The Old Man at the Year's End

The Old Man at the Year's End

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O' - Father Yule returns with presents
as the moment nears,

The Golden Child of Promise
in darkest hour appears,

The Old Man totters out the great
Threshold between the Years!

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy,
- comfort and joy,

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!

Could any night be New Year's Eve? Believe it or not, the year could be defined as coming to an end upon any of the 365 days in its duration. The citing of New Years Eve as December 31st is actually an arbitrary choice and has no true connection to the natural structure of the year.

The ancient Romans changed the end and the beginning of the year several times in their history. JANVS, the Roman lord of thresholds, did give his name to January, befitting it as the threshold of the year. Yet when we remember that the "sept" in September is "seven" and the "oct" in October is "eight" and count backward, we see that at another time they had the year beginning in March, around the Vernal Equinox. This later system didn't simply disappear a thousand years ago. As recently as the 1700's the year was being marked as beginning on March 25th, even being observed as such by the early American colonies.

Nonetheless, once it's become entrenched by decades of conditioning, the arbitrary nature of our conception of New Years' becomes totally irrelevant to each of us. It's no small matter freeing ourselves from it. We are deeply conditioned to see the Yule and the end of December as the year's end yet, dynamically speaking, the symbolism would be compelling even if we were not predisposed to see it that way. Yuletide, with its Solstice, waiting at the midnight-pit of the year with New Years' Eve nearly a dozen days still after always wins-out.

In spite of how much as we'd like to as Celtophiles, it's just too difficult for most of us to recalibrate our internal calendars to make the Samhain-as-Celtic-New-Years truism actually "work" emotionally. In seeking to reconcile the overwhelmingly "authentic" feel which Yule and New-Years creates at the year's end with the similarly familiar "fit" of Samhain as the feast of the death of the agrarian year, some time ago I began to articulate a pattern of myth and image I believe we don't need to 'enforce' upon ourselves artificially. Rather, we can easily begin to discover that its componentry is already built-into us and, as Westerners, we've actually been celebrating it all along.

If you simply give up trying to make Samhain represent a "beginning" and let the agrarian year end there, the grey twilight of November stands before us as the desolate Wasteland, the Wandering Place located between the cycles of life where eventually we will find our way from the exit of one year to the entrance of the next. We journey from November's grey into the blackness of December and arrive at the year's underworld, the very pit of the year, eventually to emerge on it's far side, with the spark of hope for the Sun's triumphant return.

As we approach that darkest pit, that Midnight of the Year, the archetypal content our culture has invested in the season becomes phenomenally dense and mythic themes seem to condense out of the air all around us. It seems we find, quite palpably, that someone has arrived to walk with us; to guide us, protect us and perhaps to instruct us... Silently, He arrives, striding up to our side and leads us into that dark, twelvefold corridor.

As is the case with subtle forms of perception, we see him best when we don't look directly at him. As the time draws near, his shadowy form returns to us from untold Yuletides gone by. We find that his robes continually shift and flicker through several different styles and his face is like an ever changing mask that cycles through a series of transformations, some familiar, some less so.

He is at first dark and robust and perhaps even somewhat threatening. Ruddy, almost black of face and momentarily we even glimpse a set of black horns sprouting out of his wild mop of curly black hair, he seems like half man, half beast. It seems that he is returning to this time and place as a judge or a punisher, or at least in some way there is some cosmic score to be settled. He stands before us as a challenger at the threshold of the mysteries to come. As we thread our way through the next series of midnights, we see him change further. The black horns spread out to become more like the rack of a stag; he becomes an expression of the images of the old European horned lord of the underworld and, like his classical counterparts, we see him couched in the splendid wealth of the World Below. Glittering torcs dangle from his antlers and, squatting with legs crossed, he pours out a great Sack of Plenty from which cascades a torrent of gold and treasure. Surely this is the great benefactor, the Giver of Gifts at the midnight of the year. We remember then how Caesar spoke of the Druids' teaching that the sacred cycles start in the dark because we are all descended from Him... the Underworld Father.

At length, we see him clearly again, one last time as he passes out through the Gates of Janvs. Perhaps most clearly of all we see him, robed all in white, he is bent, aged and feeble now and we catch the glint of the scythe slung wearily over his shoulder as he hobbles through. Watching him intently, we almost don't notice the golden Child of Promise passing in as our Old Man of the Year closes out the sacred cycle on the last of the magical twelve nights that began on Modranecht, the Mothers Night, the night before the Solstice of Yule.

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