A Doorway Into Winter

A week from today is the Celtic New Year ,October 31st (or November 1st).  Hallowe’en was Samhain (pronounced Sah-wain) in the Celtic tradition.  It was the day when the walls between this world and the spirit world were thinnest, and ghosts walked the earth. It was a day to honor the dead, and to begin again, experiencing the cold and dark of the womb of earth before being reborn again into the light and warmth of spring.

There are many times to celebrate a new year. January 1st is arbitrary, in deep winter, ten days after the winter solstice. (For an economist, that date is important as the start of a new tax year.)  Christians start their new year with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Chinese New Year’s Day is in February.  A new school year, for many who are teachers are students, is definitely worth knowing as a fresh start, usually in August or September.  I once hosted a new year’s eve party on August 14th, because Clemson University’s academic calendar and our nine month faculty contracts started on August 15th

.States celebrate a new fiscal year on July 1st, as the federal government used to until it was chronically unable to get a budget passed in time, so it is now October 1st.  The Jewish New Year is a moveable feast, being on a lunar calendar, but like the Celts, the Jews celebrate a new year by going into and through the darkness instead of starting with the return of the light. As for me, I observe two new years: July 1st, the day after my birthday, a new year of my life, and January 1st, because it dictates so many other events and financial matters, and I am an economist by profession and mental framework.

.The idea of going through the darkness and into the light is one worth contemplating, along with the two remarkable cultures that adopted that season as the time to celebrate their new year. The Celts and the Jews were wise and persistent peoples with a great deal of depth of being that persisted from ancient times until the present day.  The darkness they celebrate is a period of renewal—hibernation, reflection, a slowing down of activity, a time for closeness.  Central heating, foodstuffs from all over the world, electric lights, refrigeration, and television have made  winter less different from other seasons of the year in modern industrial culture. We can have fresh blueberries in December, displacing the more traditional holiday fruits. If we are wealthy enough, we can escape the winter cold by becoming snowbirds and spending up to half a year in Florida or Mexico or the Caribbean.

Aside from the expense and inconvenience, that never appealed to me. My body and soul need winter.  I know longer have any yard work to do for at least three or four months. I can turn my attention to nesting, to indoor improvements, to learning new skills and ideas and especially to catching up on my reading. (I have only read 95 books so far this year, the first time I have kept track, and there are so many more!). I can plan what I will do in the year that officially begins on January 1st, start new projects and finish old ones.  I can spend long winter evenings doing jigsaw puzzles and watching documentaries.

Poet Mary Oliver asks us, what we will do with our one wild and precious life?  That’s too big a question for me, but I can decide what to do with this one dark and quiet season before the earth (at least in South Carolina) bursts forth in glorious technicolor, sunshine, and new possibilities and demands. As you enter the darkness, what new possibilities are taking root and growing in the darkness to burst forth in March? How will you use this one precious and wild season of winter?

The End of Hibernation?

February 1st or 2nd is an ancient Celtic holiday.  Since my DNA test informed me that I am 40% Celtic (a mix of Scottish, Irish and Welsh), I have taken increased interest in the eight holidays on the Celtic Wheel of the Year.  It is divided by four earth holidays and four sky holidays, beginning with Samhain (Hallowe’en),.the Celtic New Year. It is followed by Yul at the winter solstice, Imbolc at the beginning of February, Ostara at the Spring equinox, Beltain the first of May, Litha at the summer solstice, Lughnasadh or Lammas the first of August, and Mabon at the vernal equinox.  Since the Celts were all over Europe, if your ancestry is at least partly European, you probably have at least a few drops of Celtic blood in your veins as well.

Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk, or lambing time, as a harbinger of spring.  In ancient times it was a housecleaning day, removing all the greens (or browns!) left over from Yul and re-lighting the housefires in anticipation of spring. If you haven’t finished taking down your Christmas decorations, this is the time! It is also celebrated as Saint Brigid’s Day, an Irish saint whose previous incarnation was as the great Goddess in her maiden state (the others being the mother and the crone).

This holiday survives in an odd but appropriate way in Groundhog Day. There are lots of ways to celebrate, but I am intrigued with a holiday that celebrates housecleaning as well as the end of hibernation. Or not, depending on what Punxsutawney Phil has to say. (If you have been doing a lot of hibernating, chances are your cave needs a thorough airing out!)  We have been in a COVID-induced hibernation for almost two years now, but this Imbolc is special because we hear increasing forecasts of a steady (or rapid!) downturn in the pandemic in the next month or so.  Regardless of whether the groundhog sees his shadow, we need to prepared ourselves to re-enter a post-COVID world that has changed dramatically in these two years.

Perhaps by Ostara on (appropriately) March 20th, we can figure out what is our own new normal.  It will  definitely involve more hybrid meetings,  more working from home, and less travel. It is likely that many of us adopted habits during the pandemic that involve more solitude and found that we liked those new habits better.  Many people changed their minds about working and consumerism.  We all learned to be aware of the balance we choose between safety and risk and the implications of our choices for those with whom we come in contact. We have a new appreciation for the difference between encountering one another on Zoom and in person.  We recognize the fragility of some of our cherished institutions, especially religious and social organizations that have struggled to survive quarantining.

I am always drawn to the idea of new beginnings. I’m up for celebrating not just the turning of the calendar on January 1st but also Chinese New Year,  April Fool’s day (from the calendar change that moved the new year back to January), a new year of my life every July 1st, a new school year, Jewish and Celtic new year, and for traditional Christians, a new year that begins with Advent four weeks before Christmas.

This year I want to celebrate a new year on March 20th that will hopefully mark a change in the way we spend our days and invest our time and resources in what matters most to us. From Groundhog Day to Ostara can be a Celtic Lent in which to assess, prepare, and plan for the post-pandemic world.  How will your way of being in the world be different after Ostara? What kinds of housecleaning are needed to make that happen?

Hibernation Time and the New Year

My family departed for home Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning, so I have been in hibernation mode since 9 a.m. on the 25th.  These seven post-Solstice, post- Christmas days  (my family always celebrates on the 24th ), are my wintering time.  It is when I, like TV specials and pundits, reflect on the year past, but it is also the time when I set my course for the year to come.

My wintering or hibernation (the noun winter is German, but hiver is the French word for winter)  is about rest and renewal, about letting go and taking on, about reflecting on the departing year and planning for the new one.  I mostly stay at home, using up the Christmas leftovers and undecorating the house, reading my Christmas books and doing one of my Christmas jigsaw puzzles. I write in my journal with a focus on the year past and the year to come, including New Year’s resolutions, which I have been doing since elementary school.  ( I remember when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas stove. It didn’t have a pilot light, so it involved  a match, and I found it scary. To this day I am an electric range person.)

Over time my resolutions have become more abstract and complex. They all involve self-improvement. Even at 80 there are improvements to be made. I am deeply engaged in virtue ethics, so my guides to living wisely and well are the four attitude virtues of hope, trust, lovingkindness, and gratitude , and the behavioral virtues of self-care, prudence (practical wisdom), simplicity, and  mindfulness.  The arenas in which those virtues are played out are lifelong learning, vocation (write-teach-preach-lead-serve), and cultivating healthy relationships. My daily journal is the ongoing record of my intentions and my performance. 

What about surprises? There are always plenty of those. In 2021, COVID changed my travel plans.  I rethought some of my volunteer commitments and rearranged them to better it my lifestyle, especially that part of my lifestyle that involves sleeping from 9 to 5 and driving after dark as seldom as possible.  Self-care surprised me with an unplanned but very rewarding journey with NOOM to lose 25 pounds. I lost a cat, a dog, and most sadly, a brother.  I lost friends, some to death, others to relationships that no longer worked, but was surprised to acquire two new ones (one to hike with, one to travel with) and strengthen the bonds of several old friendships. Man (and woman) plan, and God laughs. Like Columbus, I set my course for India and found a new world along the way.

So, I invite you to a few final days of hibernation and reflection before returning to the daily round. What was your year 2021 like? What did you learn and change, gain and lose? What are your hopes for 2022, personally and collectively? What are you grateful for, concerned about, desirous of changing? As the days begin to lengthen again, and the signs daffodils and crocuses appear, may you be rested and renewed, armed with faith, hope and good intentions for the year that begins in just three days.