I don't believe in any gods, not even pagan ones. But I do have a liking for the pagan calendar. It divides the year into eight seasons, each one long enough - longer than a month but shorter than a quarter or a conventional season - to start a new project or achieve a goal. The year is marked at its quarter points by the planetary phenomena that most directly influence our lives - the summer and winter solstices (the longest and shortest days), and the spring and autumn equinoxes, the mid point between the solstices when day and night are the same length. There is an intuitive logic and rhythm to the pagan seasons, and with the year being seen as circular rather than linear, it stresses the eternal cycle of life, death and regeneration - even without gods, somehow a more comforting thought than a linear one way journey through life or through the year.
So, tonight is the autumn equinox (it's a late one this year). The next half of the year will be more dark than light. This could be a depressing thought. Few people prefer the cold and dark to warmth and light. But could we really appreciate one without the other? I have always been one of those people who curse the dark and huddle in the cold, but thinking of things in pagan terms, I'm more inclined to embrace it and try to accept it on its own terms. There is a problem though - that is a lot harder to do these days than it was when the pagan worldview held sway.
In winter it is natural to store fat, be less active, sleep more. It's a time when all of nature rests and gathers its strength for another year and cycle of life. Many animals take this to extremes by sleeping the whole winter through. In the cold we want to conserve our energy. Our minds and our bodies alike long to be less active. Yet modern society expects us to ignore and defy this, as if electric light and central heating is all it takes for us to ignore the seasons altogether (ironic when seasonality of food is all the rage). Many people are able to cope with this. They may not be functioning optimally but they struggle through, and, most importantly, get the job done. For those who find it harder though, there is a label: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (all too neatly) for short. Those people whose lives are more attuned to the natural rhythm of the seasons, less able to be conned by electric light, are labelled as having a disorder because they can't keep up with the requirements of modern society and economy. I would like to argue that it's society's crazy expectations, not people who would quite reasonably prefer to be hibernating, that is disordered.
I'll not be having any big ceremony to mark the equinox, although I do think one of the good things about the pagan calendar is the punctuation it gives to the cycle of the year. I will however be thinking about things to be thankful for - the christian ritual of harvest festival has been imposed/draws on the celtic/pagan mabon, marking the end of the harvest season and is traditionally a time of thanksgiving. Taking time to think of things for which to be thankful has been shown to be good for us psychologically; in short, to make us happier. The autumn equinox is the penultimate festival of the pagan year - although its beginning and end point could be seen as far more arbitrary than in a linear model. Nonetheless, this is a good time to be thinking of finishing outstanding projects and tying up loose ends in preparation for the new year which starts at the beginning of November.
Most importantly, though, the beginning of the dark months means that we'll be spending more time indoors and will need cheering up. So my most important equinox ritual will be to brighten up my living space, in particular my front room, to make it warm and welcoming, cosy, comforting and cheerful. It's already predominantly decorated in reds and oranges, but I might look for a new throw for the sofa, swap some of the curtains and throws around, and find a safe place where I can have a few candles - in red and orange glasses and lanterns - to represent a hearth - something I sadly lack here. I think just doing this, and looking back on having done it, will help me face the winter with greater confidence and equanimity.