Winter Solstice is a spiritual time for many cultures. It is both a celebration of survival and the peak at which we begin the long, slow slide toward spring. This year, the shortest day has stormed in and flung the door open, rending seawalls and toppling giant trees in a fearsome demonstration of the shifting forces of nature right across our country.
Snug and warm in our house we have the luxury of appreciating the force and our good fortune, to drink endless cups of tea and eat hot crumpets with liquid honey. In past times the cold and wet would have been fatal to the young, the old and the badly protected, which would have brought a particular significance and poignancy to the solstice celebration. And as the participants in the Big Sleepout would tell you, there are plenty of people right now for whom the extreme weather is not an exciting diversion, but a significant and present danger.
The Maori celebration of Matariki has been revived in recent years. A celebration of the heliacal rising (morning reappearance) of the Pleiades, Matariki was a time to remember those who had died in the last year. But with crops harvested and seafood and birds collected it was also a happy time. for singing, dancing feasting and kite flying.
For us, this is also the day when we think most about my paternal grandmother Ruth. Reading yesterday’s post my father Peter sent me this recollection of the day she died, on Winter Solstice, exactly 35 years ago today:
“Ruth accepted her death and appeared to manage her departure in a spiritual way. Harold, sleeping in a nearby room at the hospice, was woken by a pealing clamour of bells. Going into the corridor, he met a Mercy nun leaving Ruth’s room, telling him her ordeal was over. There were no bells.
Driving out to Macandrew Bay the following night there was a huge full moon and the highest tide I have ever seen in Otago Harbour. No cloud or wind, it flooded right up to, but not over, the road.
On her easel was a small and unusual painting. A small boat is waiting to depart into a brilliant sunset. I recall a myth about the soul leaving in this way. Ruth’s signature is clumsy due to swollen hands.”