When I first began celebrating the Wheel of the Year, at Yuletide 1995, I largely followed the Celtic traditions vis-a-vis the stories told and seasonal elements that were celebrated by each holiday. At the time, I was attending graduate school in Pittsburgh, PA, where the climate and weather patterns more closely resembled those of the British Isles. Everything seemed to fit, and our celebrations looked a bit like this:
Then, after graduating, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Suddenly, nothing seemed to fit any more. The holidays lost their magic and meaning for me. We just did not seem to have seasons at all, let alone those of the Celtic year, and so I abandonned the holidays, entirely.
It was not until my husband and I began our ecosystem restoration project in 2004, and I started carefully tracking the local climate and weather patterns, and the changes in the local flora, that I came to realize we did have seasons. Big, blatant, vibrant seasons. But nothing in my past experience had given me the tools with which to perceive them.
Overview of the Coast Range Seasons
Here in the coastal mountain range of California (just south of San Francisco), we are technically in the temperate zone, and technically well (enough) watered on non-drought years to qualify as “non-desert,” but the traditional Celtic cycles and symbols of the seasons do not work well for us because of exactly when and how our water arrives, because of the specific nature of our “four seasons,” and because of the very narrow range of temperatures we experience.
Our “winter” (Samhain-Imbolc) begins with the first rains (around Oct/Nov), and marks the time of most green growth in our landscapes. The grasses and wildflowers sprout (but do not yet flower). The evergreen oaks put on a growth spurt and exchange old leaves for new (the new growth is what pushes our leaf-drop, and not a process of hibernation). We very rarely get a bit of light frost, one or two times per “winter” but often none at all. No snow, no ice. Mostly just chilly rains with occasional weeks of 70-degree sunshine. Regular temps between 50-60s in day, and lows of 35-45 at night.
Our “spring”(Imbolc-Beltaine) is typically marked by vibrant flowering of everything that grows. Wildflowers riot on the hills. Temperatures more consistently reach the 60s and 70s in the day, but still in the 40-50 range at night. The rains peter out during this time.
By “summer” (Beltaine-Lammas), most of the native flowers in our area are finished (a few last into June). The rains are over. The land dries out quickly. Shrubs and trees are still deep green — at the start — but they quickly grow dusty and tired, and begin to go drought-deciduous in July. Temperatures, on sunny days, warm to 65-75 during the days with rare forays into the 80s, and lows in 50-60s. But with the arrival of the seasonal upwelling of icy water just off the coast comes the “May Grey” and “June Gloom” of our icy summer fog, which advances and recedes in a weekly cycle. If you grow food of any kind except native berries and acorns, you are irrigating. And you still need to use row covers to keep much other than peas and “winter greens” growing in these coastal hills. The remains of the moisture in the ground from winter, coupled with slight increases in warmth lead to our oaks pushing their second round of new growth (and leaf drop) for the year. Then, they go drought-dormant as well.
From Lammas-Samhain (our “Autumn”) all deciduous trees lose all their leaves due to lack of water (rather than cold or darkness), Many shrubs do likewise. The hills are dead, dusty, brown. The fogs finally dissipate. And now, we finally get some real heat. And wildfires, feeding off the tinder-dry flora. Wild animals start dying from lack of food and water. Everything waits in breathless anticipation of the return of the winter rains.
So, even though we are northern, temperate, and not a desert, we are still very different from the environments and nature cycles that gave rise to the traditional Celtic “Wheel of the Year.” We are not even truly “Mediterranean” here, as our weather never gets warm enough. Upon this realization, I felt inspired to rewrite the Wheel of the Year, to create new symbols and celebrations, in accordance with the actual seasons where we live.
My new Wheel of the Year (as of February 2017) looks like this:
The solstices and equinoxes have become celebrations of the key ecological markers of the seasons where we live. Yule is still most notable for being the darkest time of the year, and our celebrations focus on cultivating light in the darkness. Flower Fest is our celebration of the peak of California wildflower season, and unbidden blessings (and also, of brush-rabbits breeding in the Salvia patch). Midsummer focuses on the cyclical waves of fog that roll in (I am still meditating on what the full, spiritual and symbolic meaning for that time of the year will be for us — that is a tough one for me.). Rain Song is our heart-felt prayer for rain, in the middle of California’s Wildfire Season.