Winter begins today in the northern hemisphere, though being so close to the equator it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Tampa was a VERY balmy 70 degrees F by the time I went outside at 6:30 this morning and the high was 80. But the winter solstice is not necessarily about the cold, but about darkness, the shortest day, and the longest night.
Winter solstice falls during Yule from which most of our modern Christmas traditions come. Both holidays have a history of ghost stories and things that knock on your bedroom window in the night. Yule, like Halloween, is thought to have been a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. The dead, or draugr (a term I’m co-opting for a fantasy novel), could walk amongst us, sometimes taking part in the Wild Hunt which, if you see, you may be spirited away to join. Glimpsing the Wild Hunt could also be prophetic of coming war.
One of the creepier accounts of this death march through the sky comes from 1127 when an abbot, Henry d’Angely, was appointed to a monastery in Britain. Apparently he was terrible and witnesses said the following went on through to Easter:
Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible…and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.
But perhaps the concept of dark, vengeful spirits is only the bastardization of a more positive procession of lost gods and goddesses through the sky, who only wish to bestow good will. Faerie folk taking to the sky, welcoming the rebirth of the sun.
While a horde of demonic hunters is pretty frightening, what chills me a bit more is the concept of The Stranger. During Yule, you may be visited by an entity, wearing a human visage or perhaps not, seeking shelter. Accounts report The Stranger being met in the street, looking mostly like a man, but not quite. Sure, he wears the clothes, the skin, even the smile, but there’s something hollow there, something missing. That’s The Need, and he is searching for someone to help fill a void.
Other stories tell of an incessant rapping at the door or window, but no form on the other side when answered. You’re advised to invite the unseen into your home, offer it a place at your table and a means to keep warm that night. In this case, opening your heart to the wandering may bring you luck. Good or bad, I’m unsure.
Tomorrow, the days begin to grow, the sun is reborn, and though half of the world will plunge into the coldest weather it will see all year, the promise of spring is on the horizon. But tonight we’re in that limbo, and if you linger long enough at a crossroads or in a doorway, be sure to try and catch a glimpse of the other side. Or not.
For me, well, the cats keep mulling about the front door and cocking their ears at a sound I can’t quite make out. At least, I don’t think I can. So I’m off to investigate.