. . . A Modern Pagan’s Wheel of the Year
My realm lies in a far northern region of the United States, not far from a little town nicknamed the Icebox of the Nation, for its consistently lowest of the low winter temperatures on the map. It’s a guarantee that the entire month of January, if not a good part of late December and early February, will see the thermometer dip below zero, with long stretches at 20-below, and plunges to as much as 30 and 40 degrees below zero for days at a time. Just this past week it was 29 below zero overnight.
In a place where snowflakes start swiveling down from the sky in late October, and the shovel has seen regular use before December even arrives, it hardly seems that Yule can be the first day of winter.
In my early years of witchcrafting, despite living in a rural setting, planting a huge garden, and raising and hunting a good deal of our meat, it was a mighty struggle to align my practice with the Wheel of the Year. How on earth could I celebrate fertility and the re-awakening of Mother Earth, when I couldn’t till, let alone plant in the frozen soil? How to celebrate the last harvest, when the pumpkin and squash vines had long since frozen, and the garden had been turned over in preparation for winter?
I took up the advice to adjust the Wheel to suit my climate, but it isn’t easy to shift major observances when the witching world around you seems to celebrate quarters and cross-quarters by the calendar. Of course, moving the observances wan’t the idea, rather adapting the way I approached each was the work to be done.
Gradually, I began to see that while many observances and rituals follow the agricultural model of planting, nurturing and harvesting, the spokes on the Wheel are an allegory of the Great Mystery – birth, death and rebirth.
As I see it, there are three aspects, or layers, to the Wheel of the Year. Like a sandwich, each layer is important, but some grab more of the attention. The bread (or container) is the planting, tending, reaping, and fallow times that correspond with nature’s seasons. The condiments are the milestones in the journey of the God and Goddess, their courtship in spring, coupling at the Great Rite, the gestation period, death of the harvest God, the Goddess in waiting in the underworld, the rebirth of the God at Yule and the reemergence of the Goddess in spring.
And then there is the meat (or other filling) that makes the sandwich what it is. For the Wheel of the Year, that would be the light. Light is the force that moves the Wheel through the year. Without the light, there is no movement of the Wheel.
I came to witchcraft, as many of us do, after leaving a mainstream religion, Christianity in my case. I jumped right on the bandwagon of telling everybody that Christianity co-opted all their religious holidays from pagan practice and I would lay out the Wheel of the Year as proof.
Since then, my agnostic leanings have only increased, moving me ever closer to atheism. As I’ve matured in my practice of witchcraft, the unanswerable question of which came first, Paganism or Christianity, holds no intrigue for me. It doesn’t matter.
The Wheel of the Year in its simplest analogy is about the procession and recession of light as observed from our place on this earth, as the planet travels around the sun. From solstice to solstice, the sun’s light ebbs and flows, increasing or decreasing depending on your hemisphere. Dark will follow light, light will follow dark again and again. We are even reminded daily, when every sunrise is followed by the dark of night, to be overtaken by dawning light next morning. Every birth ends in death and begins again in rebirth, whether you believe that happens as the same soul in a new body, or as transformed energy in a new blueprint.
Once I began to pay more attention to the subtle changes in sunlight and the shift in energies with each season, the Wheel of the Year began to truly resonate for me. The time of strong sun corresponds to fire and the direction of south. Long dark nights draw me to the protection of the earth element and the direction of north. The equinoxes are a time of balance, liminal times when energy is shifting toward creation or destruction, expansion in the spring, and reduction in the fall.
So, that first morning when the sunlight angles just so through my bedroom window to hit the mirror and fill the room with reflecting light (my own little Stonehenge), I know the sun is on the increase even though the world outside is still encased in snow and ice. When Imbolc arrives, I light my candle to honor the growing warmth of the sun and place three ice cubes in a dish to melt, one for each remaining month before I will see any trace of green grass in my realm. As an offering to the season, I wash all my windows, inviting the sunlight back into my home.
Spring bulbs won’t bloom in my flower beds for Ostara, but I’ve discovered the satisfaction of cutting a handful of branches from a native fruit tree such as choke cherry or crabapple, and watching the blossoms unfold indoors. Or I might buy a pot of forced tulips and hyacinths to enjoy a full month or more before I’ll see their bright, cheery colors in the garden.
When Samhain comes I care not that the frost settled on my garden a full month earlier. I’m following the descent of the light with my own descent into the dark winter’s journey of the soul.
As Crone years claimed me, I’ve shape-shifted into a snowbird, migrating south for several months to escape the hardships of winter. Green palms sway in gentle breezes, poinsettias are set out right next to tomato starters and bedding plants, while fresh produce is available at farm markets, all at the same time. It’s hard to know whether I’m in planting season, or harvest. But the light stays true to the Wheel. The light grounds me in my practice and shows me where I need to turn my attention.
When I look closely, I can observe a seasonal dormancy even in this almost subtropic climate. Though there are far fewer deciduous trees here than at home, the leaves turn color and fall to the ground leaving bare branches through December and into January. Even palm trees shed their lower fronds as they tower further into the sky each year.
This led me to notice the unusual (to me) round, spiny seed pods on the ground. Just as I know there are witchy applications for the acorns that fall from the oaks in my back yard at home, I know there must be uses for these pods as well. Sure enough, I discovered they are from the Sweet Gum tree, related to Witch Hazel; I can apply all the same magical correspondences for warding and protection.
And how like Magick to drop these Sputnik-looking balls at my feet, when their additional properties for sweetening life and healing the heart are exactly what I am in need of right now. Not to mention that the resin from the tree has antiseptic and astringent properties. I’m betting if I can get my hands on some, it will take care of the persistent itch of no-see-um bites.
There is no wrong or right way to use the Wheel of the Year in your witchcrafting. Whether atheist, agnostic, nature-loving animist, or deity-worshiping devotee, there is something for everybody, and it all begins with the movement of light.