Cat Treadwell — professional Druid and nature-mystic - gives us a perspective from the English countryside.
In recent months, I've been lucky enough to witness some fairly ancient traditions replayed by modern folk in my local community. Rather than taking the cynical, culturally-superior, post-modern 21st-century approach, villagers across Derbyshire have delighted in the creation of Well Dressing ceremonies and presentations.
Well Dressing is thought to be pagan in origin, but now crosses social and faith boundaries in the simple act of creation. An offering is made from natural materials - such as petals, seeds and leaves - ostensibly to celebrate the local community and the various groups within it. But it is known that Well Dressing was also an act of thanks and celebration, to honour the spirit of the Well for providing clean water to that community, allowing it to nourish and thrive.
Like many traditions, the origins of Well Dressing have been lost to time - but we do know that it has been carried out for many centuries across the British Midland counties of Derbyshire and into Staffordshire. From the mountains of the Peak District to the river valleys that wind between, community groups come together to create beautiful pieces of art - and enjoy several days of celebration and holiday spirit!
The village that I call home, Belper, is a hidden secret beside the main roads through the county. While other towns are becoming havens for national retail chains, or suffering from economic closures, Belper holds many thriving independent shops that showcase personal creativity. Walking down the cobbled streets makes it easy to imagine those other feet who walked the same paths over the past centuries. The Victorian Mill stands at the end of that main street, a symbol and inexorable reminder that history.
The thread of Paganism is a subtle one, but present to be seen if you know to look. Fitz the Stonemason creates incredible Green Men and Women for local walls; the Town Crier is certainly aware of the heritage of his role, shouting news up and down the street with his ringing bell.
But there are also stories of those quieter denizens of the area, the river spirits of the Derwent as she winds her way past - occasionally overflowing to physically create an almost impassable moat around the hill where I live!
The Mill watches over the River Gardens, combining human industry with natural beauty. Both are powerful forces that contribute to our lives - so they are honoured in this creativity, whether it be by local Girl Guide troops, historians or former soldiers. By retaining our stories, communities do not allow themselves to become blase or indifferent; that individual spirit is something to be proud of.
This can be easily mocked as well. City folk may see such simple acts as 'quaint' or 'twee' - but then I ask, what have they created to celebrate their homes and communities? In this time of growing global 'village', how do we remember the tribes that we are part of on our own doorsteps?
Sometimes it seems as if the local land wishes us to be reminded of what we have here, as we become cut off by the strength of water or snow... and yet we do still thrive. My local shop-owner and butcher both struggle in regardless, as people battle to reach them for food; small groups cluster outside, chatting and laughing against the weather. Changes come slowly - the coal-man still does his rounds, although that finite resource is becoming ever more expensive, and some roofs now sport solar panels instead. Many rooms in the Mill are now offices. And so new traditions are created as old ones pass.
Something as small and simple as recognising our heritage can be a power unifying force in these difficult times. Our ancestors did so, to keep their tribes alive. What do we, as modern Pagans, do to join that history of our own path with the stories created every day? What gifts do we leave for those ancestors of the future, the children who learn through those stories? The images made in flowers may be gone by winter, but the spirit remains, tidal yet flowing on... and so we remember.