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Four Seasons
Time Out of Time
In Babylon, the 12 intercalary days between the Winter Solstice and the New Year were seen as the time of a struggle between chaos and order, with chaos trying to take back over the world. Other cultures (Hindu, Chinese, Celtic) also viewed this as a time for reversing order and rules.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia from December 17 through December 24, an eight-day festival when social roles were reversed. No one was allowed to work but expected to gamble and feast instead. Hanukkah is another eight-day feast celebrated at this same time period. No one is supposed to work during the half hour each evening when the Hanukkah candles are lit, but in some traditions, women are not allowed to work at all during the eight days of Hanukkah. Playful gambling (with the dreidl) is also a part of Hanukkah traditions. And in Mexico, the Posadas, the processions re enacting the search of Joseph and Mary for shelter, take place during the eight days before Christmas.

I’ve always been curious about the Twelve Days of Christmas which end on January 6th with Twelfth Night. Supposedly each of the twelve days predicts what the weather will be like for the corresponding month of the year (that is, the first day foreshadows the weather in January, etc.). In Wales, they were considered ‘omen’ days. In Scotland, no court had power during the twelve days. The Irish believed that anyone who died during these days escaped purgatory and went straight to Heaven.

Tranquil snow scene
In medieval England, all work was suspended during the Christmas holidays. Women could begin spinning again on January 7th, the day after Twelfth Night, which was called St Distaff’s Day. According to Germanic tradition, the goddess Holle, dressed all in white, rides the wind in a wagon on the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this time, no wheels can turn: no spinning, no milling, no wagons (sleighs were used instead). Holle punished women who disobeyed the taboo. Women were also forbidden to work on the days of certain female saints whose holidays fall during the winter. Lacemakers and spinners take a holiday on Nov 25, St Catherine’s Day. And any woman who works on St Lucy’s Day (Dec 13) will find her work undone the next day.

Helen Farias suggests that the 12 days were originally 13 nights, celebrated from the dark moon nearest the solstice through the next full moon (Jan 1, New Year's Day). Greek women celebrated a Dionysian ritual on the full moon nearest the Winter Solstice.

The Greeks told a story about the halcyon days, the two week period before and after the solstice when the kingfisher built her nest on the waves and the sea was calm while she hatched her chicks.

It seems clear that this is a magical period, a time out of time, whatever dates you choose. It is a special time, existing outside of the usual rules, when work is forbidden and all routines should be turned upside down. If you compare the cycle of the year to other cycles, as Demetra George does in Mysteries of the Dark Moon, this time is equivalent to the dark moon in the lunar cycle, the time of bleeding in the menstrual cycle, the hours before dawn in the daily cycle and, in our life cycles, the period after death and before birth. It is the time right before your birthday in your personal year cycle, often a time to reassess what you've accomplished. All of these are powerful moments when new possibilities are seeded.

Many years ago, after reading an article by Normandi Ellis about Egyptian New Year magic, I began setting aside the week after Christmas to reflect on the past year. In an ideal world, I would spend each of the Twelve Days reflecting on that month in the past year, but usually I just set aside a few days to review certain significant areas of my life. I read through all my dreams and make a list of dream titles. I make another list of books I’ve read during the year (I've learned to record what I'm reading in my calendar). I make a timeline of significant events. Some years, I’ve even make a year necklace, with a bead representing each day of the year and special beads for special days. I imagine the day when I'm an old woman, wearing thirty or forty of these necklaces, poring over them and saying to someone, “And this was the year we got the dog. And here, this was a very good year.”

I also set aside time to gather with friends to share our reflections on the past year and to create images and wishes for the future. We consult our favorite oracles for guidance and make wish lists of what we would like in the coming year. Larry Block suggests all writers should make a list of 100 things they want. I think this would be a good exercise for everyone. If you kept these from year to year, it would be interesting to see how they change. Barbara Sher suggests writing a description of your ideal day in her first book, Wishcraft. This is a normal day (not a weekend or vacation day) but it contains everything you would most like to do. You write in present tense, starting with first thing in the morning and put in as much detail as possible. For instance, “It's 9 o’clock and I get up (I’m alone) and put on my black silk bathrobe with the dragons embroidered on it and go into the kitchen.”) You might collect pictures which represent your dreams and make a collage (although I usually reserve this project for Candlemas, February 1st, another New Years Day).

The Zapotecs of Mitla, Oaxaca, go to the Cross of Petitions on January 1st and leave miniature reproductions of their hopes, over which they pray and watch, says Frances Toor in A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. They represent horses, sheep and goats with little stones laid inside a circular corral of stones. They indicate cornfields by scratching out furrows and poking in straws for the corn. Yellow berries suggests oranges, grapefruit and lemons. Wealthy people sometimes hire mason to make their prayer houses. In San Miguel, the women make animals of dough to take to their sacred well in the hills above the village. I like this notion of making a concrete representation of my wishes for the New Year. So I’m thinking of creating one of those dioramas in a shoe box that I used to love to make in grade school as my New Years altar project for 1999.

Ellis, Normandi, “New Year Magic,” SageWoman, Samhain 9991
Farias, Helen, “Magical Ladies of the 13 Nights,” The Beltane Papers, Samhain 1992
George, Demetra, Mysteries of the Dark Moon, Harper San Francisco 1992
Sher, Barbara, Wishcraft, Ballantine 1979
Toor, Frances, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, Crown 1947 l

Spinning Wheel

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