my husband saw it; I really hope it means good things are headed his way! I made some offerings to Inari-sama at my outside altar, including some festive chestnuts and a clementine, and thanked her for a wonderful solstice and for letting my husband see the white fox. All the time I was making my prayers, I could hear the foxes calling (although I didn’t see them).
Everything today, from watching sunrise with my husband to singing carols at the place where we were married, made this Yule a really, really special and memorable one. I feel somewhat sad that it’s all over now – but I still have Christmas and New Year to look forward to!
Some more photos from Dode: