Just ask the average suburban seven year old two days before Christmas. Perhaps you still have that child inside you? Perhaps you can't help but remember that child as the sun sets on Halloween night or as the last seconds in the Old Year are counted-off at a party on New Year's Eve. Whether in the experience of a child or an adult, the power of an impending special-moment or calendar date is an aspect of magical or religious experience we cannot afford to overlook.
Power Made and Power Found
To ‘raise magic' toward a goal we often have to work quite hard at it to get anything but the mildest effect and are thus reminded that at least one universal principle governs the laws of magic as in the rest of life: what you get out of something is usually directly proportional to what you put in. The success of our work often hinges on whether any one specific factor or combination of a whole group of factors, is actually able 'raise the power' necessary to effect a change in the world. Power can be 'made-the-hard-way' (sometimes it's the only way-) yet, power also can be 'borrowed' from pre-existing flows of power or potential existing in the natural world and the sea of consciousness around us.
For example, it might be said that doubt kills magical effects, or rather: that the-suspension-of-doubt facilitates their achievement. Here we see a great source of magical effect that literally doesn't need to be created but instead presents itself through the suppression of a simple cognitive reflex. Doubt is usually dispelled by our knowledge of the world and the understanding of what is ordinarily possible; yet, when we approach a goal which requires magical power, we realize that it's the very nature of magic to challenge the structure of what is ordinarily possible. Our set of assumptions is our own obstacle to success. Any student of magical disciplines can tell you that wonders may be achieved by culturing the simple ability to stop assuming that they are 'not possible'.
Small actions can cause large effects in the world: the tiniest pin-point can burst the biggest balloon. Why kill yourself trying to shovel all the snow off the mountainside when one well placed snowball can bring down a mighty avalanche?
The Power of the Impending Moment
I'd like to suggest that we modern magical practitioners don't utilize the power of sacred timing half as much as we could. A couple of years ago, I was at a week-long national pagan festival and found myself in a crowd of five or six hundred people being entertained by a major pagan rock band on the night of the Summer Solstice. As the show went on I became increasingly more uncomfortable with my recognition that no one had planned to even briefly stop the show to honor (what I consider) the passing of one of the most sacred moments of the year. The show continued, the moment of Solstice came and went, I did my own little observance sitting there on the grass amid the hundreds of other "pagans", and the band played on... and didn't miss a note. Somehow I don't think I'll ever forget that moment; I suppose it may be the very reason I'm writing this now.
The moment of a solstice or an equinox marks the 'happening' of a very real event; much more real than most pagans understand as such. These events are special moments in Nature; momentary transitions of the attitude and inclination of the Earth Herself relative to the Sun's light upon Her surface. They are the absolute cause and demarcation of the Seasons which eternally delight and sustain us. Sadly, few of us gather anything but the most vague and imprecise understanding of what a solstice or equinox really is in the first place, and as a consequence, this tends to limit our very ability to see or place personal value on their specific 'moments-in-time'.
Capturing the Moment: Ritual Tech
One very effective way to "capture" the power of an impending moment is to record its passing in the creation or modification of an object at the very moment of the sacred event. Over the years
I have used this technique in a number of ways. One of my favorite methods is to break a stick at the exact moment, working from a clock which had been calibrated to a very accurate source like the WWV shortwave signals broadcast from the National Bureau of Standards in Fort Collins Colorado. This sounds like tech that's out of reach for most people but actually these self correcting WWV clocks are becoming very common and several are available at Radio Shack from $15 through $40.
The more obsessive about accuracy and timing you are, the more sacred the moment becomes to you, and all the more magical power is availed to you in its capture. The Sanctity/Veneration feedback loop is another of the basic principles at work in personal magic: the more you venerate a principle or object, the more sacred it becomes in turn.
The broken ends of the stick hold in them the imprint of the sacred moment which, in our calendrical rites, we present to the assembly for veneration. I often have used the ends to charge and bless the waters or other objects used in the receptory phase of the ritual in which the blessings or magical power is given to the people in return for their offerings.
Pouring molten wax or lead into water can create an object of considerable power, having captured in its form much of the essential nature and magical power of the moment. Rendering an offering to the Fire or the Waters or burning an inscribed piece of paper; smashing an object-link reperesentative of some woe or binding in your life; or simply "winding up" and launching the power of a spell at the sacred moment, may just send it out into the Cosmos, riding the crest of that mighty tidal wave of natural power.
The Correct Dates of the Solstices & Equinoxes
However can we get our fellows to approach the sacred potential of the moment if we can't even get them to understand the basics of the Sacred year? It's really not that hard to find the correct calendrical information to work from but you'd never suspect it, given the variety of misinformation disseminated in the Neopagan and New Age literature.
Ok, ask any Neopagan, "What are the great Pagan holy-days?" and you'll be told, "The Wheel of the Year, made up of the solstices and the equinoxes and the midpoints between them called cross-quarters..."
Then ask them, "What are the calendar dates of those feasts?" Well, if you happen to have your cheat sheet (see fig.1,) you are in for some big surprises... I don't know if I've found one 'pagan' reference book yet that lists the correct general date for the Autumnal Equinox!!!
Even if they include it in a range of possible dates, rarely does any source infer that the 23rd of September is the principal date for the Autumnal Equinox and the other is an occasional variant. It simply does NOT fall on the 20th, 21st, or 25th - those are just plain wrong : it usually falls on the 23rd and occasionally on the 22nd.
The same nonsense prevails for the Vernal Equinox (for you Llewellyn readers out there: Vernal= 'spring' and autumnal= 'fall'); March 20th is the principal date: not the 22nd, 23rd, 25th or whatever you commonly find printed. Its just usually on the 20th and occasionally the 21st.
Regardless of what you may have read, the Summer Solstice usually falls on June 21st (otherwise it falls on the 20th) and the Yule Solstice falls on Dec. 21st; otherwise it's on the 22nd.
You know what? The fixing of the solstices and equinoxes to those particular dates was the very reason for the Calendar Reform of the 16th century, - T H E - very reason we have the calendar we now use, known as the Gregorian Calendar. That calendar was created to keep the old table of days and months from drifting ever away from the seasons as they had done under the Julian Calendar current up until that time. The British Isles and American colonies didn't catch up until 1752 and by that time had to excise eleven days of error to get the calendar realigned to the seasons!
Why do they all still continue to get it wrong? Surely it's not that they don't care; more likely they simply don't know where to get reliable information and just turn to other, clueless 'authorities' instead of tracking down the simple facts of Nature from the disciplines which really understand them (here Astronomy*, not Astrology; there is a significant difference.)
Dec. 20 -23
Dec. 21st "or so"
Mar. 21st or so
June 21st "or so"
Sept. 21st "or so"
This mistake is not limited to the undereducated, unedited, 'low-brow' press but is found just as strong among those who should know better; including brilliant authors such as John and Caitlin Matthews. This buggering of our sacred calendar has been going on for decades, not only in pagan publications but in the works of 'scholarly' folklore, anthro-pological and archaeological writers as well.
Wouldn't you at least like to feel that you're celebrating a 'holy-day' on the right day? It reminds me too much of how, in our city, the mayor and city council decided for a couple of years recently to hold the public celebrations of the 4th of July on the 3rd or the 5th to save on the holiday overtime-pay for all of the police involved. Perhaps it would be more economical to move New Year's Eve to another night too... Grrrr!