Today’s offering comes to us from Sheri Barker. Sheri is an author and artist, wildlife enthusiast, Pagan, and poet living in western North Carolina. Visit her blog, From the Bear Path.
We are almost to Yule and the Winter Solstice, and the first real snow of the season is falling. Although the accumulation is light, this prime-time-of-my-life show is mesmerizing. Snuggled into the cushions of my comfortable couch with a cup of hot tea in hand, I watch through the wide living room window as the tiny, lightweight flakes dance across the landscape.
The space across my front garden, the road, and the neighbors’ wide-open land provides room for a multi-layered, multi-leveled chorus line as the gusting wind swirls the snow into a living, breathing spiral dance. In the distance it moves east, then twists and turns back and forth, the snow bands weaving lines that are ever shifting and ever changing. When the front line reaches my garden, it collides with another coming from the opposite direction and the two create their own little dance. The tops of the trees dance with the wind, too, swaying to and fro while their trunks stand steady.
The moving metaphor does not escape me. Here in my home, centered and grounded, I can safely observe the way the outdoor world is being buffeted by forces over which it has no control.
I know that feeling all too well. Many of us do, in this age of living in a world to which we are electronically tethered. There is no end to the sources of negative darkness: politics, the environment, war, health care, physical and mental health issues, the economy, personal finances, employment, housing, food security, grief, etc. These are all things that can push people around the same way the wind moves the snow and the trees.
Sometimes the natural darkness of this time of year can be overwhelming for people who are struggling with any number of the issues of negative darkness listed above. Even Pagans in tune with the turning of the wheel of the year can lose sight of the fact that each increasingly longer, darker night brings us closer to the winter solstice and the return of the sun and longer days.
In my personal practice I focus on turning inward during the days between Samhain and Imbolc for a season of internal work and healing. In the darkling days between Samhain and Yule, especially, I make use of candles and warm-toned decorative lights as focal points for meditation and ritual. I use them with intention to help keep negative darkness at bay. The candles also serve as a gentle, consistent reminder that light will soon return. A little Yule tree, a lighted evergreen wreath, seasonally inspired lanterns, everyday candle holders, and even a string of fairy lights are all ways to bring light into the darkness and brighten my living space.
Scented candles can lift our spirits or simply bring comfort by stirring pleasant memories or associations. Some of my favorites are seasonal scents like pine, balsam, cinnamon, and bayberry. This is a good time to practice candle magic, which can be a simple and inexpensive way to use warmth and light to help us set our intentions and move steadily through the darkness.
In my practice, I use a form of candle magic that can be modified for any type of ritual as well as for daily meditative practice. For meditative use, burn the candle only during the time spent meditating, then extinguish the flame. Some people believe that it’s best to use an implement, such as a candle snuffer, to put out a magical candle flame instead of blowing out the candle. There are as many different theories on this as there are practicing Witches; in my practice, the method I use to extinguish a candle depends on the intention of the Working. If I am using candle magic to release something, then I blow the candle out. If I am creating or growing or nurturing something, then I snuff the candle out after smooring it.
Some years ago, I attended a beautiful public Imbolc ritual hosted by a local Goddess temple. One of the presenters introduced the concept of smooring a candle in order to hold the energy or magic within it. Smooring a candle is based on the Scottish tradition of smooring the hearth fire each night while reciting words to bless the house. To smoor a candle, turn it slowly in one hand while using the other hand to make downward or circular motions along the candle’s surface, pulling the magic from the flame down into the candle wax before finally putting the flame out. This action stores the energy and magic from the flame in the candle to be used again the next time the candle is lit.
As a solitary practitioner I keep the words I use in ritual close and private, because I believe those words reflect my personal relationship with the divine. However, the actions of ritual are the bones we clothe with words to make magic happen, and because they are not as deeply personal, they are shareable.
The bones of the solitary candle magic ritual that I use for Solstice call for two candles: one to represent the returning sun god, and one on which to will create a working. These candles can new or old and any color and size; pillars, votives, and even birthday candles will do.
Focus attention on the light of the sun god’s candle, and through meditation slowly move into the flame, immersing in the warmth and the light. What does this mean to us? What do we feel here, in this space, safely away from both negative and natural darkness? Give deep consideration to the feelings that reveal themselves, and what those feelings suggest should be made manifest in the coming season of light. Once that is determined, slowly move back out of the light and into the here and now.
Using an athame or other carving tool, carve symbols into the second candle. These symbols represent what is desired to bring into one’s life, and can be as simple or as complex as needed. One doesn’t have to be Michelangelo or Donatello to do this! It is intention that gives these carving meanings, not artistic talent. When finished, pass the carving over the sun god candle’s flame long enough to slightly soften the wax, then use fingers to smooth the edges of the carving. Do this with the intention of using the will to manifest the desires previously seen.
Light the carved candle from the flame of the sun god’s candle and sit with it until it feels right to close the ritual. This would be a perfect time to use the smooring technique described above.
Countless groups of people over countless years and traditions have used activities and rituals like these to hold the darkness at bay, to hold onto their faith through the cold, dark days, and to celebrate the return of the sun.
Here in my little cottage, rooted in my personal practice, I do the same. I can observe the tempests that are tearing through the world around me while minimizing the impact those forces have on my own well-being by utilizing the magic and power of light to keep me grounded in the simple truth that the light is coming back. It always does.