Midwinter: The Return of the Light

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Whether you call it Midwinter, Yule, the Winter Solstice, Mean Geimhridh, Alban Arthan, Mother Night, or any number of other names, the celebration of the longest night is a celebration of the return of the sun. Interestingly, I think this has been the natural festival that I have been celebrating for the longest in my life. No, not because we celebrated Christmas while I was growing up, but because I learned from a young age that this “first day of winter” was the day when the days started getting longer and brighter.

My father used to bring his guitar to play songs during our Christmas dinners with family and he loved to sing The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” after going through some typical Christmas songs as a reminder that this was also the time when the sun was returning. Later in my life, I was a long-distance runner, and would wake up early in the morning to go on my run before class or work, and I would count the days leading up to the solstice because the sun’s return meant that I would have more time to run without having to leave before sunrise.

In folk tradition, the end of December and beginning of January (or the end of the Gregorian calendar), was a time of feasting and celebration. In Scottish tradition, Nollaig and Hogmanay are celebrations of Christmas, the new year, and the return of light. They will bless their space and possessions, and recite prayers for the season, using their unique syncretic blend of Celtic deities and Christianity.

Like much of the dark half of the year, it was also a time during which the fairies were supposed to be active. On Hogmanay, you’re supposed to protect your house with boughs of holly to deter them. In Norse tradition, the winter solstice was also the time of the Wild Hunt, which has be adopted to some extent into Scottish folklore.

As I mentioned at Samhain, the popular misconception that winter was the lean time of year is disproven with the widespread feasting at Midwinter. This is the time of year where there isn’t a whole lot to do in order to make food. The harvests have been reaped, it is too early to sow, the cows have probably gone dry for the year and the cheese made. It is a time of leisure and enjoyment of your stored bounty. Time enough to work when the world warms again.

This year, our traditions are disrupted by the pandemic and we aren’t going to celebrate Christmas with family, but we are still able to take off Nollaig, the week between Christmas and New Year. So while most of our festivities will start on the 24th, I have made some space to celebrate the day of the solstice, and the return of light and warmth to the world.

In addition to my pine-infused bath soak, to bring warmth to my body, I’ve made two cypress bundles to use for smoke cleansing my space: one for Midwinter day and one for Hogmanay. I’ve also set aside a special candle light for a Midwinter vigil. Beyond that, there will be plenty of special baking, perhaps including some family recipes. I hope your holiday season is a blessed one.

Herbs for the Otherworld with Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries

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Samhain is traditionally the time when the boundary between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, and, like many of us, I have felt the tug of the Otherworld leading into Samhain and since. So to encourage, support, and connect with those impulses, I thought I would add to my herbal education with a course from Asia Suler at One Willow Apothecaries called “Herbs for the Otherworld.”

While this is not a recap or review of the course, I will say that right from the start, I appreciated Asia’s teaching style. She started with a meditation to ground and focus us so that we would be more receptive to the exercises she prompted us to go through as we moved through her presentation. The class is an audio file that I could listen to when I had some time, which I appreciated, since uninterrupted time is a luxury in my life right now. But throughout the presentation about the nature of the Otherworld and the associated spiritual ideas, she sprinkled in times to reflect silently and write out intentions and experiences.

It was through one of these exercises that I realized that, in my exploration of my ancestral wisdoms, I was neglecting my father’s ancestral line. In particular, one of her exercises led me to realize that one of the feelings this Samhain season has dredged up has been a feeling of disconnect with my father’s father’s ancestral line. My paternal grandfather was the first one to instill in me a love of the outdoors, ancestral plant wisdom, and traditional crafts. And in neglecting to explore that side of my lineage, I was approaching my ancestral truth from a very lopsided perspective.

One of the reasons I find that Celtic spirituality resonates with me is because of the vague idea that I have Scottish heritage, although I have little to go on besides the religion with which I was raised and some vague ideas my mother has about “family over in Scotland.” But when I took this prompt, realized that I was being called to pay more attention to my paternal grandfather’s line, I went into my genealogy and almost immediately found that one of my ancestors along that line had an ancient Dal Riatan surname that indicated migration from Ireland to Scotland, likely in the Middle Ages.

From there, I took the lessons of shamanic connection and spiritual journeying and started exploring on my own. I found a local mushroom farm that sells a reishi mushroom elixir. And I also decided to include my own intuitive herbal ally, my mugwort, to create a reishi and mugwort tea for Samhain Eve. Practicing with some of the Otherworld connection techniques from the course, I was able to deepen my Samhain practice and reach out to that ancestral line that had requested attention.

I was also intrigued by her discussion of “ghosts” are more than just departed people, but any departed energy that was still “haunting” us. It was interesting because most of what resonated with me in the course, was this idea of needing to connect, with ancestors and with this Otherworld. But I recognized that when listening to the section about banishing ghosts that there are still energetic aspects of my past that still linger and are not serving me. Since I don’t have Angelica accessible to me right now, I chose to use my Reishi tincture along with my carnelian stone and sat with this idea of connecting to and banishing my ghosts. And what more fitting day than Hallowe’en to work with ghosts?

The course offered not only a lot of information about the plants and techniques and context of the Otherworld, but helped walk me through these offerings to help me build my own relationship with the Otherworld. In connecting with these practices, I not only deepened my practice, but added to it. And that was a profound thing.

Samhain: Happy New Year

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It is no accident that I chose to launch this space on Samhain. In the pagan world, Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new. It is the beginning of the cycle of a year that represents death, and the time from Samhain until the Winter Solstice is a liminal time, a time of change and preparation for rebirth.

It is also the time of the Cailleach.

I will pen a proper introduction to the Cailleach later this month, as the first in a series of dives into deity figures, but at Samhain, the Cailleach takes over the influence of the season and brings us into the dark half of the year. Despite the fact that the days have been shortening since the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, around the end of October is when I really start to notice the shift. And it is the end of the harvest season, which is why daylight savings time ends around this time, plunging us into every-earlier evening darkness.

And in this time of darkness, we not only look to bring the light to soothe our minds, but we reconnect with the aspects of death. The traditional Jack o’the Lantern was a wandering soul, with an ember in a carved out turnip to light his way, a flickering eerie light, if my experiments with carving turnips are any proof. It is the time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the thinnest, and a time for divination, ancestor work, and shadow work. A time to sit and contemplate.

One way that I’ve chosen to mark this holiday is by doing a lot of work to connect with that Otherworld and my ancestors. I’ve taken some courses, about which I will write later this month, that have helped me reconnect both with my personal genealogy journey, as well as my own intuitive understanding of how my ancestry informs my practice. And the Cailleach is the divine representation of that deep, crone ancestor who came with the land. So as I sit in the times of darkness, before sunrise or after sunset, I am sitting with the departed and the deep ancestors.

But it also a celebration. As I said, it is the final harvest festival. We often think of the end of autumn and into winter as the lean and sparse times, the hungry times of the year, but there was an interesting section on a podcast I listen to on the history of Britannia, where the creator talks about harvest practices in the ancient world. Our ancestors were not foolish, and they knew they did not have our robust food supply chain. They knew they had to preserve their food. So the late autumn and winter were the times of plenty. Right after the harvest was brought in, it was prepared for storage and the stores would be full. A wise society with a robust production would have plenty of food to last through the winter and into the spring until the new plantings yielded plenty again.

So while Samhain may have marked the time when our ancestors might have found themselves without the fieldwork that occupied them during much of the rest of the year, they were not starving. In fact, it’s possible that this was the time that they had to create dishes from their stored food. Think about the traditions of baking around Yule and you’ll see that it doesn’t make sense for this to be the entry into the lean times. So Samhain, for me, is an entry into a time of homey cooking, baking, and other around-the-house crafts that keep us cozy as the weather brings in a chill. The world outside might begin to look dead and skeletal, but it is merely resting, in hibernation, conserving its energy to burst forth in the spring.

Blessed Samhain!