High noon

I like to equate the eight solar festivals to a day. That puts the winter solstice at midnight, Imbolc in the wee hours of the morning, Samhain sometime between sunset and midnight, and so on. The summer solstice is equivalent to high noon. The time of the actual solstice varies from year to year, and can be at night which just does not work for me metaphorically. So I prefer to celebrate it at noon on whatever day it falls.

Years ago, it occurred to me that noon isn’t 12:00 PM in summer because of Daylight Saving Time. “Noon” in the sense of the time that the Sun is at its high point, is actually 1:00 PM (“spring ahead”). Well, that’s an easy enough change if I remember it, which I don’t always, because “noon” and “12:00 PM” are synonymous in my mind.

Sun at peak of tower.

But you can get even geekier about this if you want to. Up until the nineteenth century, each community kept “local time.” But with the development of railways, people could travel so quickly that they had to change their watches in town after town as they moved east or west, and it made scheduling difficult. Out of this came time zones and the adoption of a generic time that’s the same for all communities within a zone. This makes life easier in many ways, but I wanted to know when local noon would have been for where I live. Living in an apartment, setting up a sundial wasn’t all that practical. Luckily, you can figure this out if you know where you are, where your time zone is based, and how long it takes the Sun to move a certain distance. So, to give you something without much use except for the occasional ritual or meditation, I present a method of finding your local noon.

(No, your ancestors didn’t do this. They didn’t have to—local time was normal for them.)

Just to make it clear, this will not tell you the exact moment of the summer solstice. You can skip all this math and look the time and date up when you need to.

Local Noon

  1. It’s summer: remember to start your calculations at 1:00 PM instead of noon. You could stop at this point and be pretty accurate.
  2. Find the longitude of your location. You could Google it (“Boston, MA longitude”), or heck, there are apps that will tell you where you are. You want the number with the W (west), not the N (north).
    • Boston, MA: 71.0589º W
    • St. Paul, MN: 93.0936º W
  3. Longitude is often shown in degrees and minutes, but in looking up the longitude for my city, I realized that it’s also shown as degrees and a decimal, like I listed above. To convert that decimal to minutes, multiply the decimal by 60.
    • Boston, MA: 0.0589 x 60 = 3.534′ which rounds up to 4′. Boston’s longitude is 71º 04′ W.
    • St. Paul, MN: 0.0936 x 60 = 5.616′ which rounds up to 6′. St. Paul’s longitude is 93º 06′ W.
  4. Look up the meridian of your time zone:
Time Zone Meridian
Atlantic 60º
Eastern 75º
Central 90º
Mountain 105º
Pacific 120º
Alaska 135º
Hawaii-Aleutian 150º
  1. Chances are, there’s a difference of at least a few degrees between your location and your time zone’s meridian. The time it takes the Sun to travel between the two is the difference between the generic noon for your time zone and your local noon. So now, calculate the difference between the two, subtracting the smaller number from the larger.
    • Boston, MA: 75º – 71º 04′ = 3º 56′.
    • St. Paul, MN: 93º 06′ – 90º = 3º 06′.
  2. Now you convert units of longitude into units of time (ooh, aah!). At the rate the Earth rotates, the Sun moves 15º of longitude in an hour. But you probably aren’t that far away from your time zone’s meridian, so we need smaller units.
Longitude Units Time Units
15º 1 hour
4 minutes
15′ 1 minute
1′ 4 seconds
  • Boston, MA: 3º x 4 minutes = 12 minutes. 56′ is three chunks of 15′ (that is, 45′) which are another 3 minutes of time, plus the leftover 11′ which adds 44 seconds of time. 12 minutes + 3 minutes + 44 seconds = 15 minutes, 44 seconds, or 16 minutes of time for people without a stopwatch.
  • St. Paul, MN: 3º x 4 minutes = 12 minutes. 6′ x 4 seconds = 24 seconds. 12 minutes + 24 seconds = 12 minutes, 24 seconds, which is just 12 minutes of time, practically speaking.
  1. And now to find the time of your local noon! Add or subtract that time you just came up with to 1:00 pm (remember Daylight Saving Time). If you’re east of your time zone’s meridian, subtract your time difference. If you’re west of your time zone’s meridian, add your time difference.
    • Boston, MA: Boston is east of the Eastern Time Zone meridian, so high noon will come just a bit before 1:00 PM. 1:00 – 16 minutes = 12:44 PM EDT.
    • St. Paul, MN: St. Paul is west of the Central Time Zone meridian, so high noon will come just a bit after 1:00 PM. 1:00 + 12 minutes = 1:12 PM CDT.

Joyous Solstice to you!

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photo credit: Gnomon via photopin (license)

Winter Cross-Quarter

Having found Autumn Cross-Quarter so much to my liking, I’m celebrating Winter Cross-Quarter. This doesn’t seem quite as radical as Autumn Cross-Quarter which came a week after Samhain and fell in a different month; Winter Cross-Quarter is only a day after Imbolc this year. But if anything, I have more emotional investment in Winter Cross-Quarter. I have made it to the halfway point of winter. This feels like a genuine accomplishment, one that I don’t feel during the other three seasons. Indeed, at the halfway point of summer, even if it’s been hot, humid, and completely miserable weather, I’m a bit sad because, you know, summer is going away. Halfway through winter, and it’s Yay hallelujah!

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photo credit: Canadian Pacific via photopin cc

I’m also hoping I can work up more enthusiasm for Winter Cross-Quarter than for Imbolc. Groundhog Day never interested me much, even as a kid, and when I became Wiccan, the descriptions of Imbolc weren’t all that much more inspiring. I could appreciate that ewes were having lambs and how that would matter to an agrarian community way back when. But I’m urban and the product of a high-tech culture and the distance was just too great for me to connect across. Even knitting with wool—about as close to sheep as I’m ever likely to come, along with seeing them at the state fair—didn’t lead me feel like this was one of “my” holidays.

For Winter Cross-Quarter, I’m focusing on its seasonal attributes. Even sealed away at home or in an office most of my waking hours, I’ve noticed the days are getting longer. Spring is conceivable—March is next month (!) and not four months away. While it’s definitely lighter longer outside, it’s also a lot colder now than it was at Winter Solstice. Sure, this is the halfway point of the season—that means we’re in the heart of winter. (Insert Winston Churchill’s quote here: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Especially apropos given that staying still in frigid weather can hurt or kill you.) But even if it’s too cold here for crocuses to poke up through the snow, I sense that new life is stirring somewhere.

Winter Cross-Quarter falls in February, a month often dedicated to purification. The Christian holiday of Candlemas (February 2) is also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. In the Roman calendar, Februarius was the last month of the year, named after Februus, the god of purification, and was seen as a good time to clean things up before starting a new year. I totally understand the need to purify something at this point in the season. Apartments, especially older ones, get a certain stale odor in the winter. While I’m unwilling to commit myself to a full housecleaning, it’s warm enough today that I can open the windows a bit for a few minutes for some fresh air. Sometimes the simplest rituals are the best.

Autumn Cross-Quarter

Today is the midpoint of autumn, halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. For years now, I’ve felt called to celebrate this date rather than October 31, but feeling connected to a date and knowing how to commemorate it are two different things. One simple thing, though, was figuring out what to call it. I’d been calling it astronomical Samhain, but that’s mostly been confusing. Starting this year, I’ve decided to follow the practice of some humanistic/naturalistic Pagans and call it Autumn Cross-Quarter. If it doesn’t lend itself to quick wishes—I don’t expect to see “Happy Autumn Cross-Quarter!” on greeting cards anytime soon—at least you know it has something to do with the season.

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photo credit: derpunk via photopin cc

Ever since I learned that the shift from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar meant that the traditional dates for the cross-quarters no longer fall on the midpoints of the seasons, I’ve felt slightly “off” celebrating them then. Still, I tried. Samhain is big enough that there is a real feeling of community on that date, and there’s power in that. But I’ve drifted away from public rituals over the years, I don’t belong to a coven or similar group, and generally the only celebration of any holiday I have now is the one I do on my own. So it’s made more sense to celebrate the one where my heart is. Which is today, not a week ago.

I’ve been noticing more Pagan observation of November 7 in recent years (or November 6: like the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarters vary a bit in their dates). Sometimes it’s called Samhain, sometimes Autumn Cross-Quarter. Maybe it’s a desire to be more accurate date-wise, but I suspect there are other reasons. After all, if you celebrate Samhain on November 7, you can join our culture in celebrating Halloween on October 31 and not have nearly the schedule conflicts you might otherwise.

An accurate date isn’t the only reason I’m focusing more on the Autumn Cross-Quarter. Samhain is about remembering the dead and honoring the ancestors, and I want to keep that in my Autumn Cross-Quarter celebration. But these holidays also highlight when we are in the year, and I’m drawn more to that aspect: what does it mean to be halfway through autumn? Around here, our glorious fall color has faded as the winds have finally brought down the bulk of the leaves. The temperatures are dropping into sweater weather. It gets darker earlier now that we’ve gone off Daylight Saving Time, which just feels right, even if it’s putting a damper on my evening activities (like the colder weather wouldn’t have?). It’s time to prepare traditional foods, light a candle in the growing darkness, and settle in (at least psychologically) for the year.

Reschedule?

I have ended up doing laundry on New Year’s Day for at least ten years now. I usually cook as well—delis this far north are a little hit-or-miss when it comes to hoppin’ John. Maybe I should just observe Vestalia on January 1 and find some other goddess or god to honor in June.

O is for offerings

…for there is no banquet of mortals without thee, none where, Hestia, they be not wont first and last to make to thee oblation of sweet wine. (Homeric Hymn XXIX, trans. Andrew Lang)

For much of my life, “offerings” have meant “money.” In the churches I’ve known, people offer money, laid in a plate during the service or tithed via check or credit card. This is used for church expenses and charitable works, and the churches I’ve visited as an adult haven’t said much about these being offerings to God. (Of course, this might have something to do with the fact that most of these churches are Unitarian Universalist.)

As a Wiccan, I learned to save a portion of the food and drink from a ritual and leave it outside for the Goddess and God. There were other kinds of offerings, of course, usually left on an altar, although I rarely managed the altar, much less the offerings. My romantic imagination latched onto these offerings as it did to the rest of Wicca. It’s kind of hard to explain; something like real gods, real magic, real offerings—a package deal of the best sort. I didn’t think the Goddess and God needed these offerings, not in the way I needed, say, a paycheck, but I had the sense that Someone was receiving them and that sense gave them meaning.

After letting my spirituality go dormant for several years, I’m being drawn back to Paganism. But even without actively practicing my spirituality, my beliefs grew and changed. What’s relevant to this post is that I’ve become a nontheist, which makes offerings both a philosophical and a practical issue for me. With no sense that there are gods as such, why make offerings at all? If I did so, would it be out of habit or superstition, or can I do it without losing my integrity? And if I’m going to make offerings, what should they be and how should I do it?

Hestia statue and candleTime, pondering, and Google (“why make offerings”) gave me some answers to the philosophical dilemma to think about. One Buddhist site explained, “We make offerings to create positive energy and develop good qualities such as giving with a respectful attitude and gratitude. Moreover, the offerings remind us of certain teachings of the Buddha.” I also realized that theists consider these issues as well—why do you offer a libation to a god who doesn’t need it? So on a Hellenic site, I read that we are attracted to the beauty and goodness of the gods, and offerings express that attraction. I can see making offerings that remind me of qualities of the gods that I want to emulate. And while I am not convinced that there are actual gods out there, I see beauty in what they represent. I’ll need to think about this more, but I’m starting to see reasons that I might make offerings nowadays and mean it. And these were just the reasons I found on two sites; there were pages of results I haven’t gotten to yet.

However the philosophical angle comes out, the practical aspect continues to challenge me. Right now, I feel drawn toward specific gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology. One of those goddesses is Hestia, and one of the best-established facts about Hestia is that traditionally she receives the first and last parts of any sacrifice in the household. If I decide to honor her (or the idea of her) with physical offerings, I’ve got to figure out what to do with them. Many Pagans pour drinks out on the lawn and leave food for the local wildlife. This works if you live in a house, but I’ve never figured out how to do that while living in an apartment. My current apartment building has no backyard, just a parking lot connected to an alley. There are a couple of patches of grass out back, but they’re directly in front of the garden-level apartments, and I don’t want to be practically standing in the neighbors’ living room while leaving offerings. So I’ve ended up waiting until well after sunset, going out to the far end of the parking lot, and slipping offerings under a tussock of grass hidden from view by the recycling bins. Any devout thoughts of gods, nature, the seasons, beauty, or whatever is driven out by the practical concerns of trying not to trip or slide on anything in the poor lighting and worrying that someone will see me and start asking questions. As a religious practice, it lacks something. A daily offering to Hestia? Ha. I tried taking a single flake of breakfast cereal, leaving it in front of her statue until I left for work in the morning, and then tossing it in the bushes lining the alley as I headed for the bus. It felt like littering. I quit.

So the issue of my making offerings (or not) isn’t resolved by any means. But if I choose to make offerings, it will be because doing so means something to me spiritually, which is more than placing a bit of money in an offering plate has ever managed.

N is for names

When I became Wiccan, I threw myself into it with all the passion of the recent convert. I attempted ritual at every sabbat and esbat. I began to build my Pagan library, and collected the “accessories:” wand, athame, candles, symbols of the four elements, and so on. What I didn’t adopt right away was a Craft name.

There are several reasons someone might use one or more magical names. I understood the need for anonymity the best. It made sense to me that someone might want to keep their Paganism a secret; I could easily imagine child custody battles, hostile neighbors, and threats of unemployment. I also understood how someone might want a special name upon initiation to symbolize their rebirth into this new religion, and that a magical name could help you get into a magical mind-set.

Common Pagan name components.
Common Pagan name components.

So all of these made sense to me, but none of them really applied to my situation. As a solitary practitioner from the get-go, I wasn’t practicing with anyone who would need to call me anything. There was a Pagan community around me, but I rarely got any closer to it than at public rituals, and I usually never needed to introduce myself to anyone at those. My friends thought this new religion of mine was cool, so there was no need to hide Wicca from them. My parents weren’t supportive, but I lived two states away from them and didn’t need a special name to disguise what I was doing—all I had to do was just not tell them what I was up to. And becoming Wiccan hadn’t felt as much of a thorough change as I imagined a rebirth would be. I had a different religion—heck, I finally had a religion for the first time in my life—but I still essentially felt like me.

Still, just because I didn’t need a magical name didn’t mean I couldn’t have one, and yet I kept not taking that step. I understood all these good reasons intellectually, but in practice, magical names seemed like a grown-up version of “let’s pretend.” The names I heard sounded like they were fresh from the pages of the nearest fantasy novel, occasionally sprinkled with Lady this and Lord that. Basically, I felt silly and I couldn’t get into the spirit of the game. (Sure, now I know that being able to be childlike is a good thing in Wicca or Paganism, but at the time, I didn’t get the point of it all.) Plus, I didn’t see anything wrong with my given name. It means “consecrated to God,” and I enjoyed the irony that I was off becoming consecrated to a God (and Goddess) that wasn’t the God originally intended. It had always seemed like a horridly pious name when I was a child. Now, I finally appreciated its meaning, and I wasn’t ready to give it up (in a religious context).

You will note, of course, that the name I sign to these blog posts sounds pretty much like all those names I couldn’t take seriously years ago.* It’s all the Internet’s fault. As more and more people went online, having an alternate identity finally did feel like a matter of personal safety. Being exposed to all those magical names over the years, I naturally chose a pseudonym for myself that was similar to them. And so the Internet has done for me what becoming Pagan never quite managed!

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*By the way, it’s not “silver ‘n’ fire.” Silvern is an archaic adjectival form of silver (think golden and gold).

Ancestor disconnect

You can’t really say my family belongs to any one denomination of Christianity. Me, I was raised as a non-practicing United Methodist. Certain of my cousins, on the other hand, are Catholic and their Catholicism is obviously important to them. So I’ve found it both puzzling and charming that these devout Catholics are firm believers in the powers of the ancestors. Can’t remember where you put your glasses? “Did you ask Grandma?” Need a parking space? “Ask Grandma!” I’ve never heard any of them mention a saint’s name, much less Jesus or the Virgin Mary—Grandma handles our family’s problems just fine on her own.

I envy my cousins’ easy connection to our ancestors (one ancestor, anyway), as I’ve never felt it myself. This wasn’t an issue back in those non-practicing Methodist days, but as a Pagan, it comes up every fall (Samhain) at a minimum. I have never known how to honor these ancestors who are just names to me without feeling hypocritical. Even now, having had friends and close family die, I am still at a loss about how to do anything meaningful, or if I should be doing anything at all. What does it mean to honor your ancestors, anyway? Ancestor altars sound nice, but my track record for maintaining and using altars is iffy at best. Nor do I come from a culture where altars were in everyday use. I just can’t see my parents or grandmother being comfortable with an altar, which defeats the purpose of honoring them with one. I’m not sure if there even is life after death. If there isn’t, are ancestors anything more than just memories? And if you have no personal memories of them, what then?

Adding to my frustration, it seems that everyone that I’ve read on the topic has found a practice that works for them, be it an altar, a ritual, special prayers, or something else. (Of course, if they’re comfortable with their practice, they’re likely to feel confident enough to write about it. If there are other confused souls like myself, they may very well be keeping their doubts to themselves. Not that this nicely reasonable thought really reduces my insecurities!) And so I’ve added ancestors—the whole messy topic of them—to my ever-growing list of Pagan-themed insecurities, along with wondering why I never sense energy, don’t remember ever having a psychic impression of anything, and can’t seem to get the hang of keeping a Book of Shadows.

Last week, I started rereading The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman. I’m having the same reaction I had when I read it in 2007: I’m fascinated by his ideas if not necessarily his writing. But this time around, sentences are jumping out at me that I don’t remember noticing the first time around, such as this quote about ancestors:

‘Ancestry’ in our culture implies chromosomal connection; ancestors are those humans from whom I have inherited my body tissues. Biogenetics replaces the spirit world.

In other societies an ancestor could be a tree, a bear, a salmon, a member of the dead, a spirit in a dream, a special spooky place. These may be addressed as ‘Ancestor’ and an altar home built for them, away from the home you inhabit. Ancestors are not bound to human bodies and certainly not confined to physical antecedents whose descent into your sphere allowed only via your natural family. Only if a member of the natural family (itself not always determinable), say a grandparent or an uncle or an aunt, is worthy enough, powerful enough, knowledgeable enough, may he or she become an ancestor in the sense of a guardian spirit. To be an ancestor you do not need to be dead, but you do need to know the dead—that is, the invisible world and how and where it touches the living.

Is Hillman factually correct? I have no idea. But as we enter fall and the season of dying, and as Samhain begins to come up on calendars and in conversation, I find the idea of ancestors who aren’t just the people who came before you on your family tree to be a relief. On the one hand, a tree or a special spooky place are something my oh-so-sensible mind can appreciate; on the other hand, they’re not so determinedly non-Pagan that it would be inappropriate to honor them in a Pagan fashion. I don’t have to rush to a decision on if I believe in an afterlife or not. Hillman’s definition frees me to find ancestors who mean something to me, leaving my deceased relatives as family.

Other people’s solstices

Rather than perform a full-blown summer solstice ritual myself (I did light a candle and think solsticey thoughts), I decided to attend a ritual at a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. The church is in the throes of remodeling, resulting in the ritual being held in the sanctuary. It was an awkward fit. Unitarian Universalism is no longer a Christian denomination, but the design of this sanctuary followed a standard Christian church layout, with rows of pews facing a chancel. The organizers had done their level best to fit a circle of folding chairs into the chancel. Since the chancel is elevated three stair-levels above the main floor, half the circle was up in the chancel and the other half was squeezed into the aisle between the first row of pews and the lowest stair. But as the lower chairs filled, people began sitting in the front pews rather than go for the upper chairs. We may all have egalitarian ideals, but there’s a lot of conditioning that says that a chancel is only for the people actively participating in a service!

The ritual itself was like a Pagan ritual with Christian elements. I don’t mean theological elements, but parts of what I think of as the Basic Protestant Service (BPS). Most noticeably, there were programs. And honestly, programs do solve some of the recurring problems I’ve seen at Pagan rituals. Instead of trying to teach chants and songs to participants ahead of time, the organizers simply printed the words and music in the program. This meant that they could use chants and songs that were more complicated than what people are usually asked to learn before Pagan rituals. Heck, with programs in hand, we even managed a couple of rounds. Programs, though, let the organizers include another element of the BPS: responsive readings. I’ve never been fond of those—a crowd never responds in unison or with much true feeling in their voices—and I didn’t appreciate having them in a ritual, although the poems they were reading were cool.

The ritual had two focus activities. One was a Maypole for the children. Shades of the BPS: it did feel like the children’s time in a Sunday service. Some of the youngest children weren’t sure that this was a good idea at first, so several parents came along for reassurance, but by the end, everyone was laughing. In addition to emotional support, the parents were useful for untangling children from ribbons. Kudos to whoever figured out how to erect a Maypole indoors that could stand strong against all that yanking and pulling! (Without drilling a hole in the floor, that is.) After that, people were invited to place yellow stones for joys and/or blue stones for sorrows in a scale on the altar. This church does this at other services throughout the year, so it both linked this ritual to these other services and seemed particularly appropriate for a solstice or equinox service, what with the symbolism of a scale moving in and out of balance.

By the way, this ritual was 100% deity-free. They called the quarters and dismissed them again at the end, with no mention of any goddess or god in between. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this at their rituals, and I don’t know why it gets to me. It’s not like there’s a lot of theos in my personal theology; I tend to see the Goddess and God as archetypes, even when I’m inviting them in a ritual. The best analogy I can come up with is that a Pagan ritual without gods is sort of like a performance of a sonata for violin and orchestra minus the violin. It would still be nice to listen to, but it’s not the same. Alas, no cakes and ale either. Since there was no energy work, there wasn’t a need for grounding, but its social function would have been nice. Who were these other people who came? I’d like to get to know more Pagans in the area, and a bit of post-ritual eating and drinking would be a good way to work on that. Besides, I like food. Phooey.

Vestalia recap

The nine days are over, and it is the end of Vestalia. I’ve enjoyed the holiday, although I’m convinced that the full run of days is too much for one person to handle without a sisterhood of Vestal Virgins to call on for support.  Next year, I’m likely to just observe the festival day on June 9, or at most that and the first and last days. It has meant something to light a candle to Vesta every day, but that was all I could think of to do most of the time, and it would be too easy for that to become routine.

I started things off with a much cleaner apartment this year (!). A bit of housekeeping wouldn’t be bad preparation for most events, but it’s particularly relevant to Vestalia, which originally involved a ritual cleaning of the Temple of Vesta. I’d love to say it was my great spiritual devotion to Vesta that motivated me to do this cleaning, but it was actually an iPad app for housecleaning. Whatever works.

My apartment is hearth-less, but Vestalia is a holiday for bakers. I was busy with the breadmaker, baking one loaf of barley bread for the festival day, and another yesterday to finish things off tonight. It’s been unusually hot this month; being able to confine the heat of an oven to a relatively small area was wonderful. Between the LED tea light candle, the iPad app, and the breadmaker, this Vestalia was something of a celebration of domestic technology—definitely not part of the traditional festival, but fitting for the modern household. It’s a sobering thought to remember that if I had to clean the entire apartment without any technology—and not just the specialty items like the breadmaker, but the vacuum cleaner, the washer and dryer, and if you want to get really picky, indoor plumbing—I’d have been too worn out and short on time to celebrate anything, and not likely to be in any mood to try. Vesta may be a quiet goddess, but I’m guessing she’s also a hardworking one.