With the last months of the year, the days get shorter, darker, and cooler again here in Germany. This time of the year might feel for many of us like having the demand for more quietness, sleep, and introspective while in summer we are more active and playful having more energy directed outwards. Such changes in our natural demands can also be a mirror of the seasons. Thus, in autumn the warming rays of the sun get less, trees drop their leaves and nature's gifts can be harvested. Nature retreats into the earth to rest and gather new strength to let blossoms and fruits flourish in the spring again. However, in our modern lifeworld, it is hard to listen to our seasonal needs, in particular for rest and recovery. Thus, emails, deadlines, and to-do lists do not care for any demands for wintry retreats in our daily life, which is often characterized by an increasing and consistent availability and acceleration. Quite the contrary, at the end of the year often pre-Christmas stress takes over to secure the achievement of certain project milestones, to finish a paper or project proposal, and to buy last-minute Christmas presents.
However, maybe in particular in our modern lives, ancient customs can support us to re-discover the value of the dark season for contemplation and retreat to strengthen our relationship with ourselves and with nonhuman nature. In fact, the transition to the dark season of the year was in former times firmly anchored in societies by celebrating certain customs, rituals, and practices. One example are the so-called “Rauhnächte", which are the twelve nights after Christmas between the 25th December and the 6th of January. The “Rauhnächte" formed across Northern Europe a mystical transitional period between the years, a time between the time, in which it was said that the gates to another dimension are open symbolizing the return of souls and the appearance of spirits. It was believed that each “Rauhnacht” stands for a month in the forthcoming year. The first night represents for instance January, the second February, and so on. Therefore, people were on the lookout for signs for the coming year such as through dream interpretations. In former times, these nights were considered very special and people tried not to work but to spend time with their family, telling each other stories, and recognizing omens by oracles.
Another important date to re-connect with the rhythm of nature is Samhain, which is the night of the 31st October to the 1st November. Today, this night is also known for celebrating Halloween. Samhain is a festival of Celtic-pagan origin at the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Similar to the “Rauhnächte”, it is also said that during Samhain the so-called "Otherworld" is open, meaning that the souls of the dead can visit the homes of their relatives. Therefore, Samhain was the night when one connected with one's ancestors in order to clear up unresolved issues, reconcile, and ask for support. During the “Rauhnächte” as well as in the course of Samhain, a range of similar customs and rituals occurred aiming in particular to banish evil spirits. For example, during Samhain food and drinks were placed outside the door to appease spirits from the Otherworld. Furthermore, demons have been smoked out from the houses and stales with incense or small outdoor fires. Further rituals we still know today are the solstice fire celebrating the end of the old and the beginning of the new year. The celebration of New Year's Eve through fireworks symbolized in former times also the banishment of spirits by making noise.
However, what can we learn from these traditions, customs, and rituals? In general, the transition between summer and winter time symbolizes a process of letting go and starting over. Although we are not anymore depending on the sunlight by simply turning on electric lights or consuming summer fruits also in winter, the external transitions by the season have also impact on our inner world, when we listen to them. For instance, we can use the dark season to remember our dependence on and entanglement with nonhuman nature. We can nourish our souls and reflect on what we are grateful for or identify and transform habits that do not serve a good life for ourselves and all living beings. Particularly in cities, which are rarely completely dark but are polluted by artificial light, we can use rituals to re-connect with the darkness and ourselves by switching the light, computer, or mobile phone off. Especially in times of uncertainties such as we experience in the course of the current COVID-19 pandemic, rituals can support us to provide us some stability. In this regard, the value of urban local nature to recover from stress got very visible during the pandemic. The pandemic also decreased the opportunities to escape the European winter blues due to travel restrictions. In fact, maybe rituals in local nature during the dark season are more important than ever before to find orientation and inner connection in a world that can sometimes seem to have lost its head.
As an example of a ritual in nature to welcome the dark winter season, a despacho ceremony, which is a ritual from the high Andes of Peru, is explored in this blog essay. Dr. Alberto Villoldo, medical anthropologist and founder of the Four Winds Society, explains a despacho ceremony like that: "The despacho is a gift for the organizing principles of the Universe and constitutes the central axis of energetic exchange for healing, reestablishing perfect ayni (right relationship), or protection. The despacho is the living embodiment of the shaman’s landscape of life, that which meets at the level of the soul and ultimately connects to the source of all creation. The despacho ceremony, in its physical beauty, is a journey to the soul of nature, and with the assistance of the spirit world, we explore the energetic inner workings and symbolism of each element of our offerings."
A despacho ceremony can be used for instance to remember or intensify our reciprocal connection with nature and to strengthen a nourishing balance between our inner and external worlds. If you like to create your personal despacho ceremony you can go outside into nature such as to an urban park or forest and collect any item you feel a special relationship with. This can be wooden sticks and stones or symbols of the dark season such as dropped leaves or harvesting acorns, nuts, or berries. Maybe you also find symbols for the transience of life such as animal bones, dead insects, or feathers. You can choose next any quiet place in nature or also at your balcony or community garden. Here you can assemble a mandala from nature´s gifts you have collected. When creating your mandala there is no way to do it right or wrong, it is a creative work guided by intuition and nature. When conducting the despacho for strengthening your reciprocity with nature, the mandala can be a symbolic space for giving back what nature is offering us every day in terms of beauty, energy, and power.
To open the metaphysical connection with Pachamama (Mother Earth), a special intention can be set while collecting the items. The intention can then be integrated while opening a sacred space for creating the mandala at your selected location. This is done for instance by welcoming the four winds connected with an archetype animal symbolizing special dimensions of our human being in relationship with nature:
While collecting the items, creating the mandala, or staying at its place you can listen to yourself and observe if any responses are popping up, such as memories, physical perceptions, inner pictures, or emotions. It is then not about judging about these but just observing, letting them emerge and then letting go, just as the seasons are coming and going during the year. The mandala can then also be revisited regularly. By doing so a designated timeslot for slowing down and contemplation or simply to have a reason to enjoy nature during the dark season can be reserved in our daily routines.
Author: Martina Artmann
If you have any comments or question on the essay, feel warmly invited to contact the author (m.artmann). @ioer.de