Tag Archives: winter

No Seasonal Pagan Shaming

Winter. For some of us, it’s a bloody awful time of year. Every year, without fail I see at least one piece online (usually more) that talks about celebrating winter in a way that is not especially kind to people who can’t. There are a lot of people who can’t. If you can joyfully celebrate the cold and dark half of the year – lovely. Have fun with that. It’s important to remember that there are very good reasons why other people can’t – it’s not that we’re lazy, or not trying hard enough, or fair weather Pagans, or failing at Paganism.

The shorter, darker days can really pile it on for people who suffer depression. Gloom and loss of energy make it a lot harder to get out to things or to feel like dealing with people. We may need to hibernate, not celebrate. We may not want to bring our gloom to your celebration.

For those of us with issues around mobility and balance, the mud, ice and frost is a nightmare. Outside becomes a treacherous place. Not everyone can skip along the frosty pavements like Legolas on the side of a mountain. For some of us, the fear of falling includes the fear of damaging an already fragile body. For older and more delicate people, a broken hip can be the beginning of the end and is not something to take lightly.

Celebrating the warm snugness of home and hearth is all well and good, but not everyone can afford it. If winter means choosing between heating and eating, there is nothing much to celebrate, and no resource to spare for joining in with other people’s celebrations. Poverty isn’t always visible or self announcing, people won’t always tell you they can’t afford to have the lights on at night.

Celebrating outside requires warm winter clothes, decent boots, a waterproof coat. Not everyone has or can afford that kind of kit. Not everyone can drive to the wild places in their four by four to go communing with nature whilst wearing their ski gear. It’s really tough going outside and getting cold when you can’t come home and get warm and dry in a reliable way. It’s harder, too, if you’re not eating properly. Cold and hungry are not a good combination, and there’s nothing like being cold for making you hungry. Not everyone has the luxury of a spare pair of outdoor shoes to wear if they get a pair soaked in ritual.

Not everyone loves the winter. Not everyone can. Some of us won’t survive it, killed by the cold and by lack of good food, by illnesses we could not fight off. Some of us will be injured by the conditions and some of us may never get over that. So, if you see someone Pagan-shaming over how people respond to the winter remind them that not everyone has the luxury of being able to celebrate. Not everyone is privileged enough to find winter easy.


Catkins: One of January’s true joys

The Pagan myth that nature is all asleep and quiet now and everything kicks off at Imbolc, is rather brought into question by the beautiful January phenomena that is the catkin. Catkins are the reproductive parts of some trees, they form in late autumn, and flower from January onwards. Thus far this year I have seen open catkins on hazels and alder, while the pussywillow is just starting to open.

Hazel catkins

Hazel catkins

Catkins are small and subtle, you won’t see them unless you get fairly close to the tree and look. But if you do, there they are! They tend to be male and female, and wind pollinated. Male hazel catkins are quite colourful, pussywillow invites stroking (hence the name) and they add a bit of cheer. They are also the promise of life to come, of hazel nuts, new trees, and everything else getting going as we move towards spring.

alder catkins

alder catkins

Nature never really sleeps, something is always happening. The trick is to get past our simplistic notions about what ‘nature’ is doing at any point in the year, and see what’s actually going on around us.

Pussywillow aka grey willow, although goat willow can also be called pussywillow and willows like to hybridize...

Pussywillow aka grey willow, although goat willow can also be called pussywillow and willows like to hybridize…

I have an alternative wheel of the year column over at Sage Woman blogs, so if you’d like a monthly prompt for things to celebrate that aren’t a tidy match for the regular wheel of the year narrative, do wander over – http://witchesandpagans.com/sagewoman-blogs/nimue-s-wheel.html

Images in this blog post come from the Woodland Trust website, find out more about trees and tree protection here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

Seasonal Blues

It is a perfectly reasonable, human thing to struggle with the winter. The shorter days, often with far less sunlight mean those of us in the northern part of the earth are short of vitamin D. Some of us suffer seasonal affective disorder. For some, the cold, the treacherous footing, and the dark nights are a downer. This is the first year in ages where those dark nights haven’t been a real barrier to me having a social life, and that’s in no small part because I’ve now frequently got things to do of a Sunday afternoon.

For anyone whose finances are tight, winter adds extra pressure – for some it means a choice between heating and eating, for some even that choice isn’t available. This is an unkind season, an isolating season, a killing season. Many people roll out of the festive period into the harsh reality of increased debt at the start of the New Year.

I often find there’s a backlash after midwinter festivity – yes, in theory the light is returning, but it seems a long way off, it still gets dark early, it’s still cold, there are a good two months of this to come… but now there’s nothing much to look forward to. The feeling that it should be getting easier can contribute to actually feeling worse about it.

I’m luckier than many people because there are viable solutions for me. I can add colour, warmth and light as needed. I do now have the resources – financial and energetic – to connect with people at this time of year. I have places I can go and things I can do. But I’ve also been on the other side of this, cut off, cold, stuck, and without the resources to change any of it. That’s not a good place to be. If you know someone who could be isolated by this time of year, drop them a line, call them, if it makes sense to show up, show up. It can be a lifeline – in a practical sense and also emotionally.

How to start the day

Back in the summer of 2016, I was ill. More ill than usual, and ill enough to be worried about it. Yet another round of burnout had left me plummeting into depression, but alongside this were increasing signs that my body just couldn’t take the strain any more. I realised that if I didn’t make some radical changes, I could get into serious trouble.

One of the things I did as part of a radical life shift, was to start walking first thing in the morning. Previously I’d been working at the computer by seven am most days. Instead, after the lad left the establishment for school I’d put in a half an hour walk, and hit the keyboard somewhere after eight. It soon became obvious that I was rolling in to work with a clearer head and better concentration, and that some of my ever longer hours had been down to the snail’s pace I’d previously been reduced to.

I promised myself that days would be less than ten hours and weeks would have 2 day weekends, and mostly I’ve stuck to that, and it has helped me enormously.

Walking first thing gets me outside and connected with the natural world. It gets the blood moving, and with my often-sluggish circulation, that’s a real plus. It means I don’t move from bed to workspace of a morning, but get something else in the mix.

It’s really hard, on the days when energy is in short supply, to prioritise walking. Going out first thing knowing I may be compromising my ability to work into the afternoon, is a challenge. Using the time on something for me goes against the grain a bit. But then, how I think about myself is one of the things I’ve had to change to enable me to make progress towards being more well. I had to stop being a resource for others to use, and start being a person. Through this process, I’ve put down a lot of unpaid work, and I’ve changed policy on that. I won’t run round after people who aren’t being nice to me. It’s amazing how much extra time and energy that move has liberated.

During the darkest part of the year, I stopped walking first thing – I hate getting up in the dark, I’m even less keen on going out then. However, there’s now predawn light at the right point in the day, and I’ve gone back to it. I feel good about the early morning walking. I’ll need a more cunning plan for next winter, but I’ve plenty of time to figure that out.

Evergreens in winter

This time of year is the best for spotting evergreen trees in predominantly deciduous landscapes. With the majority of trees losing their leaves, the vibrant colours of holly and ivy really shine through in a woodland. Ivy can dominate a tree such that it looks like it has its own leaves – in extreme cases, mistletoe can do the same, so it’s always worth getting in for a closer look if you can.

There are also evergreen oaks – the holm oak (see above), which in the greener part of the year you won’t see unless you’re really looking for them. In winter they really stand out.

holm oak leave.

holm oak leave.

More holm oak information here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/common-non-native-trees/holm-oak/

Images in this blog borrowed from the Woodland Trust website.

Fair Weather Pagan

I admit it, I’m a fair weather Pagan. My willingness to go out and celebrate the seasons depends highly on weather conditions and temperature. This summer we started a monthly venture of going out to celebrate the full moon in a bardic way. The last session was in September because by October, the idea of standing round outside, at night, for an hour or so to share songs and stories, held no appeal whatsoever. We’ve moved to the pub, where there is less sense of the magical natural world, less of the shining full moon, but also less risk of accident, injury, or just getting very cold.

Having had chilblains during several winters, my willingness to stand around in the cold is not what it might be. Having fallen on the way out of a session in the dark – painful and embarrassing – I’m in no hurry to put myself forward for that again. Being out as a bard by the light of the full moon is a glorious thing, in the right conditions, but during a British winter, the prospect does not inspire.

There are always balances to strike between connection and viability. The younger, fitter, healthier and better resourced we are, the easier it is to do more extreme things. Gone are the days when my body can easily bear the experience of a sleepless night on the cold side of a hill.

I’ll continue to connect with the seasons, but I have to do so on terms that work for me. Daytime rituals and gatherings in the winter mean better light levels for dealing with the more slippery ground conditions – be that mud or ice. Staying warm, not being out for as long, not being as far off the beaten track, are all part of how I respond to winter. Waterproof trousers and thermal socks, a flask of something warm and a flashlight. These are not things my ancient Pagan ancestors would recognise, but then that’s true for the larger percentage of how I live my life.

‘Getting back to nature’ is something we as modern Pagans can often only do because we have a car to get us there and a washing machine to deal with what nature does to our trousers. It’s easy to kid ourselves that our particular work-around is somehow more natural, or more authentic – be that ski gear, energy drinks, or thermal underwear. We don’t live close to the land and seasons in the way our ancient ancestors did. Most of us don’t have the physical capabilities, knowledge or experience to live as our ancestors did. Doing what makes sense to you is fine, but don’t avoid looking at what you’re doing.

I think it’s better to be honest about what we are, and aren’t, and to modify ritual behaviour according to what we can genuinely cope with. Driving out to ‘nature’, dressing up in expensive, modern kit and knowing we can warm up with something hot from the microwave when we get home does not mean being especially in tune with our ancient ancestors. It just means we can afford this stuff – not everyone can. It’s worth thinking about the kinds of effort involved in winter rituals, and being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. It makes more sense to me to have a practice that reflects how you live, rather than having to do things that are otherwise quite unnatural to you, (or prohibitively expensive) with the idea that this will bring you closer to nature.

The dark half of the year

I have struggled with winter for a long time, and so the darkening days of autumn can leave me feeling gloomy. This year I have committed to trying to find happier ways through the dark half of the year.

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot of privilege tied up in finding the winter easy. Money for comforts, a washing machine, a tumble drier, the means to dry clothes, enough clothes that getting soaked through isn’t a problem. Enough money for heating and eating, and for the food to be of a good quality that will keep you going. If you get to the autumn anxious about what a hard winter will do to your energy bill, inevitably it’s not going to be easy. If the cold and damp increases pain, it’s not a cheerful prospect.

I’ve been in those places. For many of us, bad weather, slippery surfaces or snow can be really isolating. For the elderly, a fall can be a death sentence. Cold kills people. Cold makes homes damp, and damp homes grow mould, and mould is not good for people. This year, we will be buying a dehumidifier, so we won’t have to have a cold home from opening windows each day to keep it dry. This is a luxurious prospect.

In previous winters, the dark nights, the footing and my energy levels have kept me in, and left me feeling isolated. This is one of the major things I intend to do better with this year. We’ve bought a head torch, a small luxury that means walking in the dark will be safer and we can use all the summer shortcuts. I’ve got better at spoon juggling, and I mean to use that to make sure I can get out at least a few times each month for evening events. Not having a car, winter transport is challenging, but with better kit, we can do it. Of course not everyone can afford better kit, or a car, or the fares for public transport.

The more marginal your way of life is, the greater a need there is for warmth and comfort in the winter months. With this body, I won’t be skipping through the snow at any point. But, I know where to get saunas if the cold causes too much pain, and this year, if I need it, I will go. It’s all about having a little flexibility in the budget. Small differences can make very large differences, and I intend to make the very best of everything I can so that this winter is less depressing for me, and for anyone else around me I can manage to extend some cheer to.

Through the dark days

Yesterday, Mabh Savage wrote about how we encounter the dark half of the year. It’s well worth a read. I found myself agreeing with her a fair amount, and then being surprised by this, and then realising why. For many years I was one of the people she objects to – the kind of person to face the winter with dread, and sigh with relief as the solstice comes with the promise of light returning.

This year I’ve done pretty well. It has been warmer than usual, (which helps me hurt less) but also very grey (which can get to me). I’ve felt in tune with the length of the day, and have not been caught out by how early it gets dark. This winter has felt less like a desperate struggle, and that, I think, is the crux of the matter.

There can be an absolute joy in the dark part of the year, in snuggling inside, cosy with lights, food, friends and some rest after the busyness of summer. When winter is a nightmare, it’s a consequence of not having the resources to meet the demands. An unheated home, insufficient food, illness, exhaustion, fear about paying the bills… these things make for tough and miserable winters. If summer means not being cold all the time, then of course you shiver in the dark days and long for the return of the sun. Been there, done that.

It helps that I’ve invested the time in being ready for the winter. We painted the walls in the flat cheerful colours, so even on the grey days I don’t feel colour deprived. This has made a huge difference to my mood. Art, posters, plants and soft furnishings add to the cheer. We came off the boat a couple of years ago with little to furnish a home, and it takes money and time to sort that. We got new windows for the flat, and insulated the door, and I made a draft excluder, and we are warmer as a consequence. We aren’t working constantly, there’s time to rest, and the resources to enjoy life a bit more. A huge shift from boat days when we had to run the boat engine for an hour to have lights into the evening.

I own a set of fell runner’s crampons. These make it possible to walk safely on ice and on frosty ground. I’m not agile, or confident in slippery conditions. Owning spikes has made the winter a lot less frightening for me. I got them the year I lived in the Midlands and it really froze. To collect my small son from school I had to walk across a steep and entirely frozen road (I hadn’t taken him in). Any car coming down that hill would have no scope for breaking and stopping, and as other roads were clearer, people were mistakenly coming down. I set out to cross all too aware that I could fall, or be knocked down, and it was terrifying. When this is what winter looks like, it’s bloody difficult to embrace the season. Crampons allow me to walk up and down icy slopes without fear. That changes everything.

Of course if you have a tumble drier, winter laundry is no issue. It’s an ongoing struggle for me, but not as bad as it was on the boat. If you have a car, winter conditions can be less awful for travelling than if you walk. Frozen ground means a likelihood of chilblains for me. If you have central heating and aren’t obliged to keep a wood stove going, this is also a lot easier. I spent one winter in a cottage with single glazing and just the one stove for heat. That was memorably tough.

This year I can enjoy the snugly indoorsness of winter. I can rest in the darkness. I am not in a state of perpetual anxiety. I feel enormous gratitude for the relative wealth and abundance in my life that has changed my relationship with the season. I’m all too aware that for many people this year, poverty will mean the choice between eating and heating, with nothing to do but long for the spring. If you are blessed, then enjoy what this season has to offer. If you can spare some of that abundance for people who are struggling, I promise you, it makes a big difference.

The courtship of birds

It’s not something I’ve ever really noticed before, but this year I am seeing the birds courting. They’ve done it all through January. They turn up and forage in pairs, and I’ve been treated to some amazing displays of close flying – small songbirds nipping through the undergrowth, turning and dodging together, a matter of inches apart. No doubt this happens every year at this time, the only change is in my noticing.

In the last few years I’ve become more conscious of other ways in which the essence of spring is distilled in the depths of winter. All the trees have leaf buds on them right now – locked tight against the frosts, but ready nonetheless. The catkins hang, tight and dark, equally ready. On the woodland floor, the bluebells and garlic is already putting up the tips of green shoots. It’s still icy out there, still bitterly cold and with heavy frosts, but the makings of spring are well under way.

This year I have been much more aware of the return of the light, seeing the day increase from one evening to the next. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention in previous years, more that I couldn’t see what was happening. I’m not a winter person, but it isn’t always easy to leave. I’ve come into far too many spring seasons with such a deep chill in my bones, and so much darkness in my mind that I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the shift into spring. I found the journey into winter easier this year, and I am experiencing the journey back out without feeling lost or disconnected.

This isn’t especially about my Druidic work of engaging with the seasons, it’s about an entirely separate emotional journey that does not plug neatly into ideas of the wheel of the year. There’s often a profound disconnect between personal cycles and journeys, and the wheel of the year narrative and that can create a lot of tensions for the dedicated Druid. When life is peaceful and all is well then it can be quite easy to go with the flow of the seasons. However, the challenges of life and the baggage we carry can entirely preclude that. It can be hard to form a relationship with the seasons as you experience them when your own life rhythms are very different. Harder still to engage with the seasonal narrative, which isn’t always the same as what’s happening in your climate.

Depression and winter are a dreadful combination for me. I do not enjoy the darkness or the cold, or the extra challenges the season brings. I struggle with low energy and I entirely get how our ancestors could have wondered about whether the light would ever return. I wonder that – literally and metaphorically, when I am depressed. Being less depressed, I am less affected by all of these things, and curiously more able to recognise the changes for the better. I can feel the year turning. In winters of deep depression, I could not feel it, even when the spring came. Winters of the spirit can alienate us from the actual return of light.

This is not to say that working with the seasons will cure you from depression. It may do the opposite, making it more painfully clear that are not experiencing spring or any kind of return of light. However, overcoming depression undoubtedly makes it easier to work with the seasons.

The lovely sleep of winter. Or not.

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.