We gather together once every six weeks, usually about six adults and nine kids, from Durham, Hillsborough, Raleigh, Burlington and Chapel Hill. We form a circle, herding the stray toddlers and calming the fussy babies. It is time to call the directions. We all turn to the east, as someone calls to the element of Air; then facing south, another person calls to Fire; facing west, the call is to Water; and to the north, Earth is called. The leader of the ritual calls upon the power of the Divine. In paganism, a religion that emphasizes Earth spirituality, the divine is celebrated as both male and female.
Then, like many Sunday school programs, we do craft projects, or sing religious songs. We discuss the current holiday; how it ties in with the season, what the holiday traditions represent and why people celebrate it. We give the kids a snack. And, before we let them go to the playground, we "release the circle," thanking and bidding farewell to the four directions/elements and to the Goddess and the God.
I have marked the eight major pagan holidays with this group, Children's Circle, since its inception in June of 2000. We celebrate the spring and fall equinoxes, the summer and winter solstices, and the cross-quarter holidays: Samhain (Oct. 31), Imbolc (Feb. 2), Beltane (May 1) and Lammas (Aug. 1). "Pagan" is a broad term, but for me the key elements are a recognition of the female and male aspects of deity, a belief in the sacredness of the Earth and her cycles, and the interconnectedness of all living things. Children's Circle is a response to the need of pagan parents for rituals that are safe and appropriate for small children. Rituals that are geared toward adults may involve lengthy periods of meditation, bonfires, untended candles, or an intensity of feeling that participants do not want disrupted by noisy children.
Children's Circle has been a great resource for me. I'm new to the pagan path, and my level of understanding of pagan theology is probably not much more advanced than my children's. When Children's Circle meets, and through e-mail conversations, we share how we observe the holidays at home, and how we navigate non-pagan holidays, our parents' religious beliefs, and the celebration of Christian holidays in school, at the mall, on television, etc. We discuss how open we can be with other people about our religion, and how we can foster a joy in pagan worship in our children, while at the same time instructing them to be discreet about their family's beliefs. (For example, many pagan adults employ pseudonyms for themselves or their children when they're posting on the Internet. Residents of the Triangle may accept religious differences, but in some areas paganism can become an issue in child custody cases or with employers.)
My spiritual awakening was gradual, and it was intimately connected to my role as a mother. Giving birth was empowering for me: the incredible mystery of creating life out of my body. And the intensity of caring for babies, the joys and fears, the sleepless nights, deepened my awe for all of the life around me.
The expression of the Triple Goddess as the Mother Goddess holds the most resonance for me, because that's where I am in my life right now. The moment I knew I believed in the Goddess came when I read another woman's account of her labor. Like me, the essayist had a very positive, empowering birth experience. But the conclusion she drew was a strong belief in the presence of God the Father. I had an intense and immediate reaction to the essay: a realization of my belief in the creative powers of a female deity.
And it feels very natural for me, as a feminist, to teach my son and daughter to honor the God and the Goddess; to teach them to value the male and the female, to love and respect themselves and others.
Being at home with my children, I spend more time outside than I have since my own childhood. It's hard to watch the seasons pass through children's eyes, even if it is just in your yard and neighborhood, and not fall in love with the Earth. (At certain times of the year, a visit to Duke Gardens or the Eno River is a pilgrimage to what is most beautiful in the world.)
Before I had children, my experience of the natural world outside my house consisted of an annual beach trip and the weather I had to walk through between my front door and my car. But children need to be outside. They have outside energy that can't be contained. They fling themselves at the walls and furniture, like wild birds flying into windows. Several times I stepped outside with a screaming baby, and the screaming stopped on contact with the fresh air. I want my children to remember their earliest years as an ongoing exploration of sand, dirt, mud, puddles, rocks, dewdrops, spider webs, bird's nests, berries, leaves, seeds, flowers, trees, grass, clover, streams, forests, meadows, clouds, rain, snow, wind and thunder. I hope that by encouraging the kids' inherent awe of Nature, they will always recognize that they are also part of the interconnected web of life.
I imagine that it's pretty cool for young children to have pagan parents. We encourage magical thinking: belief in fairies and dragons, curiosity along with a reverence for the mysteries of nature. We tend to be a little more relaxed about things like going barefoot, getting dirty, and collecting rocks, acorns and twigs. We try to communicate through symbols, fairy tales and ancient myths. We want our worship to be filled with song, dance, joy, humor and creativity.
But sometimes it's hard to carry that joy out of our own Circle and into the wider culture. The winter holidays are particularly fraught with conflict, because Christmas is such a big deal in the United States. Christmas and Yule (the pagan celebration, or Winter Solstice) share so many traditions and symbols that children may become confused. Evergreen trees, mistletoe and holly are all shared symbols. "Deck the Halls" is a Yule carol. But all the cartoon specials on television and the special events for kids fall under the Christmas banner. And when we go to visit my in-laws' Christmas is a major production. I worry that Yule will be obliterated by the sparkling excesses of Christmas.
And every year I'm afraid that one of my kids will say something to my in-laws that will clue them in to our pagan practice; something like, "At the Solstice ritual, Mommy told us Santa Claus is like the Yule King." or "Jesus Who?" I love my in-laws, but paganism is not something they can wrap their minds around. I know they love and respect me, but the word "pagan" is likely to conjure up the worst inaccuracies that tabloid TV has to offer on the occult. They are conservative Christian people. It's important to me that my children have a positive relationship with their grandparents. My religion is just one more topic on the long list of subjects I avoid.
In between holidays when we join Children's Circle, I am trying to infuse our daily lives with spirituality. When my children help me make bread we sing of the grain that comes from the Earth, Watered by rain, filled with Air through the magic of yeast; and baked in a Fiery hot oven. When we walk to the park, we talk about the signs of the season and how they fit into the cycle of the four seasons. When flowers fade, when we encounter dead animals on the road, when we find pieces of robins' eggshells, we talk about the cycle of death and life and rebirth. I point out familiar legends and representations of gods and goddesses in the books we read. We wish on first stars and admire the moon.
Sometimes I let my busy schedule prevent me from holding a family celebration of a holiday, because I know we can count on Children's Circle. But at Samhain, aka Halloween, we always set up an altar at home to honor our "beloved dead," including my grandparents, old family friends, a few dead celebrities and our first cat. Samhain is a time to commune with our ancestors. We call the directions and share our memories of the dead. My son particularly enjoys lighting candles, a new skill for him, while my daughter loves any music we incorporate into the ritual.
My husband is not pagan. Although he has no problem with my religious practice or my involvement in Children's Circle, it is difficult for me to be solely responsible for our children's spiritual training. (In most areas of parenting, we present a united front.)
Pagan worship is not a question of reading a book and passively attending services. In Children's Circle, parents take turns conducting rituals. Even if I'm not leading a ritual, the kids and I are actively participating. And there's a tremendous amount of individual variation in how holidays are observed. It's a DIY religion, drawing from old and new traditions from around the world. (Some pagan groups are very structured, and subscribe to a more limited set of beliefs.)
I don't know if my children will continue on the pagan path when they grow up. I'm sure eventually we'll have to deal with one of the children sharing religious beliefs with someone who will not understand. There will be conflict. (The Internet is rife with reports of teenagers being suspended from school because they wore pentagrams, and pagans losing their jobs because of a persistent belief in this culture that paganism is devil-worship. It isn't.)
But I am indescribably glad to have a religion to share with my children. I know there are a lot of studies about the importance of religious community for children. I know from personal experience how hard it is to secure spirituality and a religious community as an adult. I can only hope that my religious practices will give my children the comfort, direction and grounding that they have given me.
For more information about Children's Circle, contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are numerous books of pagan philosophy, practice and history, with a growing number of books and Internet resources geared toward pagan child-rearing. The best book I have found is Circle Round, by Starhawk, Diane Baker and Anne Hill.