Identity for children in Pagan and mixed households

When I was a child, it bugged me every time someone asked me, "What are you?" meaning "What religion do you follow?" That wasn't because I didn't want to be asked. It bugged me even more, when they just assumed I was Christian like 95 percent of everyone in the community around us.

It bugged be because I had no words for it. 

I grew up in a time and place where earth-centered spirituality was kept under wraps and publicly admitting it could very well lead to employment problems and/or an investigation by Child Protective Services. It was probably a good thing that I had no words for the little rituals, rune drawing, Tarot cards and quarter calling that I participated in with my mother's circle. And I survived the quiet longing for something more openly stated pretty well. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But today most Neopagans have no such external restraints on giving our children a spiritual identity. Instead we are caught in the dilemma of whether and how much to hand our kids the ready-made Pagan identity. 

This goes beyond the concern that some adult Pagan events don't or can't reasonably include children. There are plenty of ways a child can be involved in earth-centered or even specific Neopagan practice. The feasts of the Wheel of the Year provide plenty of kid-friendly fun, inspiration and tradition, even if that is all a child is exposed to. 

But many earth-centered parents have either seen friends undergo or undergone themselves the forcing of a religious identity in childhood. The major religions today, other than Paganism, insist that children born within them should be held to them. Many Pagans who weren't born into an earth-centered path are Pagans specifically because they fled the oppressive atmosphere of religions that force an identity and practice on children.

So naturally we don't want to become just as bad as what so many of us struggled to free ourselves from. And the issue of how much to develop family-centered traditions permeates Pagan parenting discussions.

In my family, that dilemma intersects with another long-standing controversy in Neopaganism--the issue of ethnic identity. There are many mixed-race families in Paganism today. I've run into Norse-tradition Heathens who are half-Scandinavian and half-African but naturally to Europeans look more African than Scandinavian. There are Irish-East Indians. a great many people with mixed European and Native American background and many Pagans whose ancestry is all over the map.

And in my family and several others, there is the issue of inter-ethnic adoption. Life takes us down unexpected paths and ours led my husband and I to adopt two children who happen to be of a different ethnicity. They are Romani (ethnic Gypsies) and as such there is some debate over whether or not they qualify as ethnic Europeans, since their ancestors came to Europe from India somewhat more recently than most Europeans. 

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

Illustration from the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Pentacle, Copyright Julie Freel 2015

This type of thing isn't a controversy because we believe that one must follow the Pagan tradition of one's genetic ancestors. There have certainly been plenty of non-Celtic Wiccans while other Wiccans claimed some connection between Wicca and ancient Celtic traditions. But it is uncommon to find a Slavic reconstructionist Pagan who doesn't have at least some Slavic genetic background. And when it comes to children, it is particularly important to honor their own unique genetic heritage.

It's an unarguable fact that most earth-centered traditions share a deep connection with ancestors and the land on which ancestors lived. Certainly we can and do honor ancestors connected to us by our tradition, craft or beliefs as well as those of blood and nation. But it is hard to entirely ignore the issue without some doubts of authenticity creeping in.

There is very little scholarly work to be found documenting original Romani spirituality. There are always rumors and plenty of people who will claim their Romani grandmother passed great Pagan spiritual traditions down to them. But Romani people still living in the Romani communities today usually vehemently deny much of what these revelations claim. While the Roma as a people have held on to their language and culture far more fiercely than most other small, landless ethnic groups, they are chameleons when it comes to religion. 

Wherever Romani communities are found today, they match the religion of the majority society. In Muslim areas, they are Muslim. in Catholic areas they are Catholic and in Orthodox areas they are Orthodox. Whatever is left of their original spiritual traditions is well buried. 

And so I not only stand in the usual dilemma of most Pagan parents today, but also on an ethnic divide, where one side is almost entirely unavailable. I feel a strong connection to the ancestors and spirit of the Central European landscape where I now live and to Celtic traditions. But neither of those seems to have much to do with my children. My altar carries ancestral symbols for everyone in our household--Celtic, Norse, Romani and Slavic. And when I honor ancestors of blood, I honor them all.

But I am hesitant to tell my children what they should be. 

I tell them they are Romani and teach them to be proud and not to hide it. I tell them their citizenship in two countries. I tell them about Romani ancestry and about mine and that of my husband. I tell them that the spiritual traditions we practice are sometimes called Pagan. 

But there is a line where I stop. I don't tell my children they should call themselves Pagan.

I have pointed out when someone identifies as Christian or Pagan or Muslim, explaining what it means to identify yourself that way. But I leave their own identity open to them with enough words and experience imparted that when they do want to choose i hope they will know something about what they are choosing.

So far, my nine-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with spirituality. She refuses to enter churches and avoids my altars and Tarot cards, and she always has. My seven-year-old son, on the other hand, often asks to light a candle on the altar, colors pictures from Pooka Pages, asks to draw a Tarot card, spontaneously says a Pagan morning prayer sometimes and requests Pagan songs for his piano lessons. These are all things he is exposed to because of adults around him.  

This is the wavering line I've decided to walk in parenting between too mysterious an identity and forced identity. 

We read myths and other stories from a Pagan worldview. I have even authored several Pagan children's books, illustrated by the children's grandmother. I don't hide my rituals or altars and I sing a short blessing song before important meals (though not before all meals). We occasionally meet up with another Pagan family with young children for holidays.

We celebrate the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year as a family with specific earth-centered traditions. My husband enjoys the traditions and the focus on nature but isn't particularly spiritually inclined. So some of the holidays aren't overtly spiritual. It's just what we do and it adds a pleasant, natural rhythm to the year. 

There are many different paths to walk in Pagan parenting and it is beyond my station to say what is right or wrong in it. The Shanna books (Shanna and the Raven, Shanna and the Pentacle and Shanna and the Water Fairy) portray a single-parent household that is somewhat more overtly Pagan than mine. The children in the story are older than my kids and have a more developed sense of their identity.

But much of the conversation and holiday traditions practiced by the fictional family of the story is similar to what our family and many others do. The second book, Shanna and the Pentacle, weaves a story around the issues of identity that kids in middle childhood often face.

In this spring-equinox themed story, eleven-year-old Shanna has to consciously acknowledge what her pentacle necklace means, though she previously thought of it mainly as a gift from a friend. And she has to learn to stand up for herself in the face of pressure in a society where Pagans aren't the majority. The story is one that is close to home for most kids in Pagan families and Shanna's adventures along the way prepare her to make her own decisions about identity. 

I wrote that story and the others as part of my quest to find the right balance of information, experience and freedom of choice for my kids. My parenting is a work in progress and I love to hear from other parents dealing with related issues. Please leave comments below if you are inspired.

How do you approach passing on your values and beliefs to your children? Is your family mixed? How do you approach holidays with extended family that may have different traditions? What is the hardest part of parenting children in an earth-centered spiritual tradition? What's the easiest or most fun part? I look forward to reading your experiences.

Of Beltane and earth warriors

Pagans and earth-centered people, even if you consider only those who celebrate Beltane, are wildly diverse in worldview, beliefs and lifestyle. We don't all teach our children the same things. It has often been said that there can be no Pagan politics, because we never agree on anything.

Be that as it may, it is not difficult to see connections between earth-centered spirituality and the movement for social and environmental justice. If you have a strong spiritual path and you also feel strongly about protecting the earth, there is no doubt that these two parts of you will be intertwined. Likewise, spirituality and social/ethical values are interconnected for most people, whatever their spiritual path.

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

Creative Commons image by Francesca Ubliani 

We follow an earth-centered path because we resonate with a way of being that is concerned with interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of the divine in many parts of life. We are concerned about the environment for the same reasons - interconnection, natural cycles and a sense of sacredness in the natural world.

Many also translate this into social justice. We are interconnected. Injustice anywhere is my business, because I'm part of the weaving. Natural cycles and the freedom to be close to nature is crucial. All beings have a part in the divine. Wildly diverse Pagans--just as people of other faiths--are going to translate these abstractions into concrete reality in all sorts of ways.

But in the end, the point is that we cannot actually separate spirituality from social and environmental concerns.

Beltane is a time when that connection is even more apparent. As the veil between the worlds thins, so does the separation between the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political.

Beltane is most often associated with sexual energy and passion. It represents the vibrant maturing of the youth phase in most cycles, that stage in which energy is moving upward and outward.

But it is difficult to ignore the other side of this coin of passion. There is love and sexual passion, yes. There is also the passion of the warrior. The Lovers card in the Tarot is followed immediately by The Chariot. And there's a reason for that.

Beltane is the celebration of passionate union. It is also the celebration of unity in struggle. It is no coincidence that movements for social solidarity adopted May 1 early on as May Day. Like everything sacred throughout history, that connection has, of course, been used and abused by those seeking control and power. But that doesn't negate the foundation--the energetic connection. Earth day is also close by on April 22.

When the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. 

This is a season when our warrior energy is demanding a release. In times of peace and tranquility that energy can be channeled into dance, love and other energetic, expressive pursuits. But when the body and spirit feel oppression within our human and non-human family or destruction of our home (the earth) happening all around us, warrior energy rises within us and demands a greater channel. In such dangerous times, the denial of warrior energy leads to predictable results: anger, fury, conflict and further destruction.

Anyone who has been in close contact with teenagers (the human stage closest to the energy of Beltane) knows that sexual energy is powerful. Suppression and silence only lead to unhealthy results. That is why we give it expression in healthy ways, learning how to channel it.

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by sammydavisdog of flickr.com

Warrior energy is the other side of that coin, the shadow in the spring sunshine. And its suppression is no more possible. 

The Warrior

Human society relied on literal warriors and hunters for the vast majority of our genetic history. In recent centuries, we have shifted our social organization from tribes to nations and tried to relegate warrior energy to defensive armies and law enforcement.

I'm for peace as much as anyone, and I have huge respect for professional police officers and soldiers. Their channeling of warrior energy for the protection of all is part of what is needed.

However, the warrior energy does not simply dry up in the rest of us--the civilians. Modern society attempts to suppress it for the sake of the status quo, but when we see and feel injustice, it erupts. If not given a legitimate outlet, that eruption is often self-destructive or harmful to others.

This should not actually be nearly as much of a problem as it has become in our modern world. We try to force warrior energy to conform to sports competitions or try to drug it into submission with video games. But neither of these truly satisfies the need at a deep level.

The most basic reason for this lack of release is that injustice and the destruction of our earth is all around us. And as long as there is such a threat, our warrior energy will not rest.

Yet there is something constructive and positive that can satisfy it. Instead of suppression, professional armies, sports or video games, we need to recognize that the incarnation of the warrior today is the activist.

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

Creative Commons image by Greenpeace Polska

As such, Beltane is the natural celebration of activism and resistance to tyranny. In this year when much of our environmental and social fabric is threatened, the celebration holds particular meaning.

The Activist

You may not like the word "activist" because it has been  used as a pejorative in recent years--to mean someone with a selfish agenda. But a person who is pursuing an agenda for profit is most often simply a business person. A person pursuing a profitable agenda for some other entity is just an employee. These are not activists, but rather people working at a job, whether you like their agenda or not.

Calling anyone with an agenda an "activist" Is a trick of those seeking power to suppress the warrior energy of those they want to control. 

Activists, on the other hand, are in the most clear definition of the word not paid and not working for any specific personal gain. Instead their motivation is that of the warrior--protection of home and family, protection of the tribe, defense of the interconnected reality that allows the self to live and thrive.

This is the other energy of Beltane, the shadow side.

The opposite pole in the dance with the lover is not the hater. It is the warrior. Union is the natural partner of protection.

In the past year, the brave people of Standing Rock helped other people all over the world realize the fundamental link between the ancient warrior and the modern activist. While there are activists of many types, fighting in defense of home, family and tribe in a myriad of ways, the activist most easily connected to the warrior tradition is the environmental activist.

From Standing Rock campers to alternative energy innovators, from animal advocates to investors in rain forest reserves, earth warriors share the energy of Beltane. That is why for me this is a celebration of environmental activism and interconnection around the world as much as anything else.

Children and warrior energy

Now that I have children, this topic has become critical for me. I see them pulled--by peers, media and society--toward frittering their life force away with video games or allowing it to be suppressed. I realize the need to awaken that warrior energy for appropriate modern activism. 

I have been an earth warrior from an early age. I spoke up in defense of Greenpeace activists when a teacher at my conservative middle school denounced them. I wrote letters to the local newspaper when I was fourteen to protest clear-cut logging practices. I marched in anti-nuclear protests when I was much younger than that and protested the 1990 war in Iraq, at a time when few others did.

The book Shanna and the Water Fairy is children's fiction but its writing was informed by these experiences. I know from my own childhood that children often feel the pull of warrior energy. And if given access to information about the issues, they are often passionate earth warriors. This book is first and foremost a gripping story that kids love to read or hear read a loud, but it also has the capacity to give hope to the spirits of young earth warriors, who may be beginning to feel that the struggles are too big for them.

The spirit of Ostara: the cycles of the earth as a guide to good living

Sometimes I am asked why I celebrate the Pagan Wheel of the Year with my family, even when there isn't a fun community event to attend.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Why do you need special words for season celebrations? Why do you need to complicate the dates of school holidays for your kids? There isn't definitive proof of the ancient origins of celebrating eight solar holidays, so isn't it partly made up?

As with most things connected to spirituality, there are several levels to my answer.. On the surface, the answer is simply that these celebrations ring true to me deep inside. And second, I want honesty in practice, I suppose.

Growing up in an earth-centered family that didn't use the Wheel of the Year, calling our celebration "Christmas," while  acknowledging that we were really celebrating the Winter Solstice, I always felt a disconnect. If we're "really" celebrating the winter solstice and we know historically that Jesus Christ probably wasn't born on December 25 and he isn't our main focus anyway, then why don't we just celebrate the Winter Solstice and cut out the middle man? 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

I felt like kids in real Christian families had it better because they had a tradition, something meaningful in their celebration. And ours felt truncated, damaged... even, yes, stolen. This was not an intellectual thing. I was too young at the time to know the history but that was how I felt.

And I wanted a sense of authenticity for my kids.

That was essentially my motivation in the beginning for celebrating the Wheel of the Year. But lets's face it, it's a hard thing to keep up year after year--a holiday every six weeks or so, that begs for specific preparation, attention and connection. If it were only a matter of principle, I might not have lasted thirteen years and counting. Many people don't.

What keeps me strong and passionate about celebrating the Wheel of the Year is it's practical usefulness. 

Yes, practical, real benefits. Let me explain.

We all tend to get stuck at some point in our lives, either in depression or being a workaholic, being young and isolated form what isn't in our generation or being old and feeling like our life is over. There are many places to get stuck and those stuck places can last years.

And that is a large cause of misery. 

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

The Wheel of the Year essentially ensures that I don't get stuck. The celebrations in are in alignment with nature and thus objectively "true" or "real." Even deep depression eventually has to at least acknowledge the fact that spring came again. 

And better yet, the Wheel of the Year is a spiritual teaching in a nutshell. Within it there is pretty much all you need to meditate on spiritually. Each celebration calls up specific important values and themes and taken all together they are a code of spiritual being. 

People sometimes ask how I teach my children about Pagan beliefs and rituals. The primary answer is that I celebrate the Wheel of the Year with them. There are other things, like learning herbcraft, grounding meditation, prayers of gratitude for food and a little simple candle magic, but mostly it's about the Wheel of the Year for my kids. The earth is our textbook and the Wheel of the Year is our lesson plan.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

It isn't just as simple as learning the cycles of the seasons though. Okay, sure, everything dies in the fall and is reborn in the spring here, but in some climates that isn't entirely true. That isn't really the point anyway. Each celebration has particular themes that feel connected to the earth and sun at that time and therefore are easily understood at that point in our journey around the sun.

At Imbolc we go within and delve into dreams and intuition. It is the time in the belly, before the birth of new plans, activities and projects. At Litha (the summer solstice) we are full of life, bounty, energy, pride and expression. We are often hard at work and celebration comes amid many other activities. At Samhain, we are drawn back to the earth, there is a feeling of old sorrow, of things coming to necessary ends and a tendency toward memory. It is the natural time to be reminded to honor our ancestors. 

If you celebrate Imbolc, you will not go a whole year without remembering to focus on your inner world. If you celebrate Litha, you will not go a whole year without expressing yourself with energy and pride. If you celebrate Samhain, you will not go a whole year without honoring ancestors.

And each celebration has a similarly crucial point. I will be writing more posts about the spirit of each celebration, but the celebration at hand is Ostara, so I'll start with that.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Ostara

Ostara is the European Pagan term for the spring equinox and it is celebrated much like Easter. The appropriate symbols are eggs, sprouting plants, rabbits, hares and babies of all kinds. The obvious themes are renewal, rebirth, the beginning of life and expression, new beginnings in general and children. 

As a mother, it is very important to me that my children have a lovely time at Ostara. It is a time to honor and delight in them. They are the future, our new beginning as a species. Their joy in the springtime is a blessed and righteous thing. So, more than any other time they get to eat a lot of candy. They fully enjoy scouring the yard and back woods for treats and eggs. We make pretty colorful crafts, many of them egg-related. 

But when I started to contemplate exactly how to convey the concept of rebirth and new beginnings to young children, I realized that the spirit of Ostara goes much deeper than that. If this is a celebration that also honors children, that necessarily implies the protection and valuing of that which is vulnerable. New life is inherently vulnerable and we can see that protection of vulnerability in all of the ancient symbols of this celebration--particularly the egg.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

We know that in our modern world the worst abuses of human rights are suffered by children. Children are more likely than adults to live in poverty or to be in need of basic necessities like food, water and shelter. Children are often the first to suffer when societal racism or other prejudices rear their ugly heads. There are obvious reasons why the protection of children is connected to human rights in general. 

The protection of new life extends, of course to the protection of the vulnerable among other species. The concept of both biological and cultural diversity is implied in the rainbow colors of Ostara. This is not only a celebration of one rebirth but of all the colors and miraculous diversity of life--human and otherwise. 

This realization has deepened my experience of Ostara. This celebration of renewal can be a great help in overcoming a stuck place in myself. If there is some lingering depression, hurt, resentment or stagnation, the return of light to our northern latitude does wonders for it. The necessity of getting outside and tending vigorously to the spring needs of our urban homestead is invaluable in getting past blocks. 

But more than that, the celebration of rebirth, color, diversity and the protection of the vulnerable is what the heart needs at such times. It is a shot of clear-eyed idealism., regardless of how bleak things may seem in the outside world.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

This year, many of us are exhausted from a long winter that did not seem to be as restful as it should have been. We have been struggling to retain the way of life we and our ancestors fought for--the rights and freedoms that often came at great cost. We are also contemplating that now when we should be working primarily for a sustainable future, environmental concerns have taken a back seat to the immediate needs of vulnerable people in our society.

Plenty of us are already experiencing outrage fatigue. And it is just early days yet.

And here is Ostara, the celebration of renewal, a time to warm your heart and think of fluffy and bright colored things. It may be hard to grasp when things are hard, but this is what we actually need right now. 

Stop a moment, ground yourself in the earth. Remember that the earth's rhythm does matter. Let the energy of renewal and new life flow into you. Focus your energies on protecting those most vulnerable, both human and non-human. Celebrate the rainbow of diversity in languages, cultures, colors and species.

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Illustration from Shanna and the Raven: An Ostara story

Break free.

 In my quest to teach my children these values of eternally resilient life and hope, I wrote the Ostara story Shanna and the Pentacle. This is a story for all earth-centered, goddess-oriented and vaguely Pagan families. It isn't a "teachy" book, but rather a story that grabs kids' attention, especially if they are growing up as a religious minority.

In this story about new beginnings, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye move to a new school. At first, that seems like challenge enough. New beginnings are exciting but not always easy. Amid budding flowers and preparations for their Ostara celebration, Shanna runs into a real problem. Her teacher and some of the kids at her new school object to a pentacle necklace that her best friend gave her.

When her family moved Shanna had to leave her best friend behind and that is part of the difficulty of this new beginning. When her teacher demands that Shanna stop wearing her pentacle to school and the principal confiscates it as a suspected "gang symbol," the young girl feels the sting of prejudice. 

Shanna is at the same time learning to accept others who are different from her. One of the new things about her new school is the greater cultural and racial diversity of this urban school over her previous one. Shanna soon discovers that friends come in many varieties and it is through a surprising friendship that Shanna gains the courage to stand up for her own identity as a Pagan girl. 

This story not only embodies the crucial messages of Ostara, but it is also filled with beautiful paintings by Julie Freel that evoke the season and the story. This is a story for Ostara, though one that will show that new beginnings aren't always easy. It emphasizes the importance of standing up for one's own identity, the great advantages of diversity and the need to protect the young and vulnerable. With this story, these values are not forced on children but delivered in a way that makes them as natural as the fact that the sun rises earlier every day in the spring. 

I hope you'll enjoy this story and share its fun and themes with children in your life. Many people have asked when there will be more stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and I am delighted to tell you that the Beltane book is very nearly ready to be printed and will be out well ahead of the holiday.

I hope you will support our endeavor--which is still non-profit due to the costs of the illustrations, materials and books--and share these stories with others. If you are eager for more stories about the natural themes and values of the Wheel of the Year, spreading the word about these stories is a significant help in our efforts to keep them coming. 

Happy reading and blessed Ostara to all!

Egg candles: an easy spring craft for big kids and adults

Many Ostara/spring equinox crafts for kids and adults come out looking suspiciously like Easter crafts. And well, obviously there are good and honorable reasons for that. But still... sometimes you get a hankering for something entirely earthy. 

I love early spring with its scents of seeds swelling and soil thawing. Even before the equinox I can feel the tension of it, like a bow string taught and ready to release an arrow. This calls for a craft with strong earth and birth symbolism.

I am definitely attracted to the idea of crafts that involve filling egg shells with earth and growing either grass, herbs or a small flower in them. But there is yet little sunlight at our northern latitude before the equinox and my egg pots usually come out looking pretty pitiful, rather than like a glorious celebration of spring. And that's if they sprout at all. A nice alternative for those without either the sunlight or the green thumb is to make egg candles for Ostara. 

This craft fits nicely in with the Imbolc period of candle-making before Ostara and if you use beeswax, the result is wonderfully grounded and primed to boost rituals for fertility, creativity, rebirth and growth of all kinds.

I was intimidated about candle-making for far too long, believing it was a craft only for those with a lot of experience and time on their hands. But at last, I was delighted to find a simple method that really doesn't take much time at all.

Egg candles 5.jpg

1. Cleaning the egg shells:  First, the next time you cook with eggs, crack your eggs by carefully tapping the smaller end of them, rather than the middle. And then use your fingernails to peel back bits of the shell until you can dump the contents into your cooking container. Carefully chip away the shell until you have an opening only at the top of the egg, leaving most of the egg shell intact. Wash the egg shells with warm water and leave them out to dry for a few days.

2. Gathering your supplies: Meanwhile get together everything you will need.

  • First, you'll need a pan for melting wax. I recommend using something you won't be cooking food in, but I do use my pans that for making medicinal salves that also use wax. Wax residue just isn't good in soup.
  • You will obviously need some wax. Beeswax is best but any kind of candle wax or even the stubs of old candles will do.
  • If you want to color your candles for Ostara-pink, green and yellow wax colors are perfect.
  • You will also need wicks. These can usually be bought at any craft store. The kind with small foil circles at the bottom are best for this.
  • Otherwise, you'll need a wooden spoon, paper towels, wax paper and some small sticks or chopsticks.

3. Melting the wax: Heat your wax over a low heat on the stove, stirring occasionally. If you use low heat you don't need to worry that it will burn. Just don't leave it long enough that it starts boiling rapidly. Skim off any debris that may have been in the wax.

4: Setting up your candle molds and wicks: While the wax is heating, set your eggs (now candle molds) upright, probably in an egg carton. Place a wick into each egg with the small disc at the bottom. 

5: Pouring the wax: When the wax is uniformly liquid, carefully pour it into your eggs. You can use a dipper but that too will become coated with wax. I also recommend putting wax paper under your eggs to catch drips of wax. Wax, particularly sticky beeswax, is rather difficult to clean off of surfaces and particularly hard to get out of fabric. It also burns the skin, so be sure to have small children stand clear of the immediate area while you're pouring.

6: Holding the wicks in place: Now here is the only slightly tricky part. As your egg candles cool, you want to keep the wicks in place with the bottom of the wick at the bottom of the egg shell (not floating up) and with the wick coming out of the wax in the middle the hole at the top of each egg, rather than along the side which will be its natural tendency.

Egg candles 1.jpg

Because it takes awhile for the hot wax to cool and solidify, it is usually not possible to hold them there by hand unless you only have one candle for each hand. (If you do have enough hands, just hold the wicks in place and sing some songs for spring minutes and you'll be done in far simpler fashion and have an extra dose of creative energy in your candles.) The method that works best for me to hold the wicks in place without a lot of helping hands is to use two sticks--such as a pair of chopsticks--and pinch the wicks between the sticks, while resting the sticks on the tops of the eggs. The trick is to get a bit of the hot wax onto the top portion of your wick and then use the still warm wax to glue the wicks to the sticks by holding them firmly pinched for a moment. In the end the wick-holding mechanism looks like the photo to the right. (I'm hoping Dr. Seuss will do a book on wicks and sticks, based on this blog post. :D )

7. Cleaning up: This is one craft where a specific note on cleanup is appropriate. Most commercial candle wax comes off of hard surfaces if you just let it cool and then peel it off. You can remove it from clothing by placing paper towels under and over the cloth and then ironing well.

But beeswax can be a bit stickier and doesn't always come off well. The thing to remember is that beeswax and other waxes will also come off with heat. This is why I recommend keeping paper towels on hand for this craft. As soon as you are done with your pot and spoon, wipe them well with paper towels while they are still hot. (That part of this step should be done before you even hold your wicks in place.) You can also use paper towels to wipe dripped wax off the outside of the eggs if you strike quickly while they're still hot. But if you drip wax on a cool surface (such as the table) leave it alone until it cools completely. If you do end up smearing wax on the table, use a rag soaked in hot water.

8. Decorating: You can paint the outsides of your candles or tie ribbons around them. To hold them upright, either drip a bit of wax onto a hard surface and place the candle firmly on top, pressing down gently until it cools and the candle stays upright, or you can fill a bowl with rough sea salt, sand or rice and place the egg candles upright in it. Dry (uncooked) rice with green food coloring gives a nice spring touch. 

If you would like more practical Ostara crafts and ideas for earth-centered families, take a look at the kid's adventure book Shanna and the Pentacle. It includes craft ideas for this holiday as well as the story of a sister and brother who move to a new school and learn about cultural diversity and standing up for their own beliefs. 

Simple method for making a beautiful Brigid doll

My eight-year-old daughter is not normally very excited about crafts and she tends to be impatient, so I was amazed and delighted by our success with this craft. 

We made Brigid dolls today--two of them because she decided to set up her own altar and wanted to make her own doll all by her self. The craft held her interest for several hours and came out really beautiful.

1. We took a square of white cloth and put a solid ball of cotton in the middle of it. You can use anything from crumpled paper to cloth scraps to a Styrofoam craft ball. You can also use a white paper handkerchief in place of a white cloth for a quick but less durable doll. 

2. We then gathered the corners of the cloth and tied a red or gold string under the ball to form a kind of neck. We cut slits every few inches in the cloth, almost up to but not quite reaching the neck. 

3. Then we rolled up another smaller rectangle of cloth and tied it at the ends to form arms. This we inserted under the neck through the slits, so that the arms protrude on both sides. (I also inserted a little extra cloth in min for breasts but my daughter didn't. You can see the difference in the photos below.

4. Then we inserted some dried lavender stalks from the bottom in place of legs. This makes the doll smell wonderful. You can substitute many different herbs or stalks of grain. Really anything symbolizing your last-year's harvest is symbolically appropriate. 

5. We tied a second string around the middle under the arms, This serves as a waist and holds the herb stalks in place. 

6. Now it was time to decorate the doll. First we put on hair. We loosely sewed embroidery floss into the head, letting each stitch dangle for several inches. This was by far the most difficult and time-consuming part of the craft and it could be avoided by coloring or gluing on wool, fabric or feathers in place of hair. But we loved the look of the embroidery floss.

7. We then tied and stitched a scarf or hair band on over the hair. This can also be done with hot glue. 

8. Next we put on faces. My daughter chose to color hers on with markers and I embroidered mine on, although I am no expert at embroidery. Both turned out fine.

9. I added a lace apron to match the scarf, because I had a bit of extra curtain lace hanging around. Both can be made with any white cloth or even a white paper handkerchief. 

10. Finally we used another red string to tie a few lavender sprigs into the hands so that they formed a welcoming circle in front of the doll.

All ties were made with either red or gold strings. A Brigid doll should generally be white with red, gold and possibly purple highlights. This is the doll we will use in our Imbolc ritual. We will place the dolls in baskets by the hearth to sleep through the night before Imbolc. Then the children will come and light candles and symbolically wake up Brigid to bring in the spring in the morning. It is their favorite part of the Imbolc holiday. 

I'm so happy to finally share the making of the doll with my daughter too.

By the way, this is the same craft used in the children's adventure story around Imbolc called Shanna and the Raven. Although in the book the craft is done with natural sticks or stalks of herbs for the arms as well. There is also a delicious recipe for white and red strawberry dumplings in the book. It's a story about how a couple of modern goddess-orriented kids celebrate the holiday and learn to use intuition for their own protection. 

I hope you will all have peace and inspiration this holiday. Blessings of creativity and warm hearths to all!

Imbolc or deep winter: A season in the belly

Ice outside, fire within, the strokes of brush and quill, bitter steam of medicinal plants steeping in a pot--these things defy time.

February 2, the day known to Christians as Candlemas and to modern pop culture as Ground Hog's Day was called Imbolc by the Celts of the British Isles. It is being called that again by earth-centered people all over the world.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I grew up with many earth-centered holidays. I knew about the solstices and equinoxes. I even had some idea of the real meanings of Beltane. A harvest party in August or honoring ancestors at Halloween were also not entirely foreign concepts.

But Imbolc was new to me twelve years ago when I adopted the modern Wheel of the Year consisting of eight earth-centered holidays.

Here is a holiday entirely devoted to dreams, introspection, inspiration, intuition and creativity. It is like no other holiday because it can be easily celebrated alone and might even be best that way. 

I have come to love Imbolc. I feel like I am given permission to curl up with the Runes, Tarot and i-Ching in front of a cozy fire and dream without a schedule. I feel like I have permission to take a few days to do those quiet things I love, reading about herbal medicine (healing is a key aspect of Imbolc), creating something beautiful (art and creativity is central to Imbolc), sleeping long hours (it is natural to the season) and lighting lots of candles (the primary symbol of Imbolc is a candle).

I live far from many like-minded others and I often struggle to give my kids an experience of spiritual community. They are mildly resistant to our alternative dates for holidays at Yule or Ostara. The Summer Solstice, Lammas and Mabon just aren't quite right without a gathering of friends or community. But our home is perfect for Imbolc.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

This is truly the quiet time in our climate, surrounded by cold and frost. We light many candles and have time for more reflection and healing. The colors are stark and beautiful, white, gray and brown. With the sun returning a bit from the edge of the southern horizon, there is a realistic sense of a new year beginning.

I have become specifically devoted to the goddess Brigid in the past few years and Imbolc is the feast day of Brigid. That makes it particularly special and a time to celebrate my connection to the goddess. Brigid is concerned with healing, fire, justice, creativity, inspiration and intuition--all aspects of Imbolc and all things at the core of my life. 

I celebrate Imbolc by making Brigid's crosses for our doorways and hearth. I do divination of various types and a ritual honoring the goddess. I often place a large platter in the center of the table with sea salt, crystals and seven white candles on it. My children and I make a Brigid doll to sleep by the hearth and have a family ritual of waking up Brigid after the winter's sleep.  

Imbolc can mean different things in different climates. For many people this is the day of seeds because the ground is ready for planting. It is still too cold in our climate for planing anything but hardy starts on window sills. The concept of seeds goes along with the Wheel of the Year as a life cycle in which Imbolc is conception, Ostara is the moment of birth, Beltane is exuberant youth and so on. 

In other places though, this day is associated with pregnant ewes, and the word "Imbolc" may have originally meant "in the belly." This is because it is a fallow time in many parts of the world. Plans and activities are in the gestation phase, not yet ready to be revealed. Growth is slow and hidden. 

If you would like to learn more about Imbolc or include this holiday in a multicultural program, check out Shanna and the Raven, an Imbolc adventure story. Shanna and her brother Rye celebrate the holiday amid magic and candlelight, but there are shadows in the modern world. The kids must use intuition and signs from a mysterious raven to protect themselves from a grown-up menace.

In northern climates this was historically the time of candle making in households. There was little other work that could be done with the ground frozen and snow heavy on he earth. The year's candle supply was often made at this time and when northern Europe was Christianized, the holiday was transformed into Candlemas, in which the newly made candles are taken to the church to be blessed. 

There is certainly a connection to blessing candles and protection from fire. Brigid, both the Catholic saint of this day and the Pagan goddess of this time, is widely believed to protect homes from fire. In the Czech Republic Imbolc is still called by an old name "Hromnice" (Thundering). There is no thunder at this season, but the idea was that certain blessings or acts could be done at this time to gain protection from fire and lightening for the year. 

Whether you celebrate a specific holiday during the next few eeks or simply use the winter time for activities that get lost during the rest of the year, I wish you a good season of inspiration, healing and creativity.

Winter to comfort and heal

I know that by March I will be fed up with winter cold and gray. But for now winter is still young and fresh. New snow has fallen and our little town between the Bohemian hills is quiet under just a light haze of wood and coal smoke. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

"It's so good to have a hard frost," my husband says with an audible sigh of relief as he sips his coffee and looks out over the snow-dusted garden. "It will set the garden slugs and mold back It's been three years since we had a good cold shock.."

I know many climates don't have winter like this, not even cold, let alone with snow. But every climate has a fallow period, whether it is parching, cleansing heat or a deluge of rain to wash away the grime of the past year. Everywhere around the world there comes a time of the year for going within, for seeking out a cozy place with a comfortable temperature, for cleaning, refreshing and regenerating. 

Even though I loved sledding as a kid and I see my kids celebrating our little bit of snow with shouts and bright cheeks, I never realized until I was at least thirty that I look forward to this season of deep winter. This is one of the few times of the year when I am not constantly rushing and overloaded with work. End of the year deadlines have passed, tax deadlines are yet to come, outside work is either done or beyond help and life is settled into the winter routine. 

This is often the season when I do my best and most intensive writing. I wrote the first three books in my fantasy thriller series from January to March one year. It is a time for creativity and inspiration, as well as a time when there is enough space for those concepts.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

In ancient times the Imbolc season in the middle of winter was also considered the time of healers. Partly this was because people tended to get colds and viral infections in the damp and chilly weather. The elderly and infants were in need of greater care and so healers were in demand. But for injuries, this is simply a time when healing is more possible because physical activity is reduced. 

One of the reasons I celebrate the nature-based seasons with the Wheel of the Year is that by paying attention to natural rhythms, I never forget to give each need in my body and soul its due. I tend to be a workaholic at times and it is good for me to be reminded to allow time for regeneration, healing and inspiration. 

Inspiration comes only when there is enough silence. Healing comes only when there is enough stillness.

This is nature's fallow time in the northern hemisphere, but whenever your fallow time comes, whether it is earth-based or personal, it is worth remembering that it is not a lost or wasted time. Rather it is a rare and precious opportunity for rest, healing, comfort and the quiet needed to awaken great things.

These are the values taught in the Children's Wheel of the Year books (otherwise known as the Shanna books). I wrote them in large part to illustrate for my children and others how each season has its value. The Imbolc story Shanna and the Raven is a suspenseful story about a brother and sister who use intuition and creativity to protect themselves from potential danger. The Imbolc season is highlighted as the time of healing and inner knowing within a gripping, kid-friendly story.

I don't make direct sales pitches in my emails often, but I would like to gently remind readers that now is the right time to order paperback copies of Shanna and the Raven in order to receive them by Imbolc. You can read more about the book and see photographs of the paperback illustrations here.

Why I don't call it Christmas

I could sense the palpable relief in my children's Jewish piano teacher when I wished her a happy new year in October. Now she smiles bemusedly at our tree calendar that only goes up to the 21st of December and says, "It's not that I mind Christmas music really. I just wish we didn't have to play the same songs non-stop for a month every year at every concert."

She is very good at playing and teaching both English and American Christmas music but she is relieved that I don't necessarily want her to teach my children the standard Czech Christmas carols on the piano. Instead I printed out the sheet music for Yule song and she was delighted. Anything as long as it's a change.

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by storebukkebruse of Flickr.com

I don't have anything against Christmas either. In fact, I rather like Christmas music, even some of the very religious carols. They are beautiful and expressive of the joy and hope of the season. I'm more than happy to wish my Christian friends "Merry Christmas" but I don't celebrate the mass of Christ.

There is no "war on Christmas" here. Quite the opposite.

I stand by my Christian friends who find spiritual solace in Christmas. That is what it should be about. Calling everything in the season Christmas, and primarily the big commercial bonanza of December being called "Christmas" is what truly dilutes and distracts from Christmas. Sure, joy, gifts and frivolity are part of Christmas, much as they are part of Yule and Winter Solstice celebrations. I'm not saying one must be solemn to have real Christmas.

But I hear Christians saying that there is more to Christmas than the commercialism. There is a spiritual core that they struggle to make the center of their homes at this time. That's worth supporting.

And part of that for me is avoiding the temptation to just call it Christmas when in mixed company, when I mean my own family celebrations, which are so clearly not Christmas, or even when referring to secular community events. I don't really want to have a long drawn-out conversation about my spirituality and culture every time I try to wish someone a good holiday.

So, I feel the pressure to conform too. Just say, "Merry Christmas" and just call it a "Christmas tree" in front of other people. So much simpler. 

Except that every time I give in to the impulse, I feel like I steal from my children, cheapen my own spirituality and disrespect my Christian friends--even if some Christians demand that people call everything that isn't Christmas "Christmas."

I grew up with earth-based spirituality, but we still called the winter holiday Christmas and the celebrations in my family were almost entirely secular. I know not all children are spiritually inclined but I always felt an uncomfortable shame about it. I knew we didn't do "real Christmas" and that seemed to mean that we were fakes.  

Our house was an idyllic cabin in the mountains with snow usually piled all around it, a tree with colored lights and home-made ornaments. There was an assortment of my mom's cookies and the delicious excitement of Santa Clause. But there was also a sharp yearning for something more, something with a deeper meaning. 

I sang Christmas carols at school and always felt guilty about taking joy in the story of Christ's birth, as if I had no right to it. But oh, it was a beautiful story and the tunes made my chest ache. Something was reborn. That I knew.

My mother did tell me about the solstice, but we still called it "Christmas" and celebrated on the 25th. When I realized that I had a choice, that I could call it Solstice and celebrate on the 21st, I finally felt truly free. It is unquestionably the right thing for me. But I'll admit that it hasn't always been easy dealing with the rest of the world. 

Even my own brothers make a bit of fun at my expense during the holidays because of my constant use of Solstice and Yule terminology. Even though they aren't any more Christian than I am. They seem to feel that I am demanding something extra from them.

But I don't mind how they celebrate. I can work an extended family celebration on the 24th or 25th into my Yule just fine. I'm glad we aren't all the same. I'm not trying to spoil Christmas or make anyone's life more difficult. 

I am simply trying to be real and respectful, while focusing on the meanings that are deeper than strategic gift buying. I joyfully accept a lot of "Merry Christmas" wishes in my community and don't care too much. But it does matter to me if someone takes the time to say Happy Solstice or Merry Yule to me. It means you are thinking about the deeper meanings of the holiday too.

I do wish that the drumbeat of " Christmas"  was less prominent at school, because my children have already internalized the belief that there is something shameful about our family celebrations. That's why when I'm out and about, you might here me refer to the school holiday program as a Solstice program or the town tree as a Solstice tree. Yet when something really is connected to the celebrations of Christians, I am happy to call it "Christmas." 

Happy Hanukkah! Blessed Solstice and merry Yule! Merry Christmas! Good Festival of Lights! Joyous Mawlid un-Nabi! Lovely Lohri! Bright wishes of joy and peace to all!

I am water

Here's a revelation from the shower..

The only time anyone gets to think in my household seems to be in the shower. Things have been crazy and the holidays aren't even here yet. Everyone is stressed out. My husband and I were on the rocks. The kids have taken arguing to a whole new level.

I feel like I'm hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. And I'm supposed to be resting after my eye operations. 

Creative Commons image by  Alex Dixon

Creative Commons image by  Alex Dixon

My six-year-old came and asked me, "Who is the boss in our family? Is Grandma the boss or you or Papa?" 

The seven-year-old says whoever wants to be the boss has to be big and strong enough to get rid of Donald Trump, her new nemesis. I barely even feel big and strong enough to get breakfast. Let alone a healthy breakfast. 

I was in the shower in the midst of this, when simple words came into my mind, repeating like a mantra:
 

I am water.
I am the river.
I am the well.


Simple. Too simple maybe. But also the answer I needed.

I am water. Our bodies are mostly water. And the only way I can make a difference in the world or in my family is the way water works its wonders--through persistent, gentle, adaptable and never-ending action. Through seeping into cracks and expanding with the frost. Through the quiet, unbeatable strength of atoms. 

My children may not eat a healthy meal every meal, but I continue to work at it. I may be blocked and dammed up at times, but when the water rises high enough, the important things will spill over. Water never stops. Never stops. 

Water spreads everywhere. Water seeks freedom. Always heading down toward the open sea. No matter how turned around, no matter how many barriers. Water always keeps seeking freedom.

I am the river. I am also standing in the river, feeling the water flow all around me. I can catch certain things in the rush. My children, for example. I have caught them many times when they might have been swept away on a tide of consumerist glitz and brain-dead computer games.

Someday I will let them go in the river. And they too will be water. They will go through the rough water and scrape against rocks. Then I will have to hope I have taught them to swim well enough because many drown.

I am the well. There is something deep. I don't want to be the only one who gives food or peace or family harmony or hope. But while I can, I let it be. It seems I must be an endless and inexhaustible source for my children and those around me.

I have railed against it sometimes. But even I know I have to be a well. In a home with small children. In a world with so much need and hopelessness. Each of us must be a well of something, whatever it is we care deeply about. Be the source.

If it is peace you want, be the source. If it is safety or joy or love you want, be the well.

And be well.

The women's wheel of the world

Celebrating of the rhythms of the earth through the goddesses of many cultures

Today many of us wish to connect to the cycles of nature. In our houses, jobs and schools, it can be difficult to feel a purpose in life. We lose touch, lose connection, and find ourselves drowning in everyday apathy or anxiety. 

There is an antidote in marking the rhythms of nature and feeling closer to the earth and the seasons of the sun. 

Beltane maiden.jpg

It isn’t just a nostalgic hippie concept. It’s a spiritual practice and a way to explore the huge questions in life in a way that doesn’t contradict science. For those of us who think too much, there is often a tension between the need for a spiritual sense of meaning and our logical insistence that what you see is what you get. 

The turning of the earth and the moon, the tilt of the earth and the seasons brought by sunlight—these are things science has well in hand. We know the sun will rise, just as we know bad days have only twenty-four hours. We know winter will come, just as we know that each of us has to get old someday. 

The rhythms of nature are simple and scientific. And at the same time they are profound and at the root of the greatest philosophical and spiritual traditions of humanity. The cycle of life is much larger than the circle of a year, but the whole is too vast—and frankly too harsh—to explain to children or even to contemplate directly as an adult. But we don't take in the circle of a year all at once. We come to it bit by bit. And we don’t have to contemplate it with the mind only. We use all of our senses, our body, heart and soul to perceive natural rhythms and the Wheel of the Year gives us the understanding we cannot gain through force of will.

The sacred sun days

Creative Commons image by Lostintheredwoods of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Lostintheredwoods of flickr.com

As the earth tilts toward and away from the sun, we experience seasons. At the point when our part of the earth is tilted furthest toward the sun, we have the Summer Solstice--the time of greatest light. And when our part is tilted away we have the Winter Solstice. After each solstice we start to lean the other way. From light to darkness. And from darkness to light.

In the ancient tradition of the Celtic-Germanic-Slavic land I live on these solstices can be called Litha (for the Summer Solstice) and Yule (for the Winter Solstice). These are the best modern terms we have, originating from ancient European languages. Other cultures may have other terms for the solstices and the other sacred days of the wheel. My goal is to include the whole world and other terms are welcome.

Between these special days of the sun, there are the days when the light and dark are in perfect balance—the equinoxes. In the fall we call the equinox Mabon. In the spring we call the day of balance Ostara. 

If you make a cross and put the solstices opposite one another at the ends of one line and the equinoxes on the other axis, you have an ancient symbol of the sun. And if you make an X inside the cross, you then have a star with eight points or a wheel, the base of a mandala pattern. The four new points are for the days halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. Beltane on the first of May in the northern hemisphere (November in the south), Lammas at the cusp of August in the north (February in the south), Samhain on the first of November in the north (May in the south), and Imbolc in the earliest days of February in the north (August in the south). And that is what is called the Wheel of the Year.

It is a way of celebrating the rhythm of life and it starts as a recognition that there is darkness, release, relief, creation, expression, harvest, destruction, transformation—in natural and perpetual turning. When you mark the seasons of the year as sacred, your body, mind and soul reclaim their own rhythms. It doesn’t mean that you don’t suffer from life. But it connects you to the good in each season.

The Sacred Women from Around the World

There are many ways to celebrate the Wheel of the Year. We often cook special foods and exchange gifts. There are fun traditions for the whole family to enjoy and quiet observances for those who seek spiritual sustenance. One way to mark the sun days is to connect to the diverse spiritual teachings of our world through the myths of sacred women—the Goddess—and the many names for goddess in different tongues.

Marking the holy days with goddesses can be part of an active and vibrant family celebration or it can be a simple and quiet moment of meditation for an individual. The goddesses chosen for a sacred day should reflect the spirit of the season in their stories. Here I will suggest three goddesses for each of the solar holidays. As in many parts of the world, you can see goddesses as maidens, mothers and crones. There is a Maiden Goddess, a goddess full of independence and youth; a Mother Goddess, a nurturer and life-giver; and a Crone Goddess, a wise woman of healing and transformation--for each station of the sun.

Imbolc

My year begins in mid-winter because of importance of the alternating rhythm of the growing season and the time of greater contemplation and inner work. I also wish to start the year with the goddess I am closest with—Brigid. Our family Imbolc celebration usually includes a small, child-friendly ritual, sweet dumplings made with milk curd, seed cakes, many lit candles and candle making, candle-shaped cookies, Tarot and i-Ching readings, putting wishes for the year into a jar, hanging new Brigid’s crosses and waking up the Brigid doll sleeping in a basket by the fire on the morning of Imbolc. It may also include a trip to a spring or old well if we can manage it.

Creative Commons image by  the Borghese Collection

Creative Commons image by  the Borghese Collection

Brigid is the maiden of Imbolc and though she is also mother and wise woman in other aspects (Weber 2015),  I can add mother and crone goddesses to this day as well. 

Saulė is the Latvian “dear little white sun,” (Motz 1997) and a good mother goddess for the cold day of Imbolc. She also shares the care of orphans with Brigid, who is often called “foster mother” either of Christ when she is portrayed as a Christian saint or of the one offering prayers in Pagan prayer. (Daimler 2016) Because my husband and I are adoptive parents, this has particular meaning in our family. We could easily incorporate an offering of endearments to Saulė. And given that we don’t do Valentine’s Day here and my children often wonder what their American cousins are talking about, we could include making heart shaped endearments for one another, as words of endearment are special to Saulė. (Motz 1997)

Elli is my crone of Imbolc. She is the goddess of old age and wisdom and yet I find the story of her beating Thor in a wrestling match (Auset 2009) to be wonderfully light-hearted. She reminds me of an old granny sitting by the Imbolc fire and laughing over her exploits and the folly of head-strong young people who think they will never be old. A symbol of her might be a shawl spread over the rocking chair by the fire and a story read from the children’s book of Grandmother Tales that portray old women as smart and capable. 

I can envision these three—Brigid, Saulė and Elli—discussing the needs of family and kin, planning fo the year ahead and tempering one another with their complimentary energies of fire, compassion and wisdom.

Ostara

Our Ostara tradition is usually fairly simple. We color eggs, decorate and make egg and bunny shaped cookies. Then the children hunt for eggs on the morning of the equinox. In local tradition, we decorate a leafless tree in the front yard with colored eggs and ribbons. We may read rabbit stories or other stories relating to Ostara. We’ll usually have a special lunch or dinner consisting of lots of eggs, such as quiche.

The name of the day Ostara comes from a maiden goddess. Ostara or Ostre is the the Saxon goddess of youth, fertility and beauty, who is accompanied by a hare. (Sass 2003) Her symbols are eggs and the hare which are already well incorporated into our traditions, although it is good to remember her with words at this time and consciously honor her through these symbols.

Anna Perenna is my Mother Goddess for Ostara. She is the enduring year, the goddess of the promise of a new cycle. (Monagham 2014)  We honor her at Ostara to give thanks for the promised return of spring, which is in our part of the world very heartfelt for everyone, and also to remember that the year will turn again, inexorably and always. We can make our quiche or other dishes this day round in honor of her. And because she is considered a trickster as well, we can plan April Fools pranks. 

The crone of Ostara is the Cailleach, the Celtic lady of chaos, harsh winds and primordial forces. (Greenfield 2014) We often have snow on Ostara, a last blast of winter coating our Ostara tree in white. The threat of weather disasters for our tiny seedlings is far from over and still keep them indoors at this season. The Cailleach is fearsome and a reminder that chaos can come despite Anna Perenna’s turning of the wheel. But she also lends us inner strength, a vitality and perseverance that is often lacking in the modern, overly convenienced world. She is also the Celtic equivalent of the crone of the cold season that our local legend bids a raucous farewell at Beltane, so it is fitting to have her in mind beforehand. We can honor the Cailleach by making a wind chime of feathers and metal objects that will bring her voice to the wind.

Beltane

Our Beltane celebration has been in my husband’s home village for many years now. The village has a huge bonfire and a fifty-food maypole. This tends to overshadow anything I try to do. However, I always get together some sort of flower-shaped sweets and May baskets for us to give to neighbors and cousins during the festivities. We sometimes go out to greet the beautiful Beltane morning and place offerings at the base of the maypole. Otherwise it is a community event involving cooking whatever will feed the most people.

Creative Commons image by PROLisby of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by PROLisby of Flickr.com

Ilankaka is the Nkondo maiden goddess for our Beltane. She is both creative and loving, but she also reminds us of the struggles of relationships, because she is captured by a man against her will and suffers great sorrow. (Monagham 1997) Beltane is a time of celebrating relationships and also making them better. The Maiden gives us the will to stand strong in ourselves as well and Ilankaka’s story is pertinent.

Panchamama is a delightful Incan mother goddess, honored in an unbroken line by tribes in the Andes and is still going strong today. She is an earth mother, a garden goddess and a “special companion” for women. (Leeming and Page 1994) May is they primary gardening month in our climate, when everything is planted and weeds grow desperately to beat the short growing season. It is a month when my life is very domestic and I love the idea of honoring Panchamama at this time.

The crone for Beltane might be Changing Woman. Her name in the Navajo language is Asdzan Nadleehe and she carries our ability to change within our lifetime, to be transformed and renewed at every age. (Loar (2008) There is a strong sense that Beltane is a time of when transformation is more possible, closer to the surface and a time to embrace the lessons of Changing Woman.

One of the ways I would recognize these goddesses is to put small offerings symbolic of their traditions in the earth at the base of the Maypole. We could leave a bright stone of polished marble (symbolic of Ilankaka’s brigtht radiance), some colored wooden beads like those often used in the Andes (as a symbol of Panchamama) and either a feather or a piece of snake skin (as symbols of Changing Woman). I would ask for the blessings of these goddesses on Beltane morning—the strength and independence to be a strong and healthy partner with the energy of the maiden Ilankaka still vibrant in my married life, the deep earth connection of Panchamama (and her help with my garden), and the ability to transform beautifully as does Changing Woman. 

Litha

The Summer Solstice is the solar holiday we have the least tradition for in our family. We often do little more than have a nice meal and try yet again to explain to the children about solstices from a scientific perspective. I try to have a bonfire but it isn’t always possible, sometimes due to lots of rain. This year for the first time, we will go to a local Pagan event that is appropriate for children. I am still searching for traditions for this time. If I could choose it would be playing music and drumming around a fire or some other activity involving expression and creativity.

Amaterasu is my Maiden Goddess for this time. She is often honored  in June in Japan. (Monagham, P. (2014) To me her seeming narcissism is a reminder of the necessity of putting ourselves out into the world, particularly women and especially when we are young. Today’s world is not kind to those who remain too passive. For better or for worse, we need goals and pride in our identity if we are to find a material life and work which brings us joy and fulfillment. Placing a small mirror on a flat stone or sundial to reflect a bit of the sun back into the sky, may be integrated into a ritual for Amaterasu.

Beiwe, the Arctic sun goddess, is the mother for this time. While the sun may seem too hot in many climates it is worth remembering that the northern climates need her warmth and life-giving energy. We are far enough north that even in the temporary heat, we have reason to see the sun as a nurturing mother. She can be honored by making “sun circles” out of leafing branches, (Monagham, P. (2014) and these could be placed around Amaterasu’s mirror.

Al-Lat is the ancient Middle Eastern sun goddess to provide a crone for this height of the sun’s power. She may be integrated into the ritual with a black stone or an eye drawn onto the mirror. 

Lammas

Lammas usually involves a camping trip or bonfire with friends, many of whom don’t share goddess spirituality, so my ritual celebration of the day is often quite simple. I like to make bread in interesting shapes and an outdoor altar if possible. I have a special tablecloth that everyone signs as a symbol of community and the feast.

White Buffalo Woman is my Maiden goddess for this time. She is both warrior and generous benefactor. She supports the community and brings the deeper meaning to community festivities that I long for. Her lessons involve respect for ecology and the earth, honoring warriors and defenders of the clan, as well as the desire to give back whatever it is that fills us with abundance. (Greenfield 2014) A perfect symbol of White Buffalo Woman is a picture or figure of a white cow, calf or horse.

Creative Commons image by Rosa y Dani of Flickr. com

Creative Commons image by Rosa y Dani of Flickr. com

 Saraswati is the Mother Goddess for this time, sharing her knowledge as a teacher. The earth is abundant at this time, but the wisdom to use the gifts of plenty wisely is crucial. Saraswati is not only a mother of abundance but also a mother of wise counsel, teaching and learning. A good symbol to bring her blessings to the day is a book.

Macha is the crone for this time of community and sharing. While White Buffalo Woman brings gentle gifts and fierce courage to the community and Saraswati brings the knowledge needed to nurture community, Macha embodies the energy of the activist for environmental and social justice, which is another important aspect of this day. Her energy be brought with a banner or sign with messages of the justice needed at the time. 

These symbols—a white animal, a book and a sign or banner—can be used to decorate the home or gathering of friends. This is a way to bring the healthy and beneficial energy of community together. 

Mabon

At Mabon we gather our family and sometimes close friends for a meal of thanksgiving. We visit or send gifts to older people. We also give gifts to or do kind things for animals. In my family the primary focus of Mabon is giving thanks and recognizing those who have given to us—for example our elders through all the struggles they have been through to bring us to this time and the animals that provide us with food, clothing, comfort, friendship and a healthy ecosystem to live in. 

Tabiti is a maiden goddess of hearth, family loyalty, harmony in the home and the protection of animals. (Auset 2009) She is also associated with the chieftains of family and clan and with oath giving. MacLeod 1960). Coals from the hearth make a good symbol for her and reiterating the oaths of family bonds and other commitments is a good way to honor her. New oaths may be given at Mabon feasts as well.

White Shell Woman is the Mother Goddess for Mabon. She watches over the crops and gardens that most directly sustain the family. She is a goddess of thanksgiving and the promise of light. (Hunt 2001) Both shells and corn are symbols of White Shell Woman. The best way to honor her is to give thanks for the many blessings we have, both material and immaterial. Even if we may still feel the lack of something, there is much to be thankful for, and gratitude brings many rewards.

Asase Yaa is the crone for this time. A Ghanian old woman of the land, she reminds us of the hard work needed to get nourishment from the earth. We must honor the work of those who labor hard so that we might eat as well as the sacrifices of previous generations. (Auset 2009) A symbol for Asase Yaa might well be a shovel or other tool of toil. To honor elders and those who have worked hard is to honor her.

One way to bring these energies together might be to allow each person in the gathering to say what they have to be thankful for in their lives. Each may throw corn or corn meal onto the fire as they finish speaking. Then each person could speak briefly of someone who they wish to honor, an elder or someone who has worked hard, and use a metal shovel to scoop out a bit of the embers of the fire. When the embers cool to ash, each person may state their oaths of family and community commitment, wet their hand with a little water and press it into the ash and then print their hand against a stone or wood surface prepared for this. These hand prints will then remain as reminders of the commitments made.

Samhain

With all the activities of Halloween going on, it can be difficult to get the family to focus for a moment on the spiritual side of Samhain. When my children were toddlers, they put out offerings for “Grandfather deer” and received small presents in the morning. We gave them candy and tried not to scold them for their many misdeeds on the basis of the concept that small children are “close to the ancestors.” Now as they grow older it is their turn to learn to give back and to honor ancestors as well.

My Maiden Goddess for Samhain is the Norse sun goddess Sunna. She is connected to spiritual magic and the symbol of a sun cross. (Woodfield 2014) This would be an excellent time to make bind-runes to put on talismans (a bag, shirt, doorway plaque or jewelry) for whatever magical energies you want to attract. Both bind runes and rune divination would be a way to connect with Sunna. 

Creative Commons image by Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Lisby of Flickr.com

Oya is the mother of nine children and my Mother Goddess for Samhain. She is a bit dark compared to most mother goddesses. Her connection to hurricanes, the transformative number nine and strong emotions of rage or fear may be frightening to some but I quickly connected with this goddess. While it is not comfortable to face these emotions, allowing them to be expressed can bring healing. I don’t necessarily want to go through hard times again, but I know that Oya can also play a part in healing from traumatic experiences, ecological devastation and social injustice. (Caputi 2004) A wild wind on a dark Samhain night is the time for Oya. Dressing up in ways that express dark and powerful emotion may be perfect way to honor her.

Baba Yaga is my Samhain crone. The contemporary stories that include her are scary enough to satisfy even secular concepts of Halloween. She is death, destruction and power, but she also grants wishes and punishes the unjust, the lazy and the apathetic bystander who tolerates injustice. (Greenfield (2014) To honor her we may make sacrifices in our lifestyle that help to redress imbalance or injustice or make commitments (Samhain resolutions of a sort) to work actively for justice and earth protection. 

Yule

Yule is already a very busy holiday for us. We have several cultures and an extended family to deal with. There are presents, big meals and various traditions happening every which way. Add to that the fact that we’ve been on a different continent away from home for two years but now we’ll be home, trying to reconstruct our home traditions. It is easy for the spiritual aspect to be overshadowed and almost impossible to hold any sort of small family ritual. The one thing we do always have is a Yule tree with decorations and usually a small scene of figures under it. This is one place where we can bring in the Goddess. 

I try to hold a brief dawn greeting of the sun with my husband and children on the morning of the Solstice. We usually also pull off a candlelight dinner the evening before with expressions of what we are thankful for and Solstice Tarot readings for the adults. 

It is into this part of the Yule celebration that I would like to bring some celebration of the Goddess. Usha, the Indian goddess of dawn, is my Maiden Goddess for Yule. Her twin sister is Night and they share the nursing of a child. They walk the same path, each in her own particular way. (Agrawala 1984).Her symbols might be a figure of an infant that is both dark and light or an infant wrapped in silk cloth with Indian designs. 

Ekhi, the Basque sun goddess (Sykes 2002) and motherly protector of humanity, is my Mother Goddess for Yule. She assures her children of hope and the eternal return of morning. She is a mother but is also born from the “reddish seas.” She reminds us of the need to stay a while in darkness in order to regenerate creative energy. She can be symbolized by a mother figure dressed in red or carrying a torch.

 Hekate is the Crone Goddess for Yule. She is a goddess of time, fate, solitude and witches, a mistress of the dead and “Keeper of the Keys to the Cosmos.” (Moss 2015) She can be symbolized by the figure of an old woman with a lantern or a key. 

Figures for these goddesses can be made out of clay or other materials and placed under the Yule tree. We can honor Ekhi at the candlelight feast on the eve of the Winter Solstice with poems of hope and thanksgiving for the promise of hope in difficult times. We can honor Hekate during the late night ritual of Solstice Tarot readings, lighting a candle in a small lantern. We can honor Usha at dawn when the sun returns.

Bibliography

Agrawala, P.K. (1984). Goddesses in Ancient India. New Dehli, India: Abhinav Publications
Auset, B. (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Caputi, J. (2004). Goddesses and Monsters. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Chaudhuri, S. K. (2003). Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Japan. New Delhi, India: Vedams.
Daimler, M. (2016). Pagan Portals - Brigid. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.
Greenfield, T. Ed (2014) Naming the Goddess: Washington, DC. Moon Books
Hunt, L. (2001). An Illustrated Meditation Guide: Celestial Goddesses. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
Leeming, D. and Page, J. (1994). Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.)
Loar, J. (2008). Goddesses for Every Day. Navato, CA: New World Library
MacLeod, S. P. (1960). The Devine Feminine in Ancient Europe. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers
Monagham, P. (1997) The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines: Woodbury, MN. Llewellyn Publications
Monagham, P. (2014). Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. Novato, CA: New World Library
Moss, V. (2015). Pagan Portals Hekate: A Devotional. Hants, UK: Moon Books
Motz, L. (1997). The Faces of the Goddess. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Sass, R. (2003) The Old Saxon Language and Heathenry. Robert Sass)
Shaw, M (2006). Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Slocum, S. K. Ed. (1992). Popular Arthurian Traditions. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Sykes, E. (2002). Who’s Who in Non-Classical. New York, NY: Routledge.
Warch, M. L. 2014). White Buffalo Woman. In T. Greenfield (Ed.), Naming the Goddess (pp. 328 - 330
 Weber, C. (2015). Brigid: History, Mystery and Magick of the Celtic Goddess. San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books
Woodfield, S. (2014) Drawing Down the Sun: Rekindle the Magick of the Solar Goddesses. Woodbury, MN. Llewellyn Publications

A spring blessing of the living earth

Original image Creative Commons by  Marilyn Peddle

Original image Creative Commons by Marilyn Peddle

Like a wondering child I step out in the new morning.

I walk to stand before the fire.

And I raise my face to our infinite sky.

I feel gentle raindrops kissing my skin,

the singing wind that moves the trees,

our wet, rich earth beneath my feet.

Oh spirit, I recognize you now.

Earth mother, you've always been here in all things.

Through all things has your spirit loved me.

And never was I all alone, nor could I be,

in this truer world of spirit and living earth.

(Adapted from a poem by Rochelle Wallace)

An Ostara story

Heads up! Shanna and the Pentacle, the Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year, is now available in Kindle and paper back editions, but Amazon has yet to put them on one integrated page. Here are the links.

Kindle

Paperback

Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Here is a story for Pagan, Wiccan and earth-centered families to share the wonder of the Wheel of the Year. Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year is finally here!

With no time to spare... but we made it. The Ostara story of the Children's Wheel of the Year series is out. 

Shanna and the Pentacle is everything I hoped--an adventure story that will have kids rooting for the characters. It's also an example of how to deal with bullying problems and the often difficult new beginnings in life. There are more wonderful and evocative images by Julie Freel.

Here's the story:

The gift of a friend, 
The promise of the pentacle, 
A new beginning… 
And the courage to stand your ground. 

Ostara is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all. 

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, the popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye can meet new challenges and find new friends. 

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

The book is currently available in Kindle format and will be out in paperback and other digital formats next week. Look on the Children's Wheel of the Year site for minute-by-minute news about new formats.

Imbolc blessings to children, parents and grandparents!

Imbolc is the time of firelight and long evenings. It is a time to curl up indoors, to think, to dream and to read. There is no better time to delve into the mysteries of intuition, magic and hope. 

Photo and words by Arie Farnam, Creative Commons License, share and share alike

Photo and words by Arie Farnam, Creative Commons License, share and share alike

I'm a mother and Julie Freel, the illustrator of the Children's Wheel of the Year series, is a grandmother. Our first concern is that children can access books that support earth-based spirituality. That's why we're making the ebook of Shanna and the Raven available for $2.99 on Amazon and other ebook stores until Imbolc. This means we take a loss on some copies of this book, but it also means that it is affordable for everyone knows a child who would like to read or listen to this book. 

Get the ebook of Shanna and the Raven for $2.99 until Imbolc from these stores:

Check out the prefer paperback you can get a copy from Amazon and see photos from the inside here.

Reclaiming Pagan identity

"I'm not a Gypsy!" a thirteen-year-old boy in a Romani (otherwise known as Gypsy) settlement in Eastern Europe once told me. "Do I look like I have some kind of free and easy life? I don't have a wagon or one of those funny round guitars."

I was a journalist at the time--supposed to be impartial and not interfere with the natural course of events--so I didn't do what I wanted to do. I have since regretted that I didn't put an arm around the kid's shoulders and say, "I hear ya, brother. I know what it's like to have your identity usurped and dragged around to serve various fashion trends and self-indulgent subcultures. Don't let that stop you from knowing who you are." 

I do know because my identity is bound up with similarly loaded words. And when I first started writing Pagan children's books that was the greatest obstacle I faced. Many people who I expected to be supportive (because I grew up with their earth-centered spirituality) were skeptical and even resistant to the idea. 

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

A Pagan symbol from Latvian mythology of the Sun Tree -- Creative Commons image by Inga Vitola

"If you use words like 'Pagan' or 'magic' or 'witch,' you're going to limit the types of people who will read the book," one critic told me in no uncertain terms. "And a cauldron?  I mean seriously! I can't believe you called it a 'cauldron.'" 

Other times I've heard people who clearly practice earth-centered spirituality say essentially the same thing that the Romani boy told me.  "I'm not Pagan," one said. "When people hear 'Pagan' they think about immature mind games, hedonism and irresponsibility. It's the sort of thing that teenagers play around with just to annoy their parents. It's not a serious earth-centered spirituality." 

There are always tough decisions to make when presenting a book to the world and foremost among them is "Who am I writing this for?" I had to keep that question firmly in mind as I navigated the publishing process for Shanna and the Raven

The answer is that I wrote it for Pagan and earth-centered families. I want people who share these beliefs to be able to find the book using those search terms. And I'm not as interested in what everyone else in society thinks those terms mean. 

And moreover, I have two children myself and I think about what it meant to me to grow up with an identity that had no socially acceptable name.

Why "Pagan?"

I know there are a good number of people in the United States, Europe and Australia who accept the term "Pagan" readily. However, the fact is that there are many more people (possibly several times our number) who share our essential beliefs yet don't accept that term. That's why it's worth addressing the issue of why I use the specific term "Pagan."

I grew up with earth-centered spirituality but I didn't adopt the term "Pagan" until I was about thirty. That was mostly because I spent many years looking for a word that could accurately convey my meaning. Over the past twenty years many terms have become well-known--some ultra specific like "Wiccan," "Druid," "Asatru" or "Reconstructionalist." Some vague or only used by some, such as "New Age" or "goddess culture."

I chose the term "Pagan" for one simple reason. It is broad enough, yet to those who accept it, it means what I am trying to express. Thus if I find someone who identifies as Pagan and I say that I am Pagan, we both have a rough idea of what that means. Not perfect, no. But look at the wild diversity of Christianity or Islam. We're hardly alone in not being uniform. 

The term "Pagan" is also used in a specific way by serious news media. In the code of newspaper journalism, one should call a group "Pagan," if it represents an indigenous belief system with strong ties to nature and probably several gods or goddesses. Recently I have seen newspapers refer to tribes enslaved by ISIS as "Pagan" because they fit those criteria. Thus the term "Pagan" Is not exclusive to indigenous European religions, although it is most often used that way.

I know I'm treading on dangerous ground among fellow Pagans, asserting that I have a firm definition for the term "Pagan." But it isn't so much that I have that definition myself. It is that I accept and identify with the standard definition of the term. I don't fight the meanings of words because the most popular definitions of words will prevail in over time and resistance in this case really is futile. If I had come of age and discovered that most people called the beliefs I hold "gobbledygook" I would have identified with that term and fought for its correct interpretation and positive identity. Thus I don't fight against the term but rather for its clearer understanding. 

Get the Pagan children's book  Shanna and the Raven here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

That is why I use the term "Pagan" both for myself and to my children and in my children's books. Yes, "Pagan" originally meant something like country bumpkin and it wasn't specific to a religious path. But it is now. It has a commonly accepted definition, whether we like it or not.

Gay used to mean happy. American Indian and Gypsy were both terms assigned to (and largely accepted by) whole nations of people based on someone else's poor grasp of geography. (Gypsy comes from the incorrect belief that the Roma came from Egypt.)

Seriously, we need to stop whining and be glad for the identity we have. Show me a better or more understood term, and I'll seriously consider it.  But for now "Pagan" is the term we have. The term "Witch" is in a similar category, though the road to the broader understanding of that term will be even more rocky.

Why do we need an identity term?

There is another argument I encounter in the community discussion on this issue and that is that some people strongly believe that we don't need terms of identity at all, that these are just "labels" and actually potentially damaging. I do understand the idealistic and positive intention behind these concerns. We should all be human beings first--dwellers of this earth and universe, in kinship with every being. 

But... you knew that was coming, didn't you? But we don't live in an ideal universe and neither do our children. The concept of rejecting all labels and merging into one big happy identity is akin to the argument for "colorblindness" among many white people in the United States or Western Europe. The lack of identity works just fine if there are truly no distinctions or problems between people in society. However, if there is any measure of tension, lack of identity works in favor of those associated with the largest and most privileged group and to the detriment of minority groups. 

Get the Pagan children's book   Shanna and the Raven  here.

Get the Pagan children's book Shanna and the Raven here.

Many of those who embrace earth-based spirituality today grew up in another religion with a very distinct name, and part of their change is to release themselves from names and labels, so our community members often balk at terms such as "Pagan" or even "earth-centered."

It's understandable. However, there is an issue here that goes beyond the desires of individual spiritual development. These first-generation Pagans did grow up with an identity, one they could understand, make decisions about and even reject because it had a name. And they also grew up in the majority culture.

Children raised in earth-centered families are not fully in the majority culture and they often lack the words needed to make their own decisions about their beliefs. That was why out of all the worthy topics for children's books, I chose to devote my first books to stories of contemporary Pagan children.

As I write the second book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series I note that the only times identity labels are needed or even arise in these stories are when the characters encounter hostility from the majority culture. We could live happily without labels, if we lived in isolation. But we don't and our children don't. If you send a child out into the world after teaching them values and stories that are very different from those of the majority but give that child no words with which to think consciously about such things, you send the child into inevitable confusion and pain and cut the child off from a sense of belonging. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs, beginning with physical needs for food, shelter and safety and culminating in self-actualization. The theory, which is used widely by psychologists, is that one cannot progress to higher levels without fulfilling the lower needs on the hierarchy. Thus to reach self-actualization an individual must have basic physical needs met. And directly above the basic needs of the body and safety is the need for belonging. 

For children to fulfill the need for belonging in the majority culture, they must  feel that their ideas, values and beliefs are supported and shared by others at least to some degree. The facts of today's world are that many Pagan children encounter not a world where labels don't matter but a world where their beliefs are disregarded or rejected and their celebrations are unknown or mocked. In such a world, children must still have belonging in order to reach self-actualization and that belonging comes from the understanding is that there is a community out there--though scattered--that shares and honors their values and stories.

That is why we need a Pagan identity.

Night terrors and protection magic: Addressing fear without dismissing it

It isn't suave to make this kind of confession, but in this case its necessary. I was afraid of the dark as a child. Very much afraid.

I wasn't afraid of monsters under the bed or of ogres in the closet. At least not unless I had recently watched a scary movie. Adults would often ask me what I feared and it was impossible to say exactly. 

I feared the tingling pressure of darkness against the back of my neck. I feared the way my muscles tightened and sometimes I couldn't move, even though I was fully aware of my surroundings. I feared the sense of consciousness and non-physical forms that I couldn't possibly understand. But as a child I didn't have words for these things and so I simply clung and  refused to be alone.

I found that darkness was actually only part of the problem. The other part was being alone. I found that the pressure against my senses didn't come if I was with another person... even a child much smaller than me. It wasn't that I thought a smaller child could protect me from something malicious. I didn't fear harm. I just did not like the strange pressure and awareness I felt but couldn't understand. And that feeling lasted until I was well beyond childhood.

 Today I understand better what I perceived as a child. I had some sort of gift for sensing non-physical reality. Despite the fact that I had very poor eyesight and couldn't see the facial expressions of others, I often sensed the emotions of others correctly, even when they wished to hide their feelings. And several specific experiences convinced me that I could at times perceive non-physical beings. Because I couldn't understand what I perceived, it was frightening and some of it may have actually been negative and beyond the abilities of a child to handle. 

It is because I've experienced this that I have a lot of sympathy for children who have fears they can't describe. Some of these fears may come from sensing non-physical reality. Others may come from deep memories or previous traumatic experiences that are not consciously remembered. Either way, there are ways to deal with these fears that address the root cause and allow children to keep their emotional and spiritual sensitivity without being afraid or encountering psychic negativity.

heading home.jpg

In popular western culture today, the primary response of adults to a child's fear of the dark or the unknown is either suppression, denial or mockery. "Look. There's nothing under the bed. Just calm down and go to sleep!" or "If you just be brave and ignore it, it will go away." 

From my experience, these usual responses are utterly useless. Most children just suffer through it until they are old enough to block out the non-physical world. And that can seriously limit their sensitivity and ability to know themselves and reach their potential.

A few more creative adults make a game of battling those things that trouble the child, dressing up in capes with swords and charging around the bedroom to exorcise the monsters. This latter approach does often work, and that's more than just because it's fun and distracting for children. It is also because such games often contain the basic elements of energetic ritual.

That is where the real solution lies. If an adult is skilled in their own spiritual path and can keep a steady center while giving a child the tools of self-protection and energy conservation, lengthy struggles with these fears can be avoided. And the child can grow to develop psychic gifts to their fullest without having to put blocks on their sensitivities. I have seen people of various religious persuasions do this in various forms--from Christians to a Cuban voodoo practitioner. So, I can't say there is one "correct" way to go about it. 

Big candle.jpg

But the basic elements are common. An adult should help a child to create a safe psychic space, often a circle. There may be candles or other items that help in concentration and a feeling of peace. Teach your tradition's form of centering, whether that is through visualization, meditation or prayer. Then cleanse the negativity in the area in a way that makes sense to you, such as smudging with herbs, drumming or prayer. Set a boundary around the room or home, using substances (such as salt and herbs) or protective symbols. And give the child a symbol or talisman of psychic protection. Talk about energy and spirit with the child in terms the child can understand and explain what you have done. Don't forget to close the sacred space and give thanks.

Even this very general description may go beyond the spiritual experience of some adults. I don't expect those who believe solely in a materialist world devoid of gods, ancestors and spirits to agree with my perspective on this. I'm not a guru and my own spiritual path is very personal and eclectic, reflecting my varied past and international family.

However, I can offer a more concrete depiction of this process for those who embrace a Pagan, Wiccan or earth-centered path in the children's book Shanna and the Raven, which is an adventure story linked to the February 2 festival of Imbolc. The book follows a ten-year-old girl through experiences of both perceived and real danger and shows how her mother helps her to use both physical measures and ritual to empower her, connect with intuition and obtain safety. There are serious themes in this book but children love it for the story and don't realize it means to "teach" something and that alone makes the concepts much easier to absorb.

I often hear parents say that they don't allow their children to participate in their spiritual path until they are teenagers. And this perplexes me. Certainly, there are practices that are beyond the capabilities of children and children shouldn't be forced into a straight-jacket of specific beliefs. However,  there are many simple practices, rituals and traditions that can give children protection that truly soothes fears rather than simply suppressing them. And the successful use of such means will inevitably give children a greater overall sense of security and confidence. 

I wrote Shanna and the Raven as the first book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series precisely because I see these needs in my own children. And I hope they may help others as much as they have brought comfort to my family. 

What are your experiences with unexplained fears, the need for protection and using spiritual means to banish anxiety? Drop a line in the comments section below and join the discussion.

Why do our kids need contemporary Pagan stories?

"Just don't say 'Solstice' where anyone can hear you, Mom," a fifth-grader says. "Everyone says 'Christmas' - even the people who have other holidays."

This is the kind of thing you will hear, if you're an earth-centered parent living someplace multicultural enough that you would actually consider using Pagan terms in public. This is a fact. We live in a society where the majority culture is very strong in the media and public space, despite the fact that only about half of the population shares that culture. 

You want a Pagan children's story? Here are some of the beautiful illustrations by Julie Freel from the soon-to-be-published story  Shanna and the Raven . Ten-year-old Shanna and seven-year-old Rye learn to use the magic and energy of Imbolc for protection in a dicey situation.

You want a Pagan children's story? Here are some of the beautiful illustrations by Julie Freel from the soon-to-be-published story Shanna and the Raven. Ten-year-old Shanna and seven-year-old Rye learn to use the magic and energy of Imbolc for protection in a dicey situation.

I grew up Pagan in a conservative, rural corner of the United States. Wait... I have to amend that because my mother is likely to lodge a complaint. I grew up with many Pagan ideas, stories, practices and beliefs, but I was nearly thirty before I had a word for it or knew the names of the solar holidays.

If and when we did a ritual or used something like Tarot when I was a kid, my mother either didn't overtly talk about it at all or called it "woo woo." By the time I went to school, I didn't have to be told that I should keep quiet about the whole subject of spirituality.

When I was sixteen, I had to fill out a form including my religion and I asked my mother what I should say.

She said, "You better say Protestant just in case." I knew we weren't Protestant, but I put it on the form anyway. The only options were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Buddhist.  There wasn't even an "other" category in those days. I was tempted to mark the Buddhist category just to buck the system, but it was an important form, so I decided to take my mother's advice and keep my head down as I did at many other times.

Pagan kids choosing their path in a media world

As a result, I understand why many Pagan kids are worried about being publicly identified as non-Christian, let alone Pagan. Sure, it can be considered brazen and cool among teenagers, but at earlier ages, both teachers and other kids often react negatively to open use of Pagan terms or symbols. Kids listen to the news and to the way people talk. And they take their cues from the media.

Today's kids can relate to to Shanna and Rye because they are just like them, going to school, having fun with friends and thinking about how they fit in.

Today's kids can relate to to Shanna and Rye because they are just like them, going to school, having fun with friends and thinking about how they fit in.

While the film Frozen may drop many Pagan hints, it stops short of using any Pagan terms. Meanwhile, the majority of stories and films encounter Christmas or other Christian terms and integrate them with ease. These terms pervade the common media culture and make clear what is "normal" for kids.

Some kids will be strong inside and not care much. I didn't. I kept my own beliefs and sat through plenty of public and semi-public Christian prayers throughout my childhood. But I always felt the coldness of the outside world and the isolation of my family. I struggled to find words when I traveled in my teens and people asked me "what" I was. When I came close to being able to describe it, I was met with a wall denial: "That's not a real religion." "That's fake." "You just made that up." 

And I didn't listen. I knew that I hadn't made up the myths of Norse and Greek mythology or the casting of a circle and the calling of quarters. (I knew neither term for those actions but I knew how to do them.) However, I teetered on the edge of despair over it. I envied my Native American friends, who were the only people I knew with similar practices and yet I sensed the wrongness in cultural appropriation at a young age and I refused to go that route. 

Many more kids will not want to stand so alone. Only a few of the similarly "quiet Pagan" kids I knew growing up retain any of this spiritual path today. And it's fine for everyone to choose their own path. As long as they are happy where they are.

The problem I see is that Pagan children are routinely denied a reasonable chance to truly choose. They are told bits and pieces of their parent's spiritual practice, but mostly they are thrown into the world of Christian and secular media. There are a few books about Pagan beliefs aimed at children, but almost all of them are focused on teaching specific facts and practices. They bear little resemblance to the fun and adventurous stories where kids usually find Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July.

A child's need for engaging identity

The divide is stark - Pagan literature which is often dry and school-like versus pop culture which is fast-paced, fun and focused on Christian and secular terms.  The inevitable conclusion that children draw is that Pagan things are stilted and boring, while the majority culture is adventurous and laid back.

How did this happen? Paganism is supposed to be the religion of freedom, play, dreams and the natural world, is it not?

A holiday story should include the magic and comfort of family traditions but should also include a story to grip and entertain the reader. These stories are for earth-centered kids themselves, rather than meant to educate their classmates about Pagan beliefs.

A holiday story should include the magic and comfort of family traditions but should also include a story to grip and entertain the reader. These stories are for earth-centered kids themselves, rather than meant to educate their classmates about Pagan beliefs.

And beyond the issue of what path our children will choose as they mature, I would like to make a plea for childhood free from fear, secrecy and self-doubt. Yes, I was strong enough to weather the great silence and that feeling of isolation alone, but I hope my own children won't have to undergo it. I want them to know what our beliefs are called, to use these terms without fear and to respect other beliefs without feeling dominated.

These are key parts of a healthy identity. And without a solid identity we can't freely choose our own path.  

That's why I am turning my story-telling craft to earth-centered and Pagan children's stories for a time.  I am indebted to the writers of Circle Round, Pooka Pages and similar materials for families and children, which have done a great deal to provide Pagan education for kids. This leaves me free to embark on a new path with my stories.

These are stories rooted in today's most common Pagan paths, but they are primarily about adventures and difficulties that children actually overcome. These stories are to Pagan beliefs as the American Girl series is to history. There might be a bit about the facts in the back of the book, but the focus will be on stories that children will actively ask for - stories that will grip the reader with suspense and joy. 

A series of contemporary adventure stories for Pagan kids

I have begun the Children's Wheel of the Year stories with a book that will be published in January 2016. It's an Imbolc story because it occurs at that time of year and includes a family's Imbolc celebration. It also includes the themes of Imbolc - protection from danger, the good use of intuition and the cleansing of negative energies. But these themes are not taught with a heavy hand. They are part of the story of how ten-year-old Shanna acts bravely and intuitively to protect her younger brother from a criminal. 

Yes, these stories will encounter some real conflict and suspense. They aren't meant for preschool-age children, but for those who read adventure stories involving an element of danger. The stories that my own children love don't pretend that children are immune to or unaware of the darkness in the world. They are the stories that show children as strong and capable of facing difficulties, protecting themselves and standing up for important principles.

That strength comes from facing real problems and battling fear itself. These stories will have happy endings and be empowering for children, but they will involve true conflict and adventure that kids can relate to.

Modern Pagan kids just like me

"Class, who can tell us what is special about February 2?" the teacher asks. Shanna is excited that someone else knows about Imbolc. But then the other kids laugh and the teacher really meant Ground Hog's Day. Fortunately, the teacher is open-minded and she asks Shanna to tell the class about her lovely traditions.

"Class, who can tell us what is special about February 2?" the teacher asks. Shanna is excited that someone else knows about Imbolc. But then the other kids laugh and the teacher really meant Ground Hog's Day. Fortunately, the teacher is open-minded and she asks Shanna to tell the class about her lovely traditions.

The Children's Wheel of the Year books are meant for kids ages six to ten and may interest kids outside this age range as well. The stories are realistic and contemporary, following a brother and sister named Shanna and Rye whose family follow an unspecified earth-centered path. Like other children today, they go to school, have friends, enjoy fun times and encounter real problems and fears. Like the Magic Tree House books or The Little House on the Prairie, these stories are relatable and fun. They can help in teaching kids about a Pagan path, but their focus is on building a strong and fearless Pagan identity in general, rather than on teaching details of a particular path. 

The first book in the series is titled Shanna and the Raven: An Imbolc Story. The series will continue around the wheel of the year. There is no particular significance to beginning at Imbolc. It simply fits the children in the story best.

I strive for accuracy in all references to Pagan practices, but I keep much of the specifics out of these stories in order to allow a wide variety of families with different paths to use them. It will be possible to enter the story with any of the books, though there will be a gentle overall story running from Imbolc through Yule as well. 

Get this book here

If you want to learn more about the Children's Wheel of the Year stories, you're invited to sign up for my Hearth-side Email Circle. Subscribers are entitled to a free ebook, and you can either grab one of my adult fantasy books or Shanna and the Raven as a thank you from me.. 

I love your comments on these Pagan Notes posts and I would be particularly interested in the ideas and concerns of fellow Pagan parents. What issues are your kids concerned about? What kinds of books, movies and other media do you wish we had for Pagan kids? Thanks for your comments.

Mabon as an earth-centered thanksgiving

Some people poke fun at the number of holidays Pagan families celebrate. In reality we don't have that many more than other people. The problem is more that we often feel obliged to celebrate mainstream secular and/or Christian holidays as well, so that our children don't feel left out of school celebrations or to please extended families of different faiths.

Mabon is about the warmth of a home and a hearth as well as an open door to travelers and guests - image by Arie Farnam

Mabon is about the warmth of a home and a hearth as well as an open door to travelers and guests - image by Arie Farnam

That does sometimes leave us trying to do too much and rushing through what should be fun  and relaxed family traditions.

Sometimes the holidays work out fine. When we have Yule before Christmas it simply frees us up to be less stressed about it when the extended family wants to do secular Christmas and demand their preferred dates. We are done with our most important holiday of the season and we get to be flexible about it. So, we sort of include secular Christmas and Easter in our calendar. We ignore most political holidays and that leaves us with the issue of Thanksgiving.

We now live in Europe where we don't get a day off for American Thanksgiving and it is more difficult to have a fresh harvest feast in November in northern latitudes anyway. It is no surprise that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in September. And that got me thinking. 

For me the primary theme of Mabon is giving thanks and celebrating the bounty of the harvest. It also has to do with hospitality, honoring elders and giving both thanks and comfort to the animals in our vicinity. A few years ago, I realized that these themes work very well with the US Thanksgiving traditions of my youth.

And in fact, they fit much more with my sensibilities than a holiday devoted to a legend about Christians invading a country of cousin Pagans, abusing their hospitality and then giving all the credit for what good came of it to their foreign god. I never could relate to it from the time I was in kindergarten. And as an adult I can't eat a Thanksgiving dinner in November without feeling more grief over our history of genocide than gratitude for the blessings of the season. 

Yet we celebrated it because there was obviously something very important about a feast of harvest foods where the whole family gathered and gave attention to our gratitude. That is too good a thing to give up, which is why people who are uncomfortable with the history continue to celebrate that Thursday in November.

And that led me to a perfect solution. Mabon is the Pagan equivalent of Thanksgiving. It comes at a better (and more natural) time of year and we can use US Thanksgiving for what it should be, a day to commemorate a painful history and make restitution. So, I moved Thanksgiving to a weekend nearest to Mabon. 

Sharing the Mabon feast - image by Arie Farnam

Sharing the Mabon feast - image by Arie Farnam

In September I often have that comforting feeling of primal security when I look at the rows of canned fruits and vegetables and the bins of apples, potatoes, pumpkins and carrots in our root cellar, the freezers bulging with organic meat we have bartered for, the jars of dried fruit and the cupboards overflowing with dried, emulsified and tinctured herbs. 

And this all sets a natural mood for thanksgiving. We usually get a turkey or a half turkey, make a giant pan of stuffing, mashed potatoes, apple and pumpkin pies, even cranberry sauce when we can, often baked pumpkin from our garden. We often share the holiday with another family because my extended family is back home in North America. But even if we only eat a great harvest meal of our own, there are several specific traditions that make this day special.   

The children make beautiful Mabon crafts of tiny little acorn people (nature spirits who paint the leaves) and leaf rubbings framed with colorful paper on which we write Mabon blessings. The kids and I spend some time reading in front of the fire. We read from several Mabon editions of Pooka Pages, which both kids love, as well as a few seasonal books, including “Smoky and the Feast of Mabon” and “By the Light of the Harvest Moon.” As Mabon is also about thanking our animals, we snuggle with Eliska, our hardworking mouser, and thank her for keeping the rustlings in the walls at bay. We make sure she gets a generous portion of the feast as well.

I make a wreath for our door with corn husks, dried apples, dried herbs and currants, all things actually from our own harvest. I often make a centerpiece for the table consisting of sand in a nice bowl with vary-colored popcorn decoratively arranged on top to form a flat spot. Then, on that I place a cornhusk doll, symbolizing the full-bodied harvest goddess. Around her I put some of the children’s tiny toy animals representing all the animals that either help us in our daily lives or have given themselves for our sustenance.

On Mabon day, the those who wish to take part hold a Mabon ritual of thanksgiving and reciprocity. We sing the song “Ancient Mother”. And we made up an alternative to the standard goddess chant that focuses on the harvest goddesses of many cultures.

Creative Commons image by Julia Falk

Creative Commons image by Julia Falk

Lajja Gauri, Zulu, Freya,
Sowathara, Sara Mama,
Rosmerta, Zeme, Demeter,
Oh, Mother Earth!

Lajja Gauri is a Hindu harvest goddess. Zulu is African. Freya is Scandinavian. Sowathara is Vietnamese. Sara Mama is Native American. Rosmerta is Celtic-Roman. Zeme is Slavic. Demeter hopefully needs no explanation. Our spiritual focus is international due to the international make-up of our family and home.

We also make symbolic offerings and bless a handful of coins that will be used to give to street musicians and people who forgot their train fares at the station. We don't have much in the way of financial resources, but it is important to share our harvest in whatever ways we can. When the harvest is good we give away extra pumpkins and squash to those who will actually eat them. Thanksgiving is after all in the end about interconnectedness.

A few years ago, I made up a Mabon song, which has become traditional in our house.

Mabon decorations - Image by Arie Farnam

Mabon decorations - Image by Arie Farnam

Autumn Song
By Arie Anna Meadowlark

Hail to the Gods of winter.
Hail to the Night.
Hail to the dark times
With your stars bright.

Bring healing with your darkness.
Be gentle with your cold.
Give insight with your solitude
That brings comfort to the soul.

Farewell to the summer days.
Farewell to old man sun.
Farewell to the times of toil
And rough and tumble fun.

And though I love the summer,
I shall not shed a tear.
For the promise has been given.
The sun returns next year.

I love your comments on these posts. Share your own ideas and traditions below. How do you juggle both the Wheel of the Year and holidays celebrated in the wider community around you?  What are your traditions of thanksgiving and harvest?

And thank you for all the shares of these posts! May your harvest be blessed.

Comment

Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Lughnasadh: A time for community and craft

Lughnasadh or Lammas is stands out for our family from the other Pagan holidays. Most holidays we spend with family and the focus is on special meals, crafts, songs and kid-friendly rituals. But this holiday at the very beginning of August is different by its very nature. This is the season to focus on the harvest, community as well as work, skilled crafts and mentors or teaching. It's an outwardly focused time, the polar opposite of Imbolc's introspection. 

Creative Commons image by Amber Fray

Creative Commons image by Amber Fray

Many Pagan communities choose to hold their large community gatherings at this time of year. The weather is most likely to be good and the energy is community oriented. As a result many families have very simple and flexible traditions attached to this season.

This year for the first time, we have a local Pagan event for Lughnasadh that is appropriate for families with children. That's because we're hosting it in our back yard. We're gathering Pagan families to do a simple ritual and hold a community feast. But given that this is the first year we've done this, it isn't a tradition yet.

Helping with this sort of gathering is a great way to combine the themes of this time. If your local community does organize Pagan events, consider asking what you can do to help, clean up the area after the event, arrive early to help set things up or take on one of the many small roles that are needed to make a gathering work. This is the day of giving back. 

Even if your community doesn't have Pagan events and you can't make one happen yourself, there are other ways to contribute to your community. Many years we have found some way to volunteer. We plan to volunteer as ESL teachers at a summer camp for disadvantaged children when our kids are old enough. And we always have litter-clean-up expeditions at this time of year. 

Even so, it's a challenge to do a big community project right in the middle of the harvest. If you grow a big garden like we do, this is a busy time of the year.  The garden still needs tending and canning, freezing and drying food are now taking up a lot of time. Part of my craft is making herbal medicines for my extended family and friends. That is also one way I contribute to the community because I give my medicinals freely rather than selling them. That means that even when I don't pull off a community project at this time, I'm still putting energy into community with the herbs I'm gathering. 

And yet, as always I want my children to have a tradition to anchor them in the energy of the season. So, we still have a few things we do as a family that will always tie the holiday together. They are simpler than usual and can be done anywhere, because we may not be home.

Crafts and Ritual

We sometimes do a ritual giving thanks for our harvest and blessing our garden. This is always outdoors at this time of year and often a bit informal. In our climate the corn on the cob isn't ready yet but it is tall and looking like it will be ready soon. The kids are eagerly waiting for it to get ripe.

So, this is a good time to use cornmeal as an offering to scatter outside. If you grow a different staple crop, you might want to use something related to that crop. 

Because the kids are so active outside these days and more likely to be half naked and wet than not, it's a good time for crafts like face painting and tie-dye. But the primary craft of the season is a craft for me rather than for the children. And it's also our most important Lughnasadh family tradition.

Lughnasadh cloth - Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

Lughnasadh cloth - Creative Commons image by Arie Farnam

A few years ago, my mother gave me a special table cloth that I remembered from my childhood and this became our special Lughnasadh cloth. Whatever gathering of friends, family and community we attend at Lughnasadh, we take the table cloth with us, even if it is an outside event. I encourage everyone to sign the table cloth.  Then I carry the cloth around with me most of the winter. And in those idle moments when I am waiting for kids at music classes or when there is a quiet evening, I embroider the names on the signed cloth in a color specific to that year. Last year our Lughnasadh event was a camping trip that included a bunch of Ukrainian friends of friends, so I spent the winter embroidering beautiful Cyrillic letters. 

The result is a beautiful cloth full of incredible memories. I'm not particularly skilled with a needle but that doesn't matter much after the project gets going. It is still quite beautiful and it carries the sense of community that is perfect for Lughnasadh.

You can duplicate this tradition by choosing a sturdy table cloth and starting with whatever gathering you attend this year. White isn't mandatory and orange or light brown would absorb stains better than mine and be wonderful for the season. You could use permanent markers instead of embroidery for an easier but no-less-meaningful version. Just remember to use just one color per year and mark the year in the same color in the corner of the cloth. In a few years the cloth will be colorful and you will be able to look back and recall the gatherings of past years based on the colors of the names of those who were there. 

Cooking

The best food of Lughnasadh is the fresh produce of a garden. Ripe tomatoes, corn on the cob, salad greens, carrots and herbs. We eat big salads or put the veggies into no-cook spring rolls.  Lughnasadh is also the known as the grain harvest so bread or pasta salad are big favorites and it's handy that they are easy to carry because unless we're working in the garden, we're unlikely to be home at all. 

Bohemian fruit pizza

Another way to both use your local fruit harvest and make bread at the same time is to make Bohemian fruit pizza. It is technically called pie in the Czech Republic but it resembles pizza more than anything else to foreigners. This is a pretty healthy recipe and can be eaten for breakfast and snacks, not just for desert. This is also a handy finger food to bring to community feasts.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 pound potatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1/4 cup butter 
  • 2 smallish eggs (or 4 egg yolks)
  • 1 tablespoon Yeast
  • 1/4 cup slightly warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Several cups of flour depending on consistency
  • Fruit (such as plums, apples, blackberries, pitted cherries, blueberries or huckleberries)
  • 1/2 cup Powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour (half and half whole grain if you want to be really healthy about it)
  • 1/3 cup cold butter

Directions:

  1. Peel and chop 1/2 pound of potatoes. Place in a small pan with one cup of water and half a teaspoon of salt. Cook until very soft and don't strain the water off.
  2. Mash up the potatoes and add half a stick (1/4 cup) of butter and mash that in to the hot potatoes as well. 
  3. Start yeast off to the side. Mix tablespoon of dry yeast, 1/4 cup slightly warm water and one tablespoon of sugar in a separate container. Let it sit while your potatoes cool off.
  4. When the potatoes have cooled off a bit add your eggs. You can use just egg yolks instead. This is an old grandmother's trick from Bohemia that is supposed to make the cake even better. Mix it in and make the potato mixture into a smooth mass.
  5. Add a cup of flour to your potato mixture and stir well.
  6. Once it is cool enough that it is around body temperature, add the yeast mixture and stir well.
  7. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl and add more flower until the dough is kneadable. You'll need several more cups of flour.
  8. Let the dough rise for an hour under a warm damp cloth.
  9. Spread flour on your work surface. Knead your dough again and then roll it out into roughly the shape of your baking tray. Then carefully roll the dough around your rolling pin and transfer it to the greased baking sheet. Gently pull at the corners and sides to shape the dough to fit the pan and stick it slightly to the sides. 
  10. Spread thinly sliced fruit over the dough. Try to cover as much of the dough as possible but don't overlap into too thick a layer.  
  11. In a separate bowl tweak together 1/2 cup flour with 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1/3 cup cold butter to make a crumbly mixture. 
  12. Scatter the crumbly mixture over your cake. 
  13. Let the cake rise for another half an hour or hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (180 C) fifteen minutes before you want to put it in.
  14. Back for 30 to 45 minutes. 

Spring rolls with fresh seasonal greens

1. Prepare:

  • Thin sheets of rice paper
  • Cooked fine rice noodles
  • Small pieces of cooked, lightly salted meat or egg
  • A bunch of salad greens an herbs cut up fine
  • Thinly sliced strips of red pepper (optional)
  • Thinly sliced boiled eggs (optional)

2. Fill a low pan with hot water and place it on a table with all your supplies.

3. Lay a sheet of rice paper into the pan of hot water, covering the sheet entirely and then carefully lift it out and put the wet sheet on a plate.

4. Put the most colorful bits of prepared food on first (usually eggs, peppers and dark greens or herbs). Place them in a line across the middle of the rice paper. Then add greens, meat or tofu and noodles. (You only really need a little of each thing for one sheet of rice paper. Keep them small and rolling will be easier.)

5. Carefully fold a bit of rice paper over the ends of the line and then roll the rice paper around the line of food.  The rice paper will stick to itself, so that the roll won't come open once you've rolled it up.

6. Set your spring roll on a plate and repeat the process until you have enough (An adult in our household usually eats 5 or 6 spring rolls for a meal.)

7. Serve the spring rolls with small bowls of spicy dressing for dipping. To make easy Vietnamese sauce for fresh spring rolls mix these ingredients roughly in this order:

  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1-2 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon very hot garlic chili sauce
  • 4 teaspoons fish sauce (nuk mam) 

Joyous Lughnasadh and Lammas to you and yours. May your harvest in all areas of life be blessed. 

Leave a comment below and share your own traditions. Send this post around to friends. This is another way to be part of a global community.

Living close to the land at the Summer Solstice

I don't suppose life was ever easy for people who subsisted directly from the land they lived on, whether hunting and gathering or practicing small-scale agriculture. But it has become even harder to live "off the land" in the past thirty years, in particular. 

I grew up in a remote, rural corner of Eastern Oregon and my parents made a fair stab at living an earth-centered life, growing and raising a great deal of our food in the 1980s. There are still people who do that today and some even live off the grid, running their homes with solar and wind power. But there are a lot of hardships involved. The climate has become harsh and unpredictable in many areas. Climate change and international travel have spread pests to areas where they have no predators and made subsistence organic agriculture has become a risky gamble indeed.

Economically, in the United States and Europe at least the burdens of taxes and regulations have made it increasingly hard to raise children while living on the land and off the grid. I'm not saying it's impossible and those who do it, even for short periods, have my respect. But as much as I would like to, I don't live entirely in that way.

Instead my husband and I have worked to build a life that is as ecologically sustainable and low-impact as we reasonably can make it - given our climate, geographic location and economic situation. Our second goal is to raise our children in as healthy an environment as possible without entirely segregating ourselves from modern society. 

In practice, this means we grow as much food as we can, focusing on crops which do well in our climate and which are somewhat resistant to local plagues of slugs and mold. This means that we eat a lot of squash, pumpkins, kale, lettuce, green beans, currants, blackberries and plums. I was fortunate enough to start out loving these foods. Yet I'll admit that going into our tenth year at this, I find bananas exciting and maple syrup is an ecstatic experience. 

But on another level, I have come to grasp viscerally the way agricultural peoples saw their staple crops. Early to mid-June is a very sensitive time for squash and pumpkin plants in our climate. They are still fragile and susceptible to being eaten by slugs until they grow spines and tough sin. One year a hail storm in June decimated our crop, having a painful impact on our family's ability to eat organic meals for the next year. We are fortunate that crop disaster doesn't mean starvation for us, but it does mean unhealthy, pesticide laden food. The fact is that in the Czech Republic organic produce is far beyond our budget, unless we grow it. 

And so gardening, the work of feeding a family directly from the soil has become a big part of my spiritual path as well. This year my pumpkin and squash seedlings were slow to get going and I worried and called out for help. But they finally did come up and are now a good hand high. When a hail storm came last week, I ran out in it with pots and bowls to cover the seedlings. My six-year-old daughter stood in the doorway handing me more, her eyes wide with anxiety and excitement, as the downpour soaked me to the skin and the beginnings of hail bounced off my head. 

I saved the crop and caught a cold. Fortunately, the garden also has medicinal herbs for tea. While I recovered, my daughter devised her first ever ritual and prayer on her own.

I was amazed and gratified to see the level of sophistication she had gained mostly by just watching me in my spiritual practice. She asked me to help her light candles and use a sage smudge. Then she made up a prayer, invoking Thor (as the Norse god she associates with Thunder based on a story she heard once three years ago) and White Shell Woman the Navajo goddess of crops and livelihood. She asked for the hail to move on, for the rain to go to the desert "where grandma Julie really needs it" and for our garden to grow. She made an offering of blackberry cake outside, a true sacrifice because it's a special treat. 

By the time the Solstice comes around the pumpkin and squash plants will be big enough that they can survive both slugs and hail, the corn will be well started, the fruit trees will all have flowered and set fruit and the green beans will be climbing their trellises. We'll have very practical reasons to celebrate and a sense of our labor combining with the energy of the earth and sun to give us our livelihood. 

Whether you live in a city or in a place where you have the luxury of a garden, Litha or the Summer Solstice is a worthy time to think about how you combine your labor with the energies of the earth and sun. Maybe you live in such a way that you do have the budget to buy locally grown organic produce and thus support a large-scale development of sustainability. Maybe you grow basil and sage on your window sill in a small apartment, so that you can cook tasty food from scratch and avoid harmful and ecologically unfriendly flavorings and packaged foods. Maybe you volunteer or contribute financially to organizations that work for ecological and sustainable development.

Whatever it is the Summer Solstice is a time for these energies to come together. Here are some of the ways I celebrate in a family with small children.

Cooking

Picking strawberries - Creative Commons image by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)

Picking strawberries - Creative Commons image by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)

There is one other crop we've worked long and hard to grow. It hasn't been as easy as our staple crops but it is one that is worth it. We grow 20 strawberry plants. After years of trial and error we have hit on a system where we get most of the strawberries and the slugs and mold only get a few. And it is usually right before the Summer Solstice that our full-season-producing strawberries are at their peek. Given a good sunny week, we can all have fresh strawberry shortcake with organic strawberries that I can feel good about watching my kids eat. 

Here is my deluxe strawberry shortcake recipe. Keep in mind that strawberries really are one of those foods that is particularly worth buying organic. If you can't grow them yourself, barter, trade and save to buy them. There are places where you can pick your own in local organic gardens and cut the cost a bit. 

My recipe, developed over the past dozen years is a combination of my mother's buttermilk biscuits and my strawberry sauce

Grandma Julie's buttermilk biscuits

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F (210 C).

2. Mix together:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspon salt

3. Stir and tweak in

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold butter cut into small pieces. 

4. Add

  • 1/4 teaspoon soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

5. Stir and add

  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (plain yogurt works in a pinch)

6. Combine and kneed a very little in order to make a smooth, somewhat sticky dough.

7. Divide into six equal pieces and shape each piece into a flat disk.

8. Put the biscuit disks on a cookie sheet covered with baking paper (or greased).

9. Bake for 15 minutes. 

Mama Arie's strawberry sauce

10. Clean and cut the tops off the strawberries. Then divide them in half. 

  • For each biscuit you'll need about a double handful of strawberries. You can get by with a bit less but the more the merrier.  

11. Put one half of the strawberries into a bowl. Use a potato masher or a fork to slightly crush the strawberries and release their juice. 

12. Add

  • about 4 tablespoons of sugar for a standard batch (or add slowly to taste)

13. Mix and add

  • 4 - 6 tablespoons of sour cream

14. Save the other half of the strawberries for putting on top.

15. Place a biscuit on a plate and cut it into cubes. Pour strawberry-sour-cream sauce over it and top with cut strawberries. Whipped cream is optional. 

Our other staple of the Summer Solstice is big salads containing garden greens, chives, radishes and edible flowers (dandelions, violets, daisies) - basically whatever we can grow at this season - with feta cheese, boiled eggs, sunflower seeds and herb and yogurt dressing. The kids are very enthusiastic after a winter of cooked veggies.

Crafts

There is so much activity around Beltane that the fairy theme seems to get lost in the shuffle then. This is when we really go all out with fairy crafts, coloring sheets, anything with multicolored wings (butterflies made of tissue paper, wands with fairies at the end). We also make sun catchers to hang in the windows or from trees outside, often using translucent materials that can channel light.

However,these crafts can often be found elsewhere, so the one I want to highlight here is one I partly developed from just the glimmer of an idea mentioned elsewhere. It is particularly special because:

  • It is exceptionally easy and can be made by even very young children.
  • Yet it's beautiful enough to delight adults and be a real home decoration.
  • It's a sun image.
  • It's made with natural materials.
  • And it helps to clean out the pantry in preparation for storing food for another winter.
Creative Commons attribution required illustration by Arie Farnam

Creative Commons attribution required illustration by Arie Farnam

Thus it really combines all the elements we want with the Summer Solstice - sun, natural materials, the bounty of the earth, the remembrance that winter will come again. You could even add a fairy if you wanted. 

You will need:

  • A clean, sanded, flat square of wood or stiff cardboard as backing
  • A pencil
  • A lot of white glue
  • A bag of red lentils
  • A bag of black beans

And here are the steps: 

  1. Draw a simple, bold sun shape on your backing with a pencil.
  2. Cover the area you drew generously with glue.
  3. Pour red lentils generously over the glue.
  4. Lightly press the lentils into the glue with your hand.
  5. Set aside to dry.
  6. Pour the excess lentils, which did not get glued, off.
  7. Cover the remaining area of the backing generously with glue. 
  8. Lightly press the beans into the glue with your hand.
  9. Set aside to dry.
  10. Pour the excess beans off.
  11. You can either fix a hanger to the back and hang this on the wall or prop it up on your window sill or alter. 

Blessings of the sun to all!

Ritual and fun with children

Creative Commons image by Kathie Hodge

Creative Commons image by Kathie Hodge

We rarely do a large ritual at Litha. If possible we hold a family bonfire in our garden and sing and drum to help the crops and our dreams grow. Because the Book of Runes by Ralph H. Blum was written over the night of the Summer Solstice, I find it to be a good time for run work. I made my rune script of protection that hangs on the center beam of our house on the Summer Solstice, for instance. It's a time of activity and work. 

But I like to have something that sets the special days apart for the children and besides crafts and strawberry shortcake, we often make fairy houses in the woods. The key is to use all found natural materials that don't harm the plants. It is a way for children to connect with the growing natural world in a deep way. 

We usually start by making walls out of rows of sticks, placing leaf dishes and beds inside and then covering the whole with a roof of moss or bark. Pebbles can be used to make a pretty pathway up to the door. 

Children's Summer Solstice Blessing

Here is a short sun blessing that my children have enjoyed this year. Feel free to use and adapt as you wish.

Ancient Sun, reborn sun, giver of life and energy,

in oil, tree, herb and tide, in harvest bounty and in light,

as you shine in the heavens kindle our hearts with fire.

May you light the world as you light the sky

I love to hear from you. Feel free to ask questions or share your own summer solstice blessings and tips in the comments (icon on the lower left). Share this article with your friends using the icon on the lower right. 

I would also like to invite you to my hearth-side email circle. This is a small group of readers with whom I share the occasional virtual cup of tea and links to my latest writing. This is my protected, spam-free corner of the internet, so that's all you'll receive. 

Beltane and the Witch: Celebrating resilience

The night is dark as you drive out across the East Bohemian highlands. The lights of villages are hidden deep in the vales and hollows of the rolling land. The smell of plum blossoms prickles your nose and there is still a nip in the air on the last night of April.

Leaf crowns for Beltane

Leaf crowns for Beltane

Then you round a bend and catch your breath. The stars have fallen onto the hills. For there… and there… and there... and right above the road… and twinkling far off to the south are the fires on the hilltops. And there is something in you that knows this calls back across the millennia and connects you through the land to those who came before.

When I first came to the Czech Republic I didn’t know about the tradition of Beltane fires. I grew up with earth-based spirituality but we didn’t call ourselves Pagan and Beltane was actually one of the few Pagan holidays we didn’t mark in any particular way. I d heard of it, of course, but mostly in a historical context.

Then I drove out to East Bohemia one Beltane night and my soul sang with recognition. This is one of the places in Central Europe where Beltane fires are still lit on the tops of hills and groups of people sit around them and play guitars or flutes to commune with the stars.

Today much of the meaning has been lost… or it seems to have been. As with so many Pagan holidays, this one has been corrupted by later anti-Pagan influences. Beltane is actually called "the Witch” in Czech. And before you get excited about that you should know that the reason it's called the Witch is because it's supposed to be about burning witches.

Czech children are encouraged to make ugly, mocking figures of witches and mount them on stakes in the midst of the bonfire. In my husband’s home village, far to the south in the flat swampy land of South Bohemia, they raise a sixty-foot maypole each year. They don't use any machines to do this, despite the abundance of farm tractors and  cranes in the village. It's still an experience of male bonding in which all of the men, young and old, use a system of levers to raise it. There's no dancing but there is sometimes music. The bonfire is as big as a house and usually has multiple stakes with the female figures tied to them.

The men of Stribrec village raise the maypole next to the witch fire.

The men of Stribrec village raise the maypole next to the witch fire.

I try to embrace the good parts of these traditions. There are usually plenty of children around who are eager for a craft, so I bring materials to make flower and leaf crowns. And we play circle games in the dusk on the village green where the bonfire burns. At least it's a Pagan holiday that is still celebrated here, despite the gruesome imagery.

But still... I can’t  celebrate Beltane here without the shadow of sadness or without my trigger buttons of social trauma being pushed. The concept of outcast witches being burnt in fires is a little too close to home when I experienced extreme ostracism and outcast status as a child, due to my vision impairment and earth-based family culture.

Some people, many Czech Pagans included, put a positive spin on the tradition of burning the Witch. They say that the witch figures are “the witch of winter” and burning them (or in some cases casting them into a flowing river) is a symbol of letting go of old, outmoded thinking and making way for new spring growth. I support this weaving of traditions and that is what I tell my children about the witches in the Beltane fires. The are four and six years old and a little young for explanations of the darker aspects. They will encounter this Czech tradition everywhere at this time of year, so I can't abolish it. I can only change my attitude towards it.

Ember Farnam dancing the maypole

Ember Farnam dancing the maypole

Yet I can easily imagine a lighter and more joyful Beltane. Two years ago, we stayed home on Beltane, instead of visiting my husband’s village and we built our own maypole and engaged the kids from our neighborhood in dancing with ribbons. We made flower cake and leaf crowns and sang songs. We hung flower decorations from our fruit trees and built our own bonfire for a brief ritual to celebrate life and passion of all kinds.

I enjoy joyful Beltane celebration of love and life. But then I miss the depth of feeling in the other, grittier version. Though most Czechs don't know it, they celebrate Beltane by dancing along the knife edge of history, going back more than a thousand years to a time when Celtic druids walked these hills and celebrated the rite of spring. And so maybe the symbols of pain and suffering are fitting after all. They tell of the resilience of these people who were forced to change and adapt by multiple invading hordes, by a succession of foreign kings, by a monolithic religion that tried very hard to stamp out their celebrations, by two brutal world wars, by the deadening totalitarian regime of the last century that attempted to crush all traces of spirituality and finally by modern consumerist cultural homogeneity.

And yet they still light Beltane fires... after all that. Now that's resilience.

There's another way I celebrate Beltane with my children. This is the time of year when we read books about environmental problems and the heroes and heroines of earth-protection movements. We talk about what we can do to help. We pick up litter and I give the kids lessons in conserving energy, reducing waste and recycling. We talk about Greenpeace and renew our family contribution. We garden and write letters for environmental activism. These are small things but they are part of the season for us. 

And this too is connected because the earth is "the witch" in so many ways--the quintessential outcast mother figure. The earth has suffered so much and continues to come back. There are places in the Czech Republic that were utterly devastated twenty years ago, the trees all gone and the ground literally gray from the effects of massive acid rain and coal smoke. Industrial conditions have been improved in that area and those places that seemed beyond salvage a few years ago are now some of the most beautiful areas of the country. And that's resilience.

As our ancestors kept on living and loving through all they endured... as the earth keeps on regenerating despite incredible abuse... as the spring always comes again after winter, may Beltane bring us the blessings of resilience. 

Here are my tips for family Beltane celebrations:

 

Crafts:

Flower babies and mini maypole

Flower babies and mini maypole

Leaf crowns: Construct a simple crown by making a cardboard headband. You can either use double-sided tape and stick real leaves to the headband for a quick and particularly verdant crown or you can paint paper leaves and glue them on for something a bit more durable. 

Flower babies: Paint small balls in various skin tones and add faces to them. Crumple colored tissue paper around them to make petals and glue in place.  Attach a pipe cleaner to the back to make a flower and you have cute images of flowers and babies combined.

Miniature maypole:  You can make a miniature maypole as a table decoration. Fill a pretty bowl with play doh and stick a fairly straight stick into the middle of it. Make a ring out of a piece of ribbon and attach this to the top. Then take lengths of various colored ribbons and attach them to the ring, letting them hang down on the sides or attaching them to the edges of the bowl. 

 

Flower cake

Flower cake

Cooking

Flower cake:  Make your favorite cake base but add dandelion, violet and daisy petals to the batter. Then make pink frosting with a package of cream cheese, a few teaspoons of beet or black berry juice, two tablespoons of lemon juice and powdered sugar to taste. Decorate the top with more flower petals and candied violets (my recipe here). 

Spring bounty salad: Make a salad with young greens and herbs and add edible flower petals such as dandelion, violets and daisies. Put goat cheese, boiled eggs, seeds and oil and vinegar on top. 

 

Songs

I like to sing Simple Gifts and The Earth is Our Mother at Beltane time. 

Here is a song I made up that young children can sing around the Beltane fire to the tune of Mulberry Bush:

Children's Beltane decorations

Children's Beltane decorations

Here we go round the Beltane fire, the Beltane fire, the Beltane fire.

Here we go round the Beltane fire in the rite of spring.

The earth, our mother, rises again, rises again, rises again.

The earth, our mother, rises again with the coming of spring.

Come and dance for love and joy, love and joy, love and joy.

Come and dance for love and joy, that all may live and grow.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.