Winter in Western North Carolina is marked by freezing temperatures, barren landscapes and snow-capped mountains as nature settles into its yearly slumber. But for all of its stillness, winter is also often a time of reflection and celebration for the new year to come.
The cycle of the seasons is full of spiritual meaning, says H. Byron Ballard. Known as Asheville’s village witch, Ballard specializes in Appalachian folk magic and folkways. Ballard is also senior priestess and co-founder of the Mother Grove Goddess Temple, a nonprofit church with a focus on the many forms of the divine feminine. Her work as a pagan priestess has her regularly performing rituals and ceremonies for locals, from sainings (an Earth-focused baby blessing) and full moon celebrations to final rites to honor those who have passed.
Ballard is a fourth-generation native of WNC who attended Enka High School and UNC Asheville. She is a published author of six books — with a seventh in the pipeline — on Earth-based spirituality and Appalachian culture. Xpress sat down with Ballard to discuss her spiritual beliefs, how she celebrates the winter solstice and common misconceptions about witches.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
How do you define spirituality?
Spirituality is the feeling — I’m going to call it a feeling first — of a deeper connection. It feels metaphysical. But obviously, it manifests in a lot of different ways. And then spirituality as a verb is the act of being in touch with your spiritual self and working to grow and deepen that connection.
What is your spiritual background?
I was raised unchurched. My mother’s family are Methodists, and my father’s family is Baptist. But I was raised without either of those things. I would go to church sometimes with neighbors, and I would go to church with my grandmother sometimes. But I was never baptized and I’ve never been Christian.
You’re a Wiccan priestess. What does that mean?
I am known as the Asheville village witch because I do all those witchy things — energy clearings on houses, house blessings, baby blessings, funerals and midwifing. Which is just what clergy people do, let’s just be clear. I’m clergy with Mother Grove Goddess Temple.
My spirituality is completely tied into nature. In that sense, I’m an animist and a pagan. I find the divine through nature and I see nature as divine.
I grew up hiking on the mountain, climbing trees and raising animals. I always felt that what I learned in nature was more significant than anything that I received or understood from the various churches that I visited with friends. It felt holy, though at that time I wouldn’t have used that word to describe it.
What are some common misconceptions about pagans or witches?
That we are evildoers and we bring blights on communities. The biggest [misconception] around here is the notion that we are anti-Christian, which is absolutely not true. We don’t have green faces and we don’t have warts on them. Well, some of us may have warts on our nose. A wart is a very successful virus, after all.
Every year, I encourage people to do a hashtag on my Facebook page about what witches look like. I encourage all the witches I know to post a picture of themselves at work or at home with #whatwitcheslooklike, so that people can look at all these just regular faces and people.
What are some pagan celebrations for this time of year?
All of the holidays and holy days that are built into December in the Northern Hemisphere — whether people will admit it or not — are based on the winter solstice. When we reach the autumnal equinox [Sept. 22 or 23 each year], that’s the point where there is as much light time as there is dark time in a day. From there on out to the winter solstice, the nights get longer and longer and longer.
Then when we hit the winter solstice [Dec. 21 or 22 each year], the days start becoming longer again. We finally have the possibility of crops being able to grow again, of being able to feed people. So there’s an outpouring of joy and delight around the winter solstice.
If people want to celebrate the winter solstice — and I’ll use the phrase nontraditionally, but actually it’s deeply traditional — something that my daughter and I always did would be to get up before dawn on the day of the winter solstice and make a lot of noise. We’d have shakers and bells and we would sing up the sun. It’s a wonderful bonding experience and it really makes that time significant.
Do you have advice for how to incorporate more spirituality into our lives?
I want to encourage people to be in their spiritual self all the time and not save it for a special holiday or a special day of the week, but to really be in touch with the divine however you see them. And also to center that into the cycle of the seasons. Observe the seasons as they are where you are. Don’t feel like you need to harken back to some other place that isn’t your place. Love the soil you’re on and observe what happens as things change. Observe what animals are here that you didn’t see in the summer, what plants are blooming. I find more and more as life gets challenging that when I can root myself into the cycle of the seasons and when I can allow myself the luxury of that deep observation, it heals all kinds of stuff.