Without getting too heavily into the personal details of our own spiritual beliefs, both myself and Tom like to participate in celebrations surrounding the changing seasonal tides. Part of that practice lies in the partaking of traditions belonging to our ancestral cultures, and this way of life aligns comfortably with our personal values. In the modern Neopagan belief system, such seasonal celebrations are typically commemorated on specific dates within the given "Wheel of the Year", the widely accepted modern Pagan calendar which borrows from the popular pagan religion of Wicca. However, we personally choose to think of these festivals more as undefined and unfixed seasonal tides which may be celebrated based on significant events within personal, observable and experiential cycles of nature, ourselves and the cosmos.
These celebrations include traditional Celtic festivals such as Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain, as well as others borrowing from various cultural traditions. These are festivals celebrated in the aforementioned Wheel of the Year, which we do believe provides a workable and valuable framework of reference in celebrating the older festivals of days gone by, and creates a great source of grounding and connection within many people's lives and also within our own. However, we are finding that as we align ourselves more closely with a personal yearly calendar which is much more purposeful to our own lives in drawing from our own ancestral roots; this too is shifting and changing. In light of the recent blessing of heavy snowfall we have received here in Suffolk, we have been contemplating ways in which we may authentically connect to the cycles of the Earth, how we may determine the appropriate times which should mark the significant changes in seasons, and how we may commemorate these times by way of reverence and celebration.
We have recently noticed that the seasonal changes of this past tumultuous year have been significantly more unpredictable than in previous years, lending to a particular difficulty in connecting to the seasonal celebrations as we usually would in the timeframes they are supposed to be observed within as per tradition. This experience has provided us more food for thought not only concerning the effect climate change is having on our local landscape, our direct natural surroundings and all the wildlife which defines our environment, as well as the natural habitats we cherish which provide us with so much nourishment and sustenance within our lives in countless ways; but also concerning the effect this unpredictability in the weather may be having on directly us as people – physically, mentally, and spiritually - on an individual basis, as a community, and as a whole. We must consider the ways in which this increasing lack of stability and harmony may be affecting not only our direct external environments, but also our inner psycho-spiritual landscapes defined by all that makes up the natural environment surrounding us; from the plants, to the animals, to the trees and shrubs, and to the creeks and rivers which seep into our dreams from our waking lives.
We have experienced quite sporadic weather over the previous twelve months or so, and still continue to see surprising behaviour from nature. Not all of these surprises are completely unwelcome of course, and I would attest that no weather brings me greater joy than the snowfall I have been able to enjoy this winter. But that certainly does not detract from the concern we both feel for how these uncharacteristic changes impact the delicate balance of our environment; in the dependence that plant and animal life have upon the stability of the weather patterns which the seasonal changes bring, and the direct effect this has upon their surroundings and their ability to survive. For our plant and animal kin, these changes continuously determine the availability of sustenance, shelter, potential mates, and impact an array of other variables they each depend upon.
Be it the early blooming of wildflowers, migratory birds lingering longer than they rightfully should, the lack (or unusual abundance) of species usual to the area, or the aforementioned unpredictable weather; it has been apparent that the regularity and dependability of seasonal shifts we observe has surely changed. As we as a species come to understand climate change and the relationship human activities have with the natural cycles which are so essential to the health of our biosphere and all the ecosystems within, we too are beginning to gradually shift, change and adjust in reflection of and in tandem with our environment - out of both necessity and circumstance, within our external lives and habits, and as a response within ourselves as reflected in each of our inner worlds too.
This sentiment holds particularly true in our celebrations of the changing seasons and how we commemorate each of them. Each season and the liminal spaces of the transitional times therein are each overly deserving of their own unique celebration. Each brings with them a vital essence necessary to creating the divine alchemy of diverse life here on our planet. In a more mundane sense, the seasons have always brought with them the availably of different natural resources as well as various other benefits to us as people – from food and drink supplies, to natural medicines and the holistic remedies we are able to perform and partake in, right down to the simple, practical supplies and craft materials essential to our survival and to our cultures. In the sense of health and wellbeing in the modern age and in the times of our ancestors, the seasons also present to us different challenges and opportunities for not only mental wellness and spiritual development, but also the chance for reverence, ritual, and worship; activities which were once deeply important, if not essential components of life for those who came before us.
It is not incredibly hard for us to understand why those who walked this earth before us would have appreciated each and every changing of the tide with such religious vigour, and why these changes invoked such an enduring sense of personal and communal duty to the worlds of gods and spirits; driving forces which informed the lives of each individual and the communities to which they belonged. These people were intimately more dependent upon - and therefore connected to - the natural world and its cycles, than we and our societies are today. From nomadic cultures, to hunter-gatherer groups, settled agricultural communities, all the way to sophisticated civilisations built steadily over time; this vital connection and the ability of people and cultural groups to survive and thrive as individuals and as societies were not, and could not be disconnected from one another.
The ancient mindset being described here may be observed in the word 'Yule' itself, which is a festivity of which many of those outside the pagan world are already unknowingly familiar with, though they may be unaware of what exactly Yule pertains to. In brief, the word 'Yule' as it pertains to the historic Midwinter festival derives from the Old English 'ġēol' and can be traced back to a mixture of Old Norse and Old High Germanic origin, with much etymological debate from scholars and researchers as to its exact meaning and precise origin - with various speculations as per the meaning ranging from 'feast', to 'wheel', to 'jolly', and even to the word being in reference to the gods themselves.
With the deep connection the ancients had to their lands and the vast, intimate knowledge they kept of the natural world and the cycles celebrated within their distinct cultures, it would have only made sense for people to celebrate significant periods within the year both as a way of showing appreciation for the vital reciprocity they had with their surroundings, and as an essential way of keeping track of the passage time itself; marking specific times of the year as they aligned with celestial events and other indicators within the natural world, such as specific animal behaviours and movements. This would have served and enabled the success of activities such as foraging, hunting, crafting, farming, and cattle herding, but also in ensuring the health and stability of community life. No doubt seasonal festivities were, and still today remain a way of coping mentally with the oncoming changes in the weather and in our surroundings. For example, in preparing oneself and one's community for dealing with oftentimes difficult transitional periods, which were often accompanied and marked by the expectation of death, disease and hardship. To hold times of worship has seemingly always proved essential in preparing the individual and the collective consciousness of the people for transition. Particularly for the ancients, this was vital in uplifting community morale and providing a sense of steadfastness for the season ahead.
As we seemingly descend further into a world which becomes more disengaged from nature with each passing of the year and with each turning of the wheel, most find themselves increasingly out of touch in terms of our human relationship to the procession of the seasons and all the internal and external changes they bring. This is why we find it important on a personal level to participate in these celebrations of yesteryear, which serve to remind us of how truly significant this essential connection is to ourselves and the relationship we have to our planet, but also in retaining balance with its complex weather systems, habitats, and most of all, with the truly breath-taking diversity of life which lives and breathes alongside us and our human world every single day, no matter how disconnected we may become from them. We must all collectively remember that we are, after all, never entirely independent from all the manifestations of life on this planet we share.
As has been said many times before, this connection must be maintained in a way of life which reflects the balance of nature itself; one of continuous give and take, and one in which individual and collective relationships of reciprocity exist in a harmonious continuum with the earth, commemorated by way of reverent and joyous celebration as in the days of old. However, as we personally continue to incorporate the celebrations of old into our modern year, we find it somewhat difficult to do so on specified dates as the widely adhered to version of the modern pagan calendar dictates. This Wheel of the Year was formed sometime in the not-so-distant past, but even at that time, our climate was different and has continued to change each decade ever since. Compare this to the truly distant past which our modern pagan festivals derive their inspiration from, and you are sometimes left with quite a distinct disconnect. This disconnect exists despite the very purpose of these pagan paths and ways presented to us, which are largely designed to recreate those of old; being one of essential connection to the natural cycles and to our surroundings.
Within the scope of our recent personal experiences, we shall look at the current turn of the tide between Winter and Spring, commemorated by Imbolc – the hopeful Celtic fire festival which heralds the onset of Springtide and all the new life and light it brings. We have found ourselves in a slight predicament, having had to backtrack our celebrations more than once as a result of the strange weather we've been having here in Suffolk. Typically, most pagans today celebrate Imbolc around the beginning of February. Of the holy days commemorated within the Christian calendar also exists a distinct yet decidedly similar celebration known by the more recognisable name of Candlemas which is marked on the 1-2nd of February, and coincides with the Neopagan celebrations which also take place around this time.
As we have observed within this past year, celebrating the coming of Spring during the first week of February as per the modern Wheel of the Year calendar would unfortunately have been quite premature for those of us here in Suffolk and likewise, anyone leaving their Yuletide celebrations until the full moon of January as some historical sources dictate would likely find themselves wishing that they had instead waited a little longer! Here in East Anglia, we are now in the midst of what feels much more like the Canadian winters Tom is used to than the mild English winters we are used to in this part of the world, after being hit by an unexpected onslaught of snow being dubbed the “Beast from the East II”. Even the farmers we know have disclosed to us that they find their ewes lambing much later in the year usually expected.
In cultures wherein oral tradition was upheld over the written word, historical documents, texts, and even the archaeological record can sometimes provide a scarce, if not contradictory picture of what, when, and how exactly the old seasonal celebrations and other important events were commemorated by those who came long before us and paved the ways we follow today. An excellent example of this would be of the ancient Druids - a culture of which we surprisingly know very little, even to this day. The historical documentation we do have available to us is both fairly cryptic, and written from a vastly different cultural standpoint with a bias towards Christian ideology - so is therefore somewhat unreliable at best, and at worst may be incredibly misleading if we are to take the writings at face value. We see the very same thing with many European, Pre-Christian cultures - whether they be Celtic, Norse, Saxon, or otherwise. The Ancient Greeks and their and Roman counterparts were fortunately excellent record keepers, but for those of us looking to research and revive early Northern European traditions, things can become very puzzling to piece together; countless documents describing lost pagan practices, ceremonies and rituals were written by the Christian scholars and historians of the time, providing us the only written records we have in most cases.
Having said all of that, thank God indeed that we have the records at all to refer to in the first place! The archaeological record may often provide the most reliable and accurate picture of older cultures that we can gather, but oftentimes conclusive evidence is either missing, or that which is presented is left up to a lot of debate and difference in interpretation by many scholars with varying views and agendas. On top of that, many historians look at the findings through a somewhat dry and scholarly lens, rather than from a more esoteric standpoint encompassing the complex and abstract spiritual concepts presented within the ancient pagan worldview. This, however, is where folklore can provide a lot of the missing historical context needed, revealing the forgotten ways of thinking which existed at that time. This is precisely why we find so much joy and value in sharing our knowledge of this missing link.
Those of us who may be attempting to recreate pagan festivals and practices from a more historical standpoint will perhaps find themselves in even more of a predicament. We have experienced an unusually mild Winter up until this point in February, creating a distinct difficulty for us in commemorating the Midwinter festival of Yule appropriately. This year, we found it particularly challenging to connect the true meaning and purpose of this historical festival to our surroundings, try as we might to recreate a meaningful Midwinter experience for ourselves in contrast to an environment which felt much more like it was presenting us with the early onset of Spring; wildflower shoots, sunshine, and rainfall abound. Pagan practices are often just as much about practicality as they are with the essential synchronicity and synergy with nature that we as pagans strive for. We have found that we have had to adjust ourselves to work with what nature is currently offering us, rather having a predetermined plan of how and when to celebrate, or choosing to wait for specific dates and times to show appreciation for the bounty that our natural surroundings provide us with. We have found it much less valuable over time to attempt to force experiences which simply may not have relevance for us in the here and now.
Many pagans and followers of folk tradition around this time of year in early February await the visit of the well known and loved Celtic goddess, Brighid, who is thought to sweep across the countryside awaiting welcome to our homes and hearths as we readily undertake various cleansing rites and customs in preparation of the aforementioned Imbolc, otherwise known as Brighid's Day. Around this time, we set appropriate offerings and decorations upon our seasonal altars in order to humbly receive her warm blessings of purification and plenty as she passes through our homes as folklore dictates, and as we feel her influence upon our lives. In dedication to this goddess, a popular choice of activity around this time would be the crafting of Brighid's Cross, traditionally made from reeds. The transitional tide of Imbolc and the period of time associated with this celebration is marked in the minds of many pagans by the appearance of the delicate Snowdrops; the first flowers of the year to peek out from the cold soil, serving as small heralds to the readily awaited and embraced change in season.
With the unusual seasonal occurrences we are currently witnessing, and the sudden onset of heavy snow we have experienced in place of the warmer weather Snowdrops are supposed to bring with them as a small promise from nature - in a strange irony, these tiny messengers seemed to have heralded the unprecedented snowfall we have received instead. Many pagans may now find themselves wondering when on earth Brighid is supposed to arrive this season, and therefore, when may be the appropriate time to make the necessary preparations lest our altars gather dust. Myself and Tom have adapted to these changes personally by utilising the current moon cycle to undertake our observances of this shift, and will be partaking in a prolonged period of sacred and thorough spring cleaning and cleansing of our home as well as of our bodies, minds and spirits over the course of this month, until the new moon arrives in the next.
(Below: Some of our Imbolc celebrations and decorations from February of 2020, including a straw figure of Brighid, vases of Snowdrops, and plenty of candles in celebration of the strengthening light we see as we cross the threshold of Winter into Spring)
Many of our English folk customs and traditions - some we are still familiar with today and some which have been long forgotten - derive themselves largely from Scandinavian and Germanic historic cultural origin through Anglo-Saxon and Norse invasions, which brought with them cultural exchange and genetic integration. It may surprise some to learn that many of the celebrations we recognize today were based more so around the lunar cycles and the ancient lunar calendars, than the solar based celestial events which interestingly dictate the modern Neopagan calendar. To provide an example of this, the tradition of Yule as it was celebrated during Viking-era Scandinavia was written to have been celebrated around the first full moon after the new moon that followed the Winter Solstice in December, and the word Yule itself actually indicated the modern months of both December and January.
It was only after a complex and complicated process of merging with Christianity in the medieval era in Scandinavia during the time of Jarl Haakon the Good, the famous king of 10th century Norway; that the Norse celebration of Yule started to become more of a solar celebration commemorating the Winter Solstice, than the lunar based ceremonial period from whence Yule gained its origin as per earlier historical tradition. Following the lunar patterns may still pose a problem to us if we choose to do so in the present day, however. Whilst this cyclical way of life undoubtedly creates an invaluable source of divine and ancient connectedness within our modern lives, the unpredictability of the weather can mean that even using the lunar calendar rather than dates in the month to mark historical festivals can be just as troublesome in terms of celebrating the seasonal tides when we ought to, and the relevance we may (or may not) find in the festivities we are supposed to be partaking in as pagans as they relate to our external environment.
Many of the concepts we may be trying in good faith to honour may simply no longer be present in the age we currently live in due to our modern circumstances, which can feel very disheartening for those seeking to recreate and revive ancient pathways, ways of life, and ways of thinking. Due to this and many other reasons, our shared personal path remains for now in a state of joyous flux, development and experimentation, as we strive to figure out how to honour historical and ancestral tradition whilst still maintaining a sense of authentic and practical connection to the land as it exists in our local biosphere, but also to the unique seasonal tides around us as they manifest in our local landscape and to the rich agricultural history of our region in the country, which still to this day defines the charming countryside culture and atmosphere of Suffolk.
Dramatic seasonal changes and unexpected weather patterns can be particularly challenging for modern adherents to ancient ideas of relationship with the land and its plant and animal inhabitants, as also to the seasons and the elements themselves. This however, presents an opportunity for those of us who commit ourselves or are seeking to commit to a land-based spiritual path and the practices which define and encompass that connection. As we yearn to connect to the ways of old forgotten to the pages of history in search for meaning in our lives, the increasing unpredictability of how our natural environment behaves forces us to consider celebrating the seasonal tides not on specified dates, nor around the lunar calendar as certain historical cultures would have, or even around the solstices and equinoxes as modernized versions of these ancient rites dictate. Rather, our current circumstances now challenge us to return to even more ancient ways of being which move in flexible synchronicity with the ebb and flow of nature in all the difficulties and delights she presents to us in the here and now; moving in response to what she throws at us, and in tandem with it.
With this opportunity to redefine ourselves and our ways of worship we may find that some positivity may be gleaned from the volatile climate (literally and figuratively) our species has created. We must also remember that we have always endured the circumstances we have lived through. We may strive to recognise and restore the balance which has been lost, but until that time arrives we may give ourselves permission to ecstatically embrace the chaos, change and turbulence in this process of retribution. Perhaps this uncertain way of living in and of itself actually aligns us more and more with the ways of our forebears. Adaptability to the unknown would have been key not just to their survival, but to their livelihood, and today we still thank and honour our ancestors across the world for their steadfast endurance in the face of change. So, perhaps as modern pagans we may more authentically connect to those voices not in constantly fighting against change, but in listening closely to it and adapting to it no matter how painful it might be, all whilst protecting the balance however we can. This is how our civilisations were born, and no matter the paths we choose, we would all do well to remember that.
We are faced with a difficult choice as people. Although we all wish to correct the increasing instability climate change has brought to our planet and our ways of life as a result of our actions as a collective force we also must look to work within the boundaries we now find ourselves are confined to. This state often gives rise to the greatest creative inspirations and innovations humanity can possibly produce, thus new practices and traditions are born from the strife. This is the alchemical transformation we see may within the divine cauldron that is the source of creation itself. This sentiment applies just as much to our daily activities as it does for our spiritual lives and health, especially for those of us who are working directly with nature in finding ways to show gratitude to and glean constant meaning from the bounty the ever turning wheel of the tides have to offer us anew with each new season, each phase of the moon, each solstice and equinox, each long night, and each new dawn.
Just as there are many aspects of historical tradition which honour significant times of the year in ways which are simply neither conducive nor resonant with our modern our values and attitudes, and may no longer hold any practical merit (such as the sacrifice of animals as undertaken during the Norse blot ceremonies of old for example, which is simply is not at all desirable nor viable for most of us today!) we may also find similar issues through the ways in which modern pagan worship has developed over the past 50 years or so; encompassing practices which are now widely accepted and shared by many today within the now rapidly growing pagan community. This is expressed in the insistence many modern pagans uphold in honouring certain traditions on specific dates. This is not at all necessary when following a nature based path nor is it very historically pagan in some instances depending on the path you follow, but nonetheless, this structure still seems to work well for many who choose to practice this way today and is not something to condemn outright.
This is a modern tendency we have in attempting to find ways to relate ourselves to historical worldviews and ways of living and being; adapting ancient festivals through our modern lens by scheduling them to specific dates on which they must be celebrated within a defined calendar year. Though it may work for most, it may be something we as modern pagans have to rethink in the future, with the possibility that this way of celebrating may begin to lose its context with the looming tide of climate change and societal change always seemingly on the horizon. Regardless, I have found that following the old ways can be an incredibly motivating force in maintaining and returning to a state of balance by providing a point of reference to the very same balance upon which those traditions were founded, formed, and upheld as important pillars of the societies which created them. This is where we may find the intrinsic value in upholding in reverence and guarding our closely held historical rites and customs.
Ancient and ancestral ways of celebrating the seasonal and celestial tides as dictated by the energies of transience and change to be found everywhere in our universe, are organically becoming more and more aligned with what makes the most sense for us contextually. We can, of course, quite happily continue to celebrate seasonal tides within the framework our modern adaptations have provided for historical practices we wish to follow, which countless people across the world find infinite value in when walking alternate spirituals paths such as those governed by structural systems like the Wheel of the Year. This framework continues to make sense for most people from the standpoint of the societal norms that we live within, and with that, our use and dependence upon the Gregorian calendar. Fixed dates and times underpin almost everything that gives foundation to our societies toady, so they do of course have their merit and it would be foolish to discount from the value of this standpoint entirely.
Those of us who seek to connect more deeply with the ways our ancient ancestors followed may find ourselves walking forgotten paths which were often less defined than most would presume, and contained much more flexibility and fluidity than most are comfortable with today; guided by structures which reflect divine laws to be found in nature, rather than being governed by those which humans have created. We can grasp the open opportunity nature is presenting to us right now, in our current era, and allow ourselves a radical freedom when it comes to the times we choose to show our appreciation for the stunning seasonal shifts and transitions we are fortunate enough to experience on this Earth, and this is where we may find our bounty. We have found that to live more authentically as pagans following the paths of our forbears within the restrictive confines and the vast opportunities of our modern age, we would be wise to move more like water; guided only by a fluid pattern of motion which reverently mimics the ebb and flow of the powerful and gentle ocean tides and currents we still hold as sacred; a way which is guided humbly by the governing will of the moon and the divine celestial bodies which are and will be everlasting as long as we are here on Earth; and a way which moves in receiving and reciprocity rather than resistance, as a sea beneath their glimmering reflection in the ripples of time and space.