Tag Archives: festivals

What if we celebrated more festivals?

Your typical mediaeval peasant got more time off than your average modern worker does. Mostly this was due to the number of holy days and festivals in the calendar. What would happen if we celebrated more holy days and festivals?

At the moment in the UK we get time off for Christmas, Easter and New Year, and we get a few secular bank holidays. Imagine having an extra day off every month and how much good that would do!

Imagine a shared calendar that acknowledged festivals from a range of faiths, not just Christianity. Most of us don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter as Christian sacred days – they tend to be about food and family get-togethers. Having more holy day holidays would not require anyone to show up for festivals outside their faith. (I can almost hear the wilfully angry frothing at the mouth as they announce that they are being forced to celebrate… )

It seems massively unfair to me that we only celebrate festivals from one faith group. It would be much more fun to have more of them. It would no doubt be lovely for people from other faiths to have one of their own festivals off work each year.

It might bring other benefits. It might encourage people to find out a little bit more about other cultures and religions. This would be a good antidote to racism, fear and prejudice. Getting a day off on the basis of someone else’s festival might encourage people to feel a bit more positive about other religions – who doesn’t like a holiday? Those who are determined to froth at the mouth would no doubt keep doing that, but you know they’d take the day off and roast an animal.

As a Pagan living within a Christian calendar, I’d rather enjoy having more diversity. It would also be feasible to have a Pagan festival in that mix. I suspect it would be Beltain because that already has a bank holiday associated with it in terms of timing.

At time of writing it is hard to imagine the UK changing in this way. However, change comes from people imagining it, and there’s a lot to be said for imagining unlikely things.

This blog post owes a lot to my son James, who did most of the speculating for me and was happy to have that made off with.


The Festive Aftermath

I’ve never been a fan of Christmas. I have no unease with Christians celebrating their festival – I rather like Christmas carols. What I can’t bear is the Commercialmass that goes alongside it – the overconsumption, the waste, the pressure on poor people to overspend, the stress, misery and damage. The amount of wrapping paper we have to send to landfill because it’s not recyclable is hideous.

Having a minimal, lockdown Christmas has helped. I bowed out of gifting this year – we just couldn’t cope on top of everything else that has happened. It was a relief not to have to deal with that, and not to deal with the shopping, and the people in shops, and all the rest of it. Having a little more space has really got me thinking about why this festival is so pressured.

We’re seeing the same pressures build around other points in the calendar – Valentines, Easter, Mothering Sunday, Father’s Day and Halloween are all becoming commercial festivals with pressure to spend money. This is what constant growth looks like – we have to find more things to spend more money on, because if we don’t, we can’t have growth. Our economic structures depend on growth, which is a design flaw, not something inevitable.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that wanting economic growth actually creates pressure for population growth. A shrinking population would tend to shrink an economy. It’s the poor workers at the bottom of the ladder who create the wealth, and as ever more wealth gets siphoned off by those who already have most, we will need more people to create more economic activity to create more wealth for the few.

This is not something we can easily tackle as individuals. However, we can challenge the stories about what’s good during festivals – we can put forward alternatives and resist engaging in throwaway consumerism. Better to go for a small amount of what’s good and valuable rather than lots of tat that will end up in the bin. We can stand up for other people’s rights to control their family sizes. We can resist stories that simply blame the numbers of poor people for pressures on the planet – because while I would agree that a smaller population would be a good idea, it’s the ten percent who have most that need dealing with far more urgently than the fifty percent who have least.

What we need, when we celebrate, is human contact and meaningful engagement. You can’t buy that. It doesn’t come from a store. Beyond a certain point, more wealth does not equate to more happiness – once our needs are met, wealth does little good for a person. We need festivals that enrich communities and bring us together, not festivals that make us poor and damage the planet with over-consumption.


The trouble with temples

It’s solstice time, give or take, and it’s also a weekend. This means that lots of people will converge on Stonehenge, Avebury, and sites that are more locally famous. I expect Glastonbury will have been heaving, and no doubt lots of people went to Rollright. Some of them will be there because they are Pagan and seeking spiritual and tribal connection. Some will be there to party. Some to take photos and to revel in the spectacle. Some will come in uniforms, to police the whole thing.

I like a party as much as the next Druid: Which is to say – sometimes. I probably appreciate being policed as much as the next Druid, too – depending on whether they are helping me (as they have done several times now in tough circumstances) or if they are a threat to my democratic right to protest. I find footage from fracking protests really intimidating. I don’t enjoy being in situations where my spiritual practice is media bait or a tourist attraction – I have done rituals at Avebury, but it felt really weird. On the whole I prefer a bit more privacy.

For those who want to get out there with a lot of other people, the media circus and the police – best of luck to you. Whatever floats your boat and all that. It troubles me that so often these mass gatherings do not seem to be terribly respectful of the site – there are always images of people clambering onto stones. Mind you, that’s always an issue at Avebury, every time I’ve been there I’ve seen people letting their children treat the stones as an adventure playground. All issues of respect aside, some of the stones are not as firmly set in the ground as might be ideal…

There is always a tension between religion and consumerism – and all religions have this. You have to pay to get into many cathedrals. Everyone has a gift shop with some percentage dubious tat in it. Famous sacred spaces attract tourists, some perhaps more spiritually respectful than others. Temples of all kinds need funds in order to sustain themselves, and that makes tourism attractive. Big popular festivals are a chance to rattle the collecting tins and raise your profile through media attention. There are interesting questions to ask about what is lost and what is gained in all of this.

On the whole, I prefer to do rituals without the pressures a big and famous space creates. If you’re going to stand in the centre of Stonehenge, you’d better feel pretty awesome about what you’re doing and your ability to pull it off, or you’re going to come out feeling like a fraud and an idiot. The  little grove in your local wood will always be more forgiving. I prefer not having media attention – and not having to fear being misrepresented for freakshow entertainment. I have done rituals where the police tuned up – they were lovely and joined in, but the uniforms and high viz jackets make me nervous.

There are many things to seek at a ritual this weekend. Many of them having nothing to do with spirituality. Know thyself. Know what you’re looking for, and what that means. Be honest about it. Do whatever makes sense in light of that.


Connecting with nature

For many people who come to Paganism as adults, connecting with nature is very much part of the point, and also a key part of the work to be done. If you’ve woken up from insulated, urban living and realised you do not have any familiarity with the seasons, the agricultural year or what the trees are doing, that re-connecting can be the essence of Paganism. The Wheel of the Year festivals become important markers as you learn your way around the seasons, and may be the one reliable time you get out ‘into nature’ to experience it firsthand.

Having spent a while running assorted gatherings, I’ve seen a lot of this. People for whom time under trees was not normal. People whose lives had not allowed them to spend time wandering in urban parks getting to know the songbirds. Folk for whom the agricultural year was an arcane mystery, needing considerable grappling to get to grips with. We are, as a culture, sorely disconnected from the soil, from food production and from the natural world. Only on the occasion of severe weather do we reliably notice what’s going on out there.

As you get to grips with the basics, you start realising how much more there is to know. Specialism starts to develop, moving into tree lore or herb lore, perhaps, getting to know the exact habits of a certain river, exploring the creatures that live in a valley, learning the paths of a wood. We start to see the trees as individuals, small birds become species, genders, and distinct from each other. Generic leafy things become medicines, poisons and snacks.

This kind of work can keep you occupied for years. There is so much cerebral work to do, so much to learn that you can study for the rest of your life and never run short of new things to find out about. Learning about nature, so as to engage with it deeply and work with it harmoniously, are undoubtedly key parts of what Druidry means for a great many people. It is possible to overthink, though. To become unable to see the harmonious beauty of the wood because you are too busy making a note of individual species and their properties.

Not all learning happens in the head. Our current education system focuses on abstract thought as the pinnacle of human achievement, and it encourages us to understand learning as a mind process. Learning is being able to take things apart and name the bits in this system. It is all about function and utility and being able to say why, how, and what. Sometimes also who and when, depending on subject. There are other kinds of learning that we do not have a language for. It is not head learning, it does not lead to some intellectual revelation. It is the knowledge in the body that comes from sitting on a hill all night, or swimming in the sea. It is knowing what it feels like to hear a blackbird singing at twilight, and all that other emotional and sensory knowledge that comes to us simply by being and doing. The knowledge of being alive and present. It may, or may not teach you how to do stuff. There may or may not be philosophical aspects to it. I suspect it doesn’t matter.

I think we need both. We need the intellectual learning that brings us into rational relationship with the natural world. We need the experiential learning that brings us into emotional relationship with the natural world, and often the two go together very well. Do the book study to the exclusion of personal engagement, and you’ll know a lot, but it might not mean much to you. Focus on the purely experiential and you’ll have limited scope to express it, and you may miss connections and insights because you don’t know what you’re seeing.

As an example, I saw swans in flight on Christmas morning. They were lovely. Had I not known that the timing and the wind direction meant they must have been winter migrants, I would have missed the wonder of their flying thousands of miles to be there, and the emotive impact of realising that I was seeing them at the end of their long journey. Up until then, the migration had been more of a book-knowledge for me, I’d never seen a swan doing it, and therefore did not know how beautiful it is to see one ending its journey as the day begins.


The problem with festivals

Having just taken on a new Druidry student who isn’t English, I’m thinking (and not for the first time) about Druid festivals. I previously had the joy of teaching someone in America, and although that culture is rooted in some of the same ancestry as the UK, there are a lot of differences. With Druids all over the world – North and South Americas, Middle East, Russia, Australasia, Europe… I’m not aware of druids in Africa, but maybe there are – seasonal festivals create some interesting issues.

The festivals we have, and share with the wiccans, are a 20th century innovation. There is evidence in the alignments of prehistoric sites for celebration of the solstices. The Celtic festivals – Imbolc, Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain no doubt existed historically and are very old, but as far as I can tell, not all were celebrated in all places. The addition of the equinoxes makes for a nice, balanced wheel of the year, but I’m not aware of historical celebrations of this before Stukely in the 1700s. So the idea that ancient druids celebrated these 8 festivals, seems a bit ropey.

Then there’s the issue of what happens on the ground. Druids in the southern hemisphere have a totally different relationship between calendar dates and seasons to their northern counterparts. The seasons themselves differ depending on how far from the equator you are, as do day lengths. A Druid in the Arctic Circle would surely want to honour the patters of light and darkness they experience, not seasonal celebrations pertaining to an entirely different relationship with the sun.

In my own part of the world, there are local events to celebrate – bores on the river (as mentioned in a recent blog) and the coming of migrant swans in the winter. Things that as little as twenty miles away, it would make no sense to be working with. Every place has its own events, history, landscape, and even climate. Different ways of working, different forms of farming or the realities of industry colour how we relate to the seasons. The further one is, physically or conceptually, from rural Britain, the less relevant the 8 festivals become.

Do we follow in the traditions of Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner and stick to the 8 festivals? Do we assume that these 8 are representative of what ancient British Druids did, and therefore give them priority, no matter how they fit with life as we experience it? How we answer that is going to inform a great deal about how any of us understand and live our own Druidry. Which is more important? The historical Druidry as best we understand it, or the land we are living in? Do we look to British ancestry, no matter where in the world we are, or do we look around us?

I’m in a position where I can very easily do either, and where there is not much direct conflict between seasons as experienced and how the 8 festivals fall. I have spent a lot of years celebrating the big 8, but this last year, I haven’t and I think it’s made me more conscious of what is around me. I am consequently less inclined to want to impose an arbitrary system onto my relationship with the changing energies of the year. I would rather react to what is, and how I feel, than focus on those fixed dates.

When I was looking after the Druid Network’s directory, I noticed that a lot of groups were starting to define their Druidry in terms of their geography. There are older groups, particularly in America, who define as being Welsh Druidry, or Irish Druidry as their tradition, but I was starting to see the emergence of Australian Druidry, and other lands where there is no history of this to draw on doing the same. I like this idea. I think a druidry that is a living, breathing response to where we are and what we experience is far preferable to being caught in the dogmatic structure of a ritual cycle that doesn’t fit. In choosing this, I am also choosing that the land and how I experience nature is the core of my Druidry, not what I know of the history. This is increasingly the case for me, and I realise it has considerable implications not only for how I want to progress in my own path, but also for how I will be supporting others when called to do so.