Saturday, 28 November 2020

A Winter of Witchcraft

It’s like the lead-up to a bad joke: two lapsed Catholics, an agnostic and a universalist Anglican move into a small terrace in Nottingham. In this ragtag post-university household, it’s no surprise we talk about spirituality a lot. But even six months into lockdown, none of us expected the new Winter tradition we would take on in these uncertain times.

Raised under the roofs of religion, all of us have an appetite for ritual and reflection, even if most of us don’t fancy bringing God into it. This applies especially to my partner Lucy - one of the Catholics, if anyone’s keeping track. On our recent holiday to the Forest of Dean, she became fascinated with the seasonal traditions celebrated by modern-day pagans and Wiccans.

Wicca is a constructed religion based on the beliefs and festivals of ancient Celtic people. With this comes a deep respect for nature, stories of Mother and Father Earth, and the belief that performing certain rituals can produce real, tangible magic.

It’s a lot to process. But modern-day traditions are made to be messed with. Each of Lucy’s many books on contemporary witchcraft has its own spin on pagan rituals and traditions.

What resonates most with us is the Celtic calendar. Eight festivals that map the passing of the natural year. The Summer and Winter solstice, the Spring and Autumn equinox, and four other feast days that represent our relationship with nature. Each one comes with its own traditions, including seasonal foods to eat and deep questions to reflect on.

When September arrived, the nation braced itself for a second wave of lockdown. Meanwhile, we were busy preparing for Mabon, the feast of the Autumn equinox. The end of nature’s year and the start of the dark season. So, even as the sun shone weakly through the yellowing leaves, we prepared to welcome Winter into our lives, witch-style.

We invited round a couple of friends - creating a bubble of 6, for those with the Covid bingo cards - and had a delicious, warming lunch. Spicy roasted chickpeas, baked root vegetables with cauliflower cheese, the rich smells of sage leaves and pears poaching on the stove. 

Not the kookiest Sunday so far. Even our nice afternoon walk felt quite ordinary, though anyone looking closely would have noticed us collecting conkers, acorns and sycamore seeds. As the sun began to set, we sat around a makeshift altar in the garden. On it we placed our foraged findings, giving thanks to each element for the gifts we’ve been given this year.

We thanked the air (represented by the sycamore copters) for ideas and inspiration. Fire - a popcorn-scented tealight - was thanked for the joy and passion it brings us, and we poured wine into a bowl of water as thanks for our friendships. Finally we broke and ate bread to thank the earth for the physical harvest of this year’s efforts.

It was new, and a little awkward, but everyone agreed how lovely it was to spend time focusing on the good things in life as an uncertain Winter approaches. And this is just the beginning. Ahead of us lay Samhain and Yule, the Celtic ancestors of Halloween and Christmas.

But why choose this Winter to adopt our new tradition? Maybe it was a desire to slow down and pay attention to the passing of the year, rather than shutting out the outside world and wishing away our time spent in lockdown. Maybe it was desperation to have something in the calendar to look forward to.

Or perhaps it was a desire for something else that usually comes with Winter: the security of family. In these unprecedented days, nothing is certain, and nagging at the back of our minds was the possibility that we wouldn’t get to visit home this Christmas.

Before lockdown, the four of us had never cooked together. We were separate people, going about our separate lives, occasionally playing board games together or joining in the Big Tidy. But these days making dinner, exercising, washing up and even the weekly food shop are all collaborative efforts. Everyday rituals of their own, if you will. Preparing and performing our parts in this ancient, new-age festival felt like a natural extension of our happy approximation of domestic life.

So this weird constructed family of twenty-somethings will be celebrating our weird constructed traditions this Winter. On Samhain we built a fire and told stories of relatives who have passed on. For Yule, we’ll burn pine in a cauldron, reflecting on the past and thinking about the future.

Maybe we’re just pretending to worship gods and cast spells. But there is a real magic at work in this performance of witchcraft. Through this Winter, and beyond, we’ll observe the passing of the seasons openly and thoughtfully. And best of all, we’ll do it together.

If you want to get in on the fun of our witchy winter, why not try my very own butter beer recipe? It’s a magical mulled-wine alternative to warm any winter night!

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