Winter is the season for remembering the ancestors, not just our personal ancestors but the ancestors. The remote as well as the recent generations. All those human beings who have lived before us and survived the winters, or did not survive the winters.
Winter was, and still is, a challenge to human life. Last weekend the Northeast was struck by the first real winter ice storm that tore down power lines across the region, and now six days later, many are still without electricity, living in shelters to stay warm. The road we live on lost power for three days, but our wood stove, oil lamp, and D batteries helped us survive the cold and the darkness.
There can be some good moments during a power outage.
Eating breakfast Saturday morning in the local diner (something we never do under normal circumstances) we heard a guy in the booth next to us exclaim, “Two-thirds of Troy is gone!!” We paused wondering if there was time to alert Odysseus, but decided that building a wooden horse in hard economic times might provide employment for those out of work even if the horse was not needed. So we went back to our pancakes. The conversation in the other booth then turned to Albany and Schenectady, which along with Troy are New York towns about 60 miles north of us. Our Iliad moment had passed.
Then one evening coming home about 10:00, we saw our house and land under that enormous winter moon. This month the full moon is unusually close to Earth, and it won’t be this close again until winter of 2016 (assuming the world doesn’t end in 2012). The December/January full moons are always large especially at moonrise, and their course across the sky is long and languorous like the sun at summer solstice. The moon actually takes the same route as the summer sun at this time of year (the moon and sun trade places in the sky as the year progresses) so it’s not uncommon to find the winter full moon directly overhead around midnight and still shining at dawn far in the western sky. There really is science behind the words from The Night before Christmas: “The moon on the crest of the new fallen snow gave a luster of mid-day to objects below.” So with no light pollution anywhere on the road, we saw our home in that lustrous moon-glow that only occurs this time of year. In such a moment one can feel exceptionally close to our ancestors who saw the night in its natural darkness and light every night.
I got to thinking about cauldrons as I got to thinking about where we would go to eat during the power outage, having lost the food in our refrigerator. I think winter is cauldron time. The fire to warm the cauldron, the hearty food or drink that it contains, the stories you tell for entertainment to while away the evening hours. Hearth comforts that don’t need electricity.
For our very ancient ancestors the cauldron was a critically important piece of technology. We can easily forget this living in a culture that has so much food and a variety of means to prepare it quickly and easily. We forget the importance for early people of having a metal pot to put over a hearth fire to prepare the food needed to stay alive during the winter months. Of course humans survived before they discovered metalworking and developed the skills to fashion a cauldron that would not melt over fire. But imagine how life must have changed for those first people who perfected the technology to make cauldrons, and imagine the joy, wonder, and convenience that a simple pot could provide. Food is a necessity for survival, but meals—the social aspects of cooking, gathering together, and sharing food in some kind of leisure—are an important part in the development of human culture.
We’re still six weeks or so away from the feast of Brigid, but she’s present now. She is, after all, the Hearth Goddess of health, metalworking, and poetry. Are these not the three ingredients of the hearth? The warmth and food that sustain health, the cauldron that cooks the food and invites family and friends to gather, the poetry, songs, and stories shared with people you love.
The Cauldron holds a special place for the ancient Celts similar to the Dreaming for the ancient people of Australia. The Dreaming is the source of all things, the fount that dreams all things into life. So too the Cauldron is the container of life, the universe itself being a Great Cauldron that provides sustenance, knowledge, inspiration, wisdom, and rebirth (as the ancient stories about individual cauldrons relate). Looking into the Cauldron has always been an act fraught with danger and magic, just as peering into the Grael might prove to be too much for human consciousness to bear. And yet our yearning to find it and look within is one of the desires that make us human. We know it is there—the source of life—we want to see it, eat from it, dream in it.
Winter is cauldron time—time for big pots on the stove filled with stews, chili, chowders, and soups—the heavy, one-pot comfort meals our ancestors looked forward to and enjoyed when the weather outside was frightful. The nights are long. There is much to dream. There are cauldrons to stir, look into, and remember.