It’s old, old, old. It’s the eve of sun-return, the 24th of December, that the Christians now call Christmas eve. It’s the night the mothers come together to rebirth the sun.
I was thirteen when I could first go. At Samhain, the October gone, I had shed my first blood, so now was able to be a mother and could join them all in the old place by her grave on top of the hill. She’d been a guardian of the well; my aunt was guardian now and the well itself was in the wall between her garden and ours. I knew it well. I knew her grave too, covered over now by the old Norman church that stood like a young cathedral on the hilltop at the centre of the village. But her grave was older than the church by a thousand years, more so the stories told for her name was Iwerydd and that name goes back to the Bronze Age, and further back even into the mists of time.
‘Hurry!’ Vera, my stepmother, called from the bottom of the stairs. I tied the blue scarf around my hair all in a rush. ‘Hurry!’ she called again and I half tumbled down the stairs, near tripping over the cat who was determined to get there before me. Woofah wanted to come too but Dad called him back to sit with him by the old Rayburn. Dogs, even tall black wolf-dogs, like men, were not wanted in the darkness of this night. ‘See you for breakfast, Joe,’ Vera called to him as she pushed me out of the door ahead of her. ‘Right you are,’ he called back to us.
Hand in hand, we went down the path and out the gate onto the old trackway that led up across the hill, down into the valley and up onto the moorland beyond. We weren’t going near so far tonight but the track took us quickly to the gate in the east wall of the churchyard. As ever, the gate groaned on its hinges as we pushed it open. ‘Did you remember the oil?’ Vera asked me. I pulled the oil can out of my coat pocket and bent to drip some on the iron hinges. We pushed the gate again and this time it was quiet, content now it had been fed. We stepped under the huge chestnut tree beside the path and I felt a nut clinging to my shoe like a crab with its claws. I stooped again and pulled it off, putting it in my pocket. Vera chuckled, watching me, ‘Bringing a snack for the Lady?’ ‘Mmm,’ I muttered.
Down the path we went to turn up under the arching avenue of plane trees, up to the south door. In the porch was a gaggle of women pulling off their boots in exchange for soft slippers and extra socks, twittering together softly like a family of sparrows sharing the gossip of the evening. They greeted Vera, ‘The girl’s come then?’. She nodded, smiling. ‘Welcome, Elen,’ they told me softly, ‘You’re very welcome.’ Vera gave me a candle and my aunt lit it for me along with all the others, a twinkling procession of women and girls, a dozen strong, made its way through the big oaken door into the church and up to the side chapel. We took hassocks and cushions and sheepskins to seat ourselves comfy in a circle by Iwerydd’s grave.
Something soft and black twined my legs, then climbed into my lap, began to purr. My black cat had come. I held him close, and looked up at the others. ‘It’s OK,’ my aunt said. ‘Didn’t think he’d let you come alone. He’s welcome too, even if he is a male, at least he’s a cat.’
We settled together, our candles standing on the stone floor, a bottle of birch wine and a basket of sweet chestnuts in the middle. I took the chestnut out of my pocket and added it to the basket.
One of the women got out clap-sticks, another had a hand-drum, others had stones to clap together and two had homemade rattles. Susan, my friend from school, and I took out our whistles. My aunt had her old pot-drum, a skin stretched over a big clay pot, and began to tap it, humming softly the while, and one by one we joined her. There was no set tune, we each felt into the rhythm, into my aunt’s energy, and came together. Tweeniepuss’s purr sounded like a throbbing drone under it all. Sometimes the singing was strong and deep, loud and joyous, others it was soft and plaintiff. Susan and I played our pipes, and sometimes we put them down and hummed or sang. The singing would grow, then die away to a silence as deep and rich as honey. Then the humming would begin again and the sound pulse and grow, to fade away into whispers that chased each other round the stone columns and up amongst the rafters.
On and on, through the night, we sang and kept silence, sang and kept silence. Sometimes we drifted into daydreams, seeing colours and pictures, and folk as faer and as wyrd as any in the Victorian fairy painters’ pictures. And then, there came the first glimmer of colour shining down through the stained glass of the east window, painting the stone floor with light. Stronger grew the colours, and the light.
There was a knocking at the door. Strong male voices called, ‘May we come in?’ followed by a sharp, deep bark. ‘Come in, come in, and welcome,’ Called my aunt, and we all joined her. The men came in, and the dogs. Dad let Woofah off the leash and he skidded up the stone floor to bump into my back and lick my ears. My aunt’s collie was there too, and my uncle, and my boyfriend John from next door, and everyone’s husband and father, lover and brother, and all the animals too. Tweeniepuss sat up in my lap and did his best to look offended but everyone knew he was only pretending.
We made space for the men and animals in the circle, giving the men our candles, low and near guttering now but still alight. My aunt opened the birch wine and passed it round, followed by the chestnuts, while the men blew out the candles saying, ‘Praise to the Lady, and the water, and creation unfinished as the sun moves on again.’
Then the men opened the baskets they’d brought, and the scents were divine, eggs and bacon, fruit and porridge, hot toast dripping with butter and homemade marmalade and jams, tea and coffee. So we feasted, bringing home the joy of sun-return.