A New Pattern Glimpsed in the Holidays
by Mike Nichols
INTRODUCTIONHave you ever held a kaleidoscope up to the light, turning it this way and that, for the sheer pleasure of the beauty it brings—when suddenly, to your startled delight, the pieces fall into place, and you see a pattern that you’ve never seen before, one that makes sense?
I do that with the wheel of the year.
This particular kaleidoscope has long been my favorite toy. Again and again, I return to the wheel of the year, not only for the shifting beauty of nature as seen through its moving prism, but because nothing else grounds our existence on this planet so completely, and nothing else can equal the comfort of its never-ceasing lessons of renewal. Yet every now and then, as Ihold the wheel up for inspection, gently turning it, a pattern will suddenly show itself, one that I fancy has gone unnoticed until now. This happened once before with my seasonal interpretation of The Death of Llew. And now it appears it has happened once again.
This “discovery” may not be as flashy as my reinterpretation of the fourth branch of The Mabinogi, but it has a subtle charm all its own. Also, whereas my former essay tended to appeal mostly to specialists in Celtic mythology, this one is equally accessible to the generalist. It is based on a succession of folk customs connected with each of the holidays on the waxing side of the year. And while I lack specific analogous folk practices from the waning side of the year, I believe at least one other folk belief about the calendar will shed enough light to bring the Circle to a close.
With one exception, all these folk customs were mentioned in my previous essays on the Pagan holidays, and have been sitting there patiently waiting for me to notice their pattern for over fifteen years! Consequently, it seems easiest to quote the significant passages from those earlier articles, following each with a comment on why it helps create the pattern. In this way, we can see how the Circle is born, how is expands, and how it reaches its final limit.
Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the year. It is the winter solstice that is being celebrated, seedtime of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birthday of the new Sun King, the Son of God—by whatever name you choose to call him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, “the dark night of our souls”, there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.At the winter solstice, the Circle is not yet a Circle; it is a Point. Specifically, it is the point at which spiritual energy manifests itself into the physical world. It is the divine spark, the sacred seed, the single cell, the incarnation, the universe in a mustard seed. In some ways, the Point is more inclusive than the Circle, since the Circle always implies a boundary, and a separation of that which is outside from that which is inside. The Point, however, can symbolize the All. At the winter solstice, we bless and purify this tiny dust-mote of Being, this birth of the Circle, which is also All That Is.
The Circle is a Point.
Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise’s Day, is remembered for using the newly blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.This blessing of the throats is, by extension, a cleansing and purifying of the physical body. The Circle of protection has expanded to include this “vehicle” of the spirit that first manifested itself at the winter solstice. Interestingly, an old Pagan tradition is that the spirit or soul does not complete the process of “entering” the body until a person reaches puberty, at which point it is finally “locked in” (which may explain why young children always seem a bit elfin, with one foot still in the Otherworld). And Candlemas, or Imbolc, has long been associated with initiations into the Craft, which traditionally cannot take place until puberty. Even the position of Candlemas on the wheel of the year, at the northeast, is the point of the Circle at which a “gate” is cut to admit a new initiate, whose body is then blessed and anointed. This blessing is a warding, a shielding, a seining of protection for one’s physical body, to keep it safe from all danger and disease. So at Candlemas, we bless and purify the physical body, the temple of the spirit.
The Circle widens to include your body.
LADY DAYThis is the one folk custom in this series that I forgot to include in my original essay on Lady Day. Fortunately, it is also the best known, so it needs little elaboration. It may be that its overfamiliarity was precisely why I missed it. But everyone knows that the vernal equinox is synonymous with spring-cleaning! It is time to throw open your windows and doors and air out your musty house (with the warmer weather at last inviting it!), letting in the fresh and cleansing breezes of springtime. It is a time for digging into deep drawers and closets, and banishing those items that are broken or unneeded, taking them to the trash or to the Goodwill — and thus beyond the warded boundary of the Circle of your home. It is time to clean and dust, and scrub and polish, and put a new coat of paint on things that are faded, cracked, and peeling. Just as the heart is the spiritual center of the body, so the hearth is the spiritual center of the home. Even though spring is a time for moving away from hearth and home, it is nonetheless the perfect time to cleanse and honor it. The home is the temple of your immediate family, and the hearth is its most important shrine, at one time the source of both warmth and food (cooking). So at Lady Day, we bless and purify hearth and home, the shelter for your family.
The Circle widens to include your home.
Other May Day customs include: walking the circuit of one's property ('beating the bounds'), repairing fences and boundary markers....On May Day, we extend our cleansing and purification rites from the home to the entire estate, to the very boundaries of one’s property. An old folk saying is that “good fences make good neighbors”, and it is certainly a time to “mend fences” with neighbors, both literally and metaphorically. You work cooperatively with them to rediscover the shared boundaries of your property, which could range from wayside markers to standing stones, to a sacred stream or hill or some other feature of the natural landscape. In medieval times, the property on which you lived might be the estate of a great nobleman or lord, and would include all the buildings of the castle, the outbuildings, the vassals’ cottages, the servants’ quarters, the stables, the kennels, the mews, etc. And by extension, the Circle of blessing would also expand to include one’s extended household, the clan or tribe: distant relatives, in-laws, vassals, servants, farmhands, and even pets and livestock. (Another related Beltane custom involves a blessing of livestock: driving the cattle between two sacred fires.) One’s social Circle now widens to include members of the tribe who are not close relatives, often enjoying their company while going a-Maying in the woods on the eve of May Day. So at Beltane, we bless and purify the extended homestead or estate, the dwelling place of your extended household or clan.
The Circle widens to include your property.
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as “setting the watch”. People often jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a “marching watch”. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobbyhorse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary of one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the city.So the Circle widens yet again, this time to accommodate the entire city or municipality. In more rural areas, this would include the entire township, shire, or parish. The Circle has grown large enough to cast its spell of protection over the entire community, taking in all the property and estates of its members. Thus, at Midsummer, we bless and purify the township, the parish, or the municipality, the locale of your entire community.
The Circle widens to include your community.
CONCLUSIONDoes the Circle keep on widening indefinitely? As I see it, there are at least three possibilities: that the Circle continues to expand, that it has reached stasis, or that it begins to collapse back in upon itself. Certain folk customs in the waning half of the year, such as bringing in the harvest and winterizing the home, seem to support the latter. However, I hesitate to use these customs in my argument for a couple of reasons. They are not specifically tied to a single holiday, and they do not achieve even parity with the customs on the waxing side of the year in terms of incremental steps. Still, my hunch is to favor this model. So I will support it with two indirect arguments instead, one from modern social theorists, and the other from considering an old folk belief about the timing of weddings.
Many sociologists have pointed out that the city, township, or municipality is about the largest unit of social structure to which people will “naturally” give their loyalty. We perhaps see this demonstrated most clearly in the amount of support shown to the “home team”. Although people will pledge their allegiance to larger units, such as the state or the nation, it is a somewhat more artificial process, and it is typically bounded on all sides by laws and structures to keep that loyalty in place. It does not have the same intimacy of feeling that resides in the phrase, “This is my hometown.” Therefore, I posit that our Circle of blessing and purification grows no larger than its diameter at Midsummer.
Further, it is my belief that the Circle begins to collapse back inward after the summer solstice. One old folk belief about marriage (although much ignored today!) was that weddings should always be held in the waning half of the year, because that is a time when days are getting shorter, nights are getting longer, the wind is getting colder, and we are naturally drawn back indoors, to the warmth of the hearth and safety of the home, protected from the approach of winter’s chill. Conversely, it was considered highly unlucky for a bride and groom to take their vows in the waxing half of the year, when days are lengthening and warming, and our natural instinct is to move away from the family-oriented life of hearth and home, and to ramble and roam through a wider community. The month of May was especially perilous for weddings.
So my model is that of a Circle that begins as a single Point at Yule, and expands until it reaches its widest girth at Midsummer, encompassing the entire local community. But from that point onward, it begins to shrink again, in the same increments as before, but reversed, until it once again dwindles to the seedpoint of Midwinter. Thus, the Circle of blessing and purification expands and contracts on a yearly basis, mirroring the spiritual heartbeat of our lives, our planet, and our solar system. It may now be guessed that the true and proper title for this article should be “The Ever-Pulsing Circle”. May it forever protect you within its Circle and strengthen you with its pulse.
Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols.