Happy Samhain!

I spent the day yesterday pumpkin carving, preparing for the festival of Samhain and having a really joyful celebration of the year gone and the year coming.

This was the first truly joint pumpkin I have carved with my daughter, as her design input was equal to mine. After explaining that we weren’t going to carve a scary face, because Samhain isn’t intended to be a scary time of year (more connecting and thanking the dead, our ancestors, those who have gone before rather than being scared by ghosts) we thought about what things we were thankful for. Fairies. Flowers. Trees. Frogs. We can use cookie cutters, she said.

I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year going through the elements, so I decided to make my own thanks and celebration by organising them into four elemental groups, with three things for each one. We also had a five-pointed star for our lid, so that made a perfect 13 holes to be carved in the pumpkin.

My daughter’s washable pens were perfect for drawing the design on, especially as any traces can be easily removed afterwards, and where we had a suitable cutter she drew round them for me. Where we didn’t she found me a picture in one of her books to copy … luckily the pen can be rubbed out and corrections made!

I used a knife to cut the lid, then a melon baller has proved the most useful tool to cut through seed strings. This year I also used it to remove half the flesh from the inside so that the walls weren’t too thick to cut through, then cooked what I removed for pies later. Experience has taught me that a cookie cutter doesn’t cope with curved pumpkin skin very well, so after having drawn around them, I used a hacksaw blade taped to a piece of wood, which has been my trusty pumpkin carver for over a decade now. It turns corners better than a knife, although can leave edges ragged if not careful.

All four sides have holes in, making it hard to photograph, but right for us. Earth on the side that was on the ground, fire upwards to the sun, water and air in between. Some are animals, some, such as a musical note or the heart, are symbolic.

May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.

Elemental Pumpkin, showing Earth and Air, with Fire on the wall behind.

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Celebrating the Harvest

It was the Autumn Equinox last Sunday, a time of harvest celebrations. But what a strange year this has been! A late winter with snow in April, then drought in May, June and July, before a wet and chilly August.

The apples loved it. The extra cold helped them create more flower buds, they survived the drought, losing excess fruit without me having to thin them out, and then the rain came just in time to help the fruit swell. The first fruits were ready at the start of August, two weeks early even for our early trees, and carried on into September with larger fruit. I spent the days before we went on holiday (late August) madly making apple sauce to freeze, as this early fruit doesn’t keep and we were overflowing with apples on every counter.

Plums came at their normal time, but suffered from being eaten more than normal. The apples also had lots of wasps early on which I’ve never seen before, I assume there just wasn’t much else for them in the drought.

Blackberries came a month early – but with the cold weather finished early as well. Yet my strawberries have had a second crop and been a really delicious treat – they are still going. The raspberries cropped well in the drought but didn’t make new canes, so the autumn crop and also next summer’s are greatly reduced, even though there is plenty of rain now.

In the vegetable garden, the sweetcorn drank all the water offered so underplantings (mainly nasturtiums) all died. I had a crazy plant with a cob growing around a male flower, but it proved edible and we managed a small crop of good cobs as well. The climbing French beans were so prolific that eventually the wind blew them over. The edging and supports will all need replacing over the winter. Similarly the tomatoes grew so well in the heat I actually had to stop them at the top of their six foot stakes!

Finally, one crop I harvested but didn’t grow was barley. I promised myself last year that I would as so many Lughnasadh rituals are based around wheat – which I am allergic to, but barley is fine for me. Unfortunately I never found any small quantities of seed for sale. However, I did keep an eye on the fields around here, and spotted barley growing along a lane I sometimes cycle, with a footpath going conveniently along the edge of the field. With the drought it was harvested in mid-July, earlier than I have seen previously. So I parked up my bike, climbed the style which luckily wasn’t completely overgrown with nettles and brambles thanks to the drought, and walked along the field edge to see what had been left behind. Enough barley, and also some wheat for the rest of the family, to make a display and grind some into bread. A token amount – it takes a lot of grain for a loaf and barley I discovered is much harder to separate from the chaff than wheat, but somehow the inclusion of even a few grains of my own picked and winnowed barley seems worth it and makes the bread special. I have managed to be part of the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons, not just an observer.

Solstice Thoughts

“First, be in your mind the purity of the stars at night – that clear, open, and shining brightness. Second, be flowing like water in a stream – moving freely, turning and yielding, receptive and giving as if innocence has been turned into a dream. Finally, feel that love is everywhere – it is in the air, the water, the sea, the sky, light itself is love’s expression, and breathing air is love’s embrace.”
William R. Mistele

This is advice on how to meet Undines, from the book of the same name. However, over the last couple of weeks I have been inspired by these thoughts as a way to live life itself. Not just for an hour, or a day, but as a way of being.

To sit in a wood and become part of the trees, the rocks, the blackbird singing just above me. To walk in a field where rabbits run and be a part of it. To watch a squirrel run along the top of a fence before I am still and he pauses to look back at me. To be part of the wind as it ripples across a field of barley. To be in a river, feeling the various currents underwater as flows and temperature changes. And just breathe. These are some of the things I have been doing recently.

It seems so simple, yet I am aware of my heart expanding and a rightness in it as I become part of nature, being and not thinking, where the modern world around me becomes a strange illusion that is temporary. Cars come and go, even roads will revert to nature given a few years. A mature tree planted in a garden feels as old as time.

I often have trouble reconciling the ‘nature’ side of me with the modern, busy, polluting world around me. I am frequently over-thinking things, complicating, judging. I simply need to be fully alive to whatever happens, at any time, and then I am not depressed by it. It simply recedes out of my consciousness. And yet by being fully alive, I can also embrace the modern world and live in it. Keep my higher vibration without becoming ‘soul sick’.

As I celebrate the Sun today, surrounding myself in beauty and light, may its shining rays stay within me. And may they inspire and uplift you too.

Beltane Quilt

Beltane Quilt

Here is the last of my Sabbat quilts, made during the last Spring Snowstorm in early April.

It has the largest number of fabrics of all the quilts, 24 I think, helped by some of the leftovers from recent dressmaking and bunting projects, as well as the donation of some scraps left over from a quilt my grandmother made me when I was little. So this quilt has real family history in it! The design is inspired by the flowers and colours of May, and by the whirling patterns of Maypole dancing. It started off very regular and formal in its arrangement but I was a row short; it ended up much more freeform in its twirling, swirling around, but I’m quite pleased with the way it has come out. The only thing I might have changed is that on three of the corners a diagonal seam runs into the corner, which was hard to trim or turn properly. This would not have been a problem on a normal quilt with a wadding layer and bound edges, but these are unfilled, just turned like a bag with one colour being chosen in each quilt for outlining to join the two layers. Unlike the other quilts I had no choice of which colour to outline on this one, green being the only plain colour used across the quilt!

It has been an interesting project to make all eight – and challenging at times when I was struggling to sew! I deliberately made each one unique, not comparing them as I went, so here is the first time I have put them all together. To me they make an interesting impression of how colours change over the year. I might have exaggerated this more if I had made them all at the same time, and had the fabrics I now have, but that is the beauty of making one at a time. The design changes had a logic, which isn’t so apparent here, but this may be the only time they are all seen together.

Eight Sabbat Display Quilts, arranged from top left:
Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, Autumn Equinox.


Over the next year I hope to make items to go in the displays, since some sabbats definitely do better than others at the moment! Each sabbat has seen something being made and something stored from previous years, but like our special tree decorations that come out December after December and are passed on through the family, and inspired by the nature displays in the Steiner School we used to visit, I would like to create more ‘special’ things for the rest of the year as well.

Spring Equinox Quilt

Spring Equinox Quilt

This display quilt just got made in time! Mainly due to the fact that Winter returned with snow in early March closing all the schools… Instead of daffodils, often flowering here by the end of January, snowdrops are entering their fourth month of continuous flowering.

As this festival is about balance, I wanted to do a very square design. Most of the colours I had that were suitable were not patterned either, restricting my options. However I found that this added to the calm, balanced feel, even if the weather is being wild. Like at Imbolc and Yule, there is a more definite pattern to this quilt than some of the earlier ones, which I find I prefer.

The colours were based around what I normally see at this time of year, so lots of new fresh greens, daffodils, pink blossom, blue skies. At the moment, the purple crocuses are doing well, usually much earlier, and the only pink I have seen is my winter flowering Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Just before the equinox we had a very deliberate removal of anything ‘Wintery’ and changing to Spring, hoping to help draw it forth. So the display includes a woolly lamb we made in the Lake District (I’ll have to do some more for Imbolc next year so it doesn’t get lonely!) hares, flowers, fairies, and lots of eggs.

Candles for Rituals

Candles have apparently formed a part of ceremony and ritual for around 5000 years. A ritual without a candle (or a fire) burning, no matter what other offerings or symbols are on an altar or equivalent, to me is just a meditation. It might be very meaningful in itself, but there is no uplift. No Fire in its pure elemental form to create a transformation in my subconscious.

Now that M is at school, I find I have time and space to do more full rituals again – and having not managed much for a few years it is a good opportunity for me to re-examine what I do and why. (Oh the joy, and effort, of being a solitary!) However, I have been encountering two problems. Paraffin wax, which the majority of candles are made from, smells awful to me and gives me breathing difficulties even without any scents being added. Alternatively beeswax candles, a beautiful smelling natural product, are expensive especially as easily available nightlights don’t burn properly in the time a solo ritual generally takes. Unless a candle burns to its edges before being blown out, it will form a hole in the centre, making it difficult to relight. So for my typical 30 minute or so burn time, 2cm is probably the largest candle size to use. (Several years ago I bought some beeswax “birthday candles” for which I was kindly made a wooden pentacle holder, but these only burn 10-15 minutes each. Great for a spell or focused meditation, but simply too short for a ritual.)

Pagans luckily have an answer to this problem, I have recently discovered, in the form of Spell Candles. Usually around 1-1.5cm across and 10cm tall, many are made of beeswax and come in a variety of colours. Burn time varies from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on size and if they are rolled or solid. Prices vary with some people charging a premium, while others charge in proportion to the amount of wax required to make each candle. (Yes there are now many electronic effect nightlight candles around, and yes it does take fire elementals to create electricity so they would be present, but this isn’t my first choice if there is a natural and sustainable alternative available.)

So having finally established that there are suitable candles for me to buy, I then start considering candle holders. Not many are this small, and they will need to be sized fairly specifically to which candles I choose to buy. Sticking one in melted wax on a plate is basic but tempting! But there is also the question of how many candles to have, given candle holders often come in pairs.

One candle seems to me to be adequate for a ceremony, to be lit at the start, before any circle is cast, and extinguished at the end. It can represent anything and everything, and ultimately symbolises that all is one. Connected through the centre which is everywhere. However, many witches have candles for the God and Goddess, possibly in addition to a central or carried candle (which may also be used represent Fire on the altar), making two or three candles per ceremony. Some witches also like to light candles in each quarter, coloured for each element, giving a possibility of seven candles. (I am assuming any candles lit as part of a spell or a working are extras.)

At this point I spent some time in meditation. I asked, what does my ideal altar look like for use indoors?

The picture that came into my mind was this one:

Two candles at the back. That was a surprise because it isn’t what I usually do. They are equal, yet apart. Goddess and God, Mother Earth and Father Sky, female and male, dark and light, above and below, within and without, manifested and unmanifested. I realised we live in a world of duality and what I seek is balance. Then on the right side of my altar, an apple Wand (I wonder why apple? I’ll come back to this when I know… ), ready to pick up and use, while on the left, a silver (pewter) cup bearing water. In the centre at the front, my working area where I can place anything specific to that ritual, ideally on a pentagram disk of some kind, completing the five-pointed arrangement. Underneath is my portable table covered by a bright green cotton cloth. Behind on the wall is a beautiful fabric picture of a tree.

I share this because it is considerably more basic and simple than most witches use – and in fact than I normally use! Yet although I was then shown how it could be added to, the athame next to the wand, a bowl for salt next to the cup, Goddess and God statues behind the two candles, other items specific to the ritual such as gemstones, flowers, amulets, pictures, carvings etc, I realised it is perfection in its simplicity, with each item being hand made and beautiful in itself. Both male and female are present, as are all four elements, as is an ancestor connection. If my altar represents me in the higher planes, then I seem to be calm, peaceful, simple and uncluttered inside.

A permanent altar with lots of things on it is not something that feels right to me because I live with non-Pagans who would have no use for such a thing and not treat my tools as sacred; when I am not using them, they (bell, athame, swan feather, cups, offering plates, etc) are safe inside my desk, along with all the other sacred objects, talismans, divination aids, space clearing tools etc that I possess. Our ‘seasonal displays’ on the mantleshelf act as a permanent focus with the various quilt tops I have made changing for each sabbat – they are based around the pagan year, which is of course the solar year so easily understood by all including visitors to the house. Our two dining candles live there when not in use, creating a parallel with my altar. I also have various locations in the house where there are power items that are left out all the time, and a place where I leave offerings in the garden. So after a bit of thought and experimentation, I find a really simple altar inside gives me the freedom to set it up quickly and easily when I want it (and dismantle it again before collecting M from school), and I have the flexibility to add any statues or symbols or flowers etc that are befitting to the ritual.

The loss of some tools does, however, feel like I am breaking a lot of rules! I clear space before casting a circle, so these tools are kept nearby, but I won’t now be putting them on my alter after use. My wooden athame I made has not seen much use, and it was interesting while exploring altars and candles to read other people’s comments that they don’t use an athame outside for fear of upsetting elementals – any blade is objectionable, not just an iron one. (I wondered if some witches used knives originally so that they had one to hand in case protection is needed. Also I suspect only rich witches in times past would have had a spare knife for magical purposes! Another area to come back to…) Incense I don’t use because I can’t cope with smoke – but I do sometimes use natural sprays while cleansing the space so I’ll have to find a way to work these in. Also my apple wand will need consecrating when I have made it, so I’ll have to find a way of doing this that doesn’t involve smoke!

I am amused that I started out just trying to work out what candles to buy, and have ended up redesigning my altar, and probably the whole way I celebrate. Sometimes all it takes is a small thing for us to make the big changes that we simply couldn’t see before.

Imbolc Flowers

Snowdrop flowering at Imbolc

I have been enjoying the flowers of early Spring, which being generally very small, decided it was a good opportunity to experiment taking some ‘close-up’ pictures. I love seeing macro shots, probably because I have poor eyesight and pictures can often show more detail than I can see with my eyes. Taking them is a different matter however – my poor eyesight makes it difficult for me to focus accurately, and it has been very windy all week, adding an additional element of luck to whether the flower stays where I have focused. A tripod wouldn’t necessarily help!

Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrops seem to have become very closely associated with Imbolc, and Brigid in particular. They are green and white – the freshness of Spring combined with the purity of the Goddess, and of course the colour of milk which this festival celebrates. (After the lambs or calves are born, there is milk to drink again.)

Rosemary flower

While watching for snowdrops, I found many Viburnum flowers as well as Hazel catkins swinging in the wind. More surprising however were a few purple Anemone blanda just opening up, as well as Rosemary in flower.

Anemone blanda flower just opening for Imbolc

I also found a lone cyclamen flower, which was fun to take from almost underneath, and an Iris reticulata being battered by the wind.

Iris reticulata flower


Cyclamen flower

Finally, I noticed some teasels which are long past their flowers but were backlit by the sun and I couldn’t resist.

Iris reticulata being blown by the wind.

Teasel, Dispsacus fullonum seedhead.

The pictures were all taken with the same Pentax DSLR camera body but two different lenses – a Sigma 70-300mm telephoto on macro setting, giving me a working distance of 1-2m, and a 50-year-old Pentax 50mm lens with a reversing ring and converter ring giving me a working distance of 10cm and almost no depth of field. I’m still exploring its potential now that digital gives me instant results.

Imbolc Quilt

Quilt for Imbolc

Here is my quilt for Imbolc, season of Winter thawing to Spring. It is always a special festival to me, celebrating Brigid, the one Goddess I have had a really long term relationship with, and I wanted to reflect the square shape of her cross in the quilt. So this has a more organised colour pattern than the previous seasonal quilts I have made.

I’m still managing to use up scraps, although a certain amount of trust is now being called for that I won’t run out before I finish the series. Having enough backing fabric is also starting to get tricky – for this one I used white as without wadding any other colour showed through the white squares on the front, but I had to make it in three pieces.

The colours of Imbolc always make me think of snowdrops, which are often associated with Brigid and the festival itself – despite having only been introduced to Britain in the 1500s. It is true that they often flower at the right time of year, although this year one clump of mine were showing white just a day or two after the winter solstice.

This quilt has again raised the question of when to create a display for each Sabbat. Mostly I change things a few days or a week before, except the Yule display was started at the beginning of December. However, there seems to be a strong tradition around here of removing all Christmas things on or by the 5th January, which leaves a surprisingly long time for an empty display! So I waited a few days and then put out the new Imbolc quilt, but found I was then ready to clean the house and bring the freshness in! Did Spring arrive early this year? I now understand why Steiner schools sometimes have the addition of ‘Mrs Thaw’ to fill this gap, although she could come any time up until May depending on the weather!

Happy Solstice!

Winter Solstice Greetings

May light fill your hearts and your lives as the sun returns, bringing inspiration and happiness.

I have seen various images of winter trees in lino printing, all snowy white silhouetted against a dark sky. However I needed the sun in my sky, not the moon and stars, so after a lot of thought and several sketches, I came up with this design.

This is a tree I see to the East every morning, growing in a garden a short distance away and now tall enough to show over the rooftops. It always intrigues me to look at things in mirror image when creating lino prints, so I took that idea further by drawing the tree the right way and its mirror – knowing that once printed I would still have the right way and the mirror. For once I drew straight onto the lino, knowing that any copying and image reversing was superfluous.

Last summer I was able to acquire a small roller press, and this was its first use which was a joy. I can still improve my inking, but the ‘misty effect’ improved some of the images for me on this occasion. All a learning process which takes a long time when I seem to do only one a year!

Evergreen plants have long been a symbol of life and fertility for the middle of winter. Many ancient cultures used to bring sprigs of greenery into homes or temples for decoration at this time of year, and that has never stopped. A wreath, to me, symbolises the cyclical wheel of the year, always turning through each season, while trees are life themselves as well as representative of the World Tree from which all life grows. This particular tree is probably an overgrown Christmas tree planted out several years ago…

Yule Quilt

Yule Quilt

This is now the fifth quilt I have made in the series of 8 for each sabbat display, and the first where the colours had a small amount of planning in their arrangement – rather than just the total random, ‘scrappy quilt’ look. I did not have many suitable fabrics for Yule, 3 golds, 3 greens, and 4 reds although one was in very short supply. Had I started with this quilt, I would have probably made it far more definite in its design by using some colours for the stars and different colours for the borders, yet this interests me precisely because it wasn’t done that way. It draws me in more.

The stars made me think of spiky holly with its bright berries, as well as poinsettia plants sold everywhere but needing more warmth than our house generally offers on a winter’s night. There is also the coming of the light, directly from the sun as we celebrate its return – and for two months of the year I have an unobstructed view of the sunrise through trees from my bedroom window. Most years (but no longer guaranteed) there is also light reflected by snow, bringing a wonderfully uplifting feel at what is generally a dark time.

Making a series of quilts that are supposed to be an exact size has also been a learning experience. My sewing accuracy wasn’t bad before, but sew each 1/4inch seam just 1/2mm out, and over 25 seams you have gained or lost a whole inch, 25mm. That is assuming my cutting was accurate to within the same tolerances! So it took me to quilt 4 to get almost the right finished size, and this one is just slightly long. Given they are all made slightly wide, long looks good. The other good thing I have finally learned is how to work methodically when picking up each pair of pieces to sew, in order to keep them in the same position and rotation. It has taken me a long time to master this basic skill!

Normally I change the display about a week before a sabbat, but it felt appropriate to get this out last weekend. Not because lights and decorations are up everywhere else and M enjoys them being up in our house as well, but because winter arrived with the last leaves falling off the trees, two dustings of snow and ice on the pond. Autumn has passed, it is dark outside, and I feel ready to close the curtains and be looking within. Enjoying candlelight, being cosy in the long dark evenings, and preparing for what is to come. In my case, a completely crazy, exciting, holiday season with so much packed into about 3 weeks that I have had to write down what I need to do when.