It was Black Friday and, boycotting the retail madness, I thought I would put up the tree. Yes, I mean the Yule tree, the Holiday Tree, the one that some insist should be called the Christmas Tree, the one that the media (especially “Faux” News) tries each year to turn into an icon of “The War on Christmas”.
I looked at the stacked boxes containing the tree, lights, decorations, garlands for the fireplace and wreaths for the doors, table centrepieces and holiday towels, fancy candles and cards to be sent… and I groaned. Decorating for the holidays would take up two days of my life that I would never get back again, and the un-decorating would take another day in January. I asked myself why I would put up a Tree. Does it have meaning for me? Is there an alternative that would be more appropriate? What could I do instead?
It should be something that would brighten the dark days of winter and celebrate the Solstice. The Solstice is a real event of nature, and we in the chilly north are happy to celebrate it. There is no pressure to buy Solstice gifts. No Solstice music fills the air. The knowledge that the days are growing longer and spring will return is something hopeful and heartwarming in itself.
So far, so good. But I wanted it to be something more, something new but somehow also nostalgic. That was when I vaguely remembered hearing a talk that mentioned 'Halcyon Days'.
A note from a reader
"I found your halcyon tree very moving. Oddly enough, although its an alternative to "christmas trees", it reminds me of the christmas trees my father did when I was a teenager. In the first weekend of December, he would go for a walk alone in the bush near his house, coming home with a felled sapling or large branch (usually birch). His ornaments were all feathered birds, that clipped on to the branches. The process for him was very mindful, and an important ritual for stepping into the holiday season; the one thing that he did for himself.
I have a strong emotional attachment to the scent & colour of pine trees, but Dad's ritual really taught me the need to make the process meaningful & contemplative. If the tradition doesn't nourish us emotionally, then it doesn't deserve to be a tradition.
Anyway, thank you for the opportunity to remember that!"
Image credits for this page:
Halcyon trees: K. Burkowski
Please read: About images and copyright.
R E D E F I N I N G T H E S A C R E D: R E I M A G I N I N G T H E H O L I D A Y S
Happy Halcyon Days! (December 14 - 28, centering on the Winter Solstice)
Some online research uncovered the myth of Alcyone, recorded by Ovid, Virgil and Hyginus, among others. The story goes that Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, had a daughter, Alcyone, who was married to Ceyx, the king of Trachis/Heraclea (a region north of Delphi). They were very happy together, and often playfully called each other “Zeus" and “Hera".
Angered by this sacrilege, Zeus caused a storm (you may recall he is the one who throws lightning bolts) and Ceyx was drowned at sea. Alcyone saw his body washed up onshore and, distraught, she threw herself into the waves.
Moved by the depth of their love, the gods took pity on them and transformed them into birds. (In reference to this myth, the scientific name for the Tree Kingfisher family is Halcyonidae, and the genus Ceyx is the River Kingfishers.)
In her new bird form, Alcyone built a floating nest upon the waves (some accounts say on the beach) and laid her eggs. Aeolus restrained his winds and calmed the waves for 14 days—the week before the Solstice and the week after—so that she could hatch the eggs in peace. The phrase “Halcyon Days” has since become a term used to mean a time of peace and calmness.
Yes! This ties together a natural event, the returning light of the Solstice, an ancient myth, and an inspiration for a new kind of holiday decoration.
Instead of chopping down a pine tree or unpacking the artificial one from its box, I went out to the backyard and found a branch downed by the wind.
I wrapped the branch in a string of tiny white lights. On one part of the branch I attached a picture of a halcyon kingfisher, glued to a cardboard backing. (There are varieties of kingfishers - I chose the Belted Kingfisher, local to us.) Done! This would be my “Halcyon Tree”, symbolic of the returning light of the solstice as well as a symbol of a bright interval of peace and tranquility among the dark days of winter, a time of creativity and lack of anxiety.
Just think, nothing to store but a symbolic bird and a string of white lights. You can always find a new branch, and looking for it would be a nice excuse for a walk in the woods. No need to kill a tree. No mountain of decorations to purchase and maintain. I like this!
I would not dream of telling you how to celebrate your Halcyon Days. However, the symbolism of my Halcyon Tree suggests to me activities such as the following:
|| Soothing cups of tea
|Creative art or craft projects
||Soft background music
||Avoiding watching the news
|Letting the phone go unanswered
|| Long walks
||Casual visits, long chats and board games with friends
|Contacting faraway friends and family
||Avoiding New Year’s Eve parties
||Escaping the expectations to buy, eat and do more than is comfortable
|Staying up until dawn on Solstice if I feel like it.
||Taking in a movie
Simply seeing my Halcyon Tree reminds me to do these things, to take time to rest, relax and renew.
I first created a Halcyon Tree on November 23, 2013. Since then, my Halcyon Days have continued to be a special time for me to celebrate the intangible joys in my life and celebrate the people and the relationships I choose to have in my life; a time to think about the year that has passed and look forward to the year that is coming.
We choose the myths and symbols that frame our lives.
Happy Halcyon Days!
PS: My recent Halcyon Trees, such as this one from 2016, no longer even have the white lights - just a few glass stars. The symbolism still works. In fact it seems to work better every year. /k
Read more about reimagining holiday celebrations...