Hanging up decorations to celebrate Yule, carving pumpkins at Halloween, dancing the Maypole and more – all of these are both modern Pagan activities, folk customs and stuff that kids can get involved with. Those of us who have the honour and delight to be parents get to engage in some very interesting questions when it comes to the relationship between our own spiritual practises and our kids. So what is the context for what’s going on? In a significantly secular culture such Britain (around 25% of English citizens describe their religion as ‘none’) there is a tendency to think that spirituality (or the apparent lack of it) is down to personal choice and conscience. Britain is also a spiritually diverse landscape, the arguable origin of a number of new religious paths (as mentioned HERE). It’s also true that the social function of religion in Britain is perhaps different from that of the USA (discussed HERE). So with these considerations in mind how do we, as families, integrate our own spirituality with raising children?
Hanging up the Yule/Christmas/Mithrasmas/Winterval decorations is a good example. This is an embodied practise, one that we can give multiple meanings to. A ritual like this can be something children can enjoy and participate in. In my household I describe what we’re doing in, what I hope, is a very open-ended way: ‘We’re making the house look fun because it’s dark and we’re going to have a few days holiday where we can watch movies, eat nice food, and snuggle by the open fire. We are celebrating the fact of the longest night, the beginning of the New Year, and the slow return of the light’. Unless they go all Jehovah’s Witness when they get older, my approach is also I hope, broad enough that they can appreciate what we did in Pagan, Humanist, Atheist, Christian or other terms and not find it problematic. Of course they also don’t have to join in. I’m totally happy to put the tree up and install the ivy myself, but naturally they want to help.
Of course there are lots of parts of my own spiritual life from which my children are excluded. All of the esoteric groups I work with maintain policies that preclude the admission of anyone under the age of at least 18 (even in the informal world of Wicca 30 years ago it was really difficult for me to get involved in a group when I was 16). However in other cultures these things differ. Children are most certainly present at ceremonies such as the Healing Dance of the San people from South Africa. In this rite dancing and singing continues long into the night as people are possessed by spirits (an event, which in that culture is often attended by bleeding through the nose). Mothers sit on the sand with their babies and, at least before they get tired and bored, the younger San kids run around the outside of the ritual space, pretending to get possessed and generally taking the piss out of the shamans in the circle. Just as one might expect.
One of the benefits of my own Pagan spirituality is that it allows me to include my children in the public and gentle ceremonies of celebration (such as the ones that take place at St Nectan’s Glen and at many other sacred sites in the British Isles), as well as a selection of domestic traditions. Because these traditions are rooted in the flow of the seasons they are open to interpretation and elaboration in many different ways. Intelligent children (and of course my kids are really bright) readily understand this. My eldest son, many years ago, pointed out that the sun coming back from the solstice of Yule was the same as Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. And that this was basically the same as the story of Osiris and also Jesus. Personally I tend to avoid names of deities (though we all have a soft spot for Ganesh and through the medium of Marvel comics both my kids are getting more interested in Norse mythology) and instead talk about what we’re doing as people connected to the landscape we’re in. It’s all about relationships and perspectives. So at the Equinox I explain that this time is about noticing that light and dark are equal, and realising that this is one of only two days in the year where the day and night length is pretty much equal all across the whole world. No deities, no rules, do dogma, just a scientific fact that we’re choosing to notice and celebrate.
As well as including our children in accessible and culturally appropriate aspects of our spirituality we can also learn from them. For Lammas this year, at the suggestion of my eldest son, we made special biscuits to celebrate the fact that the harvest had come. This has become something of a theme (I mean home-made biscuits! What’s not to like?) and so for this Equinox my children made two batches of biscuits which we shared with participants at a public Pagan ritual we attended. Chocolate ones for the dark of the year, and banana and vanilla ones for the light. And so my kids have built for themselves a family and community tradition. I only hope that they don’t follow through on some of the more grotesque suggestions they seem to be considering for their Halloween recipe!