Column: A Canadian Pagan Winter

Canada is a country known worldwide as a snowy and cold winter wonderland. Our national identity is forever marked by images of hockey players, snowmobiles, dogsleds and toques (a French Canadian word for a wool hat). By the time we reach Winter Solstice, the dark of winter is upon us. Sub-zero temperatures and cruel wind chill drives people indoors to keep warm. In the depth of winter, average temperatures vary from zero degrees Celsius on the West Coast and minus ten degrees Celsius on the East Coast, with the deep freeze of minus 22 degrees on the prairies in the middle of the country. Even with the mild temperatures provided by this year’s El Nino weather pattern, ice and snow abound. The short daylight hours contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder, and other mental health issues. What is a Canadian Pagan to do?

Snowstorm, Montreal [Photo Credit: Mourial / Wikipedia]

Snowstorm, Montreal [Photo Credit: Mourial / Wikipedia]

For many Pagan folk, embracing the local landscape and climate becomes a deeply spiritual act. For Montreal, Quebec based Bard and storyteller, JD “Hobbes” Hickey, winter is a time to reflect and contemplate:

I think it’s important to build a healthy relationship with the realities of winter by immersing ourselves in the winter reality of cold, snow, and ice. If there’s one thing that unites Canadians, it’s complaining about winter. But in a spiritual setting, I would rather focus on the beauty of winter and building a healthy relationship with it. If you don’t respect the reality of winter, it can quite literally kill you. But if you prepare for winter, there are many beautiful aspects of it that people can appreciate if they make the time to notice it.

As the long dark nights and deep cold drive us indoors, solitary practice can be enhanced by the opportunities of winter, and devotional practice can go deep. Angela Grey, a Witch from Winnipeg, Manitoba, a city that made headlines in 2013 for being colder than planet Mars,  takes advantage of the dark half of the year to perform deeply personal work:

As a Canadian Pagan, my ritual year is divided into two distinct halves. The warm part of the year is about community: the cold half of the year is for me. That’s the time I set aside to do research, catch up on my reading, and focus on the private rituals that make up my personal path.  And my annual rituals to the Cailleach are the line that separates the two.

All through the summer, her candle sits veiled in grey and undisturbed in a little niche on my wall altar. But as soon as the first snow falls, I know that her half of the year has begun. That night, I take down her simple blue candle, and carefully unwrap it from its silver veil. I set it in front of the beautiful tapestry a friend made for me, and open my craft room window so the cold can come flooding in. I light the candle, and recite the invocation I wrote just for Her. “I call to the Bringer of Storms; I call to the Frost Bearer, the Blue Faced Hag; To She who stirs the cauldron at Corryvrekan; I call to the Grey Veiled Walker in the Night . . . ”

I don’t call too loud, or too long; I’m not sure I want the full attention of the fearsome power that is stirring to walk the land. When I think I have called Her just enough, I offer Her a simple meal of scotch and welsh cakes. It’s a small thing, but I hope that She’ll remember this token of respect in the coming months; that She’ll step around me when I’m caught out in the weather, and refrain from pushing my car off an icy road at night.

This ritual isn’t tied to a particular calendar date. Rather, it is done on the day of the first significant snowfall of the season.  This can have some odd consequences. I traveled [sic] a lot this fall, so over the course of a couple of weeks, I was present for the first snowfall in three different provinces. Rather than picking one of the days as the “true” arrival of the Cailleach, I ended up doing the ritual on three separate occasions. All through the winter, Her candle sits unveiled in its niche, available for me to take down an use in ritual. When the last of the snow melts in the spring, I give her one last offering, and veil it again for the summer months.

Ritual for The Cailleach. Photo by Angela Grey

Ritual for The Cailleach. [Photo Credit: Angela Grey]

In the darkest days of the long winter, some Pagans are still enjoying festival season. Tribal Hearth, a polytheistic group of volunteers and like-minded individuals, host Northern Lights Gathering, an intensive winter weekend each February at the Mansfield Activity Centre, in the rolling countryside an hour and a half north of Toronto, Ontario. The 2016 edition of this event sold out in ten hours, proving that the prospect of spending a weekend at a forest retreat in the cold has appeal to the local Pagan folk, and the landscape of winter appeals to all ages. According to event organizer Jessica Kelly:

Tribal Hearth uses the landscape to help shape sacred space. We’ve sent the children out to “paint” the snow or make ice lanterns that we use in ritual. We’ve even used snowballs in ritual. Watching elders spontaneously hop on a sled and hit the hills or a snow ball fight breaking out on the way back in from ritual reminds us that winter is not only a time for reflection but fun as well. Our participants are reminded to bring warm winter gear, some gleefully buy snow pants for the first time since they were children!

After outdoor activities our amazing caterers offer hot chocolate and discussions happen around the hearth fire in the main room.  A lot of planning goes into accommodating the unpredictable weather. This past year it was so cold that we could only have people outside for 10 minutes tops before the threat of frostbite was a real thing, so it became the biggest pagan pajama party going. This atmosphere inspires conversation. It’s a great opportunity to get to know people better, and it helps bridge the gap between generations.

The Frost Giant arrives at Northern Lights Gathering. Courtesy photo

The Frost Giant arrives at Northern Lights Gathering. [Courtesy Photo]

Yule is the big celebration of the season for many of us, and gathering together outside feels like the natural thing to do – even if it means facing ice and snow. Stephen Hergest, High Priest of the Evergreen Tradition in Calgary, Alberta, braves the elements to watch the sun rise every Winter Solstice morning, and has for the last twenty winters, at a local stone circle known as the Strathcona Stones:

Calgary weather is notoriously unpredictable. Sometimes the sky is too overcast for the Sun to make an appearance. Sometimes there’s a clear gap at the horizon where the Sun makes a brief appearance and vanishes again.  I’ve had to trudge around the circle through small drifts of snow, or over hard-packed ice. Sometimes the temperatures are bitterly cold, with brisk winds, and I’ve had to huddle against the tallest stone to keep out of the wind. I’ve occasionally been the only one up there. We always recommend to dress warmly because of the wind. I usually wear insulated snow boots, long underwear, layers of clothing, gloves, and a heavy parka with a toque and hood. Sometimes we’ll delay the start time to make the wait as short as possible.

There is perhaps a certain sense of irony, even ridiculousness, that the mysterious figures performing the solstice ritual are hooded with insulated parkas, their faces barely visible not only for effect or privacy, but merely to keep out the cold and to prevent frostbite. The ceremonial staff the leader carries is there to provide support while walking through the snow, and to have something to hold on to as he waits for the Sun to rise.

The Strathcona Stones, in Calgary, AB

The Strathcona Stones, in Calgary, AB. Photo by Stephen Hergest

Back in Montreal, JD “Hobbes” Hickey is putting a Pagan spin on the idea of seasonal letter writing. He has created the Solstice Dispatch Service, inviting Pagan children of all ages to write to the Oak and Holly Kings:

The idea stems around one of my favorite Yuletide myths: the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. Being servants to their people, I saw a link between their regal countenances and the gentle generosity of Santa Claus and I decided to start my own Yuletide tradition: writing letters to the Oak King. The rules are that the letters must be hand-written and sent by post (no email!). Once received, they will be read and responded to with another hand-written letter, signed by the Solstice Kings themselves.

Since we announced the service on Social Media, we have been receiving many inquiries about how this would work. Can we write to the Oak King? Can we write to Odin instead? What about the Yule Fairies? We accept all forms of correspondence. And it’s not just children writing to the Oak Kings. We’ve received a dozen letters so far and only a third of them are from children or teens! It seems that everyone has a reason to write down their hopes and dreams for a brighter new year and send it off into the universe to hope for a reply.

Hickey adds that if this service proves to be a success, he may expand it to the Summer Solstice. If the demand exceeds his budget, he is considering exploring crowd funding to cover his operating costs.

JD "Hobbes" Hickey, Bard, storyteller and Solstice Dispatch Service operator. Courtesy photo..

JD “Hobbes” Hickey, Bard, storyteller and Solstice Dispatch Service operator. [Courtesy Photo]

Winter has offered Pagans in Canada an opportunity develop our own Pagan cultural traditions and practices. How we embrace the environment and its challenges informs not only how and where we worship and celebrate, but sometimes even who our Gods are. For part of the year the ceremonial garb includes long underwear and a toque, and the ritual cup holds hot chocolate instead of wine.