One of the things I try to pass onto the women that I work with is that ceremony does not need to be elaborate to be deep, powerful and effective. In fact many times it is in the simplest of ceremony that the most powerful things can arise.
It is with this intention that once or twice a year I host a spontaneous gathering of women, usually once in the summer in my Red tent and once in the fall close to Samhain in my home.
The gathering is always small and made up of students and friends, and deliberately kept very casual, or at least that is what those invited think, until they arrive at my door!
There is no pretence, no exclusivity as the invite list usually has no rhythm nor reason, and one may get an invite after meeting me once or after having known me for many years--that is the fun! The only criteria is that women come and gather and the number of us be able to fit in my tent or kitchen.
For the fall gathering we are always working with the ancestral realm, and to this end guests are asked to bring a food dish that their ancestors would have traditionally made for sharing, as well as a small keepsake or item that holds a special memory for them of a family member in their ancestral blood line.
This year I decided to write a small blog post on our celebration in hopes that it may inspire some of your own gatherings. it is my greatest hope that one day I will be able to to make this annual evening a larger event open to any that may wish to join us!
I write this post a few days after the Dark moon of October....
The day dark and it is raining hard outside, but tucked inside my cozy home have a pot of spicy chai going and I am cooking up a feast of foods that my Ukrainian ancestors would have loved.
I know my guests are all doing something similar as they prepare for our evening of sharing food, ancestral stories and witchcrafting.
it always begins with food, because this is at it's core an intimate act--it is ceremony and love, and in my opinion it is everything to a proper ceremony, as it nourishes and grounds and gives the gathering the proper feeling of celebration that is important after the intensity of holding the container of ceremony.
Our ceremony this evening is simple in form, but also sacred so I will not be sharing what was spoken, but I can say that we gathered to share the stories of why we each choose our specific food dish, and the stories of our small ancestral items that each have been placed lovingly on the altar.
These stories carry the weight of who we are and where we come from, some hold great sadness and some great joy, but all were worthy of hearing and each woman was given the time she needed to speak her ancestral truth.
We lit candles for loved ones gone and for things in our lives that also have left us feeling bereft or grieving that we are working to let go of...
In between we created a plate of food for the ancestors and placed it lovingly on the altar and then feasted and talked as women do, we shared stories and tears and of course there was much raucous laughter...
Finally somewhere close to 10:00 in the evening, we have settled down at the table, our bellies full, and with cups of tea in hand, and I begin to share some old folklore about gathering and witch crafting.
I have placed small bottles of homemade pomegranate Hawthorn herbal vinegar out for each woman and small red painted altars that hold Rowan berries, black glass beads, and sculls for stringing rowan berry talismans to hang on doorways for protection...
We begin with the vinegar and each woman adds the ingredients she feels she needs now into their bottles. Everything has some small piece of old folk lore or meaning, both for physical health and for spiritual health.
Each herb that is added is a part of the table setting, so sprigs of rosemary, thyme, oregano Hawthorn berries, bay leaves and other nourishing herbals are scattered literally into the table decorations so they are easy to reach, and thus each woman can create something specific for her constitution in the moment. When we are done each holds a healing magical bottle to her heart and blows intention into it so that it is ready for her when she feels she needs a small nip of healing magic to fortify her.
After this I hand out needles and red thread and we all settle into the creation of Rowan berry strings as protection talismans for our homes.
Each woman makes hers a little differently, some are heavy with berries and others ave more of the black beads and sculls, some feel delicate and some heavy and strong in their meaning.
Once done many exclaim at the time for is well past bedtimes and bodies beginning to feel the toll of the week, for it is Friday after all and bodies are yearning for bed.
The circle begins to close down then, and we all wander over to the altar and each woman adds her rowan talisman to it to wait until it is time to finally go..
The evening winds down with many hugs, lots of bustle, and tidying up, the the candles are left lit and the lights are still dim, so as not to detract from the ceremony that is still happening right up until each woman wanders out and into the night on her way home.....
This kind of gathering is not complete unless it has soul cakes in my opinion, as this is where the humble origins of Halloween and trick or treating come from, and although I do not ask for a trick or treat, nor blessings for my "sins" in return for sharing soul cakes, it is fun to hand over these sweet little cakes at the end of the evening.
As you can see above, for this gathering I made both small soul cakes and a large ancestral cake, one for eating that night and the small ones for taking home--both from the same recipe.
My recipe has been changed and adapted to my tastes, and what feels seasonal to me, which is to say that although the traditional soul cakes were more like small fruit cakes made with dried currents and fruit, mine carries the flavours of my winter.. which is dark chocolate spicy ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as dark rich molasses and the use of acorn flour to create a nutty rich texture and autumn taste.
Traditionally crosses were added to the top representing "alms" which is a way of representing "giving" as an act of virtue. This is where Christianity and the old pagan ways intersect, as if we go back far enough we see that traditionally they were set out with a small glass of wine as an offering for the dead, which is why I always mark my wee soul cakes with small candy bones and create more of a traditional Celtic cross shape..
Soul Cake origins:
Traditionally poor children would go out into the village asking for soul cakes, at the beginning of the winter season, this was when things were becoming scarce and people still generous from the harvest would have the ingredients to make these cakes with.
What they represented though is far more dreadful, for they originally were cakes laid out for the dead, and if you took a soul cake you were essentially offering to pray for the sins of any soul who had recently passed in that household. This is why the poor children would do it.
When asking they would sing this song, which as you can see here has been changed from the traditional masculine form to a more accurate feminine form....
Oh and it never hurts to hear Sting singing it, as this is by far my most favourite version!
Recipe for Dark Rich Chocolate Soul Cakes:
1 cup acorn flour
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour or Gluten free flour
1 cup dark dutch coca powder
2 eggs- or for a vegan recipe add 1/2 cup applesauce
1 cup milk or almond milk etc.
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or other herbal vinegar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup brown sugar
1 tbsp dark molassis
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 tsp of nutmeg
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp grated ginger fresh or dried ginger powder
2 tbsp vanilla extract-optional
Mix dry ingredients together first then wet ingredients and mix well--slowly mix the dry into the wet until folded together.
Bake at 350 for about 20 min's for small cakes or 45 min's if making in a bundt or cake pan.
Blessings of the changing season to you!