Tag Archives: midwinter

Green Hazel

Earlier in the autumn I wrote about seeing hazel trees with green leaves and catkins on. I don’t think it’s something I’d seen before. Usually the hazel leaves have gone by the time the catkins are obvious. It is December. In my childhood, December meant bare branches on anything deciduous. Many of the trees round here have now shed their leaves, but from my window I can see the distinctive copper of a beach still wearing autumn colours.

There are two hazels near here, one of which has yellow leaves and one of which is still largely in leaf, and mostly green. I’ve not been very far in the daylight lately, so I’m not up to date on other trees in my area, but these two have not really got to autumn yet, and it is December.

The idea of the wheel of the year is crucial to many Pagans. That wheel was never accurate for everyone, and the 8 festivals favoured by twentieth century Paganism didn’t always make sense in different contexts around the world. What happens to the wheel of the year as climate chaos impacts on our landscapes? What new seasons will emerge, if any? What will we celebrate? What will seem significant as part of our journeys through the year?

Seasonal Exhaustion

It is mid December and as usual for this time of year, I’m exhausted. The reasons are different from other years, but the outcomes are much the same. In previous years I’ve been out working Christmas markets, having had to work extra hard in the days leading up to it, to clear my regular online work so as to make the time. In recent years I’ve also worked evening events – often other people’s seasonal parties. Late nights, then up early to do the markets. One year I did a market day and an evening event until 3 in the morning.

Usually I’m trying to figure out how and when the festive gift shopping and wrapping is going to happen. Trying to cut down on seasonal waste, I’ve made gift bags for several years running, and home-made gifts. Last year I made crackers and re-usable fabric hats. Which all takes time and planning and work and effort.

Some years I’ve managed to take time off between Christmas and New Year and often this is my one week off in the year and I can’t always manage it. I’m doing a lot less festive work this year, but the extra push to get time off may be beyond me. Perhaps I’ll be able to have a long weekend.

Christmas always means exhaustion. This year, between covid, and Tom having had a stroke, I’ve made it very clear that I’m just not doing the things. I’m not making anything for anyone else at the moment. I’m not shopping, or making bags. There’s an economic impact to not doing the markets but I’m so glad covid-caution persuaded us not to because Tom recovering from a stroke really can’t work that way this year and I cannot do it on my own. There’s too much to carry around.

Most years, I don’t really have time or energy to do much for midwinter – which is my festival, because of what I end up doing for Christmas. Perhaps this year I will be able to do something other than work.  

Midwinter trees

At this time of year, the view from my living room window is of bare branches. The sun sets behind them, late in the afternoon. Most days, I sit somewhere I can watch the changing light. It’s often one of the most colour rich moments of the day. Sometimes, the winter sky is a dramatic blue as we shift towards night time.

I’ve tried to capture something of this with these small pen drawings. I’m also trying to be more relaxed about letting the pens look like pens. I’m trying to figure out how to work with the things that pens do, rather than pushing against it, but I’ve a way to go…

Waking with the light

I’m a very light sensitive sleeper. I have a lot of trouble sleeping when there’s light (unless a cat assists me!) and I tend to wake with the dawn. Around midsummer, this can leave me a sleep-deprived wreck if I’m not careful. For a long time now, winter has meant waking in the dark, and I’ve also found that difficult. My body is pretty clear that if there is darkness, I should be asleep, so midwinters can be… odd.

This year my son is studying for a degree course and I no longer have to deal with waking up ahead of going to school. We used to get up as a household because it is in many ways the nicer thing to do, and with a cycle ride to school, the mornings were early. In winter this has never suited me. So, this is the first winter in 18 years where there’s no alarm, or small child, and my body can do what it likes around waking up.

I find it a lot less stressful waking with the light. There’s no awful push first thing in the morning to force myself out of bed. I’m still waking fairly early, as my window faces towards the dawn, and pre-dawn light seeps in through the curtains. It feels so much gentler.

Clock time and alarm time go with industrial time. We have work and school lives that run by the clock – and there are advantages to this, but it is hard on the body. Our bodies are different, and what we need at different times of year and at different life stages can vary rather a lot. It is a wonderful thing to have some flexibility around that and to be able to let my body set the pace. Everything else this winter looks set to be challenging, so it’s helpful to have at least one thing lining up to be easier!

Midwinter ravens

I recorded this little film for the Pagan Federation online festival this winter. It was done at short notice and I’d not been well so I do not look great, but there we go. I’m very much in favour of being able to share your face when you don’t look like a photoshopped twenty year old!

A few thoughts about ritual at midwinter, and a story about ravens…

A rant against Commercialmass

Let me start by saying that if you are celebrating a festival over the winter, as a spiritual festival, then I take no issue with it. If you are, in a more communal way, celebrating family, and friendship and planning things that will make people happy – yourself included – I take no issue with it. All power to you. Winters are gloomy, often depressing times and a bit of warmth and good cheer goes a long way.

Commercialmass is none of those things.

Commercialmass is about spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need – quite possibly to appease people you don’t even like. Commercialmass is false jollity powered by spending and guilt. It’s the pressure to make a big day, even if you are tired, and worn and could do with a rest. It’s the time honoured tradition of pulling threads out of people who were already threadbare. It’s the season of overeating and over-drinking (or feeling the misery of poverty more keenly because you can’t), blotting out the things you want to avoid with a glut neither wallet nor waistline can afford. Festive is an advert on the TV, or the hope of what Amazon Prime can bring, and something has gone horribly wrong.

Commercialmass exists because retailers can get us to spend a lot of extra money on things no one really needs. The guilt of time we don’t spend with people, the anxieties, and insecurities we feel can all be assuaged for just a little while by the power of our spending. This is a lie, but the tinsel goes up at the start of December, the relentless Christmas adverts started in November. If your house isn’t lit, decorated and as gift laden as the ones you keep seeing in the ads, of course it’s easy to feel inadequate. We are meant to feel inadequate. That way, we spend more.

If what you celebrate in the darkest part of the year lifts your spirits, and lifts the spirits of those around you, then you’re doing it right. You’re doing something you can afford, that enriches life. The rest is just detail. If the prospect of midwinter depresses you, if you feel overstretched and financially compromised, if you fear debt, and fear looking like a failure, if you dread the work to be done on the day and the people you’ll be obliged to interact with, then you are one of the many people celebrating Commercialmass.

You don’t have to go through with it. A person can say ‘no’ to any and all aspects of the business. You do not have a moral obligation to create profits for other people. The season of goodwill to all shareholders is not something you have to engage with. Do it on your terms.

Blessings of quiet

Amidst the noise and bright lights, may you find the peaceful darkness that belongs truly to this season.

Amidst the excess, waste and gluttony, may you find sufficiency. May your abundance come in forms that are of true worth to you.

Amidst the clamour of fake and commercialised jollity, may you find warmth, love and good companionship.

May the journey out of the darkness be gentle.

May your turning year bring hope, opportunity, joy and surprises. May it be better than you have expected.

And, as is traditionally said by my wise ancestors… may the skin of your bum never be turned into banjo strings.

Surviving the season

I always struggle with this time of year – the rampant consumption and waste, the relentless forced jollity, the pressure it puts on anyone who is struggling emotionally or financially… the whole thing makes me bloody uncomfortable. At the same time I have all the urges towards light and companionship that underpin the seasonal insanities.

Moving to Stroud has made it much easier to buy from creative people, and some of my festive shopping has been sourced from local artisans. This makes me happier, knowing I am contributing to the viability of people who are doing good things rather than adding to the stashes of already wealthy shareholders. Money spent with local craft people stays in the local economy. Who knows where money spent on big business will end up? In tax havens, perhaps.

I haven’t decorated a tree in four years. There wasn’t room on the boat, and the flat isn’t large. This year I have decorated a tree, and I feel really good about it. The tree is outside. I’ve decorated it with a bird feeder and apples. It attracts small birds, and the comedy of upside down squirrels, who have enjoyed the apples.

I have made some gifts, I will be making others, not as a seasonal activity but as something I mean to keep doing through the year. If I put twenty or thirty hours into a rug – as well I might, or fifty or so hours into a piece of embroidery, appliqué or tapestry, there is no way I can sell it for money that reflects the time. I don’t want to devalue my work, (realistic prices means I’d earn about a pound an hour, and I’m not playing that game any more). Giving away what I make feels a lot better as a process, and not as a midwinter thing, but as how I intend to spend a fair chunk of my future.

I’ve made puddings to share with people – these are the only traditional festive foods I am at all excited about, and it turns out that a pudding can be steamed in a slow cooker! I will not have a moist home as a pudding consequence. Puddings are something that matter to me. My great grandmother used to make a big batch and boil them in the copper (otherwise used for laundry) I never knew her, but when I make puddings, I feel a sense of connection. Puddings were not a viable option on the boat and last Christmas I was too low for much innovation. This year, things are a bit better.

On Christmas day, I have a three hour walk on the agenda, and something similar for Boxing day. I will be out on the hills, with the sky and the wild things, out in the places that are innocent of the lunacy we’ve built up around midwinter. Other than that, I mean to spend the next week quietly, making cake, spending time with people, and even having some days off. On the whole I find that the less I co-operate with the noisy, commercial wastefest, the better a time I have of it during the dark part of the year.

Winter sun worshipper

In the summer, when we get normal weather, not the endless rain of this last year, I avoid the sun. I’m a bit prone to heat stroke, and when it gets too hot to do anything outside I’d rather be inside, doing something. I have a suspicion that in those conditions, siestas would suit me very well. But at this time of year, with the long nights and many overcast days, I’m much more open to being a sun worshipper.

Part of this has everything to do with the power of contrast. It’s a bit like the post against a dark background from last week – things make more sense when they show up against a different sort of backdrop. Conventional takes on the wheel of the year have us honouring the darkness at midwinter and the sun at midsummer.

Yes, I know I can be a tad perverse sometimes.

At midsummer, it’s the long night that I want to experience. The softness and darkness of summer nights calls to me after the searing heat of day (well, in theory, not this year). Then, in these short, dark days, I turn my face more readily to the sun.

It’s beautiful today, slightly cold but very bright. I lingered over the school run, enjoying the feel of sun on my face and the visibility of wildlife. When it’s all shades of grey out there, bird identification is a lot harder. Not that this morning’s egret would have been hard to spot against any backdrop! At this time of year I really want to be outside in the sun. It’s especially good for doing the long walks on dry surfaces, lane walking and wandering the towpath.

In summer I am very much a creature of night and twilight when I can get away with it. Now, at the dark time of the year, I reach for light. Not the fake light of Christmas decorations or even the light switch, but the stuff that just occasionally turns up in the sky. That which is in short supply gains extra importance. Not that I think I’m terribly guilty of taking things for granted, but I notice what is barely here a great deal more. I‘ve come to a keen appreciation of sufficiency as well.

Today there is sun and because it is winter, I raise my head as a sun worshipper, delighted by the few degrees of extra warmth on my chilly skin.

Midwinter ritual and laundry

So here we are in the shortest of days and the longest nights, deep in the dark heart of winter. Nature, being no respecter of Pagans, has opted to make this one of the warmest, driest, sunniest day in weeks. Hence the laundry.

Laundry is one of those jobs that doesn’t sit well with the idea of winding down into the peaceful sleepy darkness of midwinter. Clothes persist in getting dirty, in fact the available mud and rain of the reason aid the process. Last year I was hanging it out to dry in very cold conditions, and frequently getting comedy frozen-rigid garments as a consequence. A sunny day in the winter is an absolute blessing. It’s a chance to open windows, air out, freshen up and get ready for the next deluge and I’ve no doubt my ancestors did just the same things when they could. Spring cleaning is fine, but we’ve a few months to go and it’s nice not to be damp and reeking, and I’m sure that’s not a new impulse at all.

In ritual, as in laundry, the weather doesn’t always do what you expect. In the UK weather can be relied on to be changeable. I’ve done midwinter ritual with fog freezing onto the trees, in the rain, and in gentle and warm conditions like today. Any script written in advance is likely to make no sense in the actual conditions. That’s why I like to improvise.
Druidry, laundry…. Both call for glancing out of the window to see not only what the sky is doing, but what it might do in the next few hours. Of course, if you do it all indoors – the drying and the rituals, then it’s not an issue. A little insulation means you can ignore all that pesky, unco-operative nature has to offer. You can talk about the darkness of winter on the sunniest day if you like – draw the curtains and imagine it. That’s not my path, and frankly it irritates the hell out of me. Why bother to honour nature at all if you can’t get out there and honour what it’s really doing, not what you imagine it should be doing?

The laundry-outside angle is all part of being green. Wind and sun are free, there is no carbon cost to drying my clothes this way. It takes a bit more effort and a lot more paying attention to conditions outdoors, and requires having some space to hang things, so I recognise that not everyone can. But it’s such a simple, real and meaningful way of engaging with nature. Hanging out washing makes you learn to read the sky, to sense the rain minutes before it comes. What druid weather sense I have is owed almost entirely to twenty years or so of hanging laundry out to dry, and trying to make sure that doesn’t result in it getting wetter.

Connecting with nature, honouring the spirits of the season and being pagan doesn’t have to be some abstract process, separate from real life. In fact, I would argue, it shouldn’t be. The more intrinsic our spirituality is to daily life, the more real and significant it becomes. Paganism isn’t window dressing for the soul, it’s a whole way of being, and can be brought to bear with anything.

Hail spirits of water, you who purify and renew. I thank you for your blessings of cleanliness. Hail spirits of ancestors, you who invented soap, and buckets, you who taught me the mysteries of soaking and scrubbing. Hail spirits of winter sun, your brightness a joy after the grey days of rain. Hail wind spirits, blowing softly from the west today, bringing gentle air and the powers of drying.

Anything can be ritual, if you’ve a mind to look at it that way. Anything can become a sacred act of connection. Through this short day, the laundry dries, real life goes on, and spirit lives in all of it.

Hail spirits of dancing clothes, windswept and sun blessed. I give thanks to the nameless workers who fashioned you, to the wonders of modern technology that brought you to me, and to the ancient, ancestral techniques that enable me to keep you clean and sweet smelling.