As the sun travels to the southernmost point of its voyage, we enter the season of the Winter solstice. In this midnight time of year, we find ourselves in a still darkness, awaiting the return of light to our lives and the landscape.
Symbols and mythology are the clothing of divinity. While we may not be able to see a god or goddess in mortal terms, they are immediately and personally available to us through the symbols which come to us from the ages. In this season, icons such as St. Nicholas and the Christmas tree represent much more than the tinsel and commercialism with which they have become associated.
The Old Ways inform us the goddess gives birth to a sun-child at the Winter solstice on about December 21. This masculine solar god becomes the consort of the goddess and together they return warmth and fecundity to the barren and cold world before he fades away to die at Samhain.
This essential male force is known to friends as Cernunnos, Pan, Dagda, the Old One and Nick. His horned, half human, half animal appearance, once a symbol of the integration of man and nature became a leering, twisted demon in the minds of Christians. As Christmas subsumed the Pagan solstice festival, so Nick became our jolly, gift giving elf, "Saint Nicholas." Despite these theological turns, the god is still available to us in the rarely seen "Greenman" or spirit of the forest.
The Greenman is a representation of these old nature gods. Often carved on old churches and cathedrals, the Greenman is identified by a male face peering out of dense leaves or branches. The earliest Greenmen are depicted with horns and oftentimes the leaves will appear to be twining out of the mouth of the entity.
Aptly named, the magic and vegetative colour of green reinforces the spirit's association with the Otherworld and his beloved goddess. Although reduced to peeking out from trees and perturbing unwitting passersby, the existence of the Greenman side by side with Christian iconography, is evidence of the lasting power of this potent, organic god.
The foliage of the great long-lived tree of the Celts, the oak, is that which most often shelters the Greenman. The Druids revered the oak tree and the mistletoe which they cut from the oak for their Winter solstice festival of Alban Arthan still figures prominently in contemporary Christmas tradition. Even the name "Druid" derives from the old English word "Derwydd" or "oak seer."
The oak is the tree of the Dagda, King of the Tuatha de Danaan and from its branches the solstice duel of the Robin and the Wren is played out. Frequently depicted as the World Tree or Tree of Life, its branches support the sun, moon and stars and at the top; where our Christmas angels sit today, perched the goddess herself. "As above, so below," with its spreading branches above and deep reaching roots below, the oak tree still mirrors the magic of our ancestors.
Deep in the forest, somewhere off a time worn path, there is a spirit in the woods. From the silent forest he appears, light in dark, to guide us to the illuminated point where our journey begins again, and the great wheel turns once more.