Christmas at Counter-Currents
Some Thoughts on Yule
Yule is the midwinter festival celebrated by my ancestors and by Germanic neo-pagans today. Midwinter is a time when much of nature seems to die or to depart. The trees are stripped of their leaves. The birds abandon us, flying off to warmer climes. Bears, badgers, chipmunks, and squirrels hibernate. Water freezes over. The earth is covered in ice and snow, so that nothing can grow. The air is so chilled that when we are out in it for too long, death becomes something tangible, and we rush inside.
Of course, midwinter mostly gives only the appearance of death. The trees have not died but have only drawn into themselves — as have the animals that hibernate. There is a stillness in nature that approaches death. However, we know that out of this stillness renewed life will come again. That which had drawn into itself will emerge again into manifestation. The cycle continues. This is what we celebrate in Yule. But the meaning of this is much more complex than it might seem.
When I was much younger, and Yule was Christmas, it was always a time when I felt the infusion of a curious warmth. This is what is commonly referred to as the “Christmas Spirit.” A great deal of it, naturally, had to do with anticipating the presents I would be receiving. But I was also deeply affected by the music and the decorations. Everyone’s mood seemed to lighten and become more benevolent. That all of this was set against winter chill somehow made the entire experience more magical, more deeply felt. I suppose it would be almost impossible to convey this feeling to someone who has never experienced it.
My parents were nominally Protestant Christians, but there was almost no Christ in Christmas for us. My father was, I suspect, an agnostic. My mother began going to church much later in life, but when I was a boy Christmas for her seemed to be entirely about decorating, singing songs, building fires, cooking, and exchanging gifts. All in all, it would be reasonable to say that the “Christmas” I grew up with was actually the pagan Yule.
I remember noticing at an early age how this “joyous season” is also thoroughly suffused with melancholy. For me, this was part of the attraction — again, even when I was a boy. The first Christmas carol I really loved was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which is one of the oldest carols of all (dating to the 16th century), and about as cheery as the “Volga Boat Song.” More recent carols or songs also frequently have a melancholy air, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (lyric: “Through the years we all will be together. If the fates allow.”), and “I’ll be Home for Christmas” (lyric: “I’ll be home for Christmas. If only in my dreams.”). But perhaps what epitomizes Christmas melancholy best of all is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I need not explain this assertion, as the story is familiar to everyone.
Many years later, the nature of the “Christmas Spirit” changed for me, as I matured. For a number of years now, it has been the case that all the trappings of the season occasion in me a state of introspection that is, like the season itself, simultaneously melancholy and joyous. Like so much of the world around me at midwinter, I am drawn inwards. I think that other people experience this, but to greatly varying degrees. Probably with some it is only a few glimmers of thoughtfulness, because most people do not tolerate introspection well. In my own case, I typically feel the onset of this condition around Thanksgiving (late in November), and it tends to last into January.
I think it is misguided to attempt to analyze exactly why this comes upon me, and (as we shall see) it is contrary to the lessons I typically learn from my Yuletide “dark night of the soul.” But I think it safe to say that one of the conditions that makes it possible is a kind of pleasant weariness that comes upon me. The year is almost over, and I have been through all of its trials and tribulations, and have usually pushed myself too hard. As the weather gets colder and colder, the New Year approaches, and the festive/melancholy pageant of Yule gets under way, it is as if I hear a voice that commands me “Stop. Be still. Be at peace.” It is supposed, after all, to be a season of peace — and this is not a feature exclusively of the Christianized Yule. It seems clear that that spirit was a feature of the festival before the very, very thin veneer of Christianity was laid over it. (For example, in the Svarfdæla saga a warrior delays a duel until three days after Yule in order not to violate the spirit of the festival.)
This feeling that comes upon me — to stop, be still, be at peace — is quite insistent. And I gladly yield to it. It is, I imagine, quite close to what I shall feel when I am very old, and can sense that my life is almost over. This is a significant parallel to draw, for I shall argue that the festival that is Yule is all about making peace with finitude; with limits. To say that Yule is a celebration of the eternal “cycle of life” or the “renewal” of nature sounds quite hopeful. But the truth is that although life will continue after I am dead, my own life will be extinguished. At least, I think this quite likely.
When I obey the command to “stop,” what is it that I am stopping? It is not as if my activities cease, although I am able during Yuletide to take a brief vacation from some of them. And how does stopping bring a sense of peace? For these are intimately connected. The answer is that the primary thing I am called upon to stop is the habit of control. The spirit that I feel when Yuletide arrives is, in the most essential terms, an attitude of accepting my inability to control my life.
My own spirit is the Faustian spirit of Northern Europe, which I have written about elsewhere. This is characterized simultaneously by a yearning for the infinite, and by a solemn inwardness. Arguably, most of my life has been marked by yearning for the infinite — where the infinite means the unlimited, the not finite. I have rebelled against limitations of all kinds. I have balked at my own finitude. This is particularly the case with respect to the finitude of my life itself: aging and the inevitability of death are topics I generally avoid. It’s said that all young people tacitly think themselves immortal. But when I was young, I very consciously and deliberately set my sites on physical immortality. It seems a delusion now, but the possibility was quite real to me then.
It’s helpful to recall that for the Greek philosophers the infinite was apeiron. But this word can also be translated as “indefinite,” and though at first glance the concepts of “indefinite” and “infinite” seem to mean different things, they do not. What makes something definite is precisely its limitations: it is so many inches tall and no more, it is this color and not that, it cannot fly but it can be thrown, etc. I can see in color, whereas dogs can’t. But nature has been kind, my ability to hear certain pitches, or sounds from far away, is much more limited than a dog’s. Limitation is responsible for something being definite, and everything that has being is something definite: it is this, and not that. This all directs us to an escapable conclusion: the yearning for the infinite is the yearning to be nothing in particular. That is to say, the yearning for the infinite is the yearning to be nothing. I seldom quote Ayn Rand, but she was absolutely correct when she concluded (via a very similar chain of argument) that “The desire not to be anything [definite], is the desire not to be.”
Realizing this, I am thrown in upon myself. And Yuletide produces in me a longing for rest; for a respite from my striving for the infinite. The spirit of the season tells me that this is all right; that I can stop for a while and be at peace. When I accept this invitation, first of all I feel as if I am relaxing for the first time in twelve months — relaxing my body, mind, and spirit. A kind of pleasant helplessness comes over me. And I am flooded with thoughts. Oddly, they are the same every year — a point to which I will return later.
The first of these thoughts is what I take to be a basic truth: that the desire for control in life is a rebellion against reality. Of course, all of us desire some control, and we would not be living things if we didn’t. All living things, in order to survive, seek some measure of control over their circumstances. But some of us seem to seek control over all. We believe we can make of our bodies and our minds whatever we wish. We seek to predict and control the responses of others. We seek to know what the future will bring. Worry is the emotion that prompts us to this last form of seeking. The only way to remove worry would be to know the future. We worry because we find uncertainty unacceptable. But life is all about uncertainty. Therefore worry is a protest against life — an unwillingness to accept what is.
As I have argued elsewhere, our role in existence is to embody the self-consciousness of existence itself. We actualize this role in the acquisition of knowledge, the pursuit of the various sciences (construing the term very broadly), but also in the act of being present to Being. This means being open to what manifests, without judgment or control. We are the beings who are witnesses to Being. We are Being confronting itself. We are the alpha and omega of the whole, which exists to give rise to us, and in giving rise to us gazes upon itself and comes to completion.
The orientation toward life that rejects limits and seems to seek total control is one that therefore makes it impossible to realize our nature as witnesses to Being. Again, the desire for radical control, and the desire to transcend all limits, is a rejection of reality, of what is present to us. Nothing can become truly present to us unless we open to its presence. But this means to be open to things as they are. To be a witness to Being, I must relinquish control. This is what both Meister Eckhart and Heidegger meant by Gelassenheit: leavingness, letting-go-ness, or (as some translators have it) “letting beings be.”
Acceptance that I cannot control everything is hard on the ego. But I contain more than one ego; more than one thing that says “I.” Acceptance that I cannot control everything is only hard on the “I” that refuses openness. This is the “I” that so wishes to shield itself from suffering and vulnerability that it closes to the whole of which it is a manifestation, and which yearns to be recognized by it. (This is the “selfishness” attacked by the mystics.) If I identify with this “I” then I refuse my own being: to be witness to Being itself.
To be this witness I must open myself to the reality of what is. But that means I must open myself to imperfection, in myself and in the world around me. (This is not the same thing as liking imperfection — for another aspect of reality is my own response to it.) I must open myself to the finitude, the limitation, that makes possible both beauty and ugliness. I must open to the finitude that makes possible both my virtues, and the vices I despise in myself.
This acceptance of finitude just is the relinquishing of the quest for total control and overcoming of all limits. And acceptance of finitude/relinquishing of control just is openness to Being. You might expect me to say that this is a “precondition” of openness to Being. But no: there is an identity here. The act of relinquishing control just is letting beings be.
The acceptance of finitude just is a multiplicity of finite beings becoming present to me. Truly present. Not present only in those aspects I am willing to see, or present only in light of how I imagine I will negate and remake them. Such an orientation is exactly the perspective of one who seeks total control; who is willing to open to the world only on his own terms. Metaphysically, this perspective is actually insisting that only the self is real: it is willing to allow beings to be only when they have conformed to the demands of the self. For a person with such an orientation, only “I” am real; all else waits upon me to accept it, approve it, revise it. The acceptance of finitude, by contrast, means finite beings becoming present to me in their otherness. The acceptance of finitude is the acceptance that things are radically other — and this is no more, really, than accepting reality.
But, to reiterate, the acceptance of finitude also involves facing and affirming my own finitude. In the very same act in which I accept the radical otherness of things, I accept my own limits with respect to those things: they are not I; I can never fully know, control, or manipulate those others. It is then that true self-knowledge begins. We cannot know infinity. We can only know that which has discernible boundaries or limits. So long as we see ourselves as fundamentally infinite or indefinite — malleable, perfectible, transgressing all limits — we cannot know ourselves. Accepting the radical otherness of a world of finite and imperfect things throws us back upon ourselves and humbles us. Again, this is the beginning of self-knowledge.
And it is also the actualization of our cosmic role as witnesses to Being. Being cannot become present to us unless, as I have argued, we accept finitude: our own finitude, and that of other beings. Fundamentally, to accept my finitude is to accept my embodiment. The self that identifies with the infinite or indefinite sees itself as somehow vaguely disembodied — as, for lack of a better word, a spirit that dwells in thought, removed from bodies in general. This is the self that produces the constant internal monologue that detaches us from the present and dulls not only pain but pleasure. This is the self that so enthralls us in worries, hopes, fears, and schemes that we wonder at the years that have gone by. “Where was I?” we ask. The answer is that we were not there. And so we gaze in horror at the aging face in the mirror, as if it were the face of a stranger.
To accept my own embodiment — better, to live my embodiment — is to be present to myself and to the world. There can be no such presence without the experience of it in the body. If this can be achieved even fleetingly then we have actualized our own being (again, to be witnesses to Being) and the purpose of existence itself. The purpose of everything is for consciousness of the whole to be actual within the whole — to be embodied. Existence achieves its end and consummation when it gives rise to a body among bodies that is capable of knowing existence itself, in the sense of being open to the Being of the whole. This openness is simultaneously perspectival, because it happens in specific bodies with a specific biology, history, and other limitations — and it is aperspectival, precisely because it is a disinterested awareness simply that the All is, without judgments, hopes, and fears. This is the deep truth in the traditional claim (possibly originating with Aristotle) that man’s nature is dual: part beast, part god.
Because we are part beast, however, witnessing Being really is only fleeting. It is not a perspective that can be maintained constantly. All we can do is try, continually, to bring ourselves back to it, recognizing the inevitability that we will always fall away. This is a daily drama for those consciously committed to this witnessing. And it is reflected in the cycle of the year, which climaxes at Yule. The bulk of the year is the time in which I largely fall away from being present to Being. At Yule — and, as I’ve indicated, for some days before and after — I am brought back to awareness of my true vocation. For most of us, it is only at this time that we awaken just a little bit. The experience is curiously pleasant and melancholy and satisfying. But most will not reflect on it. As the song says, “Would that we could always see such spirit through the year.”
What happens in the soul is, again, an exact analogue to what occurs in nature. With the coming of midwinter, we are drawn deep within ourselves. Our yearning for the infinite gives way to the other aspect of our Faustian nature: solemn inwardness. And we die. Or rather the grasping, controlling “I” dies — or, at least, goes into hibernation. It will awaken again in the spring (usually earlier) and the cycle will begin once more. I will “forget” and continue to strive for the impossible. That I do so — that we do so — is tragic. But it is also what makes us great, and our history glorious. On both an individual and a tribal level, we have to affirm that we are both beast and god, body and spirit, absent and present to being, closed and open.
Our nature is a continual oscillation between these poles. If we can joyously affirm this and not fall into dreaming that we will stay awake, stay open, stay “enlightened,” then — paradoxically — this affirmation makes possible a greater openness or wakefulness. And the moments of this wakefulness may increase in duration, very slowly.
So be of good cheer. The earth has died, but will be reborn. I die to my “self” and am reborn. It is no surprise, by the way, that this drama precisely mirrors what happens in nature at midwinter. If it is in our own souls that existence finds its consummation, if existence exists in order to give birth to us and our spirit, then of course everything in nature can be seen as an approximation to both the human body and soul. Everything in nature is an emblem of our own nature, and our struggles and joys. (This insight is the key to unlocking the mystery of why the natural world is the way that it is — where it comes from, why it exhibits certain forms and cycles, and where it is going.)
This is the meaning I find in Yule, though I imagine some will think this rather esoteric.
4. “Completion” in the sense of “consummation”: the actualization of its inherent purpose.
5. All beings are finite beings. We can speak of “infinity” as if it were one thing. And, if we chose, we could speak of “finitude” as if it were a thing (“a finitude”). But it can never be one thing — this is unimaginable. A finitude (a finite thing) implies a multiplicity of finite things, mutually limiting one another — if only in the simple fact that one is not another, does not occupy the same space, etc.
6. For more information see my essay “What is Odinism?”
Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Ten: Kant & the Metaphysics of Presence
An Excursion in Pop Epistemology
Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Nine: Kant & the Perils of Representationalism
Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Eight: Kant, Heidegger, & the Critique of Metaphysics
Whitsuntide: Sacred Fire, Divine Gifts, & the Quest for the Holy Grail
James O’Meara’s Passing the Buck
Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Seven: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
Interview with Ron McVan: Runes, Sex, & Death