Tag Archives: seasonal

Walking Calendar – Christmas

Seasonal walking is a practical issue as well as a way of connecting with the cycle of the seasons. It’s something I’ve been exploring for a while. One of my personal traditions is to walk to my mother’s house at Christmas, with my husband and son. The first few times we did this, we were walking up from the canal (low, flat ground) into the hills. It wasn’t a charming route – the necessity of crossing a motorway and the scarcity of places to do this meant mostly road walking, although on Christmas morning there’s never much traffic. One year we did this in heavy snow, and had the odd experience of someone passing over us in a hot air balloon!

The last three Christmases, we’ve walked over the hills from Stroud to Dursley, taking in several barrows as we go. On a few occasions, this year included, we’ve done it in less than ideal weather. Last year was exquisite, with light and colours that you don’t often see at any time of year, but especially not the middle of winter. The Severn River tends to be grey, or muddy browns when you look down on her from these hills, but for that one walk, with the fields shining in greens, the river was the kind of blue that children paint rivers. It was unreal in many ways, and wondrous.

This year we had to modify the route, because there’s a small pair of hills we can come in over – again the views on a good day are stunning, and there’s something exciting about finishing the walk with these final hills, separate from the Cotswold edge, taking in the views and coming down into the small town feeling triumphant. However, the hill is steep and in wet weather, too slippery to be faced. We took the lanes, an old holloway, weaving between hills and farms, past the hill that homed a small pox isolation hospital. The ruins of that were still visible when my great grandmother was a child. On maps, the hill bears the bland name of ‘Downham’ but to local people it is Smallpox Hill. In mist it is an eerie place.

We paused to talk to some friendly sheep, saw a retirement home for old horses, and were charmed by a sleeping goat. These are the kinds of experience that you can only have when moving through a landscape at a human pace. We also got cold and wet.

One of the highpoints of the walk for me, came as we were moving over the top of the Cotswold hills in driving wind and heavy rain. It wasn’t easy walking, we were all starting to feel tired by this point and the battering by the elements wasn’t easy to bear. My son expressed his enthusiasm for what we were doing, because it was real; an immediate encounter with the reality of the land and weather. He put it more bluntly but I can’t recall the exact phrasing. It was a moment of pride for me. I don’t want to be at the raw edge of existence all the time, I doubt my son does either, but to be willing to go there, to experience discomfort so as to meet the season and the land – that’s powerful.

Walking through a landscape with history, folklore and tradition is an opportunity to talk about it, and to pass down knowledge. Walking past Smallpox Hill created time to tell my son the stories of the hill – the history of the hospital, and the mystery of the bumps. There are two large, rectangular constructions on one side of the hill. Local myth has it that these are mass graves from the hospital. The more likely version is that these are mediaeval rabbit warrens. It’s an interesting example of how we make intelligible stories out of landscape features when we don’t know what’s going on.

Seasonal shopping, token gestures

There is a wheel of the year for consumers, moving us neatly from one shopping opportunity to another. Valentines, mother’s day, Easter, father’s day, summer beach things and barbeques, then Halloween and Christmas. On the given days you are to run out and buy the right things for the right people. In theory you are celebrating your family, and doing nice things for them. When you’re told to, and by buying stuff.

Little moments in the year when you can assuage your guilt over all the things you don’t do the rest of the time, perhaps. Fuelled by adverts that encourage you to feel a tad guilty and that reinforce the sense of what other people expect from you. An approach demanding token, commercial gestures, as though spending money on a few days of the year is what it takes to have a relationship. Of course if everyone is doing it – taking Mum out for Sunday lunch on a specific day, going out for a meal one night of the year… the pressure to be part of that is vast, and the sense of alienation and loss if you don’t, or can’t, or don’t have those people, or have such a poor relationship that it wouldn’t be viable… If we could measure the total of human shame, anxiety and distress caused by the commercial wheel of the year and weigh it against the happiness it causes, I do not think happiness would win.

If course if you’re dealing with someone who mostly doesn’t bother, then the making of effort a few times a year has a heightened value, and the failure to honour key dates seems like a bigger deal. The partner who doesn’t even remember your birthday and can’t manage a Valentines card and takes you for granted on all the other days as well, is really depressing to deal with.

And so we end up with these little, seasonal pockets of overload, when there can be too much. Patters of feast and famine in our exchanges, and the difficult sudden bursts of expense. The burden of Christmas can be terrible for people on low incomes.

I like gifting people with things when I can, and just because. I take more joy in small, ongoing exchanges of things – often far less commercial – loaning, sharing and passing on also being important parts of this process. Relationship is not something you buy for people on key dates. It is what we do for each other, together, from one day to the next. Every day.

The Easter Eggs have been in the shops for weeks already. Of course we all have to buy them, because it’s fun, paying through the nose for shaped chocolate to give to people who probably don’t need it. Especially children. We’re well under way with an obesity epidemic. What fun we can have stuffing their little faces with eggs! It’s all about the fun, and anyone (me, invariably) who questions the fun is of course a misery and a spoilsport. The problems could not possibly lie with the festivities of consuming, and anyone who dares to suggest it is just a bitter killjoy intent on making everyone else miserable. (I figured I’d get in early and pre-empt the usual comments, because there’s always one).

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.

Songs for Samhain

The folk tradition offers a wealth of material that works very well in a Pagan setting. Yes, there is more out there than good old John Barleycorn! Folk songs speak of the dead – the heroic dead, the war dead, epic accidents and tragedies, mundane passings away, execution, and rather frequently, death by over consumption of alcohol. Death is a common theme in folk songs, it being the one bit of drama every single life can be relied upon to produce.

If you’re on the bardic path, then seasonal song is something you may be thinking about. However, the most famous folk song mentioning all hallows eve isn’t about the dead at all, but about faerie. Tam Lin is the story of a mortal man captured by faeries, (which allows him to spend his time seducing young ladies at no cost to himself). When he gets young Janet pregnant and tells her the faerie horde mean to sacrifice him to Satan at Halloween, she undertakes an epic rescue mission and wins his freedom. Our mediaeval ancestors invested a lot of time in figuring out how the faerie realms and the Christian representations of evil related to each other – a topic bound to give anyone headaches, and much less of an issue for the modern Pagan.

I don’t really celebrate all of the 8 standard festivals at the moment. I’ve always struggled to work up any kind of enthusiasm for the fleeting balance of the equinoxes. Imbolc and Lugnasadh don’t especially resonate with me either. Solstices, Samhain and Belatain I tend to quietly honour whether I’m part of a celebratory group or not. Having songs to sing as part of that, has always been important to me. And so I ended up writing this one, quite some years ago, and singing it at my folk club and at rituals. It’s one of the few songs I’ve written and not discarded. It’s recorded in my ‘home studio’ (ie the bedroom). Drumming is also me – it’s a small Turkish drum borrowed from my son, and the whole thing was laid down in one go. Partly because I have no mixing desk skills, partly because, being a folk person, I like that raw, one take approach to music.

You can listen for free as often as you like (assuming you like) there’s a small charge for downloading.


Seasonal soundscapes

One of the things I find hard about the winter is that, needing to have the windows shut most of the time, I can’t hear much of what’s outside. I suspect that for any of our ancestors not living in a castle, this was less of an issue. Single glazing is much more permeable for sound. Modern building is far more deliberately soundproofed than ever before. In part this is because we create such noisy environments. We need to shut out the sounds of our traffic and shut in the private noise of our entertainment.

One of my delights in moving into the warmer part of the year, is having the windows open. We’re lucky in that we have a lot of owls, and could hear their piercing cries even with everything shut. Now however, I go to sleep listening to the murmur of gently flowing water. Apparently this closeness to running water is something I’d craved my whole life without really knowing it! I wake up to the dawn chorus. Actually, I wake before the dawn, as the first birds do. The singing starts well before it gets light.

This is a daily reminder of the glorious beauties of nature, and the wonder of human ignorance. We do not really know why birds sing at dawn. Some birds also sing at dusk – blackbirds sing the sun down as well as up, and the owls all have a good sing when they’re getting started of an evening. We don’t know why. Maybe it’s about territory. Maybe some other kind of information is being shared. Perhaps it is a warm up in a more literal sense.

My personal suspicion, is that they sing because they can.

Eating seasonal

There are a lot of advantages to eating seasonally. Often it’s cheaper, it’s definitely greener and it gives you a stronger connection with the seasons. Finding out what grows seasonally where you are, and what comes in seasonally from further afield is an education in itself.

One of the big seasonal issues for me is whether or not I cook. During the winter months, hot food is very much needed – we walk for transport, are out a lot and hot food makes a lot of difference to comfort and viability. I can’t claim that I love cooking. I do it from scratch most days, and there are days when that’s a bit of a grind if there are a lot of other things that need doing. What’s been a real sanity saver this winter, has been the slow cooker. A few minutes of throwing in whatever’s to hand, a few hours of it chuffing along, and some kind of veg heavy delight emerges.

Now we’re moving into salad season. When it’s warm, there’s something delightful about eating raw; there’s a freshness and immediacy to it. Better still if the food has come out of local soil, but not having a garden, that’s slightly trickier to do. There is a local food hub here, and I’m exploring windowsill growing –I have a few herbs on the go, and may try a few salad leaves. We’re a good area for foraging because not only is there a lot in the hedgerows (I know where my sloes are for next autumn) but also community orchards. The idea of making food plants accessible has some currency round here.

I’m eyeing up places where gorilla food planting might be an option. It’s something I’d like to explore if I can figure out how to do it – using sites that were part of the railway line, so aren’t any kind of pristine natural space, and are publically accessible. I don’t know whether edible plants put out would be respected or not – the only way to find out is by doing – but the apple trees that have been planted have all been treated kindly, so I’m hopeful.

I look around at the open spaces, the vast swathes of useless grass where very little lives, and I wonder why we devote so much space to rather sterile ornamentation, rather than letting habitats establish, or using spaces to grow food. Edible plants are not ugly, although I prefer not to have them in rows. Why have we settled on an aesthetic where only that which has little or no practical use to us or other native inhabitants, is deemed attractive? Wouldn’t it be better if we replaced lawns with gardens and had freely available seasonal food?

The Pie Song

Please be advised that if anything in this post seems smutty, it is entirely your own fault!

About ten days ago I was making a pumpkin pie for my bloke (he’s not from round here!) As I was working on the pastry, it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any kind of songs that leant themselves to pie making. It’s December, so all the seasonal stuff has a bias towards that other festival. What to sing while making a pie?

I come from a folk background. It is worth noting that, in folk, anything can be a euphemism. Playing the violin, games of cards, fairground attractions, going for a walk, listening to nightingales… its remarkable the number of apparently innocent practices that, in a folk song, will lead to pregnancy and/or hasty marriage!

The last threads in this peculiar history, are that yesterday I was out with Druids and others, doing things to mistletoe (no, that’s not a euphemism….). I was expecting my old friend Dave, from Bards of the Lost Forest to be there, and he wasn’t, because he was being ill. There’s a man who’d appreciate a good pie, I had thought. There is also my good friend Edrie, who has been poked by medics over the weekend (not in the fun way, so much) and she’s the sort to enjoy a good pie, too.

And so I’ve recorded it. This one’s for you, recovering people, Dave, Edrie hope you feel better soon!

The Pie Song

(oh, and this is just a thrown together, recorded at home sort of thing so please forgive the imperfections.)

The season of rebirth

There have been springs when I knew I wasn’t feeling it, so much of my life innately wintery that emotionally I couldn’t engage with the return of light and life. Emotional winters are a lot easier when the rest of nature reaffirms them, but once all the nest building and sap rising gets going, it can be hard not feeling like a part of that. This winter has been deep and dark for me. I’ve been really bodily ill, I’ve gone through yet another round of awful depression, I’ve had a real intellectual crisis around my work, and some kind of emotional meltdown to boot.

The sun is out today, the snowdrops are up, and Imbolc approaches. The time of seasonal rebirth is upon us. This year I’m not feeling a barrier between myself and the season. I can go with it. I’ve had some profound revelations about the changes I need to make in my work. Opportunities have opened up, and my body is healing. I have a long legacy of fear and distress to deal with and a pressing need to rediscover myself and figure out who I am. That’s all a part of the rebirthing process, some of it may hurt, but, so be it.

I’m aware of how much my upheavals and dramas impact on the people around me, how they can be interpreted and understood. I’ve been told that, having found the person I claim as my soul mate, I ought to be able to get on with living happily ever after. I think there are times when Tom feels he ought to be able to magically fix everything for me. Of course that’s rubbish, and the love of other people is never going to save anyone. Support, comfort, friendship, patience and encouragement are incredibly valuable, but you cannot forcibly love someone out of depression or personal crisis. You can just keep holding them and reminding them how to keep going. Rebirth is not the same as birth – no one else can do it for you, or to you.

That said love has always been an essential part of life for me. Love where what you give is returned, is a healing and inspiring experience. Love that seems one sided, that becomes an excuse to cause pain, love that is all about demand, and ownership, and control, is only love in name, and what it does, day after day is to make it harder to give and to care. I’m starting to recognise how shut down I’ve become, how unwilling to share my heart. It’s not just a fear of rejection, it’s a fear that I am somehow an affront to other people. That’s my history speaking. I’ve been told how destructive and hurtful my love can be, but I don’t have to believe that any more.

The sap is rising, and by slow degrees I can feel my heart opening up again. Tragic news stories make me want to cry. But that’s okay, and perhaps as it should be. Depression is a non-feeling state, a defensive retreat from painful excess. I don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to care, and feel, and open my heart and give more freely of myself. I know that birth is a messy, visceral, dangerous and painful sort of process. Without birth, you don’t get life. Time to come out of the darkness and learn how to love again. How to love life, and people and places. Also, how to love myself, which has always been beyond me. That needs to change.

I’ll end with some lovely words from a February song by Jehanne Meta

I’ll not expect this year to bring
A fortune then, or anything
But love, and just the chance to sing
All these new songs in my pocket.

I’m working on the new songs, too.

The landscape of light

So here we are at the turning of the year, the mistletoe has been cut in various places, Druids have been out and about at Stonehenge, and soon the days will start that slow process of getting longer again, at least round here.
I realise that the impact of the wheel of the year is bound to vary depending on how far you are from the equator. I struggle to imagine living closer to the arctic circles, with the long night of winter and the long day of summer. I rather suspect that would drive me nuts, but evidently plenty of people manage to live with it. I find it equally hard to imagine the stable nature of light and dark nearer the equator. I‘m too involved with the cycle I was born into.
The balance of light and dark across the year, and the shape of the seasons is closely tied to the land we live on – or at least where that land is in relation to the shape of the planet, its tides and climates. Here in the UK, the Gulf Stream keeps us warmer than neighbours to the east at the same latitudes. Where Tom came from a lot of weather tended to come down from the Arctic over the winter months, making for a very different kind of winter. I’m conscious of the warming effect of the River Severn too, not needing to get that far away to notice a temperature difference.

The shape of the hills affects the patterns of light and dark too. For me, down by the river, the coming of first light and the timing of the sunrise is affected by the Cotswolds. The sun has a great big hill line to get over before I’ll see any sign of it. It sets over the Forest of Dean for me, too, that’s another hefty hill range. For a person living in the shadow of even bigger hills, or mountains the patterns of light and dark will be even more influenced by this, and living on an open plain is a whole other experience.

It makes me realise just how local the experience of the shortest day is bound to be, because it’s going to be a lot shorter for those of us with hills, and all those other variables.

Today I am celebrating being where I am, wet and grey though it is. It’s not like anywhere else. Nowhere is.

When to celebrate?

This question came up on one of the Druid groups I’m on – when do you celebrate festivals? Does it have to be on the day? Is the nearest weekend good enough? Or something else?

As I see it, the calendar has been mangled a few times, so that dates, the 31st October for example, may be more about the tradition of a number than an exact time of year. Solstices and equinoxes present their own challenges too. When, exactly, do they happen? When is that moment of balance at the equinox? And at a solstice, are you celebrating the night, or the day? The dawn? Midday? There’s plenty of choices and clearly no one right answer. If you can’t celebrate the exact moment, does it make sense to celebrate the gist of the changing times at the nearest convenient date? I think, if it works for you, then the answer to that one is ‘yes’ and if it feels wrong, the answer is ‘no’.

What are we celebrating, with the four non-solar festivals that turn up in so many calendars? Are we celebrating a specific date, or the state of the seasons? If it’s the latter… seasons are not fixed and often don’t tie in to dates. With Druids in the southern hemisphere these days as well, the dates and the seasons are in mirror image of each other, and that calls for some proper consideration.

I think there’s a lot to be said for figuring out what seasonal cues in your immediate environment you associate with traditional festivals. For a start, that takes you out of standard format and into thinking about your locality, and what is meaningful to you. The arrival and departure of migrant bids might be a consideration here. The appearance of seasonal flowers or leaves on trees might be another. The shedding of leaves, the first snow, or other things may present themselves.

If you’re living somewhere that doesn’t have four seasons, why not consider what you do have, and make up your own ritual calendar to reflect it? You may feel that nature as it exists around you is more resonant than sticking to dates that relate to another place entirely. And then again, the ancestral connection might be more important. There are no right answers, but, think about what works for you and why, don’t just take a ‘one size fits all’ ritual calendar and adapt your own feelings to fit it, that’s about the only wrong way there is!

There are still green leaves on the trees here, so for me, it is not yet Samhain.