Finding Meaning and Connection in the Wheel of the Year

This week, Robinne Gray explores the Wheel of the Year and what it means to her. Most readers will be familiar with at least four spokes of this eight-spoke wheel (the equinoxes and solstices). But the cross-quarter days can hold power and meaning as well. Read on to learn more, and if you find yourself particularly intrigued, mark your calendars for June 1, when Bart Everson will lead June’s Gaian Discussion on his book on the Wheel of the Year, Spinning in Place.

Go with Gaia,

Erik

I’m writing this a few weeks past February 1, a date that falls roughly at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. When I woke up that morning the air felt just a little bit different. Some of that was due to tangible, observable factors: an earlier sunrise, a warming trend in the weather. But there was also a …feeling. I wasn’t thinking consciously of the temperature or of the time the sun peeked over the horizon. My body and mind subconsciously sensed the world around me—humidity, smells, shadows—and with the experience borne of decades of living, “felt” the distant arrival of spring, like far-off music.

In February, nature starts to waken, stimulating all our senses. (Image by jplenio via Pixabay.)

Most of my life I made no note of such phenomena. I didn’t notice, and moreover I didn’t care. The natural world was simply a stage set for my personal dramas; I judged the weather, hours of daylight by whether I found them agreeable or whether they inconvenienced me. Did the sun dare wake me too early? Was the day too hot or too cold for my comfort? Did rain interfere with my plans?

Over the past several years, marking the change of seasons has become a grounding and meaningful practice for me. It’s a practice that evolved over time, but I distinctly recall its genesis. Some years ago I was in a relationship with a man who was culturally Jewish, and because neither of us affiliated with any faith tradition, religion as such was generally a non-issue…until the year we, two avowedly secular people, found ourselves getting testy with each other around the winter holidays. Our house had a menorah and a Christmas tree, but my partner felt resentful of the majority culture around Christmas and would sometimes say snide things about it. I found myself feeling defensive of Christmas and all the memories it held for me, even though I had no real emotional investment in either Santa Claus or Jesus. I just liked the merriment and music, the feasting, the warm lights glowing in the dark and cold.

At their root, perhaps both of these holidays are about the return of light to the world… (Image by Shoshanah via flickr.)

Around that same time, I knew a mother of young children who told me how each December she would get out the globe and a flashlight and explain the solstice to her kids. I was vaguely aware that some pagan folks celebrated the winter solstice, though I had no personal reference point for the practice. The idea was new to me, but the more I considered the solstice as an ancient and nonsectarian winter festival, the more I was drawn to the idea. Not just rationally, as a practical solution to our household holiday issue (which resolved when we eventually split up). Rather, something deep in my core responded to solstice: yes, this is it. Beyond consumerism and dogma, older than human culture yet retaining a sense of connection and wonder and mythic narrative—the return of light in the dark—solstice became my primary winter holiday.

From that first awareness, my interest and curiosity grew. If the winter solstice is worthy of observance and celebration, I mused, why not its counterpart, the summer solstice? And the points between, the spring and fall equinoxes? These phenomena were noted on every wall calendar and day planner I owned, but up to that point I’d paid them little attention. As I sought out material about these “celestially auspicious occasions,” as one writer calls them, I learned they were historically marked by many cultures and are important to contemporary pagans reconstructing an Earth-based spiritual path. Celtic cultures also marked the points between the solstices and equinoxes, which map loosely onto what are more popularly known in our time and culture as Candlemas (or Groundhog Day), May Day, Harvest Home, and Halloween.

These eight points along the path of the Earth around the sun—the solstices, equinoxes, and days in between known as cross-quarter days—collectively form a contemporary conception of the Wheel of the Year. It can be easy to criticize the Wheel as a mishmash of older beliefs and practices, except that they are rooted in real celestial phenomena that happen whether we humans observe them or not. Scholars have researched and written on the significance of ancient cultural festivals and the extent to which they were or weren’t appropriated by Christianity, but I’m not much interested in that aspect. The celestial phenomena are as real in my time as any, and the universality is what appeals to me most. Humankind can argue endlessly about religion and historic interpretation, but there’s no arguing with the Earth’s orbit! It nourishes us with the cycle of the seasons, yet also pays us no mind. To me there is comfort and connection in the ways it is personal, and in the ways it is not.

The Wheel of the Year mapped out. Want to know the exact dates and times each year? Visit here. (Image from NASA via EarthSky.)

Following the Wheel makes it apparent that time is circular as well as linear, and with each annual turn I’ve deepened my relationship with the seasons. Locally I’ve found kindred spirits and mentors who also “keep the wheel” formally or informally: naturalists, artists and musicians, farmers and hunters and gardeners, acupuncturists and herbalists. We share relevant poems and images, pay attention to seasonal harbingers and changes, sometimes send each other greetings on festival dates. (Pre-pandemic I also hosted occasional seasonal dinners, and I’m eager to get back to in-person observances!)

Within the Gaian community, I have new and old friends around the U.S. and world, and together we are exploring the ways our living planet undergirds and enriches what it means to be human, and how we might live into a future as more respectful stewards of the Earth. By sharpening my attunement to the changes in the natural world around me, the Wheel of the Year connects me to the world in a rich and celebratory way.

Robinne Gray has lived in the Chesapeake Bay watershed since 2008. She spent her childhood in the desert southwest (Salt River watershed), and lived for many years in the Finger Lakes region of central New York (St. Lawrence Seaway watershed). By day she works for a watershed restoration nonprofit in the DC metro area. For fun, Robinne studies natural history and botany and enjoys hiking and paddling explorations around the mid-Atlantic region.

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  1. Ken Ingham

    Thank you for this interesting piece. I have been a Gaian for several decades. Although I often take note of the longest and shortest days of the year, I don’t pay much attention to the benchmarks in between. This is a nice way to pause and Contemplate the earth and its place in the universe more regularly.

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