Messages from the Trees – a ritual for the Winter Solstice – Episode 28

Don't make a New Year's resolution. Listen to what the trees have to tell you. And follow their advice!

It’s January. Like the two-headed Roman God Janus, for whom the month is named, this is the time when we look back to the year just passed and forward to the year just begun.  

Two weeks ago, I led a Winter Solstice ritual at Meg’s Inspirations, a gift shop and spiritual boutique in Manchester, CT, where I live. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year. Festivities celebrate the promise that the Sun is on his way back to us. Though the ground here is frozen, and the season of snow, sleet and ice is picking up speed, this is a time of hope. The sun, whether you spell is Sun or Son, has been “reborn.” 

Let me set the scene for the ritual. There were 14 women, seated in a semi-circle in front of two, long banquet tables placed end to end. The tables were draped in red and white cloth. Thanks to Meg and her husband, Ed, we had at least 30 Yule logs, some cut to lay horizontally, some cut as pillars, some with white tea lights, some with red, green, or white tapers. The logs stretched across both tables, along with garlands of artificial winter greens and an abundant, aromatic layer of pine, cedar, and holly that Meg had cut just that morning. Along with the Yule logs, I had an assortment of tabletop trees, and hundreds of white fairy lights and crystal snow. …We dimmed the overhead lights and imagined we had entered a magical forest. 

I asked three people, Sue, Lillian, and Coleen, to read the lyrics of a traditional Old English song: Light is Returning.  After they read, we played the song as performed by Mother Tongue on their CD This Winter’s Night. Here are the lyrics. Listen while you hold the image of the magical forest. 

Light is returning,

Even though this is the darkest hour.

No one can hold back the dawn.

Let’s keep it burning,

Let’s keep the light of hope alive.

Make safe our journey through the storm.

Our planet is turning

Circles on her path around the sun.

Earth Mother is calling her children home. 

We talked about what we hoped for in the new year and acknowledged what we would leave behind in the old year. 

The Yule logs represented that continuity.  In the Old World, the December Yule logs were cut from the pole erected for the fertility festival of Beltane in May. Traditionally, a family preserved a charred piece of their Yule log and used it to kindle the fire the following December. 

In years past, I’ve created a Winter Solstice ritual with a bridge of light to symbolize the inner journey from darkness to dawn. One year, we created a giant wreath of evergreens, big enough for each person to step through, as though being reborn through Mother Nature’s symbols of everlasting life. This year, I focused on trees.

The basic mythological structure of a tree is simple: the roots represent the Underworld, the realm of the ancestors, the trunk the mundane world of our everyday life, and the branches the Upper world, the realm of the spirits.  

We know that the mythology of many ancient cultures includes a Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge. We see the magic of trees in fairy tales. You know how it goes. The hero enters the forest, gets lost, faces a life-or-death challenge, gets help from a magical being. Maybe she learns a secret or receives a magical tool of some kind. In facing the challenge head-on, the hero discovers something about herself. She is forever transformed by that knowledge. 

Specific trees have their stories, too. Here in New England where maple trees are common, the sweet sap that rises in February is the blood of Mother Nature as Father Sun gently rouses her from winter’s sleep. 

Wherever you live, you know that the hole at the base of many kinds of trees — that arched opening framed with gnarly wood laced with lichen and guarded by mushrooms — that hole is the doorway to the enchanted world of the Faeries. You do know that, don’t you? 

Now, if you live among elms, with their two trunks forming a V-shape, you might know it as the “vase” tree. I’ve been told by someone who grew up next to a Native American reservation that the elm is also called “Woman with long legs.” 

In Siberia, trees were believed to hold up the sky. 

In Bali, there’s a story about a tree that’s so fragrant the natives feared that, if found by foreigners, the trees would be stolen. So they would place rotting corpses in the forest to discourage exploration. 
In Indonesia, villagers once used the sipate tree as a grave for babies who died before they started teething. Their bodies would be wrapped in cloth and placed upright in a niche carved in the trunk of a living tree. The opening would then be covered with a rectangular “door” of sorts woven with palm fibers. …Why the sipate tree? Because its sap is white, like milk…and people believed that the tree would nurture the spirit of the infant as it made its journey to the Afterlife. (You can see a photo of the baby grave tree in the book Wise Trees by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.) 

Think about the trees you’ve read about in books. Alice Through the Lookinglass by Lewis Carroll comes to mind immediately. Alice follows the White Rabbit down the hole at the base of a tree and her adventure begins. 

Think about trees you’ve seen in movies. Who could forget the scene in Avatar when we see the tree, the life force for countless generations of the blue beings. 

And then there’s the Subaru commercial with the hippy-era grandmother hugging a tree at Woodstock as she tells her pre-teen granddaughter how she met and fell in love with the girl’s grandfather right there under that tree. 

Here’s a real-life example. In 2017, I was the wedding officiant for Ashley and Clayton. They held their ceremony on a Christmas tree farm. The land had been in Clayton’s family for generations. It came with an old farmhouse that had been empty for many years, exposed to the ravages of New England winters. Several years before the wedding, Clayton took over the property. Over time, he and Ashley renovated the house. And they carved a heart with their initials on a tree in the backyard. I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I think about their wedding and how we were all surrounded by Christmas trees, the image of joy and generosity, hope and light eternal.      

Unfortunately, that’s not what I feel when I see video of the wildfires in California and Australia, the loss of human life and property, the threat to the Giant Redwoods, and to the life and habitat of the kangaroo and koala. Life in general has familiarized with the loss of life or property. Yet, even if we’ve never seen a Giant Redwood or a koala in the wild, we feel protective.       

Did you have a favorite tree as a child? Mine was a weeping willow. It grew right outside my bedroom window. I grew up in Tidewater, Virginia, on land reclaimed from the Great Dismal Swamp. The land was always wet. And weeping willows have shallow roots. In the aftermath of a hurricane, “my” tree lay on its side, its root ball, well over seven feet wide, exposed in some earthy autopsy.  

My friend Carla Neggers grew up in a big family. Craving quiet time to read, she would climb a tree in her yard and sit there for hours. She’s now a best-selling novelist and I’m certain she remembers that tree with fondness.   

For just a moment, imagine what the world would be like if all tees looked the same — same bark, same leaves, same sap. Imagine that all trees — all trees —  are only five feet tall. And now imagine that the lifespan of a tree is the same as the average lifespan of a human. Those are some of the questions posed in the book, Wise Trees, I mentioned earlier.  When I asked those questions at the Winter Solstice ritual, people gasped.    

Fortunately, trees are not all the same, and they have life spans all their own. Thinking of their unique qualities, I asked 12 people (Laura, Terry, Debbie, Beth, Peggy, Lisa, Denise, Sue, Lillian, Colleen, Melanie, and Lisa) to read the lyrics to another traditional Old English song recorded by Mother Tongue on their CD, This Winter’s Night. Here are the lyrics: .  

Oaken logs will warm you well,

That are old and dry.

Logs of pine will sweetly smell

But the sparks will fly.

Birch logs will burn too fast.

Chestnut, scarce at all.

Hawthorn logs are good to last,

Burn them in the fall. 

Holly logs will burn like wax;

You may burn them green.

Elm logs, like to smouldering flax,

No flame to be seen. 

Beech logs for the winter-time;

Yew logs as well.

Green elder logs it is a crime

For any man to sell.

Pear logs and apple logs,

They will scent your room.

Cherry  logs across the dogs

Smell like flowers of broom.

Ashen logs, smooth and gray,

Burn them green or old.

Buy up all that come your way;

Worth their weight in gold.

Oaken logs will warm you well,

That are old and dry. 

At one end of the banquet tables I had placed a large, hand-carved, wooden bowl filled with evergreen clippings On top of the clippings I had fourteen slips of parchment-looking paper, each tightly folded, each with a message from one of fourteen trees. As we played the song, Oaken Logs, we closed our eyes and listened as baritone voices rendered the words in slow and solemn fashion. 

Then, one by one, each woman came to the bowl, chose a message, and read it out loud.  Then, to accept and affirm the message, she lit one of the Yule candles on the altar. 

Here is the list of trees I chose for the ritual. I invite you to pick a tree from the list, then listen to the messages. First, here are the trees:  

Alder / Apple / Ash / Birch / White Birch / Cherry / Elder / Hawthorn / Hazel / Hickory / Locust / Red Oak / White Oak  

Have you picked one? Or, phrased a better way, which tree picked you?  And here are the messages.  

If you chose the Alder:  You are the Teacher. You have the ability to guide others because your words will be long remembered.  Speak with kindness. 

If you chose the Apple:  You are the Warrior, the Magician who can travel to the Otherworld and back. You have known sacrifice and hardship. Know your power to heal.   

If you chose the Ash:  You are the Old Wise One, sensitive to the vibrations of the earth and all her creatures. A deer fed on your leaves and from its antlers poured all the rivers of the world. Unicorns recognize your inner fire and know they are safe in your soothing presence.  Know the significance of your life. 

If you chose the Birch:  You are the Meditator. No need to fear the silence. Go within, especially in the winter. Connect with the Crones. They will midwife your rebirth as the Maiden. When you know the limitations of age, you will know wisdom. Dance with abandonment.   

If you chose the White Birch:  You are the Communicator. You attract good allies and like-minded people who are devoted to each other through friendship. Share your vision of how we are all joined at the roots. 

If you chose the Cherry:  You are the Creator of Beauty and understand the fleeting value of time, especially time with family and friends. The magical Phoenix slept on a bed of cherry blossoms to bestow you with everlasting life. Acknowledge the gifts others offer to the world. 

If you chose the Elder:  You are the Voice for the Ancestors. They speak through you. Trust their wisdom. For your own health and prosperity, confront what needs to change. Trust your wisdom. 

If you chose the Hawthorn:  You are the Fairy Queen.  Embrace enchantment and protect the forest temple. The owl will guide you. Claim your authentic self.  Keep yourself sacred. 

If you chose the Hazel:  You are the Seeker who gathers knowledge from all over the world. Your nuts contain the wisdom of the Universe. Inspire others with your experience. 

If you chose the Hickory:  You are the Candle of Inner Illumination. All hearts — the courageous and the timid — need the brightness of your flame. Tend your fire

If you chose the Locust:  You are the Will to Live. Though your crooked growth makes you unsuitable for lumber, you are the prize of shipbuilders, for contact with water makes you hard as iron. Your flowers draw honeybees. Protect them and all who are in danger.   

If you chose the Maple:  You are the Sweetness of Life. Your ability to nurture both body and spirit draws everyone to your table for you are the heart of the family. Open your door.   

If you chose the Red Oak:  You are the Survivor. You’ve heard the whispers of long ago: “Faerie folk are in old oaks.” Carry an acorn. Know you are part of a legacy

If you chose the White Oak:  You are the Giver of Abundance. In Finland, people tell the story of an oak that grew so tall it obliterated the light of the sun, moon and stars.  A creature with a golden hatchet chopped the tree until it fell, clearing the sky and spreading acorns to form the Milky Way. See your gifts on the ground and in the night sky. 

I expected ten to twelve people so I prepared fourteen messages. I had also prepared a second set of those messages in case the messages got destroyed or more people showed up. As it turned out, there were exactly fourteen of us, counting me. I was the last to choose. My message came from the Alder. I was both humbled and delighted to read:  You are the Teacher. You have the ability to guide others because your words will be long remembered.  Speak with kindness.  

My writer friend Carla Neggers reminded me recently about an old Irish tradition to celebrate the New Year. Simply open the back door of your home to let the old year out, then open the front door to let the new year in. That idea is expressed in the third piece of music I chose for the Winter Solstice ritual. It’s another traditional English song, recorded by Mother Tongue on their CD This Winter’s Night.  I asked Melanie and Lisa to read the lyrics:  

Now sing we of the fairest maid,

With gold upon her toe,

And open up the western door

To let the old year go.

For we have brought fresh holly

All from the grove so near,

To wish you and your company

A joyful, healthy year.

Now sing we of the fairest maid, 

With gold upon her chin,

And open up the eastern door

To let the new year in.

For we have brought fresh ivy

All from the grove so near,

To wish you and your company

A joyful, healthy year.

To close the ritual we carefully, oh so carefully, picked up the Yule logs we had lit, and held them in front of us as we stood in a circle. We created our own Sun! It was a beautiful magical moment. That’s because when we participate in ritual with an open heart, we can all feel the magic.  In seasonal rituals, we see how our lives follow the cycles of nature. You don’t have to be a farmer to recognize the pattern: We plant, we grow, we harvest, we rest.

At the Winter Solstice, we align with the pattern of the sun and the promise of new life. As the old year ends and the new year begins, we review the past and set goals for the future.  We raise a glass to honor those who have died, to toast friendships old and new. The energy of the season asks us to remember, to forgive, and to move forward.  

Ritual helps us see and share the symbols of the season. The round, evergreen wreath on the front door welcomes the return of the everlasting sun. The candle in the window tells us we’ll get through the dark. The flame symbolizes the life-force itself. That’s why we give candles as gifts.  Without words, the candle says, “May health and vitality be yours in the new year.” 

Even if we can’t explain why, we feel a resonance to something ancient, the eternal cycle of life and death. We realize we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. 

In ritual, we affirm that we belong, that our contribution to the whole matters, that in facing the past, in honoring the best of who we are, we’re building a better future. And that, my friend, helps us to live a meaningful life.

About Zita

Zita brings “Happily Ever After” to life. She is a wedding officiant, ordained interfaith minister, a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant®, playwright and multipublished romance novelist. Through Moon River Rituals, Zita creates customized ceremonies for individuals, couples, families, and communities in CT, RI, MA, and NY. She is a proud supporter of marriage equality. To see her handfasting cords, visit www.etsy.com/shop/MoonRiverRituals and www.Facebook.com/MoonRiverRituals. Zita also hosts and produces three television shows: Weddings with Zita, Page 1 and Full Bloom. Watch them on YouTube.com/ZitaTVNetwork. For information about Zita's writing, visit www.ZitaChristian.com, Yes, she wears many hats
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