Tag Archives: celebration

Of Cars and Celebrations

New Year’s Day was wonderful. I walked into town in the morning to go to the cinema, and there were almost no cars on the road. It was so much quieter. I could hear bird song. Roads that normally have too heavy a flow for me to cross were suddenly safe to saunter over. The whole atmosphere of the centre of town was massively improved. Usually the roads around the middle of Stroud are full of cars at that time of day.

As the majority of people had partied into the early hours the night before, they were at home, sleeping it off. By the afternoon, the roads were still significantly quieter than usual.

We need, for our own safety and the wellbeing of the planet to drive less. Air pollutions kills something like 40,000 people a year in the UK alone. Car accidents kill. The climate crisis kills. Sedentary lifestyles kill. Social isolation is an epidemic. More people walking and fewer people driving would have an impact on all this. However, people are reluctant to give up cars when they see them as necessary to daily life, or intrinsic to their quality of life.

So I’m thinking we need more parties.

Imagine if we had more regular festivals (8 a year? One a month?) when it was socially expected that you would party. Many people enjoy parties and the social engagement is good. And then we have the day after the big party when it is socially expected that most people will sleep until midday and then not do much. Meanwhile anyone who wants to live quietly can give the party a miss and have a wonderful quiet and much safer walk on the day after the party.

Part of the reason we’re struggling to make radical lifestyle changes to avert climate disaster, is the stories we have. Car = freedom. Driving=adventure. Happiness comes from owning possessions. If we had a party culture and it was normal to be involved in a huge community party each month and then sleep it off the next day, then the party could be the exciting, liberating thing, not the car. We’d have a day each month when driving wasn’t the thing, just as currently happens on New Year’s day. One day a month of change isn’t enough, obviously, but I bet we would see a culture shift.

Obviously this is a silly idea. Obviously more partying won’t happen. Obviously in our work-orientated culture, the idea that parties might be what we need, is preposterous. Having a good time is not the most sensible approach to making radical change. Because we’re so bought in to our work-earn-buy-consume narratives that it’s hard to imagine anything else.

If we’re going to change everything, we do in fact need to radically re-imagine things.


Community ritual

It’s Saturday at the Rainbow Druid Camp, and that usually means community ritual – an opportunity for everyone at the camp to be an active participant in crafting and participating in a large ritual. It’s quite an opportunity.

The organisation of it is canny, and effective. A way will be found to assign all participants to one of a selection of groups (last year it was where Mars falls in your birth sign, for example).  This prevents cliques, gives everyone an equal footing, and a place to be. Each group is assigned someone to hold it together. An overall theme, or narrative for the ritual is figured out ahead of the day by a group of people who show up because they want to do this, and on the day, each piece of the ritual is planned by the groups who then come together to make it all happen.

From which you can comfortably infer that as a way of getting a lot of people, most of whom are not acquainted,   to all actively make and enact a ritual, I think this is brilliant.

However, I don’t do it. I’m not personally drawn to big rituals. I’ve done some of the circles at Avebury and Stonehenge where there could be a hundred people and more. I go along for the opening and closing rituals at camp, because that feels like the right thing to do, but otherwise, I find really big rituals with lots of people incredibly disorientating. For myself, twelve to twenty four people is about my comfort zone for ritual groups, and I’m happy to work smaller.

My personal preference is for more focused, more intense ritual with people I know and feel connected to. I like circles small enough that a person can sing in them and not be lost, and where I can do the formal bits without having to shout. I like to be able to see other people’s eyes.

There are many very good reasons to do big, public and inclusive rituals that engage and offer celebration and theatre. There are Druids (and Mark Graham who runs Druid Camp is one of them) who are brilliant at this sort of thing and can carry large circles and engage large numbers of people at one go. And there are those of us who need to do other things in other ways. One of the many things I love about Druidry is that this is fine, and there’s room for everything. The small scale deep sharing rituals, the big acts of public drama, the solitary Druids, the people who do not do ritual at all… there is room.


Emerging from the cave

Yesterday I attended the Cotswold Pagan Society Imbolc ritual held in Clearwell caves – Druid led but not just for Druids. It was a really interesting experience. The caves themselves are a mix of natural formation and iron ore mining that dates back into pre-history. Clearwell, in the Forest of Dean is part of an area where coal and iron have been mined for a long time, much of it by surface digging. The landscape is hillocky with leavings from mining efforts such that much of the place has been shaped by ancestral activity.

It is a place of my ancestors. My father’s mother came from the Forest, so I assume given so many people there were miners that I probably have an ancestor or two who worked those caves. In youth, before it was all organised and a centre, my father and his friends wandered about down there, he was clearly a braver and more adventurous soul than I am! I’d be nervous doing that in the dark, it would be so easy to get lost.

I’ve never done a ritual in a cave before. I’d also not previously done anything so formal, planned and scripted, so that was an interesting experience. Despite the OBOD training, I’m too much the bard to want paper in hand. If words need to be fixed I feel a need to learn them – for me that’s part of the bard tradition. Really I prefer to wing it, finding inspiration in the place and the moment. I’m aware that comes from a long history of improvising – with music, mumming, writing, I’m in the habit of doing things in the moment. Many people aren’t, and a lot of life doesn’t encourage us to open up to sudden flows of creativity. One of the things yesterday left me with was a sense of being fortunate in the skills and experiences life has brought me. There must be many people who need the support of the written word, the permission inherent in a ritual script, to make Druidry available to them. Taught as we are to follow and regurgitate, it seems like an act of ego, insanity or self importance to be burbling away off the top of your head. At least, it does at first… Druidry has to start places people can cope with, and sometimes the reassuring bit of paper is needful.

During the ritual I found myself thinking about Stone Age cave painters, mysteries explored in art in the deep darkness of the earth. I thought about the hibernating bear, and also the mystic cave dwellers, the dragons and goblins, and wondered who, traditionally, inhabited those forest caves. I thought about the association between caves and hermits seeking inspiration and closeness to spirit. Inevitably I also thought about the womb of the earth, especially as we walked the steep and narrow path up towards… not rebirth in daylight, but the gift shop. Ah, modern humanity…

I spent so long running rituals, or being at the running end. It’s really good to stand in circle without any particular job or responsibility, to just be there and see what happens. It’s a relearning process for me, in all kinds of good ways. I have no doubt that at some point I’ll be setting up some circle of my own, quietly, but yesterday reminded me of how much work goes into making those big, public circles happen. All kudos to the people who pour their energy and creativity into such events around the world. It’s such a valuable service, connecting communities and letting inspiration flow, but I remember all too well how it used to wash me out.


A personal wheel of the year

I spent a number of years celebrating the 8 standard wiccan/druid festivals. It gives the cycle of seasons a shape, and for people new to the idea of engaging with the wheel of the year, this is important. The ‘Fire’ festivals have all kinds of history and folklore so are also a way into a lot of traditional material, stories and ideas, making them a great teaching tool. They’re also rather a blunt instrument. The precise date of the equinoxes and solstices vary, and in practice most groups don’t celebrate the event. They celebrate the weekend most convenient to the event, and the idea of the event. As for the other four, they may be tied to natural events, but in any given year those events don’t all correspond to the dates. Arguably they are festivals of ancestral connection more than fertility festivals or part of the cycle of the seasons.

Whatever we do in terms of public and collective ritual, there’s also scope for creating a personal calendar. Our own responses to the seasons can create personal cycles. It’s autumn, and I can see the winter people getting all excited and gearing up joyfully for the dark while the summer people face SAD and feel out of sorts. People whose season is autumn are of course in their element just now. We’re all different. For some, autumn means returning to school or the education cycles. This time of year is very different for a student, teacher or parent, than it is for someone not connected to the education process. For many, this is a time of new beginnings. For others, the tax year commencing in April will be more significant. Many forms of work will have their own seasons too, and we’re all affected by those. Times of quiet, times of industry, not all of them connected at all to the solar year.

Historical events can be a big part of the personal calendar, too. Birthdays, deathdays, anniversaries of rites of passage. Over time, some fade away and don’t need re-celebrating, while others acquire greater significance.  Today is the third anniversary of my landing in America for the first time, and along with the date of Tom’s coming to the UK, and our wedding day, has become part of the calendar. Those kinds of dates can be powerful in affirming relationship, and also give an opportunity to reflect. Where are we now? Where have we been? Where do we want to be, three years hence? Where personal dates are forgotten or ignored, it can be a symptom of an ailing relationship. Where too much money is spent on anniversaries, too much attention paid at the few key points it can flag up how threadbare things are the rest of the time. I’m glad to say this is nothing like that!

Sometimes personal events become meaningful to a whole community. An annually reaffirmed handfasting can become a regular party and get together. The date of an event can become a definitive moment that stays in the local calendar, or the national calendar. Armistice day. Columbus Day. Martin Luther King Day.  Or at a more local level, strange remnants like Hunting the Earl of Rhone or the one about finding a mediaeval lady’s hood – something lingers on even when the meaning gets a bit vague. These rituals and rememberances can become part of a communal identity.

The moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to add new things. The day of the founding of your grove might be an event to reflect on every year. The day of your becoming a fully fledged OBOD druid might be one you want to earmark for druidic reflection in years to come. There are no wrong answers here, it’s just a way of being alert to the resonant things in your life and making a space for them, honouring what they mean. It’s also important to let them go when they cease to have resonance, moving on to new ideas, new celebrations.


Imbolc

Theoretically, Imbolc is at the beginning of February. It’s one of the ‘Celtic’ festivals, also called fire festivals, and cross quarter festivals. Along with Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain, these are festivals of the agricultural year. In England, Imbolc is the time of snowdrops and traditionally the first lambs would appear. If you don’t happen to live in a region with similar seasonal cycles, this festival may not work in the same way.

 

It’s easy to assume that for a UK druid, Imbolc happens by calendar date and you just get on with it. That’s fine if you’re a living room druid whose relationship with nature is all about what nature is supposed to be doing right now. Nature has cycles beyond the seasons, that bring us ice ages, mini ice ages, hot years, long winters, short winters. Even in the UK, the first signs of spring cannot be relied upon to have shown up for Imbolc.

 

When I started running rituals, I ran headlong into the question of what are we celebrating? Are we honouring those calendar dates, or are we working with the seasonal changes they are representative of? As a group we contemplated the natural triggers, and where possible responded to those, and not the dates. Of course that’s harder to do. Our pagan ancestors probably had more room to flex and less need to have predictable weekends laid out in advance for ease.

 

In the last few days, there’s been a change here. Daffodils are sending up leaves, and the snowdrops are out. The birds are singing with more enthusiasm, and I think the songs have changed. In the winter the occasional calls of territory and affirmation are different in tone from what I hear as the pair bonding, nest site hunting and hopefulness of early spring. For Tom this has all been very strange as he comes from a part of the world that will remain resolutely wintery until March at the earliest, and very likely later. Today we’ve had a sharp frost and the boat glitters with ice crystals. The canal is misty and very cold. Yesterday felt like time to celebrate the first signs of spring, today less so. Early next week perhaps?

 

The timing of rituals is one of those things that creates tension between Celtic revivalism and responding to the land. I’m not a revivalist. You have to ask if it’s the date that matters to you and what that may have represented to our Celtic ancestors, or whether it’s a seasonal event, and if it is, what represents that event? Even in a place as small as the UK there are a lot of regional variations and the precise signs of spring vary. For me this year, the departure of the bewick swans will be a big part of that, but different places have different visitors and migrants.

 

I know of druids all around the world, whose seasons and experiences are inevitably very different. To me it seems a better expression of druidry to respond to the land. When we carry the practices of one land into another, and do not listen to the new space, we easily become dogmatic. We risk becoming separated from what’s around us. If nature is the core of our spirituality, then what nature is doing surely has to come before how exactly we think our ancestors responded. This begs a question about what druidry is, and how we can possibly hold relationships with the original druids if we’re not doing what they did. And again, I think this depends on what we understand as being important. Is it the names, dates and UK based associations that make for a druid festival? Or is it the process of recognising what is essential in the seasons, of relating deeply to the turning of the year and the ways in which it impacts on us? Is the Celtic calendar something to follow, or a model for helping us create our own responses? If the ancestral Celts had found themselves in South America, Australia or Alaska, what would they have done?

 

There will never be any certain and clear cut answers, all is speculative. I think it is vitally important to speculate, to engage imaginatively and philosophically with these questions. Whatever we choose, we should do it mindfully and for our own, considered reasons, not just because someone else has trumpeted it. If it feels right, I tend to assume that it probably is right.


The Pagan Party

It’s not a political post today nor is it about dancing naked! Having been a bit grumpy in my Druids New Year blog, I thought it made sense to follow through with a much more positive post about how to have a good party, pagan style. Experience to date inclines me to feel that pagans often have the best parties. Here’s some key ingredients.

Setting: A party doesn’t have to be a late night drunken affair. I’ve been to some great afternoon musters – picnics especially – light on alcohol, high on social engagement, good food, and good entertainment.

Food: I’ve been to parties where people would only eat familiar looking things out of packets. Shop-bought party food tends to be heavy on the packaging waste, as well as being a bit bland and familiar. Back when I was doing a folk club and a bardic circle, we had a developing culture of making, and bringing food. It became normal to see homemade and strange innovations in ritual as well as at picnics and parties. Good food can be the making of a gathering. Warm food, nourishing, surprising food. I used to do a Halloween gathering with homemade soup. The year of the blood and eyeballs with worms soup was particularly good. (Beetroot, tiny onions, noodles). It does take a culture shift away from what partiers are used to, but is worth it, and tends to result in real food, and salvageable leftovers rather than a well stuffed bin.

Mood: Not having an enforced mood for a party helps. Multiple spaces so that people can step away, chill out, having meaningful conversations, play their own music etc, really works. Parties where everyone has been rounded up and required to conform to a ‘norm’ – no matter what it is – are not as much fun. Trust the event to find its own shape. Sometimes the best parties are the quiet ones.

Drinks: I’ve been to some great gatherings that involved no alcohol at all. I like alcohol, but there’s no need to assume it’s an essential for a good muster. Having plenty of good non-alcoholic drinks is always a good idea, means the designated non-drinkers don’t feel so awkward, and you aren’t creating a ‘must get rat arsed’ atmosphere. Again, diversity and creativity are good.

Entertainment: Sometimes it helps to have some kind of focus, it depends a lot on your people. Space for people to get some music going is usually good. Often though, it’s the things that aren’t planned that can be the most memorable. I still recall a party from years ago when we all ended up lying on the drive, in the dark, watching a meteor shower. Spontaneous late night drunken walks are also a long standing favourite of mine. Not being afraid to go with the flow can be the
making of a good night, while rigidly adhering to the plan, no matter what, is often less fun.

What makes a pagan party work, is the people. Having a good crowd of creative, like minded folk who will roll in with guitars, cakes, homemade wine and an open mind is the best bet for a great night. If you know how to have fun and don’t therefore need to get sloshed in order to relax a bit, it’s much easier to party. If you feel comfortable with your companions, that’s also a real plus. Where people are obsessed with image, reputation, self importance and the like, they don’t tend to have so much fun. The right social circle for a great party is the hardest thing to get in place, the most time consuming to establish. It takes work to build a strong community, time to forge deep friendships, support to help people more used to the real world to feel at home, but it can be done.

I noticed, reading Kevan Manwaring’s Turning the Wheel, that his idea of how to party and mine are very much the same. Soulful party, real things happening, real sharing, and good tipple. If you want some ideas, his is a good book to look over. It’s not just a party book, but it is very much about how to celebrate life as we encounter it, and the fine art of making it up as you go along!


Little rites of passage

Most people like to mark the big events in some way or another, and often birth, death and marriage are the occasions that get not especially spiritual folk inspired to want a dash of religion in their lives. One of the things I love about paganism is that it doesn’t just focus on the hatch, match and dispatch services, there’s room to celebrate all kinds of things. I’ve done house blessing work as a celebrant, heard plenty about coming of age celebrations and elder rites, for example.

I have a deep seated personal aversion to marking things just because some long dead person identified it as the right thing, or the right day to be making a fuss of. Especially once commercialism gets in the mix and starts sucking on the marrow of real experiences. But at the same time, the quiet, private marking of personal transitions, events, and anniversaries has become really important to me. By this means my calendar has a sprinkling of very personal celebrations in it – like the anniversary of first going to America to meet Tom. I also celebrate the anniversary of running away from a very unhappy situation – which for me has become ‘freedom day’. Today is the first anniversary of my marriage, a lovely moment to pause and reflect on the epic journey this last year has been and to contemplate where we might be going. It’s been a hectic, crazy time but through all the challenges, we’ve become even closer. For me, that’s what marriage should be.

Today inevitably makes me cast my mind back to the first anniversary of my first marriage. I was heavily pregnant and struggling with very hot weather. The day went unremarked, uncelebrated. I lived for a long time in a situation in which even obvious things like birthdays and Valentine’s day passed unrecognised, or greeted with such awkwardness that all the joy was knocked out of it. Learning anew how to celebrate has been a lovely process.

We’ve marked all kinds of personal events this year, doing things together that make us smile. It’s not about spending money, just about spending time. One of the effects of these little rites of passage is the shared affirmation of our story. Big rites of passage are about bringing your community together to witness major life changes and make sure everyone has caught up with the implications. Little rites of passage are about engaging with your own story, picking up the things that really mattered and coming back to honour them, creating small spaces to recognise and enjoy the things that make this life uniquely your own. It affirms a sense of self, and sharing that with others, reinforces bonds and relationships.

Next year I shall be celebrating the anniversary of moving to the boat, as a new day in the calendar. There are book releases to celebrate too. Whether any of those seem relevant the following year remains to be seen – there being no need to cling on to old celebrations once they no longer need to be marked.

Sometimes it’s a case of just starting the day with ‘happy Wednesday’ (or whatever it is) and celebrating the sheer Wednesdayness of it, in all its glory.

Out of the personal events come things we hold in common. Freedom day I share with my child, but it also connects me with a lot of other people who have run, and who acknowledge their own days in their own ways. Boat day I share with my husband and child, but it’s had a much wider influence on family, friends, people at school who have all been touched by the changes in our lives, in all kinds of ways I probably don’t know about. This time last year a group of my friends and family came out to support and recognise my marriage to Tom, a year on he knows some of them a lot better, which is great. Nothing that happens to us exists in isolation. The act of acknowledging and celebrating can create room to recognise others who have been part of the journey, and by remembering a date we weave them further into the narrative threads of our own lives, and become part of the stories they tell as well.


The wheel of the year

When I started out as a pagan I didn’t do ritual in any group or formal sense. Getting onto the druid path, I discovered not only a local grove and their open rituals, but also the gatherings at Avebury and Stonehenge. An eclectic group started up in my area too, and for some festivals I was out ritualling a lot, for some years.

This last year I’ve not being doing ritual, but here I am, poised to jump back in, and wondering about the whole business.

I love the social aspect of gathering for ritual – not just in a gossipy sense, but the sharing of inspiration and energy. Having the 8 standard festivals to work with makes it easy to grab people for that. However, it ties ritual to a solar narrative in the wheel of the year, and makes it harder to do rituals that aren’t focused on that turning of the agricultural seasons. I do see the point of engaging people with the natural world, but I also think that ‘nature’ is more subtle and complex than this rather simplified story of the rise and fall of the sun allows for. Even the farming it’s supposed to relate to is more complicated.

I live very close to the practical realities of changing seasons – boat life makes nature and the sun (or its absence) very immediate. There is no ignoring what’s going on ‘out there’. I know from working with big groups that for urban folk whose living and employment situations alienate them from the natural world, the wheel of the year aids reconnection. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but it feels like a place to begin, for me, not an end point.

When I’ve been involved in running open ritual, providing that point of connection with nature through the year seemed like an important part of the job. Simply holding ritual was about service to community. But I’m looking at a very different sort of group now, with people in it who are far more connected, who maybe need the shared inspiration angle of ritual, but not the ‘getting outside’ bit.

I’m sure our ancient ancestors would have celebrated the end of harvest, the coming of spring, and done something in the dark days to cheer themselves up. But when you are living day to day with the subtle shifts in season and sun, those big focal points seem less important, I find. I don’t need reminding where we are, I know it in my bones.

I’m thinking about ritual to take me further, to help me connect with the things that aren’t immediately present in my daily life. Which means identifying what those are for a start, and seeing how they correspond, if at all, with what anyone else wants. I’m in the curious, liminal headspace of knowing I’m looking for something and not yet knowing what it is.

As a consequence I’m going back to the absolute fundamentals in some ways, asking, what is ritual for? Who does it serve? What do I want to get out of it? What does ritual mean? How do I want to do it. (More of this pondering to follow, no doubt!)

I feel like I’m going through a big upheaval phase, questioning everything, paring everything back, looking for the essence, the significance. All the things I have ever taken as normal or fixed seem open to negotiation, and that’s an exciting place to be. I always did like the inbetween places.


Honouring Midsummer

There is no one right way of honouring midsummer, or the summer solstice. Some groups like to meet for the sunrise, some will sit up all night to greet it. Others favour midday gatherings when the sun is at the height of its power, or will keep watch through the day.

These long days at the light end of the year can be intense, wakeful times. There’s a process of moving through the longest days, so I think of this period – from the 21st to the 24th as being the summer’s solar festival time, rather than focusing too much on a specific date. Beyond this short span of days lies the inevitable slow slide back towards winter. It’s the turning point of the year, the time that many sources will tell us we should be feeling high energy and making our plans into reality. Of course in practice life does not always follow the seasons that neatly. The seasons, for that matter, don’t always follow the seasons.

In previous years I have sat up on hillsides to greet the dawn. It’s a soulful thing to do, with long hours in which to contemplate. I considered doing so this year, but the amount of rain round here would have made the process physically hard, and I don’t feel equal to it. Some years I’ve been able to handle the lost night, but I’m sleep hungry, so I went with that. The birds work me with a chorus at dawn – they don’t always, but this morning I surfaced and listened. On a high hill with no tree cover, you don’t get much of a dawn chorus, but at Stonehenge on Salisbury plain, the larks rise up and sing with the sun – which is an experience all by itself.

What am I celebrating? Without ritual, without a working group. I’m very attuned to the light and each passing day resonates with me – I’ve always lived closer to nature so I don’t personally need the festivals as reminders to tune in. The height of the sun’s powers might be a thing to honour, except mostly it’s raining and my solar panel is not gathering much juice today. April felt more summery than this. The St John’s Wort is blooming though, along the sides of the roads, and the chicks who survived from early clutches start to look like adults.

Every day is an event in the life of the sun, part of the cycle, and a moment worth marking. I find it increasingly hard to work up enthusiasm for ‘focal points’. It’s different when you have a group to work with – shared celebration being as much about community, bardcraft and joy as it is about nature. In terms of private practice, I’m not honouring the sun any more today than I did yesterday or will tomorrow. I shall be very glad when it shows up to be honoured in person! It’s been a June monsoon for me.

Whatever you celebrate, and however you choose to do it, I think the most important thing is to know why. Don’t go through the motions because some book on paganism or Druidry told you to. That’s hollow. Celebrate what you find meaningful. And if it doesn’t speak, don’t be afraid to admit it. The eight festivals do not make a Druid. They are a thing to start from, to be aware of, but not to be ruled by. You could turn up to every one of them and never feel anything akin to Druidry stir within your soul. Or you could wander the fields at the times when you feel called to, and find your own truth. Do what works.

Finally, there’s a bit of blue sky out there, and perhaps the gods of sun and solar panels will smile on me, and let me do a little work today.