Autumn on the North Coast of California is an odd time.
Our climate is a Mediterranean-style cycle of winter rains and a completely dry summer, and the transitional seasons are subtle in character. In fall, we experience the hottest period of the year, as while summer mornings are characterized by ocean fog that cools most days to temperate comfort, the weaker sun of September and October cannot drive the fog system so effectively. As a result, these months bring lengthy stretches of days in the nineties, parching lands which haven’t seen rain in months to what feels an aching dryness, as empty creek beds and golden-brown hills attest.
We do have oaks and other deciduous trees whose leaves turn colors in the crisp nights, and the harvesting of wine grapes and apples and pumpkins reminds us with certainty that this isn’t really summer. But as we put up apple butter and wait impatiently behind the trucks carrying tons of grapes to be crushed, the hot, arid air combines with wan light and shortening days to make for an uneasy, strange-feeling time. Insects and birds have largely finished their reproductive cycles and the nights are eerily silent, while sunsets are dramatically bloody.
That very eeriness fits well with the season’s observances I practice. Autumn is a Big Deal time of year for Pagans of pretty much any stripe, and an Atheopagan is no different. Between the bounty of Harvest and the reflection, remembrance, spooky playfulness and real grief of Hallows, there are plenty of ritual practices to be attended to and events to share with friends, if we so choose.
Here are a few of the things I like to do for those two Sabbaths. They remind me of the metaphorical meanings of this time of year, and give me a sense—however imaginary—of participation in the season’s change, of being a part of the great turning wheel of the year.
Harvest (the autumnal equinox) is easy: we invite a gathering of friends for a collective feast. A sort of pre-Thanksgiving, with emphasis on locally produced foods, of which we are fortunate to have many. We say the things we are grateful for harvesting before we dig in.
I have many ritual observances, large and small, for Hallows. I’ve been observing Samhain/Hallows rituals with the same group of friends every year since 1991. But rather than go into our traditions, I’d rather talk about the smaller celebrations.
Every year, I go to a local cemetery on Halloween, around sundown. I wander through the old part of the graveyard, appreciating the old monuments and Victorian iron grave-fences and contemplating the segregated Japanese part of the cemetery, which is still in use by the local Japanese community. I leave a small offering at one particular grave which has a beautiful monument in the form of a statue of a weeping angel. And then I go to an enormous yew tree (it must be at least 100 years old), and use my ritual knife to cut a small sprig of yew.
That yew sits on the “Underworld” section of my Focus (altar) throughout the year, where it dries. On the night of the Hallows ritual I share with my friends, I use the dried piece of yew from the previous year to light the fire, closing the circle of another year.
This is the time of year, also, that I pour rainwater saved from the previous winter into a dry creekbed. If I believed in magic, I’d say I was calling the rain back, but I don’t. I view this act as a symbolic expression of my wish that it would rain: a concretization of my hope that California’s drought will break this winter.
It’s small, ongoing observances like these that I most enjoy about my practice: regular reminders to stop and reflect that it is a magnificent world, and I am a part of its cycles and changes.
Originally posted at Humanistic Paganism