One of the reasons that I am a Unitarian Universalist is that I get the freedom to engage and reengage with deep questions of ultimacy, interconnection, and meaning. I can also find or create spiritual practices with as much authenticity as I am able to bring to them (while being careful to avoid engaging in cultural misappropriation). Many of these questions and practices involve the relationship between humans and the rest of the world around us. What does it mean to be in right relationship, in mutual relationship, in sacred relationship with the earth?
As we head toward winter solstice (the longest night of the solar year) I think about how humans have marked the change of seasons using the wheel of the year. The solstices and the equinoxes mark the quarters, then cross-quarters mark the midpoints. This is a universal pattern. Cultures all over the world that retain a relationship to the rhythms and constraints of the natural world have a way of marking and acknowledging these turns of the season in their traditions. Whether they were hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies, anticipating the changes in weather and growth patterns during the year was essential to survival.
I first became familiar with the wheel from my Wiccan friends, especially Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and Beltane. Remnants of these five show up in the secularized Christian holidays of Halloween, Christmas, Groundhog Day, Easter, and May Day. On one of my trips to Latvia, where my father was born, I learned there was a similar wheel of the year that has endured from pre-Christian times. It includes practices and celebrations that my father and grandparents adapted when they fled from their homeland and settled in Michigan. Though those generations have passed on, I have memories and old photographs that have served as clues as to how parts of the wheel were still practiced: wearing wreaths of oak leaves and flowers at summer solstice, a vase full of pussy willows in the spring, my grandmother marking each loaf of bread with the Cross of Māras, the symbol for the festival celebrating the first rye harvest in early August. Some of the old rituals no longer apply, such as when the horses are brought into the barn in the late fall or taken out to pasture in the early spring.
Engaging with the wheel of the year while comparing the traditions of the past with my present context is becoming a spiritual practice. There is an element of lament, as I notice the shifts in growing patterns due to climate change. There is an element of mystery and wonder, as I become aware of and observe more plants, insects, birds, trees, and fungi over time. How might I incorporate old traditions while discovering new ways to ritualize the rhythm of the year? How do I make meaning as the world around me changes?
In Singing the Living Tradition, the Rev. Mark Belletini included hymn #73 “Chant for the Seasons.” There were few songs or hymns that reflected the turn of the seasons in warmer climates, so he wrote one to a traditional Czech folk tune when he was serving our Hayward, CA congregation. (Fun Fact: The same tune was used for an old Andrew Sisters song.)
I invite you to take time as the days grow shorter to bring your awareness to the details of the shifting of the seasons. Where do you find mystery and wonder? What calls you to lament?