One of the few points of commonality among pagans is our participation in the Wheel of the Year. It is one of the basic cycles in all life on this beautiful Earth - and it reflects her beauty as she continually changes. It is a circle of eight stations connecting us with the sun and the stars. You can find a lot of information about the wheel on the web these days, but here are some of my own thoughts.
There are many different names for the holidays of the Wheel in different cultures - and some of the holidays have been subsumed into more formal religious calendars under different names as well. At the core, on each day we recognize a transitional time in the seasons, but it isn't as simple as an externalized remembering or an observance of change. By our celebration we participate in the change and help to make it possible in our own lives and in the wider life of which we are just a part. None of us belong to ourselves alone — we all change together whether we call a day "Yule" or "Christmas"; "Samhain", "Saturnalia", or All Hallows' Eve. The names I have chosen reflect my own personal penchant for Irish names and conformance with the traditions I have learned.
But these also reflect the reality of the changing year in Ireland; it would be ludicrous to celebrate Samhain with the (October/November (And so you see why Pagans are largely uncomfortable with globalization: yes we all live in one world, but we must walk gently with its differences)) moon! Even more so, we truly don't know how much of our "traditions" are merely convenient constructions made by people with inscrutable agendas. The usual pagan Wheel arises from a temperate-zone northern European cultural background and so is certainly fair game for deconstruction. But it does fit very well with the way that the passing of the year feels and it has also helped me to become more in tune with it. It is a beautiful example of cause and effect flowing together until they are indistinguishable.
One of the biggest aspects of my experience of Ireland has been connecting to the old Irish/Celtic division of the year into two halves: Dark and Light. Given the northern location (Dublin is at 53.6N) the difference is dramatic and obvious. In the winter, at Yule, we have barely eight hours of daylight, and with the famous Irish rain and fog you can very easily go days without seeing the sun — or indeed any kind of bright natural light. And in the summer, there are days where it never truly reaches what astronomers refer to as night-time: the horizon is always lit up.
Astronomically, the wheel is also made up of two different classes of dates: the quarters and the "cross" quarters. The quarters are the familiar solistices of Winter and SUmmer plus the Equinoxes of Spring and Fall. The cross quarters are the dates that fall in between the quarters. Astronomically, the cross quarters should be right about six and a half weeks from the quarters, but for me the cross quarters are more about feeling of the season they mark. As a child I never understood why why we would call 21 June summer when it wasn't really hot yet (We also lived rather further south than the places where the seasons were named and dated - of course it didn't fit right). I also use a hybrid system for determining the dates.
Since most pre-Roman cultures began the day in the evening, and perceived the universe as beginning and ending in darkness, I will start with the dark half. You could say it's traditional, but then again you could also say: "squigglebump".
The Dark Half
Samhain is arguably the most important point on the wheel of the year, and, as far as I can tell, has the widest observance in all cultures on the planet. There is something in us that feels the darkness becoming strong and knows that it is time to slow our frantic activity from the harvest and begin to reflect. At Samhain, we encourage and allow this process by making room for our ancestors and beloved departed in our lives.
Since the walls between the worlds are particularly thin at this time, it is much easier to focus our attention in the spirit world, whether it be through memory, trance, or ritual, and of course the best Samhain observances incorporate all three. The connection with western Halloween should be clear, but it is also indirect: Macabre costuming and the parade of urchins from door to door demanding treats serve to remind of of a world beyond our own. But it is up to us to honor that world, and enter it.
And it is a source of wisdom. While the death motif that is so prevalent in modern culture's observance of the holiday is an important door to wisdom (even the Bible says so)
There is something very special about keeping the long watch through the darkness on this night — especially if you are alone through it — and then greeting the rising sun again the next morning.
The Equinoxes are transitional times, and so I always find myself weighed down with decision processes during them. This festival is also a perfect example of how our participation in the turning of the wheel also helps to make it real.
Most pagans make much of Oestara as a fertility festival, reclaiming the egg hunts, bunnies and the other accoutrements which have been subsumed by Christian practice (Which I should also say - always bothered me as a Christian. I could never figure out the connection between the the Passion and the fluffy bunnies) . And to be fair, that is important because it is why we choose to go on. But to me it is the decision process — Out of all that was conceived since the light returned, what shall live and what shall die? — which is at the heart of Oestara.
And this drama is played out in nature as well. Many of the small ones are busily having their children now. The new flowers are starting to appear. But everyone is still hungry from the winter past, and although it is full of promise it is still a very hard time to live. Ask any farmer: far too many of their lambs die in the still-cold mornings. Take a look out in the garden: new shoots get killed by the frost and eaten by the hungry.
Some versions of the ancient story of Persephone's return have Persephone actually falling in love with the underworld and only returning out of her love for her mother. I encounter the same feelings at this time. Having built a safe, if dark, place for myself over the course of the winter, I truly wonder if the effort it will take to bring forth and develop the ideas conceived and growing in that secret place will be worth the effort. There always seems to be something (or someone) which still motivates me. At Oestara, Nature tells us: Yes.
The Light Half
It would take an awful lot to make me give up my Beltaine fire! It drives away the last lingering darkness of the winter past, and I pass through it into the busy, busy, busy growth of summertime. This is when all the new ideas conceived during the spring time start getting turned into real action.