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When the Holidays Are Triggering, the Pagan ‘Wheel of the Year’ Helps My Trauma Recovery

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I have always felt left behind when it comes to holidays and social celebrations. There are many different reasons for that, so I’ll only mention the main three. Firstly, the pressure to be “happy” and “positive” and to socialize adequately always left me feeling empty. I lived with undiagnosed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) from childhood and by my teen years the expectations to mask those symptoms became unbearably exhausting, and frankly unrealistic.

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Additionally, growing up in a devout Christian family meant that we observed certain holidays in specific ways, by going to church, gathering as a family, and performing rituals such as communion, group prayers, and the retelling of thematic Bible stories. While benign in and of themselves, the trauma I developed alongside my religious upbringing caused these holidays and rituals to bring up triggers for me, and made it even more difficult to suppress the symptoms of my CPTSD. Finally, I noticed early in my life, and my religious upbringing highlighted for me, the consumerist behavior that even my Christian community would engage in during holiday seasons. I always struggled with being taught the idea that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle, than for a wealthy man to pass into heaven,” while at the same time being encouraged to consume large quantities of foods, décor, gifts, and outfits every time a holiday came around.

After I left Christianity, I rejected most holidays as well. From my view, they appeared to be excuses for consumerist behavior and capitalist gain. The spacing of state-sanctioned holidays (most often Christian holidays) also seemed to serve the ideals of the workweek, rather than serving a spiritual or community purpose. And so they didn’t seem like an asset for my recovery journey.

During a critical time in my trauma recovery, I began to investigate paganism (or heathenry) and I discovered the Sabbats or Wheel of the Year. Sabbats are the four major and four minor (total of eight) pagan holidays that occur throughout the calendar year. The four major holidays fall on the dates of seasonal transition; March 21 (spring), June 21 (summer), September 21 (autumn), and December 21 (winter). The four minor holidays fall almost exactly between them; February 1, May 1, August 1, and October 31.

This equal division of holidays through the calendar year is the first aspect of the Sabbats that I noticed as useful for my recovery. I have found this helpful because it gives me something to look forward to during every season, and allows me an appropriate amount of time to hold that anticipation. Whereas capitalism might tell me that the season to consume for a certain holiday has come, when I refer to the Sabbats I might find that it is not yet time to meditate on the advertised holiday. The previous season may not have passed, and acknowledging this allows me to feel grounded and centered in the present. When I have celebrated the passing of the current season, I will be ready to greet the advertised season with plenty of time to spare.

However, the way Sabbats have been most helpful in my recovery has been through the focus on the cycle of the year, of life and death, of abundance and scarcity. Trauma can be a terrifying experience to live through, and most often recovery comes with it’s own ups and downs. “Recovery is not linear, it’s cyclical” is a phrase I’ve started hearing more often in trauma-informed spaces. The Sabbats embody that for me, allowing me to practice moving through the cycle each year.

During Ostara (or the spring equinox, or Easter), I am reminded that life comes back, as it always does, no matter how dark or cold or long the winter has been. Life always returns, whether in tiny barely perceivable ways, or in blatantly obvious beautiful ways. In the following Sabbat, Beltane, I am given the opportunity to transform these returning energies into creative endeavors during the season of music and arts.

During Litha (or the summer solstice), I am encouraged to lean into my strengths, as we lean in to the strength of the Sun and it’s life-giving light during the height of Summer. This is a time to acknowledge how I’ve been doing well and what I’ve learned, and acknowledge others’ successes as well. In the following Sabbat, Lammas, I am given the opportunity to use this encouragement to invest my efforts towards a project or personal goal during the season of first harvest and labor.

During Mabon (or autumn equinox, or the original Thanksgiving), I am reminded to embrace gratitude for the abundance that the Summer season brings, for the harvest, for family and friends, for the things I have learned, and for the things I have gained. It is also a reminder to prepare for the time of scarcity and stock up on resources, whether that means a pantry full of canned goods, or a mental health plan for the winter. During the following Sabbat, Samhain, I am given the opportunity to let my gratitude hold my grief during the season of honoring ancestors and those who we’ve lost.

During Yule (or the winter solstice, or Christmas), I am encouraged to slow down, practice introspection, take stock of my needs, and prepare for what the new year will bring. Fasting practices through the Yule season would have been practical when relying on the harvest, and this is why a Yule feast would have been especially joyous and exciting. I meditate on these concepts through the Yule season, and it helps me cope with the trauma anniversaries and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that make winter so difficult for me to endure. During the following season, Imbolc, I am given the opportunity to cleanse myself of the winter heaviness and begin fresh during the season of honoring the returning of the light.

The winter holidays are especially difficult for me. By the time Mabon arrives, I am already experiencing flashbacks and increased dissociation. Once Samhain passes, the Halloween decorations are torn down, the Christmas decorations go up, and for every one I see, I am triggered. November and December always crawl by, seemingly much slower than the other seasons, despite being relatively equal. Without walking with the Sabbats throughout the year and preparing myself, without acknowledging the abundance and scarcity inside myself and honoring these, I fall into deep despair during this time of the year. But when I’ve prepared all year for this pain, I have the support I need when the worst of it comes over me. I can hold my suffering with gentleness and compassion, and I can remind myself that the next season is just around the corner.

Just as the seasons continue to come and go, so will my seasons of grief and joy, of success and lapse. This I can rely on.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Originally published: November 16, 2021
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