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Apologies for missing last Sunday, we were deep in Tax Return Hell. We’ve climbed out of the Pit of Receipts though so normal service is now resumed!

I was initially thinking about writing a post on the design of Pagan ritual, and how if we are creating a new ritual we need to think about what we are trying to achieve and use an appropriate ‘ritual technology’ to achieve that objective, but I think that can wait until next week. We celebrated a slightly late Burns Night celebration a couple of days ago and it got me thinking about the nature of calendar celebrations, and more specifically the Eightfold Year beloved of Pagans, so I think I’ll put down some thoughts about that from the same kind of headspace. Maybe I’ll call it a Structural Functionalist Critique (I feel fairly safe that no-one will bother to look that up on Wikipedia and see if I’m using the words correctly!).

If you’re not a Pagan I guess these comments, in a broad way, apply to all calendar customs. So stay with me, eh?

Anyhow our Facebook newsfeeds this week have been mostly full of people posting pictures of snowdrops and wishing one another Imbolc blessings or similar. The 8-fold wheel of the year rolls on and I wonder how relevant are the festivals of the Ancient Celts for modern people? Why do we carry on celebrating them, what is their function, personal and collective?

For some people the celebration of the Eightfold Year is doubtless a matter of identity. Its one of those things Pagans do. Maybe if you don’t do it, you’re not a real Pagan? But what do we hope to accomplish from doing so?

Well there is the Community aspect. Well we all celebrate these things so its a nice excuse to meet up and do something together. Nothing wrong with that. On the farm here we’ve recently, at Mo’s instigation, started an informal round of calender celebrations. We wassailed the apple trees, we had two (yes two, count ’em) Christmas Dinners. We celebrated Burns Night. All great fun and nice to get together and build community, not in a heavy way, just nice. I think the Eightfold Year works rather well from this point of view. Six weeks between festivals is about enough time to build up an appetite for the next one.

The Eightfold Year is sometimes thought of as describing a mystery drama that unfolds through the year, telling the ‘life cycle’ of the Horned God and the Goddess (‘life cycle’ makes them sound like bugs, but I can’t think of another way to put it!). In this it is partly successful, although since several overlapping narratives are often used it does get rather confused. Some of this comes down to the Equinoxes, not really part of the original ancient scheme so no-one really knows what to do on them and they tend to get bits of neighbouring festivals attached to them. Maybe it functions better within a small group than it does across the Pagan scene as a whole. Six out of ten for this one Paganism!

Of course there is always Tradition. Its good to do things the way they have always been done, it feels respectful to the Ancestors. Well its good until Ronald Hutton comes along and tells you its all a Victorian Reconstruction conjured from the fevered imagination of Sir James Fraser…

But for me celebrating the turning of the year is about getting closer to nature. It focusses the mind on the changes we see around us, ultimately its humbling because we realise that being human isn’t the only game in town, and that being in the nowdoesn’t make me so important as there is an awful lot of ‘before’, and there’ll be a big lot of ‘afterwards’, if you see what I mean. Now the Eightfold year may be a bit of a trap here. I’d like people to look out of their windows (hell, maybe even go outside) and celebrate what is actually happening in their world. Celebrating that the ewes are in milk may be folkloric, but maybe we should celebrate that the sun is a little stronger, that the birds are starting to build their nests, whatever is going on near you. This might mean maybe our celebrations won’t match up with other people’s elsewhere for timing. Maybe we’ll be celebrating some pretty odd things, but somehow it would be real.

So don’t let those Ancient Celts tell you when to have your party, celebrate something that feels like it needs celebrating (the first Glow-worm of the year is cause for celebration here, as is the first time the outside tap freezes). I’m not advocating dropping the eightfold year, but lets add our personal calender to the sacred mix, because it is sacred too.

Celebrating Robbie Burn’s birthday felt good, so I’m going to do that more as well this year. Ross Nichol‘s Birthday should be marked with a candle or somesuch and maybe Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess deserve some sort of remembrance involving a speech directed at dinner followed by an alcoholic pudding.

So if you survived to the end of this ramble, what are the things that mark the turning of your year, and whose birthdays will you be celebrating?  Go on, use that comment box…

Red_AppleIt’s wassailing time again. And it’s been lovely to see so many reports of hobby-horsing and wassailing on-line this year.

It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.

On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.

So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.

All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?

So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?

Helpful Links:
http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/wassail.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassailing#The_Orchard-Visiting_Wassail
http://www.webcitation.org/5kmoXNFxi
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’ http://www.mudcat.org

Further Reading:
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler

In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂

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