Once Upon A Yule: Celebrating the Sabbat and Honoring Heritage Through Storytelling
December is a very busy time for my household. Besides my anniversary, my birthday, and Christmas (yes we do celebrate it with our families but let’s save that can of worms for another essay) , there is the Winter Solstice, known to many Pagans and Witches as Yule. It is the Pagan holy night of rebirth, marking the return of light and the sun.
With the time for death and letting go behind us (All Hallows’ Eve) , this is the time to come out of the darkness a little bit and reemerge from the ashes of what was, not completely different but in many ways, changed. So every year, with this in mind, I try to make sure that our Midwinter celebration honors this aspect of the eternal life cycle with a night of great storytelling.
Storytelling is not an uncommon Yuletide tradition but I do believe it to be an undervalued one. A lot of people think that it’s just sitting around telling stories. But there are real differences between simply giving a blow-by-blow account of an event and illustrating the idiosyncratic (yet, often overlooked) details that make life truly interesting. There is a difference between monotonous relaying and deliberate channeling of the power of spoken word.
I am always looking for ways to incorporate pieces of my heritage into my ritual and practice as a Pagan and a Witch. So, during the weeks leading up to my very first Winter Solstice celebration with my companion, *Jewel*, I delved into the art of storytelling in the African-American tradition. And let me tell you it was no easy task.
It didn’t occur to me just how much creativity, improvisation, and passion this style (and any style, really) of storytelling would demand of me. It’s an art. A true craft. And just like any other craft, it takes time to master. So, needless to say by the time the Sabbat arrived I’d nowhere near reached the caliber of the seasoned Black storytellers I was learning from. I didn’t dare make a fool of myself in front of my family and kin by even trying to tell stories that year.
However, I continued to listen and watch the Black storytellers do their thing. And at some point, it occurred to me that the storytellers’ skills might not just be a matter of the “what” and “how” of our oral heritage but the “why”. Why did our ancestors tell stories? Why did they choose to tell the stories they told? And why do we continue to tell these stories?
I began studying African-American folklore on my own. And the more I read the more I understood about the nature of common characters, motifs, dialect, and structure of these tales within the context of my culture and history. Of course, this has everything to do with the collective memory of my people (as, I soon learned, is the case with folklore in ALL cultures) . As Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés explains in Women Who Run With the Wolves, “the nurture for telling stories comes from the might and endowments of my people who have gone before me” (18) . These stories together are a reflection of the past experiences of my people, our relationships with each other, the wider community, and ourselves. They are also an echoing of the present, and I can’t help but feel, a revelatory view of the future as well. Somehow there is a stream of truth running through these tales so constant that it renders the illusions of time and space irrelevant, giving it that cyclic, regenerative quality and energy in which we rejoice at Midwinter.
It wasn’t long before I gained exposure to the storytelling styles of folktales, legends, fairy tales, and fables from other cultures. Native American, German, Russian, Chinese. Anyone familiar with them will tell you that the art of storytelling and/or tale-weaving within those cultures is a complex but beautiful craft as well. And like in the African-American tradition, it’s a craft that rests not just on the principle of “what we do” and “how we do it” but “why we do it”. We do it to honor our past first and foremost (because that is what we stand on, the groundwork our ancestors have already laid, the effort they put in to keep our heritage alive) but our present, and our future too, both individually and as a people.
So, my “wolf pack” and I will continue our tradition of storytelling this Winter Solstice. No, I have not reached the level of “master storyteller” yet but I get better and better every year. I now know that the point is not to strive to be perfect at it but to never lose sight of why I’m doing it.
Each year, I choose a few stories. Some stories that may speak to my own or other’s personal experience, some that might resonate with our experience as a family, and still some that might reflect our experience as a culture, a group, a nation, even a global community. I may even put my own modern spin on the story, adding a few pertinent details here and there to really “make it stick”. But regardless, I tell the story so that, as the Wheel turns and the cycles of life on earth start all over again, we don’t forget where we’ve been, we recognize where we are, and we don’t lose sight of where we’re going. And I invite my Pagan friends of other backgrounds to come and share as well. Mutual appreciation for each other’s stories is a huge part of strengthening our bonds. It encourages us all to move beyond merely “tolerating” each other’s differences and instead, welcome them.
I really encourage other Pagans and Witches who also want to honor their heritage to do the same. There is no better time to share and exchange cultural narratives than at Midwinter/Yule.
At the end of my favorite movie, Eve’s Bayou, the narrator, after having shared the story of her childhood, makes a statement which I think has to be ingrained in the mind and heart of any good storyteller. “Memory is the selection of images; some illusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread. Each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture. And the tapestry tells a story. And the story is our past”.
Eve’s Bayou. Dir. Kasi Lemmons. Perf. Jurnee Smollett, Meagan Good, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Roger Guenveur Smith. Trimark Pictures. 1997. Film.
Estés, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995. Print.