This year's festive contribution stems from reading about the Mongolian Winter Solstice: deeply spiritual, community orientated and amply catered.
Ice In The Evergreen
Leaves have dropped from the birch trees. Silver bark shines against bare dark earth for a while; then the black streaks are stark against a backdrop of snow. We are no strangers to cold here. This is autumn snow. Our winter starts at the solstice point, spans nine lengths of nine days, drops into chill; like a body without a heartbeat, Grandmother says.
'Maybe this year the earth will stay dead.'
She says this every year. I think she believes it.
I love the ice on the evergreens, where the sun touches, that's my glimmer of hope.
'Fetching the water for Grandmother, Monkh?'
'Yes, Vachir. Is winter close? It feels close.'
Vachir laughs. 'How thick was the ice?'
I hold out a finger, horizontal, to show him.
He nods. 'It will be getting thicker soon.'
It is not quite an answer. He is teasing, so he deserves the face I pull at him. Vachir's hut is the centre of our village, and the centre of his hut is an evergreen tree.
'Perhaps this year you can let go of your bad attitude, Monkh. But you may keep your questions.' He pats my head and moves on. He is probably going to look at the sky. He watches the sky and we watch him. Any day now he will say it is time. Since the peak of summer the night has been crawling in: closer, closer. The sun slips away: little by little it strays, further and further.
'I saw Vachir.'
Grandmother raises her eyebrows, hoping for news.
'I think he was just going to look at the sky. He asked how thick the ice was.'
I hold out my finger again to demonstrate. She nods.
'It won't be long,' she says, 'the sun can't go much further, or it won't come back. These are dangerous days, Monkh.'
'Yes, Grandmother, I know.' But she carries on with her words anyway.
'Dark grows no crops, ripens no berries. There must be time to rest but not too much or things will never move again.'
Singing interrupts her: it sounds quite drunk. Grandmother shakes her head. It's Altai, of course.
'That's not going to improve his luck,' she says. It has been a bad year for him though, so she isn't actually cross. 'Some of these rugs are looking shabby, we need to get the loom out.'
'Yes Grandmother.' There isn't much danger of too much rest here.
The wool on the loom is deep red-brown, orange-yellow, blazing red. It's as warm as fire, to look at those colours: they blend and flicker and put a mind to trance. A knock at the door interrupts. It's Vachir.
'Solstice is two nights distance,' he tells us. 'Are you prepared?' He is teasing Grandmother now.
'Always!' She pulls a face at him.
'Food or vodka, I don't mind. Vodka is good but don't ferment all your milk like Altai!'
'What would happen, Vachir, if you couldn't see the sun?'
'I can always see the sun Monkh, no matter how far it travels.'
'But if it wouldn't come back?'
'I know what to do to bring it back. But we must not take it for granted.'
Now my face is all puzzle.
'Be always grateful and mindful and happiness follows.'
'Happiness? From thinking? From a full mind? Like a stomach is full?'
Vachir laughs. 'You ask too many questions. I must knock on other doors.'
Grandmother is laughing at me too. 'Young people;' she says, 'it is the same for people as for the earth.'
My puzzle face squashes up further.
'Look at your naval too long, you will get run over by a yak!' Grandmother and Vachir chuckle away, and he waves goodbye. Grandmother carries on with her laughing like she knows something that I don't.
'That won't finish your rug,' I tell her and she pulls a face at me.
'We'll make dumplings this year.' She says it as though I have asked.
I smile. Dumplings are my favourite part of the feast. We all must bring something to share, something to give up.
'To cling to things is burdensome.'
Vachir says this every year. He definitely believes it. His hut is almost bare, except for these occasions.
Tables are set up and covered in fine dishes. Three lots of fried dumplings this year! Altai puts a jug of fermented milk on the table. He lets go of the handle slowly. Vachir pats his shoulder. The smell of food is wonderful: rich and fat. That will keep the cold out! But we can't eat it yet.
Vachir counts heads with his eyes that can see the sun no matter where it goes. He holds his hands up. As well as food, I can smell the pine tree. Vachir keeps his hands in the air, so the villagers sit, facing the tree, facing Vachir. Tuul takes a while because of her leg. Enkh's baby cries at first but she rocks him and he sleeps. It becomes expectantly quiet. Vachir closes his eyes. The tree tells him what to say, Grandmother told me. He can see the sun and he can hear the earth.
'In the dark we look at ourselves most clearly. There is no distraction in the true night. We admit our faults. We understand what to do, to make right what may have gone wrong. We make a promise to do this. Now is the time for this moment. It is the time when the sun is almost beyond reach.
We follow the old ways to know again the light and warmth.
We bring something to share, to show that we will help each other.
We bring something to relinquish. To cling to things is burdensome.
Look to yourself, in this darkness, do not look elsewhere. But if you are distracted, remember to forgive mistakes, let go of troubles: whoever is lost in this darkness, let us help, let us not harm. That way we will travel back to light as the light travels back to us.
Year by year, we share, we relinquish, we are thankful: it has not failed us yet. If you are with me, if you are ready, we will find our light.'
Old Temur passes Vachir a cup. He drinks every drop out of it. His eyes roll back. Old Temur beats a drum. I hold Grandmother's hand, and Tuul's, who sits uncomfortably on my other side. Vachir sings a strange and wordless song. It is hot, the pine scent grows stronger, fresher, cools the air.
The North Star sits above us. We don't see it from here, but we know it. This is the Winter Solstice, the point from where the day begins to grow, the night to shrink.
The wordless sounds can swoop, like flying, and the air cools and the sounds take us all the way through the cold black air to the North Star and we see a shimmer of faraway sun: and hold out our hands and the faint warmth reaches back and we all feel the promise made: it will find us as we found it, we are part of it, we are all part of everything: earth, water, air, fire.
Altai will let go of his grief.
Tuul will not worry about her leg.
Grandmother: what will she do? Stop teasing?
And me: I will love her for looking after me. I understand mindful. I am grateful. Maybe I will still ask questions!
It is silent. How long has it been silent?
We open our eyes. It is so bright in here: the tree bursts with shine, it sparkles more than ice in the evergreen.