A Year of Mystical Thinking

December 2, 2021

In 2018, Emma Howarth undertook a year-long quest for enlightenment. Here, she shares her experience of a mystical Yule…


We stepped outside into the inky evening darkness, wrapped up in scarves and gloves. The sky was clear enough for us to see the stars. My girls held the tips of their sparklers together as I shielded the flame of an almost spent plastic lighter I’d found in the back of the cutlery drawer. One flick. Another flick. A spark, a flame and a fizz of light. Squeals of delight and the smoky metallic aroma of cursive firework wishes scrawled across the night sky. Swirling names and smiling faces lit up by a golden glow. It was 21 December, the winter solstice, a press-pause moment of deep darkness before the return to light begins. I’d long celebrated the summer solstice – it was my wedding anniversary, for starters – but taking time out to celebrate the winter version had always felt like a stretch too far.

December is the craziest month in a season of chaos. Decorating the house, panic-buying gifts and dropping all the balls you can think of – and some you really hadn’t. Who has the time to mark a pagan festival, long-forgotten by most, with all that on their plate? Well, 12 months into my mystical year, it appeared that I did. I lit another round of sparklers and surveyed the scene before me. I thought about posting a picture on Instagram but decided against it. That wasn’t what this was about. When we headed back inside to light candle lanterns made from jam jars and masking tape, and clink glasses of mulled apple juice, I felt lit from within.


A year earlier, this would never have happened. A year earlier I was falling apart and the idea of a teatime solstice celebration in my back garden would have tipped me over the edge. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think about one, though. If I recall correctly, I was thinking about Yule quite a lot back then. A Yule log, to be specific.

The Yule Log

My focus on a Yule log sent me spinning into a downward spiral of comparison and overthinking.

I’m not referring to one of those chocolate-covered confections I used to will my parents to produce after Christmas dinner instead of the traditional pudding: I mean a full-on, drag-it-in-from-the-woods-and-set-it-alight-on-the-solstice Yule log.

Somehow, amid the frazzled chaos of December 2017, I’d decided I really wanted one. I was researching a magazine feature on festive traditions when I spotted the object of my desire. It was bedecked with holly, adorned with candles, anointed with fragrant seasonal oils and displayed in pride of place to mark the return-to-light magic of the winter solstice.

There was an online ‘how to’ guide with step-by-step pictures and pages of notes. This was no aspirational festive door wreath, no stylishly Scandinavian Christmas tree. Those things I could handle. I failed to pull them off every single year, but I could deal with it when I stumbled across them on other people’s perfect Instagram feeds. But a Yule log? A Yule log was different.

Imagine being the kind of person who has time to carefully select a lump of wood to adorn for the winter. That has to be a person with their life together, right? Someone blissfully in tune with nature and the seasons and the magic of life. That person isn’t running on empty just to keep up. That person – entirely fictitious and created in my own mind, to be fair – came to symbolise everything that was wrong with me and everything I wanted to change back in 2017. I wanted to be a Yule log person. But, well, I wasn’t.


For all its twinkly lights and pleasingly mulled beverages, the season of goodwill can be a tough one. Perhaps it’s tough for you. Perhaps your family doesn’t fit the neat, nuclear vision you see in the movies, or perhaps you’re being pulled in too many different directions. Perhaps you’re living through grief, depression or financial hardship. Maybe you don’t even celebrate Christmas. It’s easy for whatever you’re going through to feel a hundred times worse when the people around you are high on eggnog. I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve driven myself to distraction over an internet Yule log. It didn’t occur to me that the solution to my stress wouldn’t be so far removed from one.

When I really thought about it, what that comparison Yule log symbolised wasn’t a perfect human with all their festive ducks in a row – it was something more straightforward. Or, more accurately, it was exactly what it was: a symbol of the changing seasons and the turning of the Wheel of the Year. A symbol of the magic of nature doing its thing, as it does every year, whether we’re too stressed to bear witness to it or not. I’d reached the end of my mystical year and my life felt better on every level. I’d slowed down.
I felt calm. I was happy…


Continue reading Emma Howarth’s article in issue 178 of Kindred Spirit magazine. Grab your copy here.


Posted by: Gwen Jones