And so, with the autumn equinox behind us and the nights growing longer we begin the lovely, restful descent into peace and darkness where we will dream up future plans ready to send forth our shoots again next spring.
If you’ve read anything on Paganism or Druidry, the odds are you’ve run into that sentiment. Evidently it works for some people – for the autumn and winter fans this is a happy time of year. If you have a warm, comfortable dwelling, are insulated from the excesses of weather, confident you can pay your heating bills no matter what, and in a state of good mental and physical health, winter is no bother at all.
My seasonally affected friends are watching the loss of light with the grief that inevitably brings. There are so many people more vulnerable to depression in the winter months, due to shortages of sun-induced serotonin in the brain.
For anyone in poverty, winter is a nightmare, and there are a lot of people in poverty just now. Not having enough food is tougher in the cold, and the issues of heating bills are many. Cold properties invite damp, mould and sickness. There’s a social impact – you won’t invite anyone else into your cold, damp, mouldy home if you can help it.
My seasonal challenges are akin to the ones my female ancestors have probably always faced. I do not have a tumble drier, I depend on sun and wind to dry my clothes. Wet winters make laundry slow and difficult, again with the lingering damp invitation to moulder. I don’t have a car, and walking everywhere can be an exercise in getting very cold, or wet through. At least this year I have a decent waterproof coat, but that hasn’t always been the case. I know people who jog, go out there and get soaked to the skin as part of their sport, but that only works when there’s a hot shower and a washing machine to come home to – not everyone has those, none of our ancient ancestors did. For most of human history, the threat of being cold and wet has been considerable.
The story of winter as a gentle, restful sleep time is a story of modern western privilege, only available if you have money and resources to block out the cold. If you’ve got to keep a fire burning for the next four months and have to source your wood (again, our ancestors mostly had to sort this for themselves) winter means more work, not less. Food supplies depend on stores – grain, apples, whatever else you dried. Mice become a real danger in such a context. If the harvest was poor, then you’d head for the winter knowing there was every chance you’d starve if spring was late. Elderly and fragile individuals would know they were especially likely to die. Our winters are not like that at the moment.
For me, our attitude to approaching winter is one of the most overtly modern aspects of contemporary Paganism. It is far from what you get when living marginally. For our ancestors, winter was a tough time, demanding, difficult, and threatening. The cold could kill you. Hunger could kill you. Hungry predators might try and kill you. The threats and challenges of winter have only been mitigated in the last hundred years or so, and even then – only for those who have the money. There will be plenty of people in our affluent societies who will die if this winter is a cold one – the elderly are often victims. There will be people going cold and hungry who cannot afford to heat their homes or cook their food.
The veneer of civilisation is thin. If the power goes off or there isn’t fuel for cars, most of us will be rapidly heading towards more ancestral-style experiences of the dark half of the year.