A Winter Holiday

“Our ancestors used to believe that the Sun disappeared forever on the night of the Winter Solstice, never to return.”

Rather than watch her mother’s animated face as she told the familiar tale, Morulin focused on her twin brothers. It would be their first time participating in the Yule ritual and they had been squirming with anticipation for weeks. Even the usually stoic Darien had been vibrating with excitement this morning. Their eyes widened at their mother’s words and Lyntaru’s lips formed a small o.

“Unless,” her mother held up one finger, “they called him back. That is why the celebration of Yule begins on this day. The Sun God is reborn from the Earth Mother. The nights grow shorter and the days longer. The Sun returns the spark of life to the earth and revives the spent Mother.”

“But Mama,” Darien protested, shaking his head so that a tuft of blond hair fell in front of his eyes, “the sun would have risen no matter what.”

“Of course, dearheart,” Catilen replied, placing one gloved finger on the tip of her son’s nose. “But a long time ago, before we knew that all the stars were suns, our ancestors didn’t know that.”

“Then why do we still celebrate?” Lyntaru asked, though he seemed more enchanted by the tale than his twin. His cheeks were already rosy from the chill wind, but he had yet to voice a complaint.

“Ah, because the cycle of rebirth is the same even if it never ends. The world is about to be renewed, and that’s a reason for celebration. Come now,” their mother turned and waved over her shoulder. “Follow the marked path to the clearing and we’ll begin.”

Morulin’s stomach fluttered as she took the first step forward. She had walked the candle-lit path through the forest every year for as long a she could remember, but this was the first time she had helped to lay it. Early that morning she had traced the path with her mother, setting specially made lanterns on the tree trunks, setting a candle into the center of each as they went. It had taken hours and she hadn’t found it tedious.

Now the flames burning on the wicks of each candle glittered in the darkness like stars descended from the heavens. Overhead the true stars dotted the sky in grand formations. Later, she might lay on the deck in the garden and find the pictures they formed, but for now her attention was on the lightly packed snow of the path.

In her fourteen years of life, she had seen snow only a handful of times. Her mother celebrated the passage of the seasons every year, though often the island spent the whole year in summer climates. It wasn’t that the lei lines tended to pool in tropical climates; she had asked about it ages ago. It was that her parents tended to favor fair weather when they moved their island kingdom, to keep the guests happy.

But this year, Yule was special. Her brothers would experience the wheel of the year their mother had been teaching them and she had wanted them to experience them in the proper seasons. She had done something similar for Morulin when she was their age and the prospect excited her as much as the twins. There would be sledding tomorrow; there was enough snow for it now. And the mountain would make a fabulous ski hill, though much magic would go into its creation.

When the ritual finished, there would be hot cider waiting for them back at the bathhouse. There would be music and dancing and probably a feast. Her family almost never celebrated special occasions without a feast. But that would all come later. For now, there was a long walk through the snow-coated forest with only the candles lighting the way. As the flames flickered, Morulin imagined faeries dancing on the edge of her vision. Her mother said they might participate, if ever they were nearby, but she had yet to see one clearly.

The path ended at a wide clearing, surrounded by trees. Three rows of candles had been set in the snow, each in a small glass container, marking the edge of the ritual space. In the center of the clearing was an undecorated black cauldron and, beside it, was a small stone table laid with decorations. A large gold candle dominated the center, surrounded by holly and pine and a handful of acorns.

Morulin and her brothers formed a half-circle beside the cauldron while their mother lifted an ornate wooden dagger from the altar. Dancing around them she raised the circle. It glittered golden to her mage senses. Even after eight years of watching her mother perform such rituals, she still marveled that the magic was real. It was so different from the kind of sorcery she’d studied since birth, enchanting in a special way.

Their mother returned the ritual dagger to the alter and turned to face them.

“Tonight,” she declared, her voice ringing throughout the clearing, “we celebrate the birth of the Sun, the Goddess’s beloved child, father and guardian of us all. He has spent these last months, since Samhain, wandering the dark tunnels of the underworld. Now he shall return to grant us light.”

Their mother assigned each of them a task for the next part of the ritual. They were each to lay something in the cauldron and to speak a part of the ritual. Lyntaru had been practicing for days. Morulin had caught him whispering under his breath when he thought no one was listening. She remembered the first time she participated in the ritual, how magical each mundane article felt when she lifted it and let it fall over the cauldron’s edge.

To Lyntaru she handed a bunch of bright red holly berries. His twin brother Darien received the acorns. And for Morulin, oaken log which would be the center of the ritual. The twins bounced from foot to foot as they awaited their turn.

Morulin waited for her mother’s nod before she began. Drawing a deep breath, she set the oaken log in the cauldron, saying, “The nights have grown dark and deep, but still the Sun God’s wisdom we keep. In deepest dark life’s spark remains, to call the light back to earth’s abundant plains.

She stepped back and glanced at Lyntaru. Her eight-year old brother pranced forward, gleefully sprinkling the berries into the cauldron. She could tell when he spoke he was trying not to rush, enunciating each word with care. “The days have grown chill and cold, while the Sun’s light we wait to behold. Tell winter now to cast off her dread cloak, these offerings we give to see you are woke.

Lytnaru glanced at their mother and grinned when he received an approving nod. He hurried back to his place, still dancing from tow to tow while his brother stepped forward. Darien’s acorns dropped into the cauldron with several soft thuds and he waited for the sound to fade before he spoke. “Awaken wise bearer of light, drive back the dark edges of night. We call to you with this fiery blaze, lead us to bright new days.

Their mother lifted a container from her altar. Into three pairs of cupped, waiting hands, she sprinkled a small pile of ashes. Together with her brothers, Morulin stood poised beside the cauldron, waiting for the final invocation.

Lifting her gaze to the glittering stars above, their mother spoke. “The wheel has turned again to Yule, birthing day of the Goddess’s golden jewel. Lead us through this grand new year, we welcome you back with open arms and cheer.

She used magic to light the fire. The smell of oak filled the air as the contents of the cauldron burned. They sang songs then, songs they often shared with the bathhouse guests this time of year. Morulin didn’t even notice the cold as she danced with her brothers between the glittering stars and the flickering candle light.

When the fire went out, their mother scooped the ashes back into her container. Next year, they would use the remains of the fire to light the new one, and call the sun back from the darkness. She lowered the glittering golden shield and they walked back through the candle-lit forest, each bearing a candle. Lyntaru hummed and Morulin exchanged a few half-hearted snowballs with Darien, though they were careful not to topple their candles into the snow.

As soon as they reached the warmth of the bathhouse, the staff pressed warm mugs of cider into their mittened hands as the crowd welcomed them to the celebration, already in full swing.

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Please check out my writing partner’s version of this prompt. As you can probably guess, we chose to write this around Christmas time ;)

If you’d like to participate, share a link to your response in the comments and I’ll feature it next week.

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