Holy Light

Burn bright O Holy Light,
Shine ’til the morning
Hope through the longest night
Of new Day’s dawning

From “Holy Light – a Pagan reverence to Santa Lucia” by Laurel Olson Mendes

I am Seasonally Affective. Not just depressed in the winter, but at times hypomanic or euphoric in the summer. Spring is like a revelation to me, and autumn trades in wry gallows humor and a sense of mourning. I can only imagine how much more pronounced the effect would be if I lived somewhere less temperate than the San Francisco Bay Area. Here the light and the water take turns feeding the land. In winter here, there is rarely snow, and the hills are finally turning bright green as they drink down the rain after summer’s fire threats. But that does not make the days any longer, or the nights any less dark. The animals and fruiting trees understand with me that the fleeing light means it’s winter, even if the grasses and evergreens only care about the water.

On the one hand, the more entwined my life becomes with my devotion to the Vanir, the more I feel a spiritual context for the effects of my SAD. It feels like there is some deeper meaning to my fluctuations in energy, my seasonal mourning and joy. On the other hand, the effects grow stronger every year, and in some ways, having this context makes the effects more dramatic than they might otherwise be.

So more than most people around me, I find myself deeply emotionally invested in the seasonal gods of the Germanic pantheons, especially the bringers of hope. For most of the year, my various gods support me. Freyr is with me. Freyja guides me. In the spring I am all but bouncing off the walls when Ostara smiles on me for a while. I may not feel Them all the time, if I am too focused on other things, if my anxiety gets the better of me, but most of the time simply pausing to rest and let myself remember Them is enough to assure me that I made no mistake setting foot on this path.

But in the late fall, Freyr becomes the Lord of the Mound, Ostara is thousands of miles away, and Freyja’s influence gets harder and harder to feel as my energy ebbs with the light. Yuletide is a very different season from the rest of the year, different gods and spirits reign for a while. Skadhi and Ullr only rarely come down from the snowy mountains, but Mother Holda reigns everywhere. For a brief shining time, the Julfadhr rides instead of the Wild Hunt, and He may be Freyr or Odin, Thor or Njordh. Perhaps They take turns, or perhaps the Julfadhr is truly Himself unique, and They all merely resemble Him in different ways. I have my suspicions about the seasonal mantles.

At this time of year, I find myself clinging to Lucia, who I was introduced to through Hrafnar, and through my Mom’s stories from my Swedish foster-aunt. In Sweden Lucia is depicted as a blonde young woman in a white gown with a red sash, wearing a wreath of greenery on her head supporting 7 or 9 candles, and carrying a plate of seasonal morning pastries. Sometimes she looks serious. Often she is smiling. But she is never harsh or stern.

Santa Lucia isn’t Her pre-Christian name, obviously. Lucia is a Roman Catholic saint. The Swedish Protestant traditions attributed to Her name and feast day are relatively modern – a few hundred years old at most – and are grounded mostly in the fact that “Lucia” is from the Latin for “Light”. Of course, much of the modern tradition is indeed Catholic, and based on the life story of St. Lucy the 4th century martyr from Syracuse. They even have Christian reasons for each of the symbols she wears in Sweden, even though they don’t match any of the traditional Catholic iconography for the St. Lucy at all. But those reasons sound similar to those given for eggs and rabbits and “Easter” during the celebration of Christian Holy Week. They’re all adaptions of local Germanic folk traditions.

Still, while the tradition as we know it now is unquestionably Scandinavian, it’s not terribly Heathen, and we have very little to go on for how it might connect back to pre-Christian winter practices. So why celebrate it?

Well, it’s been quite easy for me to syncretize Lucia to Sunna, despite no real evidence that this was quite the connection being made historically. However, it seems the Lucia tradition in Sweden actually is grounded in Yuletide mythology, just not quite the bits I was expecting.

According to this Applied Theatre Researcher article from 2008 the traditions we now associate with both Yule and St. Lucy’s day are grounded in the stories of the Lussi, and the Wild Hunt. In the same way the daunting stories of Krampus and Perchta have mutated over the centuries, contributing to the benevolent image of Santa Claus today, the Lussi were originally capricious spirits, part of the larger landscape of landvettir, tomte, nissen, trolls, and so forth. They were known to be particularly active just before the Winter solstice, and required some appeasing. Given the context, there’s probably a fairly strong connection between the Lussi and Frau Holle in Her various guises. Indeed, Grimm says that St. Lucy is syncretized to Perchta (and thus potentially Holda) in some places. It would make sense, given the dual nature of continental Germanic land goddesses, and the description of Lucia in Swedish tradition.

It’s not entirely clear, even from this article how exactly we got from the Lussi to the modern traditions of Lucia (all the others I could find on the Lussi so far are just quoting this one, usually without citing the source). The name is phonetically similar, and there are of course calendrical connections, but more intriguing to me is that the shift in traditions from one to the other, and the effects of Christianization, follow similar patterns for the transformation of Germanic folk traditions throughout Europe. So the link is obviously there, but as is too often the case, the nature of the link is a bit blurry.

As much as I love research, and delight in finding things connecting intellectually that felt connected spiritually, in this instance, I don’t really care how it happened. I don’t care if my perception of Lucia as a benevolent, wintery mask of Sunna or perhaps Holda is entirely a modern conceit on my part.

I need Her.

In my work as a Seidhkona, I have been taught, and have repeatedly found that Nauthiz is a more compelling force that almost any other, and I need Lucia. In the darkest hours of the winter, that wreath of candles keeps my eyes open. The strains of Her song floating through my consciousness keep me breathing. I know the light is coming, that in the spring, Ostara will lift me up from the last dregs of winter, and that sliver of light, of hope, is what keeps me alive through the pit of depression that too often swallows me for January and February.

I know Lucia is there, and it will be okay. I have thought perhaps Lucia is Sunna. I see now perhaps She is Holda. Whoever She is, She is welcome in my home, and in my heart.

Light our poor candle-flame!
Put every shade to flight!
Burn bright O Holy Light
Holy Lucia!

–Ember–

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About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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