In my first post in this series, I explained how I wanted to strip away everything non-essential from pagan ritual and build it from the ground up–literally, starting with our interaction with the earth and the other-than-human beings who we share it with.
In the second part, I talked about various occasions during the winter season which present opportunities for ritual. As pagans, we need way more ritual in our lives than just eight times a year. The shift from Daylight Savings, feeling the first bite of winter, the solstice, the first snowfall, Christmas, New Years, and the coldest day–these are all good times for ritual.
And in the last post, I talked about the process of creating a ritual, starting with listening–to nature, to our own bodies, and to our unconscious. Ritual is a conscious structure applied to an unconscious response to the more-than-human world. And I focused on using simple gestures and poetic language, inspired by the practice of deep listening.
In this part, I said I would share my own ritual for the solstice. I vacillated about sharing this, because I’m not certain about it’s usefulness to you. If you create a ritual using the process I described in the last post, it’s not going to look anything like mine. But I’m going to share it anyway, just to give you an example of one outcome of the process.
My rituals evolve from year to year, which is the way I think they should be, because I’m evolving. If you find something that works really well for you, keep doing it. But if you feel inspired to change it, don’t hesitate.
I decided to observe an extended ritual period which includes the solstice (the longest night of the year), Christmas (a secularized Christian holiday about a newborn savior baby), and New Years (the end of the year on the common/Gregorian calendar). It coincides with gradually lengthening days (but not noticeably so yet), increasingly cold weather, and probably snow (here in the Midwest). It starts on the winter solstice, December 21st, and ends on New Year’s Day, lasting eleven nights in all. I’m going to observe the ritual at midnight each night, because I think it sometimes helps to make rituals a little “demanding” (to use Andrew Brown’s term, referenced in my second post).
If the wind is not blowing too much, and the candles will be blown out, I will do the ritual at my outdoor altar. This is a place I’ve set aside in my yard for doing outdoor rituals. If it’s too windy, though, I’ll do it at my indoor altar. (I’m going to write about altars in another post.) If it snows, I’ll make a special effort to do the ritual outside, especially on the night of the first snow. On Christmas Eve, I’ll probably do it in front of our Christmas tree.
Each night I will light the number of candles corresponding to the night of the ritual–so one candle on the first night, two candles on the second night, and so on. There’s nothing special about the number 11. There’s twelve days between the solstice and New Year’s Day–and that’s kind of a fitting coincidence with the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. But there’s only eleven nights, so I’m using eleven candles. I bring this up, because it’s tempting to try to force numerical significance on things. It’s a vestige of esoteric thinking. In this instance, I’m embracing the numerical awkwardness of the number 11. (It is a prime, if that helps.)
Candles are a common motif in the Christmas season, obviously. Passing the flame is something my Unitarian church does every year at a “vespers” service at Christmastime. It’s really a beautiful communal ritual. We pass the flame and then sing silent night as we file out. Passing the flame by myself is different, but the experience of gradually increasing the light with more candles each night is similar, and it corresponds with the lengthening of the days after the solstice.
So, to start off, I’ll do a centering/grounding practice. I haven’t talked about centering/grounding in this series, but I will in a later post. My centering practice is to breathe slowly in and out while I say, in my head:
I breathe in. I breathe out.
The world breathes out. The world breathes in.
I breathe in. I breathe out.
You breathe out. You breathe in.
My breathing in corresponds with “the world” breathing out, and my breathing out corresponds with “the world” breathing in. And then, if I’m outside, I will bend down and just touch the earth for a few seconds.
I then will do something to transition into sacred time and space, what ritualists and anthropologists call “liminal” time and space. Again, I haven’t talked about creating sacred space yet in this series, but I will in a future post. I usually begin my rituals with these simple words:
This is my sacred space.
This is my holy fire.
These are the words of my prayer.
In this case, when I say, “This is my fire”, I will start a small fire using flint and steel and tinder. Again, I’m choosing to use this method, rather than matches or a lighter, because it’s a little more “demanding”, and making things a little more difficult can contribute to the feeling of the sacredness of what your doing.
I’ll then begin reciting the words I have chosen. As I said before, it’s ideal to memorize the words. Memorization facilitates internalization. Also, recitation uses a different part of the brain than reading, and I’ve found that reading isn’t conducive to the feeling I’m trying to cultivate in ritual. It’s too left brained. I’ll still have the text handy, though, so I don’t stress about remembering. This particular text is kind of long for memorization (112 words). I think 25-50 word is probably better. But I’ll have eleven nights to practice it.
I’m a collector of quotes. Anytime I hear something that resonates with me, I track down the source, and I save it electronically or in a little book, even if I don’t know when or how I might use it in the future. I suggest keeping your own little book of quotes or phrases that resonate with you and which you can draw from.
The text I chose comes from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. The Christmas themes are obvious, but they are rendered universal in the text. Anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, might be able to say these words meaningfully. I chose it because of the way I felt the first time I heard it read. I believe it was actually at one of the vesper services at my Unitarian church. It really resonated with me. I thought it was beautiful and overflowing with meaning. And in the moment, it felt like I was hearing it spoken by someone else, someone from my deep past or maybe by a prophet. I know that sounds weird, but that’s the best way I’ve come up with to explain how it felt. And it still feels that way a little.
I’ve broken the text into three parts. Before lighting the first candle, I will recite this part:
How short the daylight hours have now become.
How gray the skies, how barren the trees.
A damp and chilling wind has gripped my mind and made me gloomy, too. …
Then, using a taper, I will pass the flame from my fire to the first of the eleven small tealight candles that I will have set out. Each night, I’ll light one more candle. Rather than using the taper to light each candle, though, I’ll pass the flame directly from candle to the other. (Pro tip: If you’re doing this, dip the unlighted candle toward the lighted one, rather than the other way around. Flame goes up, so if you tip the lighted candle, you’ll not only spill wax, but the flame might not pass to the unlit candle below it.) When I have lit the appropriate number of candles, I’ll continue the recitation:
But there is that in me which reaches up toward the light and laughter, bells and carolers,
And knows that my religious myth and dream of reborn joy and goodness must be true,
Because it speaks the truths of older myths,
That light returns to balance darkness, life surges in the evergreen – and in us.
And babes are hope, and saviors of the world, as miracles abound in common things.
I’ll repeat the last phrase, “as miracles abound in common things”, three times for emphasis. I’ve found that repeating key phrases three times is very effective. Sometimes, saying things just once in ritual doesn’t “do it”.
And on the final night, I will finish the recitation:
And join in the gladness of [the new year].— Dori Jeanine Somers, “Reflections on the Resurgence of Joy” (Singing the Living Tradition #653)
Then I’ll sit in silence for a few minutes, watching the candles. When I’m done, I’ll extinguish the candles and repeat the phrase that I always use when closing a ritual by putting out candles:
May the darkness embrace me.
Like the words I used to open the ritual, these are “personally numinous words” for me. You should use your own.
It’s really not a complicated ritual. There’s a simple but powerful gesture–passing the flame–and a recitation of a poem that resonates deeply with me and gestures to something bigger than I can easily explain. And there’s a little deliberate structuring to give it shape and to fit it into this solstice/Christmas/New Year period. And that’s it.
I hope it’s been helpful to see an example of the outcome of the process I described in the last post for creating ritual.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.