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Northern European Paganism in the American Southwest
Several years ago we found ourselves becoming semi-permanent residents of Tucson. It didn't take long for us to realize that our basically northern European based Wiccan/Paganism didn't quite fit in the desert. The term Eternal Summer Land pretty much lost it's appeal. It came to sound more like a description of the Christian Hell than of Paradise.
Some time ago the local Weekly ran a comic in which the lead character, K Rat, explains to his friend that he is changing the calendar since it "makes no sense in 21st century Arizona". He moves May 1st to Feb 23rd and Oct 1st to Nov 17. He gives Dec and Jan each 17 days while giving July 47 days. He finishes up by saying "Now the seasons match up".
In the southern hemisphere the seasons are pretty much the reverse of the northern hemisphere. Wiccans of the southern hemisphere merely reverse the seasonal celebrations. The seasons of the desert southwest are basically the same as the seasons of more northern lands yet they are very different. To illustrate this we will take a trip around the wheel of the year, beginning at the Winter Solstice.
The usual trappings and symbols of the season do not fit in the desert. It could and does snow here on occasion, though not often and not much. A snow sled wouldn't get far in the desert. Reindeer are inhabitants of the very far north and thus have no relation to the southwest at all. Evergreens ( Ponderosa and Arizona pines) grow in abundance about thirty miles from and about five thousand feet above Tucson. Although some are cultivated in Tucson, we have never seen any growing naturally in the desert.
The “reason for the season" is the "rebirth" of the sun. But while the sun may appear to die each year in the very far north, for everyone south of the Arctic circle ( and north of the Antarctic circle ) this does not happen.
The moon may be said to go though a death and rebirth cycle but the sun merely goes through a decrease and increase of energy. Whether it is a rebirth or a sign of increasing energy, we do not see it as reason for celebration; we know that the sun will become oppressive. Being social activists we find the metaphor here to be irresistible as the sun in Neo Wicca in general represents wealth, power and authority
The winter continues on pretty much beautifully. When we do have a particularly cold and/or wet day we remind ourselves of what the summer is like.
Spring arrives in late January. The main desert harvests at this time are Tansy Mustard, Fillaree and Desert Mallow. This is also the last opportunity to harvest the larger lower leaves of the Desert Tobacco. Many other plants and herbs are beginning to grow and will be flowering by mid February.
February arrives and here as everywhere else the animals are doing their mating dance. This is in keeping with the ancient practice of celebrating love and sex and of rituals asking for fertility which generally take place in February.
Many Wiccan/Pagans celebrate Imbolg with either a fire or a symbol of fire. In the northern lands water was pretty much everywhere and therefore, in a way not seen as being of much importance. Water is, of course, important to everyone but when it is always available it is more or less taken for granted.
Fire, on the other hand, was extremely important and not nearly as easily acquired . The importance of fire is of course, reflected in their myth and ritual.
Fire is important in the desert, as everywhere, for cooking though it is rarely needed for warmth. Water, on the other hand, is important in the desert as everywhere else for it’s life sustaining and life giving qualities. And let's not forget that it helps a person to remain cool in the heat.
Water, being more difficult to find in the desert, is of far more importance. Therefore we are thinking that water might replace fire in at least some of the fire festivals.
To our understanding the fire of Imbolg deals with light rather than heat. The purpose is to invite the light to return. But the light has never left us and the weather at this time of the year is usually pretty near perfect. We see no reason to invite the sun to become stronger whether it be for light or for heat .
The next major festival is the Summer Solstice. This is generally considered a good time to ask for such things as money and power. The Solstice sun of the desert certainly does emanate energy.
For Native Americans this was a major harvest period, being the time for harvesting Saguaro and Prickly Pear fruits and Mesquite bean, which would make this a good harvest festival time.
Also at this time many plants have dried up and turned brown, including Tobacco. Tobacco which has dried this way is much milder; the taste is similar to Tobacco which has been cured. We refer to it has having been naturally cured. That makes this time of year an important harvest time for us personally.
We find this to be a time for rejoicing and hope for two reasons: First we have the promise that the days will now begin to shorten and the Paradise of Winter will return. Second, the Lords and Ladies of the Monsoon will soon arrive to give us some relief from the oppressive sun.
The local Native Americans, upon harvesting the Saguaro fruit, would cut the fruit in half and hollow it out to create a bowl which they then set out to invite the monsoon rains. Towards this end we set out a large shell along with some bowls and/or glass jars. We leave them out from the Solstice till after the first monsoon that hits us, which is usually the first week of July.
Some storms will occur very close to us without our getting any rain. We do like when that happens because we get thick cloud cover and rain-cooled breezes but without the rain; which is still definitely helpful.
When those first rains do come to us we hold a semi-impromptu ritual to thank Goddess and to bless the water. We then gather the water to be fully charged at the next full moon, keeping the water gathered in the shell separate as we consider it to be the most powerful. We, of course, associate the monsoons to the gods and goddesses who are aiding us in our struggle against oppressive powers.
The next fire festival, Lughnasadh, is held in early August, though apparently, fires were rarely lit. There were a few rituals associated with this Esbat which we are able to follow. The first is the practice of climbing a nearby hill or mountain, usually for the purpose of harvesting fruits. Being avid hikers we appreciate this ritual though not usually so much in August.
Another ritual was gathering at wells to make requests of the spirit of the well. This obviously is more of a water ritual and would fit well in the desert if we were able to find a well. Any water other than piped in water is difficult to find in the desert. The only other water you will find is when we are having monsoon storms.
Actually there are some riparian areas which we could visit at this time and we may find one to make pilgrimages to in the future.
And finally, this was the feast of the first harvest. As we have mentioned the major harvest of the year on the desert has passed. What is notable to us is that the monsoons are continuing so we thank the Lords and Ladies that they continue to battle on our behalf.
During the monsoon season there is generally more greenery and wild flowers than even in the spring. So we celebrate this as a time of much life. The Creosote regains it's bright green color and the Tobacco plants put up leaf covered flower stalks. The leaves on these flower stalks are the highest in nicotine.
Next is the Autumn Equinox in late September . By this time the days have shortened and the temperature is not likely to rise above one hundred degrees again.
The Lords and Ladies of the monsoon are winning the war against the oppressive sun and the Paradise of Winter is near at hand. Soon will begin an abundance of activities. Since we earn most of our money from arts and crafts sales this is an important time to us.
In Wicca/Paganism this is generally considered as the time that the Goddess begins her return to the underworld. We do not see that as our Goddess has defeated the oppressive sun and is preparing paradise. She remains with us throughout the winter. To us this seems to be more the beginning of the new year.
For more northern Pagans this is celebrated as the time of the second harvest. To us personally, we are just planting our seeds as we prepare for the year's craft fairs and other markets. We also do our spring cleaning and our blessing of tools at this time.
Next, of course, is Samhain. In the Pagan past this was the final harvest and the beginning of winter. It was also a fire festival and fires were lit for their cleansing and protective energy.
This was one time of the year ( the other is Beltane )when the veil between the worlds is lifted and spirits and others from the other side can come more easily across, possibly related to the belief that this was the day the Goddess returned to the Underworld.
In the desert it seems more that the Goddess goes to the Underworld in March or April, when summer arrives. To us it seems that Samhain is the Gateway to the Paradise of Winter.
Seeing this time as the Gateway to Paradise we say that the Gate to Eternal Winterland is also open. Therefore we keep the trappings, ritual and basic beliefs of Samhain.
We now enter the Paradise of Winter, to be reminded at Winter Solstice that it will end again. And return.
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