Jo Pettit is getting ready for the holidays like everyone else. The Sebastopol mother of two has seasonal decorations to prepare, and she's reflecting on the year gone by and the one before her.
Soon, her spiritual group will meet to observe a special day, to reflect, to sing, to celebrate and to dance partially nude to honor the turning of the Wheel of the Year.
Okay, maybe not quite like everyone else. Pettit, a Wiccan who often goes by her priestess name Raven Tree-Singing Woman, will be leading a "Winter Solstice Ritual and Feast for Womyn" Dec. 17 from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Sebastopol Community Center.
Yule Tide, celebrating the winter solstice, falls on the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year. In preparing for the pagan calendar's December holiday, she said, not even all Wiccans observe it the same way. As it's observed today, the holiday blends Celtic and Norse tradition, to honor the future return of summer and the light. But beyond that, its celebration wildly diverges.
"Any question you ask of a Wiccan or witch, if you ask 100 different Wiccans, you'll get 100 different answers," she said. "Some Wiccans view Yule as the beginning of the new year, and others consider Halloween, or Samhain, to be the new year. It's all in a circle, and one could make an argument for the new year being anywhere on the circle."
In Sonoma County, unlike many other parts of the country and even state, pagan worship is pretty mainstream. Pettit's event is one of only three Yule celebrations in the county that weekend, two of which are at the Sebastopol Community Center on consecutive nights. Starhawk, a witch and "Priestess of the Goddess," at 7 p.m. on Dec. 18 will lead for the 18th time a winter solstice celebration. Starhawk splits her time between the West County and San Francisco, and she said it was Sonoma County's openness to alternative religion that originally drew her to the area, in the form of a friend who lived in Sebastopol. "I love the (pagan) community up here, because it's very warm and friendly and connected," she said. "As soon as you get out into western Sonoma County, something like celebrating the solstice seems like a nearly normal thing to do. It's not strange and it's not vying against a million other events and religions, and it seems more part of the fabric of life up here. People up here are maybe a little more connected to the elements and the seasons." Starhawk said Samhain is the official new year, while Solstice is kind of like "the birth of the new year," compared to its conception two months earlier.
The third public solstice event in the area is the Sonoma County Pagan Network's Yule Tide Celebration at the Luther Burbank Art and Garden Center, 2050 Yulupa Ave. in Santa Rosa. The ritual will start at 8 p.m., presented by Leeanen Sidhe, a Marin County pagan who said not all are so welcoming to her beliefs. She declined to say what city she lives in.
"There are still people who are afraid," she said. "I try to be very careful until people are a little more open to different religions and belief systems." The SCPN event will be focused around a healing ritual for the earth, which Sidhe said reflects the tumultuous times, from war to natural disasters. There will still be a Yule log, with wishes for the coming year attached and then burned after a blessing, but she wanted to try something different this year.
"In light of all the things that are happening, the natural disasters and the pollution, the repealing of all the environmental laws by the current administration, I thought it was appropriate to have a healing ritual," she said. "I'll be reading a prayer I wrote, and I'll sort of go over what the ritual is for and why we're there, and then we'll be actually sending healing energy to the earth itself. We'll carry the Yule log, weather permitting onto the patio, say a blessing over it into the fire, and send out our prayers and our wishes for the healing of the earth and also for people to maybe start thinking about taking care of the earth better than what they've been doing before."
For the ritual Pettit will lead, the night will be focused on "recognizing and honoring the dark." "It's the darkest time of year, and we look to nature for guidance about that," she said. "Animals go into hibernation, plants become dormant, the weather drives us indoors. These are all clues to stay in and dream and vision. Yule Tide is very much about that. It's about embracing the dark, entering the dark willingly and seeking what wisdom we can find there."
More literally, that can mean staying up all night to greet the dawn, singing and dancing, meditation, trance, making seed packets representing chances for personal growth and healing and "removing all the stuff that isn't working for us," said Pettit, a former bookkeeper.
"Sending that to the compost pile and creating something new in its place," she said. "We honor the dark by going deep into the womb of the mother, we contemplate the seeds we carry into the dark, and then we tell the story of the birth of the Goddess and the creation of the universe. We light a cauldron and sing a song about the return of life."
And then, after that plunge into the mysticism, which includes the clothing-optional dancing, the women at the event will gather together to enjoy a vegetarian potluck and network professionally. Pettit said such mundane, worldly tasks go hand in hand with the magic she and her guests will practice.
"Women collaborate," she said. "This is our way of getting things done, and, historically, women have been collaborating behind the scenes for millennia and keeping the world going. ? We don't bring announcements of these mundane, everyday world into the actual circle, and it works really well."
Like every other religion, concessions toward the contemporary need to be made. Not one of the Sonoma County Yule rituals take place on the actual solstice, though Starhawk will be participating in a celebration of Yule with Reclaiming, a Pagan group in San Francisco on Dec. 21, the actual solstice. It's an all-night celebration, and she said it's harder to do now, after more than 35 years of witchcraft.
"This is a ritual we started doing when we were all much younger, and there still are a lot of younger people," she said. "But every year, we look at each other and ask, 'Are we too old now to stay up all night? How long can we carry on?'"
Having a community to celebrate Yule with is important, Sidhe said. For 13 years, the Christian-raised Sidhe was a "solitary practitioner of the Wiccan faith" before joining the Coven of the Wyrd Sisters two years ago.
"As a solitary, it gets very lonely during the holidays, and the sense of community is lost when you're a solitary," she said. "After 13 years, I sought out a group I could feel comfortable with." In Sonoma County, at any rate, alternative religion is more visible than in other parts of the country. The secret societies aren't as secret as they once were.
"Some people have an idea about Wiccans that we're, like, living in the Middle Ages or something, or that we're at least that way when we're practicing," she said. "We're very modern people with cars, TVs and computers. Many Wiccans even have cell phones. I have one, I just don't use it. This is an ancient tradition, but Wicca actually is a modern form of the ancient Pagan tradition. We're all just folks."
A Few Winter Solstice Events
What: 18th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration with Starhawk
When: Sunday, Dec. 18, 7 p.m. ritual, doors at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St.
Cost: $10-25 sliding-scale admission
Info: www.starhawk.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.reclaiming.org
What: Winter Solstice Ritual and Feast for Womyn
When: Saturday, Dec. 17, 6-10 p.m. Doors close at 7 p.m.
Where: Sebastopol Community Center
Cost: Suggested donation is $15. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Proceeds to benefit Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
Info: Contact Raven Tree-Singing Woman, email@example.com
What: Yule Tide Celebration
When: Friday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m. ritual, doors at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Luther Burbank Art and Garden Center, 2050 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa