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Banishing the Darkness of Midwinter

by Peter Baltensperger

The dark days of Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter, when the nights are at their longest and the Sun is at its weakest in the great annual cycle of birth, growth, death, rebirth, and renewal, have since time immemorial given rise to particular rituals and festivals in different societies and cultures around the world and across the ages. As one of the major thresholds leading from one period into another, a Rite of Passage on a cosmic scale, it has always been considered to be a time of uncertainty and danger. As such, it is regarded as requiring special treatment and dedicated observation with specifically designed rituals to facilitate the passage, defeat the dominance of darkness, and encourage and celebrate the rebirth and the renewed strength of the Sun.

Stone Age cave dwellers of tens of thousands of years ago already recognized the significance of the gradually dying Sun and its miraculous rejuvenation. They went to great length in their attempts to banish the darkness and appropriately signify the return of the lifegiving source of light promising lengthening days and new life. Eons later, the Egyptian culture celebrated the Sun God Osiris during the Solstice days, the Greek civilization their own Sun God Helios, and Oriental society's Baalim, God of the sky and the heavens.

The Romans commemorated the eightday feast of the Saturnalia, culminating in the Winter Solstice, which they variously called Dies natalis invicti (Birthday of the Undefeated), Natalis solis invicti (Birth of the Undefeated Sun), and Sol invictus(Undefeated Sun). Similarly, the ancient tribes of continental Europe celebrated the twelve days of Jul (pronounced the same as "Yule" but with a short "u") as their own specifically designed Midwinter festival.

In many cultures throughout history, the rituals associated with the Winter Solstice and the Midwinter days preceding and following the actual day of transition have been basically twofold. The days leading up to the Solstice are devoted to the banishment of the demons (ghosts, trolls, evil spirits) believed to dominate the darkness and capable of penetrating the barriers between their own realms and the ordinary world of reality at such crucial turning points, and to the driving out of the darkness itself and the Winter as the cause of the darkness. The day of the Solstice itself and the days following it are devoted to the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun, the lighting up of the darkness with fires and other flames to hasten the return of the seasons of light, and the reawakening of the forces of fertility for the impending months of renewal and growth.

The banishment of the demons and the driving out of the darkness are accomplished primarily with noise, bonfires, and fireworks, and terrifying, monstrous masks worn by special celebrants and groups, all rooted in the ancient beliefs that the forces of darkness could be driven away by frightening them in various ways. Midwinter festivals held across Switzerland from early December to early January are characterized by at least one and often all of these ancient ways designed to cleanse the world of all evil at this crucial time of transformation, ensure a safe transition from the one period into the next, promote the powers of good and, in particular, ensure that the forces of fertility will triumph over the sterility of Winter.

Prompted by various revisions to the different calendars in use over time, many of the rituals and festivities originally associated directly with the Solstice were gradually moved to the transition from the old year into the new. During the 17th century, December 31 became the last day of the year and was named "St. Silvester's Day" after Pope Silvester 1 (280 335 CE) who died on that day. Ever since then, what we call New Year's Eve in North America has been celebrated in Switzerland under the name of "Silvester."

Similarly, the last day of school before the Midwinter holidays, which usually falls on or very close to the Solstice itself, became known as "School Silvester." On this day, the young people enact the ageold ritual of driving away the evil spirits in the early morning hours, waking the sleeping to protect them from possible harm from the demons, and celebrating the great Midwinter feast together with the end of the school term in their own special ways.

School Silvester was without doubt one of my favorite celebrations during the years of my own youth. Unfortunately, during recent years, certain restrictions have had to be placed on the festivities due to excessive behavior and vandalism on the part of certain fringe individuals and groups. On the whole, however, the celebrations are still being carried on in much the same way as I remember them, and I love to remember them as one of the unmitigated high points in the cycles of our years and the progressionof my own life from innocent childhood into increasingly sophisticated youth.

Our School Silvester ritual began as early in the morning as we could possibly convince our parents to let us get up, sometime between four and five, when the whole city was still in deep slumber and the night was pitch dark. As soon as our parents let us out the door, we took to the streets armed with pots and pans and wooden spoons, horns and whistles, rattles and shakers, and whatever other noise makers we decided to use or had been able to obtain, and joined up with those who had already managed to escape parental restrictions.

Lighting our way with a few lanterns or flashlights, we wandered along the streets of our neighborhood making as much noise as we possibly could, banging our pots and pans, blowing our horns and whistles, shouting and singing and chanting all the way to ensure that not a single soul along our way would still be asleep. Noisily we went from house to house, collecting friends and classmates along the way, forming into larger and larger and progressively louder groups until we could barely hear ourselves anymore.

It was complete abandon for us, our parade through the streets, a cleansing ritual of immense proportions for our young souls, to be able to make all this noise without regard for anyone or anything else. We may not have know, at our age, what profound and ageold ritual we were in fact enacting with our merrymaking and all our noise and carrying on, and I don't remember ever being taught the background of our festivities. But that may have been just as well, for it was in the execution of what was our right and, we felt, our duty, that we found the incredible joy of being young and exuberant, in the company of our friends, and engaged in what was a very important and deeply significant (though undefined) participation in and preservation of a very old and inherently momentous tradition.

Once we had collected everyone belonging to our particular group and class and felt we had successfully awakened everybody in our area, we split into smaller segments again and went back to some of the houses where we knew the parents would be waiting for us and taking us in. They usually had hot drinks ready for us to warm us after our sojourn through the chilly December darkness and servedus cookies and other snacks to make up for the lack of breakfast we would have been much too excited to eat before we left our homes. These feeding stops were also the reward for us for performing our duties in waking everyone from their slumber, thus preventing any possible harm that might have befallen them had they remained asleep in their beds and subject to the evil influences of the early morning hours.

Then it was back out into the streets again for more noise making and singing and cajoling. Gradually we began to wend our ways out of the various neighborhoods towards our schools, reuniting with other groups until we were all together again and ready to head for our classes. We were required to be in school by eight, allowing us a good three hours to pursue our shenanigans and various visitations. And since it was a special, shortened school day, we were able to continue our festivities in our classrooms with the teachers providing us with treats of their own and joining us in the celebration of the last day of school in the old year.

The entire affair was invariably a most memorable occasion that we engaged in every year, as we moved through the various grades and levels of our childhood and youth, upholding the ancient tradition of Silvester as it had originated long before our time and as it would continue long after we had completed our school years and graduated to the Silvester celebrations of the adults.

We didn't use masks for our Midwinter ritual in the region where I grew up, but many communities across the country, particularly in the alpine regions, have long been known for their elaborate costumes and richly historical masks. Intricately carved or meticulously constructed from various materials, and colorfully decorated into terrifying images, the alpine masks cover the entire heads of their bearers, effectively frightening away the evil spirits of Winter and cleansing the mountain air with their grotesque visages.

Equipped with drums, bugles, trumpets, and horns, bands of masked and noisy revelers parade through their towns and villages during the early hours of December mornings in much the same way as we wandered through the streets of our neighborhoods on our own Silvester, with much the same intent, andstill much the same as the ancient Helvetians of long ago with their own frightening masks.

In other regions, huge cow bells and cow horns are the noise makers of choice, together with large whips being skillfully cracked and guns being fired in the stillness of the early morning air. Still other communities build giant bonfires to drive out Winter along with the negative aspects of the old year. At the same time, the flames of the pyres light up the darkness that has been a way of life for so many weeks and awaken the fertility of the area for the new growing season.

The noise making, the bonfires, and the fireworks serve another, rather different function as well in these Midwinter festivities. They are an expression of the undying and indestructible love of life, an affirmation of the joy and the intrinsic value of life at a time of year when all of Nature is in a deep, deathlike sleep, covered with snow and cloaked in infertile darkness most of the time. The rituals and the celebrations remind people that the darkness will pass, that the Sun will be reborn, life will return to the forests and the fields, and the cycles will renew themselves again even though it may not appear that way during the long nights of the Winter season.

The actual end of the year, the evening of the real day of Silvester, is celebrated with much the same premises and based on much the same underlying principles. Noisy parades, firecrackers and fireworks, and masked revelers are the order of the day in towns and cities across the country. Partygoers, be it at public events in hotels, restaurants, bars, and dance halls, at invitational gatherings hosted in private homes, or simply in parks and streets around town, are invariably equipped, and in many places supplied, with all manner of whistles and rattles and horns to raise as much ruckus as they possibly can to ensure a safe and joyful passage into the new year.

The ancient Helvetian Celts would probably be shaking their heads were they miraculously transported into one of the presentday Midwinter celebration in the Switzerland they populated so long ago. Or perhaps, I would like to think, they would be beaming with pride and joy at seeing their own rites and rituals so well preserved and still attended to with such fervor and dedication in the land they once called their home. For this is the land they helped develop with the richness of their culture, their deepseated beliefs in the sanctity of Nature, their own reverence for the eternal cycles, and their dedicated observations of the important thresholds and the significant cyclical points of transformation in the great Wheel of the Year.

Peter Baltensperger
London, Ontario, Canada

Peter is a solitary, eclectic Pagan of Helvetian (Swiss/Celtic) origin. He has written six collections of poetry, a volume of popular historical nonfiction, and a spiritual science-fiction novel, "Guardians of Time" (Three Tree Press, 1984). His essays, short stories, and poems have been featured in periodicals across Canada and in many other countries over the past 45 years. He was born and raised in Switzerland, but now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife Viki and their six cats, a turtle, and several tanks of fish.