Reclaiming Quarterly Web Features Back Issues Subscribe Ads/Submissions Site Index Reclaiming Home

The Post-Modern Pagan Wheel of the Year

by Branna Davida

Two solstices, two equinoxes, Beltane, Lammas, Samhain, and Imbolc. These are the eight great spokes of Paganism's yearly wheel. They have been largely co-opted by modern society and Christianity, but pagans have reclaimed them and use them once again to mark the passage of time.

There is of course a difference between our ancestors' observations of these days and our own. They weren't reclaiming anything, they were just living their lives. These days became sacred because they had a specific functional significance. They were chosen for a reason — and whatever it was, it was practical.

So if we truly want to emulate our foremothers and fathers, if we want to re-ignite the practice of sanctifying that which is intrinsically significant in the wheel of our year, we shouldn't be sanctifying their special days. We should sanctify our own.

With all due respect, I'd like to propose the North American Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. If we followed this calendar, we would reclaim an absent but vital aspect of our heritage: we would be celebrating days that touch our lives not only symbolically but functionally.

With all due respect, I'd like to propose the North American Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. If we followed this calendar, we would reclaim an absent but vital aspect of our heritage: we would be celebrating days that touch our lives not only symbolically but functionally.

The year begins the first weekend in April with The Time of Saving Sacred Daylight. Even though we know it is coming, we are surprised year after year to be called forth from the darkness before we expect it. We rejoice that every year the light abruptly returns and reminds us of its expansive powers, magically hanging in the sky for an extra 60 minutes. If we neglect to observe the significance of this day, we will miss the train and be docked an hour's wages at work. But what really matters is: We made it. Winter is over.

Late in the month of May we celebrate a weekend dedicated to The Day of Holy Memories of Dead People, which reminds us to be grateful that we are alive and it is spring.  May is the only month of the year that offers mild weather in all fifty of the United States, and this pivotal weekend is a celebration of all that is good and joyful. Those in cold climates can at last wear shorts; those in hot climates have not yet begun to swelter; students can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The entire country takes a moment on a Monday (a moon-day) to stop and breathe in a deep, appreciative breath. This is the real holiday of remembering our beloved dead — and as we all know, what is remembered, lives.

Our next sacred day is observed religiously by the rest of the country, but we appreciate the deep root of it a little better than the average observer. This is the Fourth Day of July, used as an occasion by most as a time to get drunk and aesthetically blow things up in the night sky. For neo-pagans, it is a sober day of gratitude for the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. (This does not mean that you can't get drunk.) The founding of America as a country separated Church from State and guaranteed freedom of religious expression. There's a pretty good chance that the rest of the Western world would not have adapted to such an ecumenical attitude if the U.S. hadn't paved the way, so this day should have meaning to non-Americans as well. Neo-Paganism can flourish out in the open (legally, if not always logistically) because of those guys from 200 years ago. I would probably not be writing this if it weren't for them, and you would probably not be reading it. We should never take that for granted — this is the neo-Pagan Thanksgiving.

Summer has its own magic and does not require any particular event to remind us of its power. But summer cannot last. The days grow shorter and cooler, and we must prepare ourselves for what follows, whether we see it as good or ill. The emphasis shifts away from the playfulness of summer to  preparation for winter, which is why we observe The Day of Labor. We prepare ourselves for the coming of harder times.  We acknowledge the poignancy of the moment in the name of the holiday. But mostly it is a last-gasp opportunity to say goodbye to summer fun by reliving it with a vengeance.

Nothing culturally brings our attention to the first day of autumn, but we sure as hell can't ignore The Loss of Sacred Daylight at the end of October.  This holy day is a two-edged sword: it robs us of an hour of the already-faltering sun, and makes even the least observant among us very aware that winter is approaching fast. But it also reminds us of the more "yin" quality of the winter months by insisting that we sleep an hour later.  We are reminded of the slower, sleepier energy of the coming darkness.

If we are good pagans we are probably spending so much energy blocking out an awareness of that thing called (inaccurately) Christ-mass that we might miss the little astronomical blip known as Winter Solstice... but by the time December 31 rolls about we are starting to pay attention to Time again. That's why we celebrate The Delusional Turning Over of New Leaves on that day. Not as if it were actually the start of the year (we know better), but as the supposed beginning of lengthening days. Although the new year actually started ten days earlier, with all the light pollution in North America, we can hardly tell the difference. But once there's a new 4-digit number to enter in our checkbook, we are suddenly catapulted into an awareness of Time, and of how we want to use it. It doesn't last long, but it is something to meditate on for a while as we labor our way through the coldest days.

The final spoke of the wheel is a defiant response to the harshest, lowest point of the year. This final Holy Day is a trial, a calling to spiritual arms. We are asked to face all that is shameful about our world: crass materialism, emotional manipulation, a perversion of spiritual myth and symbol into stereotypes, an appalling reversion to outdated gender roles, societal pressure to identify oneself through one's relationship to a single other human being... yes, I am talking about The Day of Cynicism, Cardboard Hearts, and Odorless Roses in the middle of February. This is a day for the Pagan community to come together and cheerfully, defiantly celebrate the polymorphousness of true human sexuality and love. If we can each make it through the sickness that so many unsuspecting non-Pagans fall victim to, we know we have won out over a force far, far worse than death. We have earned the right to look forward with gratitude and joy to what is only a few weeks away...the return of the sun, the chance to save the sacred daylight once again.

Branna Davida, a Pagan Buddhist Jew, is a writer who lives in New England.