We are all familiar with the Wheel of the Year, the pattern of seasons that we reflect in our festivals and celebrations; the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarters when we feast and sing, dance a maypole, wear a mask, or hunt for eggs. But the Wheel of the Year is more than the seasonal festivals. The Wheel of the Year is a teacher offering the same lesson every year: that of birth, growth, increase, and culmination followed by harvest, decrease, and death. As we journey through the years we learn this lesson in different ways and in increasing depth, but it is ever-present as we travel around and around the unceasing circle.
There are eight seasonal festivals—the Winter Solstice, Imbolc, the Spring Equinox, Beltaine, the Summer Solstice, Lammas, the Autumn Equinox, and Samhain—and it would be simple to say that life is divided into the eight parts represented by these festivals; however, there is much more to it than that. Each of these festivals has an equal place on the Wheel of the Year. Each one is necessary for the progression to the next and each exists in balance both with its opposite festival and with the whole Wheel. This may seem straightforward and obvious, but it has wide-reaching implications.
Will we say that the festivals of loss, death, and letting go are equally as important as those of increase, birth, and growth? Will we admit that half of the Wheel is in darkness—as is half of each day and half of each year—and that therefore we must give equal importance to the dark as to the light? Are we prepared to honour and celebrate each of the festivals as fully as the next one; to hold darkness, death, and loss as sacred, and as worthy of honour as light, life, and gain? For this is what the Wheel shows us, as each of the eight is accorded an equal place.
When we apply this teaching not just to the festivals but to our own lives we can learn to be held as fully in our times of despair, illness, grief, confusion, and pain as we are in times of love, joy, success, health, and celebration. We can experience what it is to have every part of our lives acknowledged as sacred, as part of the Wheel, and to see each piece not as an ultimate state of fullness or emptiness but as pieces of a journey that together make up the whole of life. This is one of the most tremendous understandings that Paganism has to offer our mainstream culture, and if it were implemented it could change our whole relationship to death, depression, failure, grief, and loss (and not just because they would receive equal honour, recognition, and validation).
You cannot omit a festival in the Wheel of the Year. The only way to get from the Spring Equinox to the Summer Solstice is through Beltaine. The only way to get from Samhain through to Imbolc is through the Winter Solstice. Each and every festival is essential to the whole of the Wheel, and its progression is insistent. Would we be willing to learn from this, and apply it to our own lives? We cannot get from the youth and innocence of the Spring Equinox through to the success of the Summer Solstice—in any field, be it love, learning, establishing a livelihood, or practicing an art؏without passing through Beltaine. In other words, we must pass through a time of risk, experimentation, wildness, and testing. We cannot get from the Samhain times of loss, grief, and letting go through to the Imbolc time of new life springing up without passing through the rebirth of the Winter Solstice. We cannot simply leap from endings to new beginnings; there needs to be a time of pause and waiting in-between, which allows space for what may seem like a miracle to occur, but which is actually the natural continuation of life.
The more we look at this and live with this the more strongly apparent it becomes that each of these festivals, and what each of them represents in our lives, is vital to the whole. A life lived only in terms of success and joy is unreal. A relationship that is only there in the good times is short-lived. An economy that must always expand is unsustainable. Each section of the Wheel of the Year is essential to the complexity and pattern of the year; each piece of our lives is essential to the whole. We become who we are, and our lives become what they are not just through times of happiness, comfort and safety but at least equally through the times of difficulty, challenge and pain we have experienced. Many of us have discovered that our true characters are formed, our real friendships revealed, and the purpose of our lives understood in times of serious challenge.
It is easy to count our blessings at Imbolc, plant seeds and paint eggs at the Spring Equinox, dance with our friends and lovers at Beltaine, and feast and celebrate at the Summer Solstice. It is not so easy to acknowledge loss at Lammas, to harvest (and thus complete our projects) at the Autumn Equinox, to honour the place of death at Samhain, or to wait in the long darkness for new hope at the Winter Solstice. Yet, if we don't give these two halves of the Wheel of the Year equal weight we are not just in denial of the truth, we are prejudicing ourselves, our children, and our communities against half of our lives. We are abandoning those in grief, pain, and suffering and learn also to abandon ourselves at the difficult and testing times of our lives. We lose the balance and we lose the mystery, for it is in the dark half of the Wheel that the depths of its secrets are contained, not the light half.
Each one of the Festivals on the Wheel of the Year is balanced against another one, its opposite. The Summer Solstice is balanced against the Winter Solstice, Lammas against Imbolc. They are equal and opposite; equal because each of them occupies the same amount of time and space in the Wheel and opposite because they occur exactly six months apart, and also because while the Northern hemisphere is experiencing one of them, simultaneously the Southern hemisphere is experiencing the other. Their themes complement and balance each other. The light born at the Winter Solstice reaches its fullest expression at the Summer Solstice. The seeds planted at Imbolc are harvested at Lammas, and the seeds saved from the harvest at Lammas are planted again at Imbolc. Neither can exist without the other, and when we consider both hemispheres—and thus the earth as a whole—it can be seen that, like the light and dark faces of the Goddess, these two festivals are two expressions of one thing. They don't just balance each other, they occur simultaneously.
To examine this concept in our own lives would be to consider how the promise of death is present at birth, how seeds of joy lie contained within grief; how gain and loss interact. It is a much more holistic view than the unrelenting drive towards growth and increase given credence in our society; more complex and nuanced as well as balanced. If we truly understood and lived this perhaps, our whole emphasis on achievement would be altered; perhaps our ability to sustain ourselves and our loved ones through difficult times would be dramatically increased, and possibly our dependence on prescription and other drugs, outward shows of success in the forms of consumerism, and our near-hysteria about everyone conforming to acceptable social models of happiness would disappear, or at least undergo serious re-examination.
In the cycle of the Wheel of the Year, there's a piece that's often overlooked. You could see it as a theme essential to every one of the eight festivals, but diagrammatically it's a piece that lies between two of the Festivals. This is the place of mysteries. There's a kind of hinge in the Wheel and it's hidden in the darkness, making it hard to see. We have to know and trust it is there and that it will bring us through each time. It's found in the time between Samhain and the Winter Solstice, the time when everything has died but life has not yet been born again. It has parallels in the dark moon, the Underworld, and the grief and loss we feel after each death. It's the place of transition and holds the secret to the Wheel of the Year. It's what makes it a wheel instead of a straight line, the place where the ending becomes the beginning again.
Every one of us has times in our lives where we feel as if we have lost everything. This may or may not be literally true, but that is the experience. Maybe we have lost something so significant to us—a job, a relationship, our health, a loved one—that we no longer know how to go on. Perhaps we have slipped into a kind of anomie; on the outside our life continues, looking normal, but we know, from the inside, that we are barely present and meaning is absent. Perhaps we have reached a crisis, or we are struggling with failure, addiction, pain, despair, or poverty. We experience these times as intensely individual, but in fact they happen to everyone. It even seems as if they are essential; if you love, you will experience loss. If you risk, sometimes you will fail. If you are human, at least some pain and suffering will be yours, and eventually each one of us will die.
When we plot events in our lives on the Wheel of the Year these times of intense loss, mourning, and coming adrift belong in Samhain. And yet Samhain is also the festival of mystery, the time when the other worlds can be glimpsed and accessed and the time when spirit is closest to us. Samhain is also the festival preceding the Winter Solstice, the moment when the year will be born again. Samhain is the gateway. Does this mean that times of loss and despair, utter crisis, and complete uncertainty are also a gateway? That those times when we feel most abandoned by the world are times when we can reach out to the other worlds, the inner worlds of spirit, of deep knowing and the place where the mystery resides?
I think it does. What is most shocking about talking with survivors of devastating personal crises is how often they say that it changed their lives for the better. However terrible the events were in themselves—and we are talking about things such as the loss of a child, a crippling accident, abuse, life-threatening illnesses, financial ruin—people who've come through them report that they found great strength, meaning, and vision as a result of those experiences. It made them who they are, it revealed great gifts, taught them what was important, and showed them their life direction. This ability to lose everything and grow is stamped into the Wheel of the Year. What happens in the decaying segment of the year—between Samhain and the Winter Solstice—turns everything around to allow, or even create, a new beginning.
This is a parallel with the dark moon, when the moon disappears entirely but then reappears as a new moon, a few days later. It parallels countless myths where the death of the Goddess or God (such as Tammuz, Inanna, Persephone, and Christ) leads not to their eternal absence, but to their rebirth. Yet instead of honouring those seasons of our lives that contain this death and loss and despair as times of great importance, where the sacred mysteries reside and that give birth to something new, we shun and revile them both in ourselves and others. We seek to avoid them, deny them, and end them almost before they've begun. This is not what the Wheel of the Year teaches.
These times of difficulty and testing to the absolute limits of one's strength are the times when the mysteries are closest to the surface; the time when the veils between the worlds are lifted and we can choose a new direction, a new life. To accept this goes against everything we have been taught. Yet in the natural world it is played out again and again, endlessly. Summer turns to winter turns to autumn turns to spring, every year. The Wheel of the Year offers us a model of being with our own lives that is holistic, reverent, and balanced.
Will you join the dance? Will you say that the dark is equal with the light and that times of grief, uncertainty, and despair should be accorded equal weight with times of happiness and success? Will you learn how to do this in your own life, and the lives of your family and community? To do this is to embrace the Wheel of the Year not just as a pretty pattern of celebrations echoing rural calendars but to recognise it as teacher and guide; accepting its mysteries and opening ourselves to be profoundly changed by them.