The Wheel of the Year
I am often asked what someone can do to feel more connected – to themselves, spirit and the Earth. How can they be in right relationship with our Great Mother Earth. What I have found for myself is that when I connect to the cycles and rhythms of the Earth, when I slow down enough to notice the beauty and sacredness all around me in nature and all her wonders, it is in those moments that I am deeply connected to all that is. When I connect to the magic and awe of Mother Earth it is then that I feel grounded and centered in my body; then spirit can reach me. One of the ways to connect to the Earth is to follow the Wheel of the Year. The Wheel has eight spokes, four of which are solar events that occur during the year and the other four are agricultural holidays. Our ancestors celebrated these auspicious times of the year, honoring the cycles of birth, death and rebirth as they are manifested in the seasons, and the ancient holidays can be just as potent and magical today as they were for our ancestors. It’s very important to myself and to our community that we create ceremonies for these occasions which are relevant to our time and to our culture, allowing these magical days to have deep meaning in our lives and in our connection to the Earth.
Samhain ~ October 31
Samhain (Sow-inn), All Hallows Eve, Halloween, is the New Year to many pagans and witches. This turn of the wheel marks the third and final harvest – that of the meats. Animals were slaughtered now to ensure food throughout the winter. On my altar for the October full moon, respectfully called the Blood Moon, there is a candle to honor the animals that sacrifice their lives to provide goods and food for our survival. This marks the waning portion of the year, when the land begins its slumber.
From now until Yule, the days grow shorter and darker. Winter storms begin to sweep down from the north. This is a time of reflection and turning inwards, beginning our own rejuvenating process. There are many themes in nature to learn from at this time of year – the trees, which no longer need their leaves, gracefully release them, letting them go to become compost, to nourish the earth and enrich the soil. The earth mother draws her energy inward, down into the roots, to rest, regenerate, and to rejuvenate, all the while dreaming of the spring. It is said that the veil between the physical and spiritual world is at its thinnest and spirits may pass more readily between worlds. This is a time to connect with your ancestors and to your loved ones who have crossed over. Create an ancestor altar with pictures and mementos; add autumnal decorations you’ve collected from Mother Nature and light red, orange or yellow candles. We take our annual walk to the local cemetery on a night near the full moon with our carved jack-o-lanterns, which we leave behind all glowing magically. We honor those who are buried there by leaving offerings of pomegranate seeds and sharing libations of homemade pomegranate mead.
Our intentions are to connect to Hecate and Persephone, who has taken her seat as Queen of the Underworld. Both of these wise women of the darkness are sought after for guidance and insight as we bravely journey into the shadow aspects of ourselves for healing and understanding during the dark half of the year.
Winter Solstice/Yule ~ December 20 – 23
All of the Christmas traditions that we are familiar with have pagan roots – most of them having to do with sympathetic magic to lure back the sun. The evergreen boughs and trees hold the sun’s light within them, their lush greenery representing the hope of the sun’s return to green the earth. I decorate the mantle with Sun cards from many different tarot decks dangling from sparkly tinsel and hang gold suns all around. The earth takes this time in the darkness to regenerate, rest and dream spring into being. I find it a nice tradition to seek out some time to sit in complete darkness on this night. I honor my own shadow side and the lessons it has brought me. I reflect on what ideas and plans I will be gestating during the long, winter months ahead. Although much of the winter weather is still to come, we celebrate and welcome the Sun’s return. Yule, also known as the Winter Solstice, is the longest night and the shortest day of the year. From now until Midsummer, we will be gifted with the beauty of the sun’s light shining upon us a bit longer each day.
Imbolc ~ February 2
Also called Feast of Torches, Oimelc, Lupercalia, Candelmas, Brigid´s day and the Feast of Brighid. The term Imbolc can be translated from the old Irish as “in the belly” or “ewe’s milk” – at this time of year the pregnant sheep began to lactate.
To our agricultural ancestors this was occasion to celebrate! They were in the depths of winter and the pleasure of fresh milk was a sign that the life-giving forces of spring were just ahead. The Light Bringer, Brighid, the Celtic Goddess of fire and inspiration, healing, poetry, and smith craft was the most highly revered goddess in all of Ireland so much so that the Catholic Church had to make her a saint and create St. Brighid’s Day in order to stop the pagans from gathering in ritual for Imbolc.
In our modern age of flipping a switch for light and our homes comfortably heated with no effort on our part, we are disconnected from the harshness of winter and the importance of always keeping a warm coal on the hearth. I am grateful for these conveniences, don’t get me wrong! At Imbolc it’s important for me to reflect and honor the hardships that our ancestors endured. Imbolc is a time of gratitude. It has become a time for us to gather with our community and rejoice in our connections and the blessings of love and support that we receive from them. We come together to honor Brigit and the shining light within each of us.
Being in community during the dark months is balm for the soul. During the afternoon we share the making of butter and weave Brigit’s crosses in front of the hearth fire. Folks bring back the cross they made the year before and in ritual they toss it into the fire and thank Brighid for the blessings of the past year. With holy water from the Chalice well, we anoint our new crosses, asking Brighid’s blessing of healing and protection again for the coming year.
Vernal Equinox/Ostara~ March 20/21
On March 20 or 21, the Sun crosses the equator from south to north, marking for us the first day of spring. The darkness is overcome and we honor the Sun in its glorious return to power. From this point on the days grow longer and the Sun appears higher and higher in the sky each day. The Vernal or Spring Equinox, also called Ostara in many pagan traditions, is one of four solar festivals that occur during the year. We take the time now to celebrate all that the onset of spring heralds forth ~ hope, rebirth and resurrection, fertility and new life. The spring rains wash away the last dregs of winter and along with the thaw, filling the creeks and streams with fast moving currents. The maple sap is flowing and the time for boiling it down to syrup is at hand. The sweet songs of the spring birds fill the air. All around us the world is alive with blooming plants and new animal life. Decorate eggs today as they are the symbol of potential and new life.
It has also become our community tradition to gather and partake in an old Ukranian tradition of floating red eggshells downstream. Our ancestors did this to inform the spirits who lived in the darkness that spring had arrived. We have modified this ritual and we charge our shells with our joys and loving intentions and float the shells downstream, blessing the waters and all the lands that they touch. Afterwards we have a springtime feast including lots of eggs, and decorate with bouquets of tulips and daffodils. Celebrate the first day of Spring by balancing an egg on its bottom all day long. Wear green (which symbolizes the plant growth) or red (which symbolizes life). Rake away last years leaves from your garden and uncover the wondrous green life bursting through the soil. Bless your garden seeds with the fertile energy that the spring holds by placing them on your altar with a green candle and visualize a lush, green, abundant crop.
Beltaine ~ May 1st
May Day, or Beltaine as it is called by most pagans today, is a cross-quarter that is celebrated on the first of May. This is a wonderfully festive event celebrating the beauty of spring and the rebirth of the Earth. The birds and the animals are mating. The tree buds are bursting, the flowers are blooming all around and the returning warmth of the sun is here. Gardens are being tilled as the seedlings we’ve been nurturing are now ready for outdoor planting. It’s a celebration of the fertility of the Earth. Community festivals are held with Maypole dancing, games and music. Many of the rituals are full of symbolic representations of the sacred union of the God and Goddess, of Father Sky and Mother Earth. Great bonfires were lit and the herds passed between them for blessings and sent out to the summer fields. Bonfires are still lit across Europe and Britain on May Eve, just as they have been for hundreds of years.
If you have a partner in your life to share this journey with you, this is an evening to spend time truly appreciating each other, to make a bed beneath the stars, to take a bath together… If you are single treat yourself to a massage, a pedicure, or a sweet cream and honey bath.
Honey is part of the traditional feasting, as bees are symbolic of spring and fertility. Mead, a wine made from honey, is the traditional libation of the day. You might know someone who is brewing their own and willing to share, but if not it can be found in most liquor stores these days. Raise your glass in celebration of the seeds sprouting in your own life, and be sure to share your libation with Mother Earth in gratitude for all her gifts.
Spring cleaning is a wonderful way to honor the change of seasons. Clear away remaining winter debris and clutter. Rake away the old leaves; finding the seedlings that have begun to grow beneath them is magical. Open your windows. Get outside. Go for a walk. Listen to the birds, the wind, and the rain. Spend some time appreciating the new green life the Earth is pushing forth.
There is just as much of fairy lore associated with Beltaine as with Midsummer so be sure to leave out a dish of milk, a dab of honey and a cookie to please them.
Here in the Hudson Valley there are a few places to dance around a Maypole, wear a circlet of flowers in your hair and enjoy a wonderful bonfire after the sun sets.
Summer Solstice/Litha ~ June 21
In 2008 I was part of a group of pilgrims visiting the sacred sites of England. During our adventure we had the opportunity to experience the magic of Stonehenge for a sunset ritual. We arrived after hours when they allow you to walk past the ropes and gather within the stones. As we circled round the stones before entering into this sacred site, tears of deep reverence had already begun to flow. The tangible energy that we were surrounded by was incredibly moving.
Built between 3100 – 1100 BCE, Stonehenge is a megalithic structure which is aligned with the Summer Solstice sunrise and the Winter Solstice sunset. No one is sure just what went on within this stone circle but there is no doubt when you look upon this massive monument – whatever it was – it was magical.
For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is as fundamental as the length of daylight. After all, the sun is the ultimate source of all light and warmth here on Earth. In awe of the power of the Sun, humans have honored and celebrated it’s journey across the sky for thousands of years. The Summer Solstice marks the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is the peak of the sun’s height for the year. Traditionally it was celebrated across Europe, England, and Ireland with bonfires, dancing and festivities.
Today, groups of Earth loving folks continue to gather, honoring the amazing power of our Sun. There are festivals around the country where sacred fires burn into the night as dancers and drummers stay up all night to welcome the dawn. Many more people come together and hold smaller ceremonies in open space, everywhere from their gardens to woodland areas.
Mid-Summer is usually celebrated in my backyard. It’s a day of picnicking, children running through the sprinkler, lying on blankets, enjoying eachother’s company and basking in the warmth of the sun. We then gather in a circle as the sun sets, sharing poetry, song and other creative tributes to the Sun.
Brew yourself some Sun Tea. Fill a mason jar with spring water and put three of your favorite tea bags into it. Cover the jar and leave it in the sun for a few hours. Pour over ice and honor its life giving energy.
This is a time to celebrate growth and life and as we become more deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons. It is also time to acknowledge that the sun will now begin to decline once more towards winter. So treasure this time of warmth and light. And be sure to look at your noontime shadow. Around the time of the solstice, it’s your shortest noontime shadow of the year.
Lammas ~ August 1
At Lammas, or Lugnasadh, celebrated on or around August 1, we turn the Wheel of the Year to celebrate the the first of the three harvest festivals. We now reap the bounty of the seeds that were sown in the spring. The berry bushes are ready for picking, and our gardens are overflowing with tomatoes and all sorts of yummy fresh vegetables. At this time we give thanks for the gifts that the Goddess has bestowed upon us in many ways. The Native American people celebrate with Corn Dances and Festivals, honoring the Corn Goddess. It’s the perfect time to make corn bread and be sure to add fresh corn to the recipe. Make an offering to the land and share it with your loved ones as you each send out a prayer of gratitude for all your blessings. It is also the first of the celebrations in the waning portion of the year as the days have now begun to shorten, though daylight hours are still longer than the night. The Sun now casts a very long shadow as it’s position moves in the sky. It is the sacrifice of the Sun God, Lugh. It’s a time of letting go and death in a much more subtle way than at Samhain in October, but just as important to honor this shifting. As we celebrate with gratitude it is also the time to release into the sacred flames of the bonfire, that which must be sacrificed in our lives in order for us to reach our dreams, those goals that we set forth for ourselves in the spring. We can look at what needs to be released in order for us to grow and be bountiful in our lives. There are still weeks left of hot and humid days for us to enjoy here in the northeast but there is the underlying knowing that summer is dwindling. We feel the pressure to enjoy these last days, to get to the beach and have backyard barbeques. The blooming of the Queen Ann’s Lace and the fabulous blue chickory on the side of the road is a gentle reminder too that the summer days are coming to a close and fall is just around the corner.
Autumnal Equinox/Mabon ~ September 22 / 23
Mabon, or the Autumnal Equinox is the point at which there are equal hours of day and night. Henceforth the days are now shorter than the nights, marking the beginning of the dark half of the year. It is at this moment of balance that the daughter of the Earth Mother begins her journey to the Underworld to spend the dark half of the year with her lover Hades. The story of Persephone, as told in the Greek mythology, is a very disempowering series of events – clearly told and written by men (no offense). This is my version of Persephone and Hades: Persephone, our young sister-goddess, is off gathering wildflowers in the field when this blazing chariot comes bursting forth from the earth. Impressive right? Behind the reins of this ornate, fabulous chariot is a tall, dark and handsome magic man dressed in leather. Wouldn’t have to ask me twice if I wanted a ride… and so the story begins. Leaving her mother behind, she joins her lover willingly and consciously, choosing to fulfill her destiny as Queen of the Underworld. Her mother, Demeter, is befallen with deep sorrow. She draws her energies in and takes refuge in the darkness, waiting for her daughters return at the Spring Equinox.
Mabon is the second of the three harvest festivals. Here in the Hudson Valley we harvest root vegetables, apples, pears, pumpkins, gourds and squashes of all types. You can begin to create your autumn altar in the kitchen with a basket full of fresh pickings from the farmers market. Gather up a handful of acorns and a few freshly fallen leaves to decorate. Be sure to give yourself a few moments to sit outside today. During this quiet time create a gratitude list for the bounty in your life.