In my Wheel of the Year, the cross-quarter which lands around the beginning of February is Riverain: the Feast of Water.
That’s because where I live, in Northern California with its Mediterranean climate, that time of year is the heaviest with rainfall. The mountains grow emerald green with winter grass, the creeks gush, filled to their banks, and the wetland areas fill into lakes.
However, we’ve been in a drought for the past five years. Last year, we had a few good storms before the New Year, and then the sky shut off like a tap. Riverain rolled around and the hills were still a sickly yellow, the reservoirs were empty, the creek beds dry. Every year I would pour a libation of saved stormwater and call to the sky for rain, but in those years, it didn’t come.
At last, this year, with the powerful El Niño current driving tropical moisture across the Pacific, we seem to be seeing a normal—at least—year of rainfall. And so this year’s festival is a particularly happy one.
For many years, it was my tradition on the weekend closest to Feb. 2 to go for a nice, wet hike in the rain. I love the cozy feeling of huddling in my rain gear, breath pluming before me, squishing up the muddy trail as the lovely patter of water sounds on my hood. But in recent years there hasn’t been an opportunity; I’m hopeful that next weekend, it will be wet so I can reinvigorate the tradition.
Other traditions for Riverain can include a ritual bath, or even just sitting indoors and gazing out at the rain, perhaps with a warming drink in hand. Though the darkest days have now noticeably passed, these are still the coldest days of our Northern hemisphere’s year, and there is much to be said for celebrating the tiny fire of life kept safe from the magnificent, howling elements.
Depending on where you are, of course, this Sabbath may make no sense to you at all. As always, I encourage you to create your own, based in the cycles of the natural world where you are located.
Because of the long drought, I have been thinking quite a bit about what to do when the world is not being cooperative with the usual observances and expectations of a Sabbath. A couple of years ago, for example, the high temperature on Yule in my area was in the 70s Fahrenheit. It was shorts-and-tee-shirt weather, not huddling-indoors weather. And though I made my Yule observances, they felt awfully strange. Sitting outside in silence and darkness when the temperatures were still in the fifties just didn’t communicate the same sense of encountering-the-harsh-elements-of-winter that my silent Yule vigil usually does.
The tension there, I feel, is between maintaining traditions—something of great value in instilling rituals with power and continuity—and facing up to what is actually happening in the world in that particular year. I don’t have easy answers for how to bridge that gap, but I suspect it lies in changing the traditions just a little, to better suit the times.
For example, last year I could still have gone for a hike, but rather than having the hike be about the experience of being engulfed in water, it could have been in search of water. A hike to the ocean (I leave near the coast), for example, or to a lake, or even a hike through the mountains to a spring that I knew still to be producing. After all, the reality of that year was the desire for water; a quest for water made more sense than waiting around for a storm that never came. I could have made an offering at the spring, the lake, the ocean, with wishes for a return of the rains.
I’m also considering adding a new tradition this year: The Rain Baby. Rooted in some of the old Brighid holiday traditions, this involves soaking reeds in rain water and then weaving them into a small humanoid figure and allowing to dry. The Rain Baby signifies the newborn-babe point in the life cycle represented by the Wheel of the Year, and is literally steeped in the life-giving water that is (usually) so abundant at this time of year. The Rain Baby may be tucked up in a little bed on the Focus (altar), and will come out to play a bigger role at Summer’s End (beginning of August), when it is adorned with grain beards to become John Barleycorn, who is presides over the feast at Harvestide (autumnal equinox) and then is burned in the Hallows fire. And so the cycle goes again.
Adding new traditions like this lends richness, fun and meaning to an Atheopagan practice which is still—and probably always will be—evolving.
May your deep-winter holiday, however you name and celebrate it, be rich, joyous and meaningful. Stay warm!