The Purpose and Function of Holidays
Many suppose that a holiday is simply time off work, similar to a vacation, an opportunity to rest and relax and engage in various recreational activities. This is certainly a workable definition but we can look deeper. A holiday enshrines values, reminding us again and again of certain existential truths. Holidays help us remember what’s important.
As individuals at this particular moment in history, in the industrialized West at least, we have unprecedented levels of privilege, autonomy, and freedom, as well as access to global information. We can pick our own holidays, even invent them, and in so doing we have the ability to choose our own path, to shape our own identity, perhaps even to determine our own destiny, in ways unimagined by our ancestors.
As we survey the state of humanity and the Earth, it is incumbent upon us to reject the culture of nation-states and global capitalism. It is time to embrace a culture of the Earth. This is not a call for a global monoculture, which would be the antithesis of what is needed. A culture of the Earth must reflect and honor the diversity of local differences, while at the same time touching on commonalities that can be shared by all. It’s a tall order, but once we understand the urgency of our ecological crisis, we have no choice but to respond. There is only one relevant question: How do we begin?
Holidays are a fine place to start. Every culture needs holidays.
Reinventing the Wheel
Fortunately we do not need to start from scratch. We do not need to reinvent the Wheel. Then again, maybe we do. It’s easy enough.
Draw a circle to represent the year: one complete revolution around the sun. Make a mark at the top and the bottom, the left and the right, dividing the circle into four equal quarters. Let these represent the solstices and the equinoxes. Now rotate the whole thing about 45º and make the marks again. These marks fall midway between the others, dividing the circle into eighths. Call these the cross-quarter days.
You’ve just sketched the Wheel of the Year, a cycle of eight observances spaced evenly throughout the calendar. Call them celebrations, commemorations, recurrences, festivals, feasts, holidays, holy days, sabbats, or what you will. What are they, why do they matter, and what do they represent?
We can start with the “solar holidays,” which should be familiar to anyone who knows basic astronomy: winter solstice, vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox. (Those from Christian-dominant cultures may find the following cheat-sheet convenient — associate the first two with Christmas and Easter, whereas the latter pair are associated with the lesser-known Christian holidays of St. John’s Day and Michaelmas.) Americans tend to know the equinoxes and solstices primarily as the opening days of the four seasons, e.g. the first day of spring, etc.
The cross-quarters will be known to students of Celtic history as Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh, falling at the beginning of November, February, May, and August respectively. These names will be less familiar to the average American, but Halloween, Groundhog’s Day and May Day may serve as reference points. The cross-quarters may also be derived without knowledge of history, via the simple geometry mentioned above, or by observation of seasonal lag in much of the world.
Ancient Provenance, Modern Sensibility
These holidays are celebrated mainly by Wiccans and Druids and Neo-Pagans and Heathens, though they call them by different names. Humanists may celebrate the solar holidays but tend to disregard the cross-quarters entirely. Christians in different parts of the world still celebrate various parts of the Wheel with some enthusiasm, perhaps as holdovers from ancient Pagan traditions, but there’s no emphasis on a symmetrical eight-part cycle.
Whence this construct? We know that some ancient peoples celebrated the solstices; some celebrated the equinoxes; some celebrated the cross-quarters. Did any of them celebrate all eight holidays? There is no clear evidence that they did so. Then again, maybe they did. We can only speculate.
As demonstrated here, it’s easy to construct the Wheel from pure logic and observation. Perhaps our ancestors did the same. When we consider how many human cultures there have been in our planetary past, it may even begin to seem likely, but we simply can’t know for sure.
While worthy of future study, the question of origin is academic. If the Wheel is indeed an amalgamation of two or three ancient calendars, that’s no obstacle for those who wish to honor the Earth today. The Wheel appeals to our modern sensibility and our global perspective.
At this point you may be saying, OK, I get it — the Wheel of the Year tells us when seasonal changes occur, right?
Conventions have a tendency to become concretized in our minds, as if they were the primary reality rather than a convenient symbolic expression. We confuse the map with the territory. Mark again that American idea that seasons begin on the solstices and equinoxes. If we interrogate this notion at all, how quickly it falls apart! It is, after all, only one scheme among many.
Consider the method employed in some Nordic countries, where meteorologists define seasons according to temperature. Spring begins only when the average daily temperature rises above 0°C, and stays there for a week. This method has several implications: seasons do not begin at fixed dates, but must be determined by observation; the beginning and end of each season are known only after the fact; it also reflects our intuitive knowledge that seasons begin at different dates in different places.
All of this illuminates the fact that seasonal variation is something that happens according to its own schedule, and not according to any calendar devised by humans, including the Wheel of the Year.
This is a crucial distinction. If we don’t make it, we might end up trying to export the seasonality of one region to the rest of the world, which would make a travesty of the whole affair.
A much happier approach is to adapt the Wheel to one’s region. It’s a big planet we’re living on, with significant variation in seasonal character largely dependent on latitude and altitude. Most dramatically, when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer “down under,” while in some tropical climates there is very little seasonal change at all. Yet this is no obstacle to observing the Wheel of the Year, as long as we honor the character of our particular locale. Thus, Australians like Glenys Livingstone celebrate Yule (the winter solstice) in June. How exactly this might play out in Singapore, for example, is something I’m very curious about.
For me, living in the subtropics, in a city with a unique celebratory culture, this is just a given. I’ve had years to get used to the idea of Yule without snow, of Candlemas in the midst of Carnival. It’s all good.
An Ecocentric Perspective
If holidays enshrine values, it is fair to ask: What values do these days enshrine? What is the meaning of each of the eight holidays in the Wheel of the Year?
I might answer, for myself and very personally: mystery, life, balance, desire, love, dissolution, gratitude, limits. There is no simple, single, correct answer for any of these; my suggestions are tentative, formative, and highly subjective.
Let us leave each holiday’s ultimate meaning as an open question. Let us take each holiday as a time to pause and reflect on what’s going on in the natural world around us. Let us give ourselves space and time to discover the meanings of these holidays anew each time we encounter them.
The cycle as a whole, thus conceived, enshrines an ecocentric perspective, allowing us an opportunity to reflect upon the natural rhythms of the Earth and our local ecosystems, and to let our consciousness be shaped by these cycles — rather than the other way around. The Wheel invites us to make an exception from our constant tendency toward dominating and subjugating nature, our compulsion to reshape the world in our own image.
Embrace it, and its manifold mysteries may unfold for you in the most surprising ways.
Footnote: A Word for the Moon
The Wheel I’ve described here derives from the relation between Earth and Sun. Another Wheel can be derived from the relation between Earth and Moon, as indeed many cultures have done historically. An Earth-Moon Wheel of the Year might be more subtle, more oblique, more indirect than an Earth-Sun Wheel, but the opportunites for insight which it offers are surely just as profound. If the Earth-Sun Wheel doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities, perhaps the Earth-Moon Wheel will. Diversity of practice is a good thing.
Collected Images of the Wheel of the Year (curated by the author)
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.