The shortest day and longest night of the year is a time of contemplation, during which we tend to turn inwards, and for some of us it is the time that thoughts of grief and loss can come to the forefront. Not surprisingly, this tendency has spurred a number of folk traditions around the northern hemisphere, the most widely known of which is Yule.
One of the oldest and most obscure is Karachun (also spelled Korochun, Krachun and Kračún), an old Slavic tradition according to which Belobog, the god of sun, fades and dies on December 21st and the evil deity Chernobog (loosely translated to "black god") the god of death, decay, and destruction rises from the depths to take his place. In typical cyclical fashion, the sun god is reborn as the new sun and emerges to defeat Chernobog, the morning of December 23rd.
(Perhaps one of the best ways to depict the metaphor is found in Disney's Fantasia, from the fearsome Chernobog character and his summoned whisps of skeletons, ghosts, and ghouls, to the quietly triumphant procession of nuns in the end of the segment, set to the tune of Schubert's Ave Maria.)
Karachun was also a time to honor the dead. Families built fires and offered food at their ancestors' gravesites to keep them warm and fed during the darkest and coldest time of the year. The first recorded use of the word is found in the Novgorod First Chronicle, published in 1143. Eventually the word evolves into the Hungarian "Karácsony" and the Romanian "Crăciun" for "Christmas". Some of the ancestral worship customs persist through time. In Ukraine, on Christmas eve, three spoons of each of the twelve dishes of the traditional "Holly Dinner" were set aside on a special plate for the family departed. Everyone must taste each plate to symbolize the unity of the family members, living or dead.
The winter solstice in its many incarnations encourages us to become aware of the cyclical nature of life and death, and embrace it, ouroboric as it may be.
After all, as the Ukrainian proverb goes; "The fear of death takes away the joy of living"
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