We have reached the end of the year. Depending on where you calendar is based, that could mean any time from November 1 to sometime in January or February. The year tends to renew in the winter, when the world is frozen, or when nature is at the very least slumbering while awaiting the awakening that comes with spring.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a celebration of the end/beginning of the year at a little farm out in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin.
Nestled in the cleavage between two small hills, the heavily wooded property boasted a small clearing, marked by four stone altars, marking the quarters. In the center of this clearing stood a great wood figure, covered with cornstalks. He stood about the height of four or five men, standing on each others shoulders. Wooden arms outstretched, he had two eyes made of squash, an eggplant mouth, and a huge phallus of pine and pumpkin. Dogs and children romped about as the finishing touches were added – a burlap bag full of debris for testicles, a pair of paper plates for nipples, a pumpkin top for a navel. He stood legs apart, ten log toes poking out from under the cornstalks.
After a lovely potluck dinner – so much food! – I wandered outside to a little tent that was set up between the house and the clearing. Inside the tent was two chairs, one of which held a wicker basket, and a low table holding a candle, some paper, and pens. I sat down to talk to my father.
Dad has been gone for several years now. His death was unnecessarily long and painful, as death from MRSA usually is. I never got to talk about my new-found beliefs with him. I had only just begun to explore the Lithuanian side of my ancestry. I wanted to be able to ask him about his parents’ and grandparents’ practices and beliefs. What did they do to honor the seasons? How did they worship? Who – and what – did “God” mean to them? What was the connection between land and deity?
Instead, I had to talk to his spirit. I wrote him a message – how much I miss him, how I regret not being able to talk to him when he still walked with the living. After folding the note, I placed it in the basket on the other chair and walked back up to the house.
Dinner was over, darkness had fallen. It was a new moon, so there was no light to interfere with the completeness of the black night. Stars scattered across the sky, the bright ribbon of the Milky Way running through the middle of the sky. The stars were so numerous, so bright, it was hard to discern on constellation from another.
I took a small pumpkin lantern I had carved earlier and joined the line heading for the clearing. One by one we were led down a long trail through the woods, our way lit by an occasional torch or candle. At the end we emerged into the clearing, the great Wicker Man looking down on us, welcoming us to the circle. We spoke the names of our beloved dead, and placed our pumpkin lanterns at the feet of the smiling straw man.
The chair, with the basket still on it, was brought down the trail, and set afire. After circling around the Wicker Man, it was placed between his feet.
With a whoosh, the cornstalks caught light. Our host picked up a torch, and added more fire all around the base of the figure. The fire grew, danced, swirled, rose high above us.
Behind me, a rhythmic drumming began, and people began swaying and moving their feet in time to the beat.
Bits of corn leaves flew high, and drifted down, spinning softly through the air, throwing sparks. Fire sprites twirled upwards, a swarm of tadpoles. The flames roared, the people sang, the drums throbbed. As the pumpkins around the base caught fire, the sweet scent of their roasting flesh mixed with wood smoke.
I approached the fire. The heat was so intense, I couldn’t keep my eyes open; I uncorked my flask, and poured a libation for the fire. Always feed the fire, keep her sated. Cherries had been soaking in this particular vodka for two years; the color deep, the flavor strong. I headed back to the edge of the circle, and craned my head back to watch the sparks lifting to join the stars, red and yellow heat rising to meet cold blue and white.
I slept in the car that night. By the time I turned in, there was already a fine dusting of frost across the grass and the vehicles. A few blankets were enough to fend off the cold, and except for the occasional trips to the Port-a-John during the night, I slept well and woke happy.