Pagan Advent: a time of silence and secrets

Winter field with frozen stone and grass in the foreground
Photo by Nicklas Lundqvist

Behind the Christian, the pagan: it’s now generally accepted that the origins of Advent and Christmas lie in the midwinter festivals celebrated by ancient cultures.

The pagan take on Advent is pretty familiar to anyone concerned with the interplay between nature and the human: it’s the season that approaches the turn of the year, moving inexorably (in the northern hemisphere) to its darkest, deadest point.

Then, after a short period of ‘standing still’ – the meaning of ‘solstice’ – the sun resumes its journey, bringing light and the renewal of life. As in Christianity, it’s thought of in terms of birth, but rather than a single, human and dramatic interruption of history, the re-birth of the sun is part of the cycle of life and the earthly nature of things. In both versions of Advent, Sun-days – the days of the sun – are significant.

This sense of stopping, of the (temporary) deadness of the natural world, is central to the pagan understanding of midwinter, and is fed, each and every year, by our experience of what’s (not) going on outside in the natural world. It’s so powerful that it seeps into one of the best-known, oft-sung Christian responses to the season: ‘In the bleak midwinter … Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,’ writes Christina Rossetti, acknowledging the intractability of the hibernal, before returning returning to the sentimental Christianity characteristic of the Victorian age.

At this time of year, I find I’m instinctively looking for complements in the human realm. As night falls, there’s a desire to stay in and be quiet. But it’s also a time of year when, unusually, I feel a strong pull to attend a church service. One year I found a perfect liturgical match in a kind of dramatic enactment of Advent at St Martin-in-the-Fields: the service began in total darkness, gradually illuminated by candles. I loved it, but it was too much for about a fifth of the congregation, who left early on. One pagan winter solstice gathering, by contrast, proved so busy and chatty that I never went back to that group again.

Perhaps, then, to put it another way, this time of year is about silence and secrets. It’s no secret – with a book title like the one to the right – that I’m drawn to the hidden and the unacknowledged – so I especially like the way this anonymous writer on Patheos characterises Advent:‘Perhaps the season between Samhain and Imbolc is meant to be focused on Silence.
On Secrecy, and things kept very close to the heart.’

This is the second in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.