People have gotten the idea that in order to be a witch (or a religious witch, or a Pagan, or whatever), you simply need to study for a year and a day. And that that time frame is really fixed – you can’t take longer.
The reality is a bit more complicated.
In fact, the year and a day comes from a common group practice of asking students to work with the group for a year and a day before they commit to the group, the tradition, and the Gods (via initiation). Lots of people decide (often for very good reasons) that one or more of those things isn’t for them, at least right now. It’s much better to figure that out before long-term oaths and commitments are made.
Many groups have found that some people want group work who turn out to treat other group members very badly, or to twist what the group’s doing to their specific preferences (and only their preferences). However, many people are on ‘good behavior’ in the first few months they work with a group, so it can be hard to spot some kinds of problems early. Few people, however, can keep up that kind of good behavior (without any slips or problems) for a full year.
The other reason has to do with some hard-won experience. You may read of people doing initiations very quickly in earlier days of various traditions – sometimes even giving people their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees in a weekend. That worked for some people, however, there were a lot of people who ended up unable to integrate the experiences well, and who ended up hurt by it.
Most group leaders have now decided to spread things out a bit. That also goes for pre-initiatory work. By taking more time between initiations, and time for preparation before the first degree, people can work through a series of steps in integrating new ideas and practices over time.
This seems (in the experience of a lot of people from a wide variety of witchcraft traditions) to be at least as effective (and quite possibly much more effective) with a lot less collateral damage. (My line about this is “I only teach people I like. I don’t want to be part of breaking them if I can avoid it.”)
A year and a day also has some other benefits
These are still good for people working on their own. Taking a year allows you to:
Celebrate all of the Sabbats and a full cycle of Esbats. In other words, see a full year in the tradition or path you’ve chosen. This is particular important in paths that focus on particular things at specific times of year – whether that’s a retreat into introspection and the shadow self in the winter, celebration of the natural agricultural cycle, or something else. If you find that a large part of a given path’s cycle doesn’t speak to you, you might want to try something else.
Have time to learn both simple things (things you can learn in one class or discussion or reading) and more complicated things (that take multiple sessions to cover, practice, or understand – like casting a circle, how to connect Sabbats together to form a larger story or arc.) In witchcraft paths, it’s often the larger thing that bring us the most joy and change and transformation – but they take time to make.
Think of it like working on a very simple project (making a greeting card, knitting a dishcloth, writing an essay), as opposed to a much bigger project (painting a room-size mural, knitting a complicated sweater or shawl, writing a book). You learn more and different things with the larger project.
Work through some common challenges. Many people start off very enthusiastic, for example, but when stuff gets harder or more challenging a few months in, may not want to continue. Thus, the year and the day can give you time to learn more about your chosen path before making a commitment to it, or talking extensively about it with other people. (I cover this one more on the page about sharing your path with others.)
The good news:
We’re not talking about 366 days precisely here.
If you’re working on your own, you can take as long as you need to decide if this is the right path. I suggest taking *at least* a year (so that you can learn about and experience all the Sabbats and Esbats). And if you’ve spent two or three years not making much progress and spinning your wheels a lot, you might want to look at adjusting something (trying a slightly different path, seeking out someone who can mentor you through the process of figuring out what needs to change to move forward, etc.)
But in general? Take the time you need.
I suggest, instead, figuring out what you want to learn by the end of that theoretical year. As I talk about on the example plan for a year’s worth of study, groups do this all the time with their students (they have a certain baseline expectation, with some variation, just like a teacher of a course in high school or college does.) You can use that as a model, and adjust the specifics to suit your needs.
If you are working with a group or teacher, they may have some expectations about timing. For example, some groups begin new students at a particular time of year. If you are way behind their usual timeline, it may complicate things for next year. (There may be fewer mentors, they may need to run double sets of classes, whatever.)
And some groups do expect people to make a reasonable amount of progress (allowing for major life events that couldn’t have been worked around.) If someone stops making any forward progress, there may be a conversation about whether this group or this work is the right place for them right now.
However, even in those settings, you’ll usually have lots of chances to try and figure out other solutions (at least with a healthy group). Maybe you go back and start from the beginning with the next round of students. Maybe you take a short sabbatical and come back when you’ve got things ready to go again. Maybe they figure out a way for you to work with a mentor at your pace. All sorts of things might happen.
The only advice I have is to be up front if you start having trouble keeping up. (And to share any ideas you have about what might it easier for you – for example, ways you seem to learn better, or what would help you with a particular expectation.)
[last edited January 8, 2011]