It occurred to me the other day as I was looking at my e-mails that my local Wiccan community has a LOT of rites of passage. And although I can't go to all of them, I really love that this subculture honors the different stages of life the way we do. Sure, it could be argued that we will come up with any excuse for a feast, but that's not really it, because I'll bet dimes to donuts that if I sent out an e-mail that just said, "Feast on Friday! Come hungry and bring something!" that at least 50 people would show up at my door. No, our rites of passage are done for the simple reason that each and every human being is a living example of the holiness of the Wheel, and each turn of the Wheel is sacred.
So what are these rites of passage? There are many, but here are a few that my extended community observe:
1. Blessing of the Belly, as it has been known to be called. Of course, this is a Pagan baby shower. But it's more than that. It's a rite that honors the pregnant momma and places protections upon her for safe delivery and a healthy baby. Sacred space is created and amidst the clucking and cooing at baby clothes and receiving blankets, there is the giving of homemade safety amulets for the mother to wear or use during labor, the rubbing of the mother's feet with sacred oil, the talking to the little one and blessing him or her, and the asking of the mother's blessing upon women who wish to conceive. It is a gorgeous love fest...but then all of our gatherings are.
2. First Moon, or coming of age for girls. This is a big deal. My daughter begged me not to do one for her and I was crushed, but it was up to her. She's a Buddhist, after all, and so it wouldn't have been right for me to force my conventions on her. However, it's a beautiful ceremony that I get to share with other mothers and their girls.
This is a circle where the young lady is bathed and anointed in sacred oil, then dressed in white with flowers in her hair. The circle of the women convenes and the girl is brought in by her mother. In grand theatrical style, the priestesses of the circle demand to know why a child has been brought to a circle for women only. The mother states that the girl is not a child, but a woman. The priestesses play the part to the hilt and demand to know if the mother has witnessed this. The mother insists that it is so and demands that her daughter be welcomed into the circle of women. What happens next varies. Perhaps the girl is shown a little "play" in which the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone address her and give her advice. The women give the girl gifts, offer advice for dealing with menstrual pain, talk about teenage romance and how to "know when it's right," and that it's good to wait for sex until you are an adult. Often, several of the women come forward to sponsor the girl during her teen years as support people so the girl has someone to go to who isn't her mother. And of course, there's FOOD!
3. Manhood Rite. Of course, being a woman, I'm not privy to this one. However, the men have it well in hand and I'm sure it's as stirring and touching as our coming of age ceremony is.
4. Handfasting, legal or not. I love performing handfastings!! They are just so fun. If a couple wants to be legally married by me, I do make them go through a premarital counseling series. I'm a big meanie. But if it's a non-legal handfasting, we can skip that part if the couple or group wishes. Yes, I said group. In Pagan culture, we support alternative lifestyles and if a group of 3 or more want to be handfasted then we have no problem with that. Same with gay weddings. We believe that all people have the right to live with, partner with, and love other consenting adults.
Handfastings vary so much that it's hard to write about them. There are always vows, always the tying of the hands together with a cord of the lovers' own making, and always a feast. There are usually wedding rings. But beyond that, it's very individual. As well, in Pagan cultures, it is very common for couples to write their own vows. We also ask the blessings of the Gods and the Elementals, but we do NOT ask for any pledge to our religion.
5. Croning and Saging. When a person is in her or his sixties or therabouts, he or she qualifies for a lovely ceremony that recognizes that person as an elder in our community. To Pagans, being an elder is a huge honor. We do not think that aging is bad at all. As a matter of fact, I look very forward to my croning. When I am a crone, I will play Mother Holle at Yule for the children. I will play the Crone Goddess at first moon rites. I will crochet stuffed animals for the children by the fire at family gatherings. I will compete aggressively with other Crones for the acknowledgment that MY cookies are the best! Oh yes. Oh yes.
6. Passing over. When a person is passing over, it's a sad time, but it isn't handled by Pagans in the same way that it is by the mainstream culture. We see it as natural. How we handle it is driven by the desires and needs of the one passing and of the family. Some people love to have "last conversations" with their friends and family. Others want us to gather around the bed and sing the songs we sing at festivals. Others want to have candles lit and a circle cast when the end draws near, with ancestors called to bring the person home. Sometimes we do all of these things. It is common for us to stay by the person's side when the last breath is drawn, assuming that the spirit is in the room with us. We talk to the departed then, saying goodbye and I love you. We stay in the house and often reside there with the family, taking care of household things so the mourning can happen.
7. Funerals. These are healing times. Our clergy are trained to handle interfaith funeral rites because the family of the deceased Pagan may not be Pagan. In that case, we carefully design funerals that will both respect the Pagan sensibilities of the deceased and comfort the non-Pagan family. It's a balancing act, for sure. Pagan funerals are as varied as Pagan handfastings. The usual elements are there...the eulogies, possibly a visitation, telling stories about the departed, and music.
In Pagan culture we have another time when we honor our departed loved ones. That is Samhain, where we create ancestor altars, tell stories of the departed, and part the Veil between the worlds so our ancestors can visit us. Many of us have "dumb suppers" where food for the dead is lovingly placed at the table and the diners eat in silence, allowing the dead to join them. Too, the mourning process can be facilitated by having a "keening," which is a time to cry. We come forearmed with many boxes of "sacred tissues" and just let it all out. It's amazingly relieving to participate in a keening at Samhain. And I do look forward to attending Samhain after I pass, too. I will be there. Plan on it.