An Atheopagan Life: Celebrating Riverain, and Adapting the Wheel of the Year
Originally posted at HumanisticPaganism.com
The eight holidays of the modern Pagan “wheel of the year” present an annual cycle of Sabbaths tracing seasonal changes, agricultural cycles, and metaphors of the cycle of life. For an Atheopagan, it’s not a bad point to start from, rooted as it is in astronomical fact (the holy days are the solstices and equinoxes, and the midpoints between them) and the reality of seasonal change in parts of the world which have a European climate cycle. And while there is a large body of mythology in the Pagan traditions which ties these seasonal changes to stories about gods, the gods aren’t really necessary for the cycle to work. It doesn’t require them in order to be meaningful and apropos for anyone living today.
I feel that what is most important in an annual cycle of seasonal Sabbaths is that it actually make sense at a visceral level. If the European agricultural cycle doesn’t jibe with what is happening in your region, I say: Change the holidays to mean something that will.
The area where I live has a Mediterranean climate cycle of wet-winter-dry-summer, rather than the Northern European seasons anticipated by the traditional cycle of holidays. Accordingly, I change the life-cycle meanings somewhat to better fit what is actually happening around me at the time of each Sabbath. I don’t use Celtic names for holidays, as I’m interested in creating new, forward-looking culture rather than harkening back to (real or imagined) old ways, and I incorporate elements of modernity in the meanings of the holidays that the typical Pagan cycle ignores.
The most radical of these departures is at the beginning of February, when many Pagans celebrate holidays with names like Brighid, Imbolc or Oimelc. Here on the northern coast of California, it is not a time of casting seeds upon snow or bundling a newborn against the cold. Rather, it is a time of torrential rains, when nightly freezes have mostly passed, the mountains are their greenest and the creeks are thundering. I have therefore made this holiday Riverain, the festival of water, art, poetry and handcraft.
My celebrations of Riverain have generally been low-key. More important than anything else is my annual rain hike: When a nice heavy storm comes along, I suit up and go for a hike in a wilderness area. There is something moving and lovely about walking in the rain, cozy inside my layers of winter gear, with a beautiful trail all to myself, as I’m the only one crazy enough to go walking when it’s pouring. The sky rains down the sweet water, and I watch it flow down to the creeks, rivers and aquifers that sustain my life through the dry months.
At home, it’s a good time to fire up the wood stove, invite a few friends over to read poems, and perhaps to craft while we’re doing so: Many of my friends knit, or perhaps we can make traditional Brighid’s crosses from soaked stems of straw, and allow them to dry. Their symbology doesn’t mean anything to me, but they are handsome things and fun to make. And having friends over is always a good excuse for cleaning the house—as the festival of “washing”, Riverain is a great time to start Spring cleaning!
Here are the Sabbaths I celebrate around the year. Note that the beginnings of seasons are not defined by the equinoxes and solstices, but rather by their traditional meanings (e.g., May Day was the beginning of summer, not the middle of spring):
Yule (Winter Solstice). The Festival of Lights, keeping us warm through the Longest Night. Celebrates family, community, and beginning of light’s return with the lengthening of days. A time to gather together to survive the cold and dark, to celebrate and give thanks for what sustains us even in the darkest times. It is the height of Winter, and celebrated as the New Year.
Riverain (Midpoint between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox). The Festival of Rain. The height of the rainy season in my region, when the mountains are emerald green and creeks are roaring with water. Celebrates rain, water, art, poetry, music. A time for preparation for what is hoped for in the future (such as sharpening gardening tools and kicking off Spring cleaning). The beginning of Spring.
High Spring. (Vernal Equinox) The Festival of the Newly Born. Celebrates renewal, childhood, innocence, playfulness, discovery. A time for planting seeds, sowing the crops and garden. Per the name, the height of Spring.
May Day (midpoint between Vernal Equinox & Summer Solstice). The Festival of Love and Maturity. Celebrates passage into adulthood, sexuality, freedom, fertility. The beginning of Summer.
Midsummer (Summer Solstice). The Festival of Attainment. Celebrates the Longest Day, arrival into comfort, leisure, relaxation and enjoyment. The height of summer.
Summer’s End (midpoint between Summer Solstice and Autumnal Equinox). The Festival of Work. Celebrates technology, science and invention, responsibility, physical work. First of the Harvest Festivals (the Grain Harvest) and the beginning of Autumn.
Harvest (Autumnal Equinox). The High Harvest Festival. Celebrates gratitude for the bounty of the Earth, the harvest of what has been worked for, the gifts of the World, enjoyment of the fruits of labors. Second of the Harvest Festivals (the Harvest of Fruits and Vegetables), height of Autumn. The beginning of transition into the darker time of year.
Hallows (midpoint between Autumnal Equinox & Winter Solstice). The Feast of Darkness and Endings. Celebrates the wisdom of old age, acknowledges the inevitability of Death, the legacy of ancestors, the memory of those no longer alive. A time of the drawing down of nature into the dark and dormant part of the year, to contemplate the unknown, to acknowledge the darkness in life. It is a time for burial/release/composting/grieving what is ended to make room for what is to come, to anticipate the return of the rains, and to enjoy the spooky, gothic and darkly atmospheric. It is the final Harvest festival (the Flesh Harvest) and the beginning of Winter.
Note that this wheel of the year is one that works for me, in an area with a Mediterranean climate. If you live in Minnesota or Montana or Massachusetts (or Manchester or Melbourne or Mumbai), your experience of seasons will be different and you will want to roll your own.
The point is to have a cycle of Sabbaths that work for you. You shouldn’t have to pretend it is Spring when it won’t stop snowing for another six weeks. Adopt and adapt as you see fit, or toss the whole thing and go with another concept. There is no “right” way to do Atheopaganism—nor are there “experts” whose views are any more important than your own. In your community circle, create the traditions and observances that reflect the natural world you see. In the future, when Atheopagans from different regions meet, they may compare notes on the holidays they celebrate, just as in the ancient world travelers meeting one another explained the gods they worshipped.