I have to work late, it is Imbolc, and the sun is setting. We usually light a candle in every room at dusk to bring blessings during the cross quarter holiday. "I'll never make it home in time," I mutter to myself as I come bustling out of the convenience store juggling a gallon of milk and bottle of ginger ale, while cramming my change into my purse and deftly avoiding the ice patches on the pavement. Ahh, the challenges of practicing an alternative faith.
As my husband and I stumble in the door, we are greeted by our squealing six-year-old in his Frodo Baggins cape and our two teenage daughters beaming. "Hi Mom, the candles are lit, Happy Imbolc!" I look at my kids with pride. I glance around; yes, little white candles in the living room and kitchen, I know they are in each room glowing merrily away. "What's for dinner?" they add, and I'm on to the flurry of preparing the family meal. As I boil water and open packages from the cupboard, I glance up at the little two-tiered shelf on the kitchen wall that serves as our family altar. It is newly decorated for Imbolc just that morning, and I silently thank the Goddess Brighid for the family traditions that hold us all together with love.
A family Wheel of the Year altar is a wonderful way to bring family energies together and teach the kids about the eight sabbats in a way that is fun. It doesn't take a lot of money, and the whole family can contribute, making this a real blessing to the household. Our family altar is a small shelf I purchased at a discount store for five bucks. We decided to put it in the kitchen, the one place in the house where we all gather. It seemed appropriate.
We keep our altar on the mundane-friendly side with mostly natural representations. We chose not to use big statues of Pan in all his Beltane glory, or flaming pentagrams, so that when an outsider is a guest in our home, it just looks like a pretty shelf with seasonal decorations. But to our family, everything on the altar has a meaning. This is a matter of personal taste, of course, but keep it fun! You can get some great ideas from Llewellyn's Sabbat Series books. Also make sure that you spend a little time discussing the meaning behind the items you choose as you change from one sabbat to the other. The idea is to start a family tradition—a tradition that perhaps your children will carry on in their own homes someday.
Little Treasures—Procured, Made, and Found
You may wish to use some items you will have to replace yearly such as gourds and mini pumpkins for Mabon and Samhain; fresh pine boughs for Yule; or maybe a little vase with summer flowers for Litha. Other items will be used year after year and will eventually inspire that same sentiment that your favorite old holiday tree decorations do.
Some of our favorite items on our altar include a clay sun face made by my daughter for Lughnassah, a cornhusk doll that was a gift from a friend, and a great little porcelain rabbit we picked up at a craft store just for Ostara. We have a small clay cauldron that finds its way onto our altar for several holidays, usually filled with some kind of greenery, or flowers, or both. We always create a safe place on the altar for a votive or tea light, and often an incense burner as well. My teens are allowed to use candles and incense, though they know not to leave these items burning while unattended. The altar is up out of our six-year-old's reach for safety. We let him stand on a chair when we decorate it, and he finds this a great deal of fun, and savors the privilege! We are always happy to lift him up to proudly add a leaf or feather he found in the yard. Everyone gets to help with the decorating for each Sabbat, and we keep our eyes open for new items to add. Occasionally we will make something new, which can be even better!
Shoeboxes are a good way to organize and store the items for each Sabbat. Crystals, special ornaments, little containers, small framed art, seasonal silk flowers, and natural treasures found outside can all be wrapped carefully in paper or cloth after the altar is changed and put away for the following year. Make sure that you clearly mark box with the name of the corresponding Sabbat and store away in a safe place. If you find an addition during the year for a particular Sabbat, you can easily find the correct box and add the item it to your seasonal collection.
A Sacred Space
Our family altar is a blessed sacred space. Every member of our family is welcome to use the altar to bless a stone they plan to carry in a pocket, or perhaps light a candle for special blessings during the day. Because the altar is a special to our family, we may light a candle and say a blessing during times of family stress, or request protection for a member when away from home. The altar a family creates together links each member together with love. And, after all, the strongest magick comes from the heart.
Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of everyday life it's hard to make time for the spiritual side of life. A family altar makes it easy for the whole bunch to take a moment to remember—even if it's just for a quick zap before the witchlings hit the books or a little extra energy for the family car until you can get it to the shop on payday. Think of your family altar as a magickal lifeline to family togetherness in every season.