Many years ago, when I lived in Oxfordshire, we used to invite friends to celebrate the seasons with us. Meditation, poetry, music and yummy food were the ingredients for a magical evening together. We put together a calendar to include eight festivals, based on the celebrations that have been popular for thousands of years in the Northern hemisphere. These special events mark the turning of the solar year: the equinoxes and solstices, as well as the cross-quarters – dates midway between a solstice and an equinox.
A friend of ours, Sally Morgan, gave us a magical silk painting to illustrate the eight festivals, which we named after the annual cycle of growth, blossoming, fruiting and decay of a deciduous tree:
|Date*||Astronomical||Our festival||Selection of other festivals|
|20 March||Spring Equinox||Sticky Buds||Ostara, Easter, Persian and Muslim New Year.|
|5/6 May||1st Cross-Quarter||Blossoms||May Day, Beltane.|
|20/21 June||Summer Solstice||Golden Boughs||Ancient Greek New Year, Sioux Sun Dance, Litha, Midsommar, Ukon juhla, World Humanist Day(!)|
|7 August||2nd Cross-Quarter||First Fruits||Lughnassad.|
|22/23 September||Autumn Equinox||Falling Leaves||Meán Fómhair, Harvest Festival.|
|7 November||3rd Cross-Quarter||Deep Roots||Samhain, Guy Fawkes Night, All Saints Day, Hallowe’en, Mexican Day of the Dead.|
|21/22 December||Winter Solstice||Yule||Christmas, New Year’s Day.|
|3/4 February||4th Cross-Quarter||New Shoots||Candlemas, Imbolc.|
|*Dates may vary by a day or two from year to year.|
It felt important to me that we identified these celebrations with names that had no connection to the various religious festivals that take place around those significant points in the year. I didn’t want to identify them as a particular tradition, so we also avoided using the old Celtic names, such as Imbolc, Beltane, Samhain, and so on.
Our gatherings were mostly informal, with people bringing poems, songs, circle dances and food to share. And we always had a bonfire! It is a very magical experience, to create sacred ceremonies with like-minded folk, invoking the nature spirits and honouring the invisible powers that sustain Creation.
The eight points of the year’s turning wheel feel like natural opportunities to recognise the abundance we receive from Mother Earth. You don’t have to be ‘religious’ to find inspiration and delight from simple celebrations like these. But you need to be willing and open to the magic of the natural world, and be surprised when you voice your personal needs at a ceremony, and later find they have been answered. Nature recognises your willingness to be supported. She creates a cradle, a hammock, in which you can rest after making your contributions – which must always be according to your dharma, your life’s destiny. There’s no point in making offerings to invisible powers unless they come from your heart, from your own deep-seated REAL presence in the world. What the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called your Dasein: your essential, primordial being-ness. When you offer from your root, from your core (or your coeur – your heart), that’s when the magic begins.
At a heart-felt ceremony you will be doing magic for yourself, for others present, and for people beyond the limitations of the time-space dimension where the ceremony is taking place. In order to participate in any ceremony at such a deep level it is essential to be adept at accessing realms of inner space through your regular meditation practice.
From before history, spiritual practices have always included festivals according to the astronomical calendar, as the Sun progresses round its annual cycle. This in turn has been linked to significant agricultural stages of the year, as well as specific religious and other stories – Christmas, Easter and Hallowe’en being obvious examples from the Christian calendar; Guy Fawkes Night is linked to a non-religious historical event, although its origins are really to do with the astronomical cycle I’m talking about here.
The other essential spiritual practice, since time immemorial, has been the pilgrimage – a visit, often entailing a long haul journey on foot or by simple transport, to a sacred site. Why would the site be regarded as sacred? Perhaps because a saintly person had been born or died there. For instance, Canterbury Cathedral in England became a very famous focus for pilgrims, after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered at the altar on instructions from the tyrannical King Henry II. In the early Middle Ages, between 1387 and 1400, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the famous Canterbury Tales, in which he describes various members of the pilgrimage travelling to pay respect at the tomb of the martyred saint. They prayed he might answer their prayers – perhaps to cure their gout, get them a ticket to heaven, or absolve them of sins so they had no need to fear hell.
Perhaps a famous mystic had seen a vision on a mountain top, or by a spring of water. Over generations, the site becomes more intensely sacred in its atmosphere, because hundreds, even thousands, of pilgrims have focussed their attention, love and heartfelt desires in that very same place, invoking help from saints, angels, or from the in-dwelling nature spirits (who are generally the precursors of the saints and angels anyway). A mountain here in Wales has a special reputation. Locally known as Carn Ingli (‘The Mountain of Angels’), legend tells us that the 6th-century Saint Brynach lived there as a hermit, in a cave on the mountain, where he communed with angels.
There is a powerful, life-changing, karmic-shifting opportunity when we go on a pilgrimage. We can travel alone, or with a small number of friends, family or like-minded folk. Individual and group intentions carry the energy that begins to increase its vibrational potency, even before you set foot outside your front door. Your focus recalibrates the flowing cycles of time and space already in play – your choice to be a pilgrim makes a difference, for your own life and others.
We tend to think that reality is ‘out there’ waiting for us to step ‘into’ it. We have been taught that time and space are pre-existent, historical structures into which we have emerged, to be surrounded by material things and time-based events. But this is not true. Definitely NOT TRUE. Think again.
We are not in time and space. Time and space are in us. We create and co-create the world we experience. When we decide to make pilgrimage we are saying: What we are doing is sacred, because we have chosen to be sacred. We choose to conduct our lives as divine beings, creating and participating in a dance we are choreographing according to delightful patterns. We have designed those patterns according to our divine desires!
The turning cycle of natural growth within the year and the cycles of the heavenly bodies reflect each other. Watch the cycles of change and take delight in them, but never feel you are subject to time. You are an eternal being who has stepped into the flow of history and your contribution will be simply to enjoy and give thanks.
There are still spaces on the Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth Pilgrimage (March 24-28) and last-minute places are presently being offered at a big discount. If you are on a low income, you can also apply for a bursary to support you. Click here for details.