I live in New England. In California they may have climate, here we have weather: heat waves in the summer, blizzards in the winter, glorious crisp fall days with fiery color in the trees against skies so blue they hurt your eyes, spring days that can be below freezing and above 70º the same day. My husband and I decided to live out in the rural areas where we could have a garden; goats, chickens, rabbits, bees… the whole “back to the land”, Mother Earth News, crunchy-granola thing. I love it.
Our eldest thrives on the energy of the cities, and moved there as soon as finishing high school, but the rest of us resonate to the rhythms of the land around us. While it is cyclical- we know that no matter how hot it is in the summer, it will be cold in the winter, if it’s pouring, there will yet be days when it’s so dry that we have to carry or pump water to the garden, it’s not a regular cycle. The daffodils may be up by the beginning of March- or they may not bloom until May. (One thing that does happen nine years out of ten, is that at least once after the dafs are blooming, I have to go out and shake the snow off of them to keep them from being crushed by the snow’s weight.) But certainly, you can’t be sure of flowers for your Ostara altar- not locally grown ones anyway.
The things we celebrate here in New England are often the same thing as other people celebrate: the harvest, the land going to sleep for the winter, our friends, the way the gods show themselves in the turn of the seasons and the wild world around us. However- we do not celebrate at the same time as people in different parts of the country do. Our strawberries come ripe pretty regularly around the summer solstice- what most pagans call Midsummer. I think of June rather as the beginning of the summer. Nor is Yule “Mid-winter”. At the winter solstice the snow has hardly begun to accumulate if it has started yet. On Groundhog’s Day there is generally several feet of snow. That to me is mid-winter! A great time to look inward and to appreciate the benefits of returning to the quiet and dark.
I’ll be honest. I tease those who have “spring” celebrations at Imbolc. Yes, the sheep and goats may be kidding and lambing. But those of us who have them know that they generally choose some day when there’s a blizzard to drop their kids. (Our guess is that in the wild it would reduce the scent of birth that could attract predators.) For whatever reason, lambing is not the time we associate with spring- although it may well be in other areas. If you have to buy your flowers at a shop because you’re walking through snow or slush- it’s not Spring! I don’t care how long the days are.
There used to be a local holiday in Iceland that was celebrated on a different day in each valley; it’s the day that the sun first touches the barn roof. If you’ve just gone through a three-month long night, you too would find this symbol of the return of light and warmth a spiritual occasion. But depending upon where your farm is in relationship to the mountains, it’s going to be a different day in different farms. I imagine knowing that light has returned to your neighbor’s place would engender more jealousy than excitement. We don’t celebrate the other families’ ancestors- we each celebrate our own. In the same way, we celebrate the land spirits on our land, and the plants they nurture for us. Our family celebrates the first big snow as the sign that winter has well and truly come. It seems to me that pagan holidays must be essentially local. Yes, the solstices and equinoxes are stable, but the harvests change depending on where you are, not just when but also what they are.
I was struck when one of my children did a report on the local tribes, the Haudenosaunee, and learned that they celebrated maple sugaring, the strawberry harvest, the corn, bean and squash harvest, and the beginning of the hunting season. “Wow!” I thought, “Those are the things we celebrate now!” (They also had a winter holiday to honor their ancestors.) I’ll admit that as a long time New Englander- the day the first sweet peas come in is a holy day for me; bringing in the apples is the crowning event of the fall. Personally, I know nothing about the orange harvest- but I expect it’s a huge deal down in Florida. Every crop is going to have special spirits that nurture those plants, and the local pagans will sense and work with them. You could say that I worship with my stomach. But I do feel that we are a part of the procession of the seasons, and that is an integral part of the way I worship.
There are few things more magical than the fact that plants grow, produce, die back and fertilize the next season. If I were to tell most people that I could take a piece of something that was dead and rotted, and apply earth, air, fire, and water to it, and that dead piece would recreate a living replica of the original living thing, most people would assume that I was severely out of my mind. But if they found out that my piece of the original is a seed, and what I am doing is planting it in the earth, making sure that that earth is tilled and aerated, expose it to sun, and water it, those same people might wonder why I’m making such a big deal about growing a plant. Magick is magick whether we choose to call it that or not. I personally know (from experience) that if I give the growing plant extra spirit along with the light and water, it will do even better.
Our ancestors- wherever they came from- worked with the cycles of the land where they lived. Fishermen worshiped the spirits of the seas they sailed. Farmers worked with the land spirits. Herders tuned in to animal guardian spirits. Smiths spoke to the spirit of fire and metals. They knew the spirits of the local springs and mountains. Man started using his mind to create patterns, to study nature, trying to understand and learn its laws, to gain control. We could learn the properties of stones, and plants, of times of day and times of year. This was called “natural magick”, and we still use all the things they discovered. But the scholars and students of High Magick wanted to create a science of rules to know not just how things worked, but why things work the way they do. Much of modern Wicca was developed from those Western Ceremonial Magick traditions. However, there’s a problem, we seem to be trying to create a one-size-fits-all collection of rituals, because it’s not possible to survive financially with a separate religion in each valley. Just as modern TV requires the whole country to watch the same shows (and same ads), modern publishing requires that books describing a modern pagan religion will be equally meaningful in Europe, California, Australia, or New England. So they focus on the sky- the phases of the moon, the procession of the equinoxes, and they pretend that there’s a universal seasonal result everywhere at those times. But while some of the influences are universal, I think it’s time we admitted that some are not.
There are aspects of spirituality that are about celebrating what we have in common within our community- our joy in the gods, in each other, and in the cycle of the seasons. Getting together and celebrating these commonalities is wonderful. But some of our celebrations are purely personal. Our families each celebrate our ancestors, our communities celebrate the harvests of what’s growing here and now. We can all celebrate the cycle of the moon and stars at the same time, but just as here in New England there are few who would dance skyclad under the moon (we have two seasons- frostbite and black fly season), we also need to celebrate our apples while our friends elsewhere celebrate their oranges, or their corn, or wheat, or whatever is important where they are. If we are nature religionists, we should be honest enough to observe and recognize the nature as we encounter it every day, not the harvests of some mythical archetypal pagans invented to sell books to the maximum number of people. Luckily it’s easy to do so.
The first step is to step outside and inhale- smell the air. That will tell you a whole lot about what the earth is doing where you are. Is it growing? Is it thawing? Is there rain or snow on the air? What’s the appropriate clothing for you to wear if you go out? Up here we know that wearing the right clothes allows you to be out in weather without being driven indoors. What wild plants grow near you? Even in the city there are plants that one to be our friends- dandelions, burdock, clover, plantain, mullein, nettle… every year we collect jewelweed to make into an ointment that counters poison ivy- learn you local plants, as well as the flowers and other plants you may grow.
When you are celebrating- use locally grown produce as the center of the celebrations. If there are other pagans near you- talk to them. Find out what harvests are meaningful to them- maybe you can celebrate together. Talk to the spirits in your house and yard; they’re there, you just need to start listening to them. You may be able to learn to speak to the spirit of your town. I’ve found that one makes offerings- whether a pinch of grain, or a song, the spirits of places begin to bless us with their consciousness. Feel and follow the energies in your area and you may find a spring or grove where you’ll want to speak to the local spirit. Most holidays are local and so our most spirits. I’ve found it especially rewarding to deal with my local wights, and I expect you will too.