Until the early 2000s, we celebrated Christmas as one big squabbling family. I personally made sure that the TV would stay off. Smartphones weren’t a thing yet. There were always fifteen or more of us, kids and adults from various parts of the country. My uncle would tell fascinating stories about his ulcers – I didn’t mind, it was just good to see him that one time in the year. Some got married, some were heading for a divorce that was not discussed at the table. At the centre of everything was my Grandma. I’d sit on the ground with my chin on her knee and just feel that… that thing that I thought of as Christmas. I did that when I was six and I still did it when I was twenty-something. We were not like a TV family – too much drinking, too much politics, too many ulcers – but even before I turned 20 I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that adverts and movies presented the real world.
Fifteen or sixteen years ago I came out as gay. I was assured that nothing would change, that I was loved as I was, and since I had a boyfriend I thought that meant he’d be treated the same way my cousins’ girlfriends were. My aunt, whose house was the only big enough to accommodate the whole shebang, told me that we were not welcome – it was fine for me to be gay, but only as long as I wasn’t being gay in her presence. That was it. I never even found out whether the rest of the family asked and/or were told why I suddenly stopped appearing.
Our family, with one or two exceptions, considered themselves atheists, but very few people in Poland didn’t celebrate the holiday. For us, Christmas had nothing to do with the church or Jesus. It was about being together, consuming a lot of calories, laughing at the kids that were nearly unconscious with excitement because there were presents. It took one short phone call – I was only going to ask whether three p.m. was good, or should we arrive earlier or later – to lose all that. I have never seen some of the family members again, those who lived so far away we only ever met on that one occasion. The end of December, however, didn’t get cancelled worldwide to make things easier for me.
It’s taken me a very long time to get over the ultimate exclusion. Without unnecessary details, being alone on those days has proven to be a bad idea. In the first few years I spent Christmas with my mum and brothers, who stayed on my side, but the only Christmas wish I had was that there would be no sides to pick. It was a painful reminder of what I lost and an extra guilt trip about tearing them away from the happy gathering. Eventually my grandmother, who was ill for years, died and so did the tradition. It turned out that my aunt couldn’t just cut off one person neatly without causing more cracks in the one-big-happy-family façade. Since then each part of the family has their own small celebration, sometimes bothering to call the others and sometimes not. So even if I were to wake up tomorrow in a parallel universe where my aunt permits gay men to enter her house, it still wouldn’t be possible to recreate the past.
So if we take Christmas and remove family, TV, Mariah Carey, food, the tree, decorations, carols, religion, togetherness, snow (the last white Christmas must have taken place when I was still allowed to join, and I am not saying this is related, but I’m not saying it isn’t either)… what’s left?
I quietly started celebrating Yule a few years ago, trying to build a ritual of my own from the elements I could find. I don’t really believe in faithful reenactments of pagan rites that we have attempted to deconstruct from sources written down centuries later by Christians, same as I don’t believe that the Norse Gods can’t travel outside Scandinavia, are all white and blonde and stuck in the medieval times and habits. I had to define for myself what was and wasn’t important and how I could become closer to the Gods without losing the connection with the people, especially as Yule is all about community and I didn’t have one. It finally dawned on me that community doesn’t need to mean my neighbours or my atheist friends. Once I started talking more openly online about what I was feeling and doing, a surprising number of people raised their virtual hands to say “me too”.
Yule, from Old Norse jól, is a twelve-day celebration starting on the day of the Winter Solstice. This year caused us Yuropeans certain confusion, as the exact moment of the Solstice in my time zone was 5:19 a.m. I celebrated on the night of the 21st, sitting by a fire, looking at the stars, thanking the Gods for the year. It is the Solstice that marks the divide between the old and the new for me; the end of one nature’s cycle and the beginning of the next as the longest night and the shortest day become the past, giving in to the return of life and growth that winter is a part of as well. I have survived the shortening days and the dark nights, and my reward will be more and more light until the Summer Solstice, when I will thank for the life and light and start preparing for the upcoming darker phase of the cycle.
A Yule log, nowadays mostly known as cake (oh boy, is that cake GOOD when Husby makes it), is actually a piece of wood used for the Yule fire – the symbol of the warmth and light of the sun. If I was really observing the tradition, that piece of wood would need to be large enough to continue burning for twelve days – for me it was more of three hours, after which I carefully removed the remains of the log from the fire pit. I will use it in next year’s fire again. I believe that this would not work with cake, although I haven’t tried – if you have, please let me know how it went. I toasted the Gods, even though Thor complained a bit about having to drink green tea (it’s good for your liver, Dad). I watched the fire and the stars, and thanked the Gods for all that was good about the last twelve months and for helping me get through the shitty parts.
It’s been an intense year for me in both good and bad ways. I decided to focus on what was good and take it with me into the next year. I’ve learned what I could from the bad. The Solstice is my thanksgiving (literally, because I give thanks) and a celebration I am still building, year by year, creating my own tradition.
The first thing I thanked the Gods for was my husband. My love life used to be one very long train wreck filmed from multiple angles as I went from one wrong man to an even worse one, because thank you for my childhood memories stepdad. In 2011 I got out from a “relationship” that made the previous disasters look like cozy romances. At that point I was convinced that I was unable to be in a relationship. On December 8, 2011, at 4 p.m. I visited an artist who worked with chainmail, so that I could see how it was done. An hour later I knew he was THE ONE. As for him, he fell in love literally at first sight. It’s been over eight years and I don’t just thank the Gods during the Solstice, but every single night.
Even when he snores.
The fire in itself was something to thank for, because I could have a real, if very small, bonfire in the garden. I’ve never had a garden before. It’s not huge (for American standards it’s practically a matchbox) (FYI, my idea of “American standards” comes from The Property Brothers), but it’s got trees, bushes, birds, a hedgehog, visiting cats, frogs, a slightly rotten shed, magical food, and gives me the possibility to sit by a fire and watch the stars. A year ago we were living on top of a bar, sandwiched between a cheap(ish) hotel and student apartments, in an apartment building with walls made of paper. The Amsterdam lights were too bright for us to see stars, apart from the biggest and brightest ones, and those that turned out to be airplanes.
I know nothing about plants and precious little about animals. What I do know is that they make me happy and that I can’t wait for the spring when we find out what actually grows here and I can start learning. In the meantime, as the garden prepared for the winter in the last weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on the couch by the window, writing, looking outside and seeing plants and birds fighting for space in the feeder.
Since I mentioned writing, I can’t not mention Storytellers. The miracles began long before the book came out, as the super deluxe editions sold out within 48 hours before I put a single word online. In the last weeks I noticed that people were buying paperbacks and hardcovers, which in December most probably means that there will be places somewhere in the world where someone will reach for a package under the tree, open it, and find my book inside. I don’t know those people. There are people whom I don’t know personally waiting for the second book and I know that, because they told me. This continues to blow my mind in all the best ways. Somehow, as I was working on Storytellers and nobody knew about my existence it had never occurred to me that this would one day change.
There are smaller things as well. Together with writing I also rediscovered the joy of reading, something that’s been missing from my life for years, as the Internet destroyed my attention span. I now spend less time online and more reading, writing, or just being. I’ve been successfully working on my caninephobia – my mum was attacked by a stray when I was a kid and she ended up getting herself a dog that I was scared of despite the fact that the creature was as dangerous as a teddy bear – long enough that I am actually considering getting a dog of my own. I got to ride a horse again. I didn’t buy anything expensive (uhmmm… except for a house, I guess…) which might be either the weirdest or the biggest blessing this year for someone who used to be addicted to everything new and shiny. I’ve gone through, uh, a few more surgeries on my eyelid and the last one was finally successful.
The new year is here. The light is coming back. I am working on two books, looking forward to getting dirty in the garden, watching the birdies. The house still needs lots of work, but that work is fun. I’m going to get depressed and then I’m going to get well again. Þetta reddast.