Pagan Holidays

You Call It Hallowe'en... We Call It Samhain

Samhain, the tradition of Haloween

Author: Peg Aloi

Posted: October 1st. 1996

Hallowe'en has its origins in the British Isles. While the modern tradition of trick or treat developed in the U. S., it too is based on folk customs brought to this country with Irish immigrants after 1840. Since ancient times in Ireland, Scotland, and England, October 31st has been celebrated as a feast for the dead, and also the day that marks the new year. Mexico observes a Day of the Dead on this day, as do other world cultures. In Scotland, the Gaelic word "Samhain" (pronounced "SAW-win" or "SAW-vane") means literally "summer's end.

"This holiday is also known as All Hallows Eve ("hallow" means "sanctify") ; Hallowtide; Hallowmass; Hallows; The Day of the Dead; All Soul's Night; All Saints' Day (both on November 1st) .

For early Europeans, this time of the year marked the beginning of the cold, lean months to come; the flocks were brought in from the fields to live in sheds until spring. Some animals were slaughtered, and the meat preserved to provide food for winter. The last gathering of crops was known as "Harvest Home, " celebrated with fairs and festivals.

In addition to its agriculture significance, the ancient Celts also saw Samhain as a very spiritual time. Because October 31 lies exactly between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it is theorized that ancient peoples, with their reliance on astrology, thought it was a very potent time for magic and communion with spirits. The "veil between the worlds" of the living and the dead was said to be at its thinnest on this day; so the dead were invited to return to feast with their loved ones; welcomed in from the cold, much as the animals were brought inside. Ancient customs range from placing food out for dead ancestors, to performing rituals for communicating with those who had passed over.

Communion with the dead was thought to be the work of witches and sorcerers, although the common folk thought nothing of it. Because the rise of the Church led to growing suspicion of the pagan ways of country dwellers, Samhain also became associated with witches, black cats ("familiars" or animal friends) , bats (night creatures) , ghosts and other "spooky" things...the stereotype of the old hag riding the broomstick is simply a caricature; fairy tales have exploited this image for centuries.

Divination of the future was also commonly practiced at this magically-potent time; since it was also the Celtic New Year, people focused on their desires for the coming year. Certain traditions, such as bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in the fire, and baking cakes which contained tokens of luck, are actually ancient methods of telling fortunes.

So What About Those Jack-O-Lanterns?

Other old traditions have survived to this day; lanterns carved out of pumpkins and turnips were used to provide light on a night when huge bonfires were lit, and all households let their fires go out so they could be rekindled from this new fire; this was believed to be good luck for all households. The name "Jack-O-Lantern" means "Jack of the Lantern, " and comes from an old Irish tale. Jack was a man who could enter neither heaven nor hell and was condemned to wander through the night with only a candle in a turnip for light. Or so goes the legend...

But such folk names were commonly given to nature spirits, like the "Jack in the Green, " or to plants believed to possess magical properties, like "John O' Dreams, " or "Jack in the Pulpit." Irish fairy lore is full of such references. Since candles placed in hollowed-out pumpkins or turnips (commonly grown for food and abundant at this time of year) would produce flickering flames, especially on cold nights in October, this phenomenon may have led to the association of spirits with the lanterns; and this in turn may have led to the tradition of carving scary faces on them. It is an old legend that candle flames which flicker on Samhain night are being touched by the spirits of dead ancestors, or "ghosts."

Okay, What about the Candy?

"Trick or treat" as it is practiced in the U. S. is a complex custom believed to derive from several Samhain traditions, as well as being unique to this country. Since Irish immigrants were predominantly Catholic, they were more likely to observe All Soul's Day. But Ireland's folk traditions die hard, and the old ways of Samhain were remembered. The old tradition of going door to door asking for donations of money or food for the New Year's feast, was carried over to the U. S. from the British Isles. Hogmanay was celebrated January 1st in rural Scotland, and there are records of a "trick or treat" type of custom; curses would be invoked on those who did not give generously; while those who did give from their hearts were blessed and praised. Hence, the notion of "trick or treat" was born (although this greeting was not commonly used until the 1930's in the U. S.) . The wearing of costumes is an ancient practice; villagers would dress as ghosts, to escort the spirits of the dead to the outskirts of the town, at the end of the night's celebration.

By the 1920's, "trick or treat" became a way of letting off steam for those urban poor living in crowded conditions. Innocent acts of vandalism (soaping windows, etc.) gave way to violent, cruel acts. Organizations like the Boy Scouts tried to organize ways for this holiday to become safe and fun; they started the practice of encouraging "good" children to visit shops and homes asking for treats, so as to prevent criminal acts. These "beggar's nights" became very popular and have evolved to what we know as Hallowe'en today.

What Do Modern Witches Do at Hallowe'en?

It is an important holiday for us. Witches are diverse, and practice a variety of traditions. Many of us use this time to practice forms of divination (such as tarot or runes) . Many Witches also perform rituals to honor the dead; and may invite their deceased loved ones to visit for a time, if they choose. This is not a "seance" in the usual sense of the word; Witches extend an invitation, rather than summoning the dead, and we believe the world of the dead is very close to this one. So on Samhain, and again on Beltane (May 1st) , when the veil between the worlds is thin, we attempt to travel between those worlds. This is done through meditation, visualization, and astral projection. Because Witches acknowledge human existence as part of a cycle of life, death and rebirth, Samhain is a time to reflect on our mortality, and to confront our fears of dying.

Some Witches look on Samhain as a time to prepare for the long, dark months of winter, a time of introspection and drawing inward. They may bid goodbye to the summer with one last celebratory rite. They may have harvest feasts, with vegetables and fruits they have grown, or home-brewed cider or mead. They may give thanks for what they have, projecting for abundance through the winter. Still others may celebrate with costume parties, enjoying treats and good times with friends. There are as many ways of observing Samhain as there are Witches in the world!

 

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You Call It Easter, We Call It Ostara

Ostara, the origins of Easter

Author: Peg Aloi

Posted: April 7th. 1997

(originally posted 5/1/1997) Try this sometime with your children or a young niece, nephew or cousin: on the day of the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox, just a few moments before the exact moment of the equinox, go outside with a raw egg. Find a reasonably level place on the sidewalk or driveway. For a few moments just before and just after the equinox, you can balance the egg upright (wider end down) by simply setting it down on the ground. No kidding! It will stand up all by itself. Kids love this, and most adults are amazed and delighted, too.

This little "trick" brings together two of the most potent aspects of this holiday: the balancing of the earth's gravity midway between the extremes of light and dark at Winter and Summer Solstice; and the symbolism of the egg. The egg is one of the most notable symbols of Easter, but, as someone who was raised Catholic and who was never told exactly why we colored eggs at Easter, or why there was a bunny who delivered candy to us, or why it was traditional to buy new clothes to wear for church on Easter Sunday, I always wondered about this holiday. As with many of the seemingly unrelated secular symbols and traditions of Christmas (what do evergreen trees, mistletoe, reindeer and lights have to do with the birth of Christ? You might wanna read "You Call It Christmas, We Call It Yule" for an exploration of these connections), Easter too has adapted many ancient pagan symbols and customs in its observance.

Easter gets its name from the Teutonic goddess of spring and the dawn, whose name is spelled Oestre or Eastre (the origin of the word "east" comes from various Germanic, Austro-Hungarian words for dawn that share the root for the word "aurora" which means " to shine"). Modern pagans have generally accepted the spelling "Ostara" which honors this goddess as our word for the Vernal Equinox. The 1974 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary defines Easter thus: "orig., name of pagan vernal festival almost coincident in date with paschal festival of the church; Eastre, dawn goddess; 1. An annual Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, held on the first Sunday after the date of the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21." The Vernal Equinox usually falls somewhere between March 19th and 22nd (note that the dictionary only mentions March 21st, as opposed to the date of the actual Equinox), and depending upon when the first full moon on or after the Equinox occurs, Easter falls sometime between late-March and mid-April.

Because the Equinox and Easter are so close, many Catholics and others who celebrate Easter often see this holiday (which observes Christ's resurrection from the dead after his death on Good Friday) as being synonymous with rebirth and rejuvenation: the symbolic resurrection of Christ is echoed in the awakening of the plant and animal life around us. But if we look more closely at some of these Easter customs, we will see that the origins are surprisingly, well, pagan! Eggs, bunnies, candy, Easter baskets, new clothes, all these "traditions" have their origin in practices which may have little or nothing to do with the Christian holiday.

For example, the traditional coloring and giving of eggs at Easter has very pagan associations. For eggs are clearly one of the most potent symbols of fertility, and spring is the season when animals begin to mate and flowers and trees pollinate and reproduce. In England and Northern Europe, eggs were often employed in folk magic when women wanted to be blessed with children. There is a great scene in the film The Wicker Man where a woman sits upon a tombstone in the cemetery, holding a child against her bared breasts with one hand, and holding up an egg in the other, rocking back and forth as she stares at the scandalized (and very uptight!) Sargent Howie. Many cultures have a strong tradition of egg coloring; among Greeks, eggs are traditionally dyed dark red and given as gifts.

As for the Easter egg hunt, a fun game for kids, I have heard at least one pagan teacher say that there is a rather scary history to this. As with many elements of our "ancient history, " there is little or no factual documentation to back this up. But the story goes like this: Eggs were decorated and offered as gifts and to bring blessings of prosperity and abundance in the coming year; this was common in Old Europe. As Christianity rose and the ways of the "Old Religion" were shunned, people took to hiding the eggs and having children make a game out of finding them. This would take place with all the children of the village looking at the same time in everyone's gardens and beneath fences and other spots.

It is said, however, that those people who sought to seek out heathens and heretics would bribe children with coins or threats, and once those children uncovered eggs on someone's property, that person was then accused of practicing the old ways. I have never read any historical account of this, so I cannot offer a source for this story (though I assume the person who first told me found it somewhere); when I find one, I will let you know! When I first heard it, I was eerily reminded of the way my own family conducted such egg hunts: our parents hid money inside colorful plastic eggs that could be opened and closed up again; some eggs contained pennies, some quarters and dimes and nickels, and some lucky kids would find a fifty-cent piece or silver dollar! In our mad scramble for pocket change, were my siblings and cousins and I mimicking the treacherous activities of children so long ago?

Traditional foods play a part in this holiday, as with so many others. Ham is the traditional main course served in many families on Easter Sunday, and the reason for this probably has to do with the agricultural way of life in old Europe. In late fall, usually in October, also known as the month of the Blood Moon, because it referred to the last time animals were slaughtered before winter, meats were salted and cured so they would last through the winter. Poorer people, who subsisted on farming and hunting, would often eat very sparingly in winter to assure their food supply would last. With the arrival of spring, there was less worry, and to celebrate the arrival of spring and of renewed abundance, they would serve the tastiest remaining cured meats, including hams. This also marked a seasonal end to eating cured foods and a return to eating fresh game (as animals emerged from hibernation looking for food), and no longer relying on stored root vegetables, but eating the young green plants so full of the vitamins and minerals that all living beings need to replenish their bodies in spring.

Modern pagans can observe these same customs by eating the fresh greens and early vegetables abundant now: dandelion greens, nettles, asparagus, and the like. There are some Witches who believe that fasting at the Equinox is very healthy and magical: it clears away all the toxins stored over winter, when we eat heavier foods to keep warm, and can create an altered state of consciousness for doing Equinox magic. By eliminating all the "poisons" from our diets for a few days (including sugar, caffeine, alcohol, red meats, dairy products, refined foods), and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, we not only can shed a few pounds and improve the appearance of our hair and skin, but also improve our health over the long term. The overall benefit to health from an occasional cleansing fast helps strengthen our immune system, making our bodies more resistant to illness, and help us feel more alert and energetic. Try it! Be sure to "break" your fast slowly, reintroducing your normal foods one at a time, instead of going from several days of fruits, grains and herbal tea to a feast of steak, potatoes and chocolate cake! The breaking of the fast can be incorporated into the cakes and wine portion of your ritual, or at the feast many Witches have afterwards.

Speaking of food, another favorite part of Easter for kids, no doubt, is that basket of treats! Nestled in plastic "grass" colored pink or green, we'd find foil-wrapped candy eggs, hollow chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, marshmallow chicks (in pink, yellow or lavender!), fancy peanut butter or coconut eggs from Russell Stover, and of course our Mom always included one of the beautiful ceramic eggs she painted by hand. Like that other holiday where children are inundated with sugar (Hallowe'en), no one seems to know precisely where, when or how this custom began. And why are the baskets supposedly brought by a bunny???

There are some modern Witches and pagans who follow traditions that integrate the faery lore of the Celtic countries. It is customary to leave food and drink out for the fairies on the nights of our festivals, and it is believed that if the fairies are not honored with gifts at these times, they will work mischief in our lives. Certain holidays call for particular "fairy favorites." At Imbolc/Oimelc (February 2nd), for example, we leave gifts of dairy origin, like cheese, butter or fresh cream. At Lammas/Lughnasa (August 1st) we leave fresh grains or newly-baked bread. At Samhain, nuts and apples are traditional. And at Ostara, it is customary to leave something sweet (honey, or mead, or candy)--could this be connected to the Easter basket tradition? Perhaps a gift of sweets corresponds to the sweet nectar gathering in new spring flowers?

To refer again to The Wicker Man, the post office/candy shop where May Morrison works (she is the mother of Rowan Morrison, the young girl who is supposedly missing and who Sargent Howie has come to Summerisle to find) offers a large selection of candies shaped like animals. When Sargent Howie says "I like your rabbits" Mrs. Morrison scolds him saying "Those are hares! Lovely March hares, not silly old rabbits!" And when Howie goes to dig up the grave of Rowan Morrison (who it turns out is neither dead nor missing) he finds the carcass of a hare, and Lord Summerisle tries to convince him that Rowan was transformed into a hare upon her death. Clearly this is an illustration of the powerful association with animals that many ancient cultures have (Summerisle being a place where time has seemingly stood still and where the pagan pursuit of pleasure and simple agricultural ways define the way of life). The forming of candy into the shape of rabbits or chicks is a way to acknowledge them as symbols; by eating them, we take on their characteristics, and enhance our own fertility, growth and vitality.

For clearly the association of rabbits with Easter has something to do with fertility magic. Anyone who has kept rabbits as pets or knows anything about their biology has no question about the origin of the phrase "f*** like a bunny." These cute furry creatures reproduce rapidly, and often! Same with chicks, who emerge wobbly and slimy from their eggs only to become fluffy, yellow and cute within a few hours. The Easter Bunny may well have its origin in the honoring of rabbits in spring as an animal sacred to the goddess Eastre, much as horses are sacred to the Celtic Epona, and the crow is sacred to the Morrigan. As a goddess of spring, she presides over the realm of the conception and birth of babies, both animal and human, and of the pollination, flowering and ripening of fruits in the plant kingdom. Sexual activity is the root of all of life: to honor this activity is to honor our most direct connection to nature.

At Beltane (April 31st-May 1st), pagans and Witches honor the sexual union of the god and goddess amid the flowers and fruits that have begun to cover the land; but prior to that, at Ostara, we welcome the return of the spring goddess from her long season of dormant sleep. The sap begins to flow, the trees are budding, the ground softens, ice melts, and everywhere the fragrance and color of spring slowly awakens and rejuvenates our own life force.

I have always thought this had a lot to do with the tradition of wearing newly-bought or made clothes at Easter, in pastel spring colors. Wearing such colors we echo the flowering plants, crocus, lilac, forsythia, bluebells, violets and new clothes allow us to feel we are renewing our persona. How many of us feel sort of "blah" after winter ends? Along with the fasting practice mentioned earlier, this is a time for many of us to create new beginnings in our lives: this can apply to jobs, relationships, living situations, lifestyle choices. But since the Equinox is such a potent time magically, and often (as it does this year) falls in the period when Mercury is Retrograde, starting a new endeavor at this time can be problematic if we do not take care. One good way to avoid catastrophe is to engage in small, personally-oriented rites or activities: a new haircut, a new clothing style or make-up, a new exercise program, the grand old tradition of spring cleaning, a new course of study: all of these are relatively "safe" ways to begin anew without risking the weirdness and unpredictability of Mercury Retrograde.

This is a very powerful time to do magic, not only because of the balancing of the earth's energies, but because of the way our own beings echo the earth's changes. We are literally reborn as we emerge from our winter sleep, ready to partake of all the pleasures of the earth, and to meet the challenges we will face as the world changes around us daily. As we greet and celebrate with our pagans brothers and sisters of the Southern Hemisphere (for whom the Vernal Equinox more closely resembles the beginning of autumn, in physical terms!), we remember that Spring is not only a season; it is a state of mind.

Blessed Be in the Season of Spring! Go Forth and Flower!

 

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Beltane -- Holiday Details and History

Beltane, the spring fertility festival

Author: Christina Aubin [a WitchVox Sponsor]

Posted: April 30th. 2000

Beltane is the last of the three spring fertility festivals, the others being Imbolc and Ostara. Beltane is the second principal Celtic festival (the other being Samhain). Celebrated approximately halfway between Vernal (spring) equinox and the midsummer (Summer Solstice). Beltane traditionally marked the arrival if summer in ancient times.

At Beltane the Pleiades star cluster rises just before sunrise on the morning horizon, whereas winter (Samhain) begins when the Pleiades rises at sunset. The Pleiades is a cluster of seven closely placed stars, the seven sisters, in the constellation of Taurus, near his shoulder. When looking for the Pleiades with the naked eye, remember it looks like a tiny dipper-shaped pattern of six moderately bright stars (the seventh can be seen on very dark nights) in the constellation of Taurus. It stands very low in the east-northeast sky for just a few minutes before sunrise.

Beltane, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two primary seasons, winter (Dark Part) and summer (Light Part). As Samhain is about honoring Death, Beltane, its counter part, is about honoring Life. It is the time when the sun is fully released from his bondage of winter and able to rule over summer and life once again.

Beltane, like Samhain, is a time of "no time" when the veils between the two worlds are at their thinnest. No time is when the two worlds intermingle and unite and the magic abounds! It is the time when the Faeries return from their winter respite, carefree and full of faery mischief and faery delight. On the night before Beltane, in times past, folks would place rowan branches at their windows and doors for protection, many otherworldly occurrences could transpire during this time of "no time". Traditionally on the Isle of Man, the youngest member of the family gathers primroses on the eve before Beltane and throws the flowers at the door of the home for protection. In Ireland it is believed that food left over from May Eve must not be eaten, but rather buried or left as an offering to the faery instead. Much like the tradition of leaving of whatever is not harvested from the fields on Samhain, food on the time of no time is treated with great care.

When the veils are so thin it is an extremely magical time, it is said that the Queen of the Faeries rides out on her white horse. Roving about on Beltane eve She will try to entice people away to the Faeryland. Legend has it that if you sit beneath a tree on Beltane night, you may see the Faery Queen or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides through the night. Legend says if you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you. There is a Scottish ballad of this called Thomas the Rhymer, in which Thomas chooses to go the Faeryland with the Queen and has not been seen since.

Beltane has been an auspicious time throughout Celtic lore, it is said that the Tuatha de Danaan landed in north-west Connacht on Beltane. The Tuatha de Danaan, it is said, came from the North through the air in a mist to Ireland. After the invasion by the Milesians, the Tuatha faded into the Otherworld, the Sidhe, Tir na nOg.

The beginning of summer heralds an important time, for the winter is a difficult journey and weariness and disheartenment set in, personally one is tired down to the soul. In times past the food stocks were low; variety was a distant memory. The drab non-color of winter's end perfectly represents the dullness and fatigue that permeates on so many levels to this day. We need Beltane, as the earth needs the sun, for our very Spirit cries out for the renewal of summer jubilation.

Beltane marks that the winter's journey has passed and summer has begun, it is a festival of rapturous gaiety as it joyfully heralds the arrival of summer in her full garb. Beltane, however, is still a precarious time, the crops are still very young and tender, susceptible to frost and blight. As was the way of ancient thought, the Wheel would not turn without human intervention. People did everything in their power to encourage the growth of the Sun and His light, for the Earth will not produce without the warm love of the strong Sun. Fires, celebration and rituals were an important part of the Beltane festivities, as to insure that the warmth of the Sun's light would promote the fecundity of the earth.

Beltane marks the passage into the growing season, the immediate rousing of the earth from her gently awakening slumber, a time when the pleasures of the earth and self are fully awakened. It signals a time when the bounty of the earth will once again be had. May is a time when flowers bloom, trees are green and life has again returned from the barren landscape of winter, to the hope of bountiful harvests, not too far away, and the lighthearted bliss that only summer can bring.

Beltane translated means "fire of Bel" or "bright fire" - the "bale-fire". (English - bale; Anglo-Saxon bael; Lithuanian baltas (white)) Bel (Bel, Bile, Beli, Belinus, Belenos) is the known as the bright and shinning one, a Celtic Sun God. Beli is the father, protector, and the husband of the Mother Goddess.

Beltane is the time of the yearly battle between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwythur ap Greidawl for Creudylad in Welsh mythology. Gwyn ap Nudd the Wild Huntsman of Wales, he is a God of death and the Annwn. Creudylad is the daughter of Lludd (Nudd) of the Silver Hand (son of Beli). She is the most beautiful maiden of the Island of Mighty. A myth of the battle of winter and summer for the magnificent blossoming earth.

In the myth of Rhiannion and Pwyll, it is the evening of Beltane, that Rhiannon gives birth to their son. The midwives all fell asleep at the same time, as they were watching over Rhiannon and her new baby, during which he was taken. In order to protect themselves, they smeared blood (from a pup) all over Rhiannon, to which they claim she had eaten her son. The midwives were believed, and Rhiannon was forced to pay penance for seven years. She had to carrying people on her back from the outside of the gate to the palace, although rarely would any allow her to do so. The baby's whereabouts were a mystery. Oddly, every Beltane night, one of Pwyll's vassals, Teirnyon Twryv Vliant, had a mare that gave birth but the colt disappeared. One Beltane night Teirnyon Twryv Vliant awaited in the barn for the mare to foaled, when she did, he heard a tremendous noise and a clawed arm came through the window and grabbed the colt. Teirnyon cut off the arm with his sword, and then heard a wailing. He opened the door and found a baby, he brought it to his wife and they adopted Gwri Wallt Euryn (Gwri of the Golden Hair). As he grew he looked like Pwyll and they remembered they found him on the night Rhiannon's baby became lost. Teirnyon brought Gwri of the Golden Hair to the castle, told the story, and he was adopted back to his parents, Rhiannon and Pwyll, and and named by the head druid, Pryderi (trouble) from the first word his mother had said when he was restored to her. "Trouble is, indeed, at an end for me, if this be true".

This myth illustrates the precariousness of the Beltane season, at the threshold of Summer, the earth awakening, winter can still reach its long arm in and snatch the Sun away (Gwri of the Golden hair). "Ne'er cast a clout 'til May be out" (clout: Old English for cloth/clothing). If indeed the return of summer is true than the trouble (winter) is certainly over, however one must be vigilant.

On Beltane eve the Celts would build two large fires, Bel Fires, lit from the nine sacred woods. The Bel Fire is an invocation to Bel (Sun God) to bring His blessings and protection to the tribe. The herds were ritually driven between two needfires (fein cigin), built on a knoll. The herds were driven through to purify, bring luck and protect them as well as to insure their fertility before they were taken to summer grazing lands. An old Gaelic adage: "Eadar da theine Bhealltuinn" - "Between two Beltane fires".

The Bel fire is a sacred fire with healing and purifying powers. The fires further celebrate the return of life, fruitfulness to the earth and the burning away of winter. The ashes of the Beltane fires were smudged on faces and scattered in the fields. Household fires would be extinguished and re-lit with fresh fire from the Bel Fires.

Celebration includes frolicking throughout the countryside, maypole dancing, leaping over fires to ensure fertility, circling the fire three times (sun-wise) for good luck in the coming year, athletic tournaments feasting, music, drinking, children collecting the May: gathering flowers. children gathering flowers, hobby horses, May birching and folks go a maying". Flowers, flower wreaths and garlands are typical decorations for this holiday, as well as ribbons and streamers. Flowers are a crucial symbol of Beltane, they signal the victory of Summer over Winter and the blossoming of sensuality in all of nature and the bounty it will bring.

May birching or May boughing, began on Beltane Eve, it is said that young men fastened garland and boughs on the windows and doors of the young maidens upon which their sweet interest laid. Mountain ash leaves and Hawthorne branches meant indicated love whereas thorn meant disdain. This perhaps, is the forerunner of old May Day custom of hanging bouquets hooked on one's doorknob?

Young men and women wandered into the woods before daybreak of May Day morning with garlands of flowers and/or branches of trees. They would arrive; most rumpled from joyous encounters, in many areas with the maypole for the Beltane celebrations. Pre-Christian society's thoughts on human sexuality and fertility were not bound up in guilt and sin, but rather joyous in the less restraint expression of human passions. Life was not an exercise but rather a joyful dance, rich in all beauty it can afford.

In ancient Ireland there was a Sacred Tree named Bile, which was the center of the clan, or Tuatha. As the Irish Tree of Life, the Bile Pole, represents the connection between the people and the three worlds of Bith: The Skyworld (heavens), The Middleworld (our world), and The Otherworld. Although no longer the center life, the Bile pole has survived as the Beltane Maypole.

The Maypole is an important element to Beltane festivities, it is a tall pole decorated with long brightly colored ribbons, leaves, flowers and wreaths. Young maidens and lads each hold the end of a ribbon, and dance revolving around the base of the pole, interweaving the ribbons. The circle of dancers should begin, as far out from the pole as the length of ribbon allows, so the ribbons are taut. There should be an even number of boys & girls. Boys should be facing clockwise and girls counterclockwise. They each move in the direction that they are facing, weaving with the next, around to braid the ribbons over-and-under around the pole. Those passing on the inside will have to duck, those passing on the outside raise their ribbons to slide over. As the dances revolve around the pole the ribbons will weave creating a pattern, it is said that the pattern will indicate the abundance of harvest year.

In some areas there are permanent Maypoles, perhaps a recollection of ancient clan Bile Pole memory. In other areas a new Maypole is brought down on Beltane Eve out from the wood. Even the classical wood can vary according to the area tradition is pulled from, most frequently it seems to be birch as "the wood", but others are mentioned in various historical documents.

Today in some towns and villages a mummer called Jack in the Green (drawing from the Green man), wears a costume made of green leaves as he dances around the May pole. Mumming is a dramatic performance of exaggerated characters and at Beltane the characters include Jack in the Green and the Fool. The Fool, and the Fool's journey, symbolism can be understood in relation to Beltane as it is the beginning of beginnings, the emergence from the void of nothingness (winter), as one can also see the role of the green man as the re-greening of the world.

Traditionally in many areas Morris dancers can be found dancing around the Maypole. Morris dancing can be found in church records in Thame England going back to 1555. Morris dancing is thought to have originated many centuries ago as part of ancient religious ceremonies, however it seems that Morris dancing became associated with Mayday during the Tudor times, and its originating history is not all that easily traced, as is the way with many traditions.

The Maypole dance as an important aspect of encouraging the return of fertility to the earth. The pole itself is not only phallic in symbolism but also is the connector of the three worlds. Dancing the Maypole during Beltane is magical experience as it is a conduit of energy, connecting all three worlds at a time when these gateways are more easily penetrable. As people gaily dance around and around the pole holding the brightly colored ribbons, the energy it raises is sent down into the earth's womb, bringing about Her full awakening and fruitfulness.

In Padstow, Cornwall, Beltane morning a procession is led by the "obby oss" a costumed horse figure, in a large circular banded frock and mask. The procession is full of song, drums and accordions. Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University points out that the first account of the Padstow May Day 'Obby 'Oss revelries was written in 1803. He offers evidence however that, like English Morris Dancing, its origins lie in English medieval times. This does not discount the possibility that its roots lay in the foundation of the fertility rites of Beltane, a more politically correct transmutation of fertility acts.

There is also a Queen of May. She is said in many areas to have worn a gold crown with a single, gold leaf at its front, in other areas her crown was made of fresh flowers. She was typically chosen at the start of the Beltane festival, which in time past was after sundown on the eve before Beltane day. Many accounts mention both a May Queen and King being chosen, whom would reign from sundown the eve before the Beltane day to sunset on Beltane. Among their duties would be to announce the Beltane games and award the prizes to the victors. The rudimentary base of this practice can be drawn back to the roots of Beltane festivities, the union of the Goddess and Her Consort, the joining of earth and sun, the endowment of summer. The Goddess has many guises: Danu - The Great Mother, Blodeuwedd (the Flower Bride), Isolt (Iseult, Isolde) and many, many others. The consort can also take many forms including the Green Man, Cernunnos or Tristan.

As Beltane marks this handfasting (wedding) of the Goddess and God, it too marks the reawakening of the earth's fertility in its fullest. This is the union between the Great Mother and her Young Consort, this coupling brings new life on earth. It is on a Spiritual level, the unifying of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine to bring forth the third, consciousness. On the physical, it is the union of the Earth and Sun to bring about the fruitfulness of the growing season.

It is customary that trial unions, for a year and a day, occur at this time. More or less these were statements of intent between couples, which were not legally binding. The trial marriages (engagements) typically occurred between a couple before deciding to take a further step into a legally binding union. It seems ancient wisdom understood that one does not really know another until they have lived with them, and when you live together things change and we change, as well. With this understanding unions were entered upon, first as a test period, and then if desired, a further commitment could be taken. It through always knowing that it is only through the choice of both to remain, that the relationship exists favorably.

May, however, according to old folklore is not a favorable time for marriages in the legal and permanent sense. There is reference after reference in the old books of this belief, and according to my Irish grandmother, May is not the month to marry, woe is to had by those who do. I can understand the premise of this folklore, May is the Goddess and God's handfasting month, all honor would be Hers and His.

Water is another important association of Beltane, water is refreshing and rejuvenating, it is also imperative to life. It is said that if you bathe in the dew gathered before dawn on Beltane morn, your beauty will flourish throughout the year. Those who are sprinkled with May dew are insured of health and happiness. There are other folk customs such as drinking from the well before sunrise on Beltane Morn to insure good health and fortune.

The central color of Beltane is green. Green is the color of growth, abundance, plentiful harvest, abundant crops, fertility, and luck. White is another color that is customary, white brings the energies of cleansing, peace, spirituality, and the power to dispel negativity. Another color is red who brings along the qualities of energy, strength, sex, vibrancy, quickening, health, consummation and retention. Sun energy, life force and happiness are brought to Beltane by the color yellow. Blues and purples (Sagittarius energies: expansion, Good Fortune, magic, spiritual power, Success), and pinks (Venus energies). Beltane is rich in vibrant color, lighting the eyes and cheering the Spirit as we leave the dreariness of winter behind.

It is customary to bake a colorful fruit and spiced filled bread for festivals in the Celtic lands, traditionally this festival bread is sweet dough made with sweetmeat and spices. In Scotland they are the bannock - Bonnach Bealtain - for Beltane, in Wales - Bara Brith, Ireland it is Barm Brack and in Brittany Morlaix Brioche. For Beltane this bread was made the eve before Beltane day, is it said that the bread should not allow it to come into contact with steel during preparation (steel is harmful, deadly to the faery folk).

Bannocks are actually uncut scones originally cooked on a griddle. Wheat does not grow well in the Highlands, originally bannocks were made with oat or barley flour made into dough with little water and no leavening. Traditionally, a portion of the cake was burned or marked with ashes. The recipient of the burnt cake jumped over a small fire three times to purify and cleanse him or herself of any ill fortune. Offerings of bannocks and drink are traditionally left on doorsteps and roadways for the Faeries as an offering, in hope of faery blessings.

May is the month of sensuality and sexuality revitalized, the reawakening of the earth and Her Children. It is the time when we reawaken to the vivid colors, vibrant scents, tingling summer breezes, and the rapture of summer after a long dormant winter. It is a time of extraordinary expression of earth, animal, and person a time of great enchantment and celebration.

The excitement and beauty of Beltane can not be better expressed than through the gaiety and joy of our children. There is not doubt "spring fever" hits at Beltane, and hits hard. Children are full of unbridled energy charged up and ready to go! Children always amplify the seasonal energies and the thrill of their change, they bring richness and merriment wherever they go.

It is the child's unrestrained expression of bliss and delight that is what Beltane is all about. It is the sheer joy of running through fields, picking flowers, rapturing in the sunlight, delighting in the fragrance of spring, dancing in the fresh dew covered grass. Our children guide us through the natural abandonment of our adult sensibilities and show us how to take grand pleasure, warmth and bliss from the gift of Beltane.

Blessed Beltane to you and yours!

 

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You Call it Christmas, We Call it Yule

Yule, the origin of Christmas

Author: Peg Aloi

Posted: December 12th. 1997

(originally posted 12/12/1997) Try though we might, it is not easy to escape the influence of Christmas in this country. It is easy to become jaded and cynical about it, wondering why it is not the magical time we all experienced as children, wondering how it ever got so commercial. For modern pagans who may still observe the holiday because their families do, it is a confusing time of year; how to celebrate this as a seasonal festival when so many of our associations with this holiday have to do with gifts, food and merrymaking?

Even for those who celebrate this day as the birth of Christ, it must be difficult to stay focused on that significance, with the tinsel and shopping and office parties and the newest toys for kids clouding their vision. I for one find that cynicism abounds at this time of year, and that many adults dread the "holidays" because of family issues and stresses that seem to become more pronounced. 

 

The emphasis on having a picture-perfect "Martha Stewart" style celebration is a set-up for disappointment; and kids these days are so focused on getting presents that they hardly have time to enjoy the more sensual pleasures of the season (winter activities, traditional foods, music, decorations). Of course Christmas was not always this way; modern societies are far removed from our ancient connections to Nature; yet we still retain customs derived from the agricultural calendars of our ancestors. Perhaps there is something to be said for examining the modern traditions of Christmas in light of their ancient origins. It may be surprising to find that many of the customs still associated with Christmas today are, in fact, derived from ancient pagan traditions.

The seasonal observance of holidays such as Channukah and Kwaanza are tangentially influenced by the overwhelming emphasis on Christmas, and in the United States it has become common in recent years to give a more even representation of these holidays alongside the more popular one: Christmas. Yet the religious significance of the season seems remarkably absent much of the time. And of course the symbols of the season are very secular in nature: trees, mistletoe and holly, Santa Claus, reindeer...how do such symbols relate to the birth of Christ?

Christ's Birthday? or Winter Solstice?

To begin, let us look at the actual reason this holiday exists: for Yule and Christmas are not so very different, underneath it all; both celebrate the arrival of the sun/son; or, if you like, the light of the world.

Ronald Hutton, in his excellent book The Stations of the Sun, has this to say about the story of the Nativity: It "makes sense on a mythological level--an archetypal representation of the birth of a hero at the junction of many worlds, (who is) engendered partly of humans and partly of the divine, born in a location that is neither indoors nor in the open air, belonging partly to humans and partly to animals, and adored by those on the margins of society."

Most modern pagans acknowledge Yule as the rebirth of the light half of the year; some traditions perform the play of the Oak King and the Holly King, just as it is done at Midsummer, to mark the change of the seasons as one of them reigns over the other. It is also generally accepted that the date of Christmas is an arbitrary one; that it was chosen to coincide with the pagan solstice celebration, as a way of "converting" the "heathens" (or country folk, heath-dwellers) to the Christian way of life.

The first written record of the reason for this holiday's occurrence on December 25th was in 354 AD, in Rome, when one scholar wrote: "It was customary for pagans to celebrate the birth of the sun...when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day."

However, the tradition of celebrating the solstice on this day is not much older, at least according to extant records: it was officially decreed in the year 274 by the emperor Aurelian. A century later, the archbishop of Constantinople observed that fixing the date of the "Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness" was necessary because "while the heathens were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance." Saint Augustine encouraged Christians to honor "He who made the sun, not the sun itself."

As an aside, the word "Yule" is believed to derive from a colloquial Scandinavian term meaning "wheel." There is also some speculation it is dervied from the Old English word for "jolly." But its exact etymology is still debated. The concept of the wheel makes more sense to me, since this date marks the definitive point in the Wheel of the Year, and for many cultures and calendars it is the start of the new year.

We know that the observance of the winter solstice was very significant in ancient times. Since this date represented the moment when the days would again become longer, when light would return to the land, the rural folk who faced lean times in winter had reason to be thankful. The use of candles as decorations and ritual objects, dating from ancient times, clearly indicates the importance of honoring the deities of light. The sun's return meant spring was on its way,and with it, the birth of new animals to the flock, and the softening of the soil tilled by our ancestors who lived as animal herders and farmers. Their celebration of this date as a holy day, when they worshiped and honored the sun as a deity, was an affirmation of their survival of the cold months of winter. They subsisted on the dried meats of the animals they slaughtered at Samhain, and what little produce they could preserve from the final harvest.

Much of the folklore surrounding winter solstice rituals from various cultures has to do with very basic symbols of agriculture and animal husbandry; in other words, the dormancy of winter as a time of scarcity, and the return of the light as a harbinger of new growth. In Frazer's The Golden Bough it is observed that Bethlehem means "House of Bread,"and that this indicates an association of the birth of Christ with ancient rituals honoring a god of grain and vegetation. The Christian mass includes as its central climax the sharing of bread which represent Christ's body; such symbology dates from well before the dawn of Christianity. And the drinking of the fruit of the vine, in addition to honoring ancient harvest deities like Bacchus and Dionysus, was also believed to insure a bountiful grape harvest in the coming year.

In areas where other fruits were the important crop (like apples in England), many rituals developed around blessing the orchards at Yuletide. Called "saining," these rites blessed fruit trees and livestock so that they might bring abundant food in the seasons ahead. Many of the "wassail" songs reflect this in their lyrics, such as "And here is to Cherry and to his right eye; May Yule bring our mistress a good mincemeat pie." During these rites, Cherry, a common name for a roan-colored cow, might even have a cup of cider tossed in his face; the way his head turned in response was considered a way of divining the health of the herd in the months to come.

The Holly and the Ivy; Did Someone Say "Tree Worship?"

Another potent symbol of Yuletide is the use of evergreen plants to decorate indoors, including holly, ivy, and mistletoe. In the British Isles, it has been customary since time immemorial to decorate with flowers or greenery at all seasonal celebrations; the traditional "evergreen" plants were those that flourished in the winter months, and also included rosemary, gorse, bay, cypress, and yew. The tradition of kissing under a bough of greenery first became widespread in the late 18th century; but this was as likely to be made of holly or gorse as it was to be mistletoe. The ancient association of mistletoe with the Druids was mentioned in a Christmas short story by Washington Irving in 1819, around the time of the revival of interest in Druidism in England. But apparently its vibrancy during winter and its lovely white berries were the main reasons for its popularity as "the kissing bush."

Many modern Witches still perform a ritual of the Oak King and Holly King at Midsummer and Midwinter. The Holly King rules the Waning year; the Oak King, the Waxing Year. The two battle each other for dominance at Litha and Yule, respectively. Just as this rite is a symbolic reenactment of the sacrifice of a young male of the tribe, to appease the gods who ruled the seasons; it is clear that Christ, like the Persian god Mithras (also born at Midwinter), is a symbol of rejuvenation and light. In cold climates, basic survival was based upon subsisting from one harvest to the next; honoring the return of the sun was believed to ensure a bountiful crop, and healthy livestock. In the British Isles (the birthplace of modern Witchcraft, and a region bursting with centuries of religious conflict and mystery) many other rites and customs still exist that reflect these "heathen" (heath-dweller, or country folk) ways of life.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry, or, How Not to Diet During the Holidays

One undeniable feature of the Christmas holidays centers around traditional foods, and the time-honored "tradition" of feasting (and, in our sedentary society, over-eating). Many of us who celebrated Christmas as children have vivid memories of special dishes (some we loved, some we hated! my own favorites were a rosemary-roasted chicken prepared by my grandfather, and my dad's fried smelt; but I watched in horror as other family members ate calamari or Yorkshire pudding). The sheer plethora of traditional cookies and sweets of the season, from many cultures but especially prevalent in Germany, Italy and the UK, is testament to an elaborate history of foods created especially for the season of Yule.

Originally, feasting at this season had several purposes: one, to acknowledge the return of the season of growth with eating heartily during a season of scarcity was a way to give physical expression to the hope for abundance in the year to come. Second, in countries where winter meant a very bleak time of inactivity (as in the fishing and farming communities of rural Scotland), a feast was a way of alleviating boredom and depression. Third, the elaborate Yuletide activities of the nobility from the Middle Ages onward gradually developed into status-conscious events wherein households vied with each other for acts of generosity to their communities: for the poor, this meant eating well and receiving much-needed gifts of new clothing or shoes. During the Protestant Reformation, when Yuletide festivities were all but banned, there were still some stubborn monarchs and lords who persisted in their celebratory rites of feasting and of treating their household servants to a fine meal; to do less would be disastrous, as growing levels of poverty meant food shortages in winter.

As Christianity gradually usurped the pagan ways of worship, the custom of Advent, which is a month-long fast before Christmas, reflects these times when people had to survive eating very little. A "fast" meant no eggs, meat or cheese could be consumed, among the wealthy; the poor generally ate very little meat anyway, and so for Advent gave up other staples, such as cider. It then became a custom to feast on the 25th, and to mark this day with acts of hospitality and generosity. The rich were expected to open their doors and purses for all; this could well have been the precursor to the tradition of helping those less fortunate at the holidays, and giving gifts to those who serve others all year, such as mail-carriers, domestic help, etc. But there were instances when the nobility merely entertained their social equals, not their inferiors, on this day. One poem from this period says:

"At Christmas we banquet, the rich and the poor, Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?"

Until the virtual collapse of the English aristocracy this century, it was still very common to see remnants of these traditions taking place among the rural nobility. For two excellent portrayals of the Christmas celebrations of English country manor homes in the early 20th century, I recommend the films A Handful of Dust (starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Rupert Graves and Sir Alec Guinness) and The Shooting Party (starring Sir John Gielgud and James Mason). The first contains an authentic version of a masque; the second a wonderful exploration of relations between the peasants and the aristocracy,and how this class distinction is blurred during the holidays.

The concept of feasting during the Middle Ages was naturally different from what it became in later centuries, when advances in farming and hygiene allowed more people to be fed more efficiently. As the years wore on, feasting at Yuletide/Christmas became very elaborate, particularly among the nobility. One common table centerpiece for wealthy households was the boar's head; it was first recorded as being requested for Yule by the bishop of Hereford in 1289. So notorious did this dish become, as it was something of a status symbol to be able to serve it, that there were even songs written in its honor, like "The Boar's Head Carol":

"The boar's head in hand bear we, bedecked with bays and rosemary."

As the wild boar gradually became extinct (it all but disappeared from the forests of Scotland bythe 16th century), its presence at the Yuletide feast was more and more reserved for the nobleman who could afford to outfit a hunting party to procure the elusive beast. The symbology of the boar in Celtic myth is well-known; its strength, ruthlessness and intelligence made it a prize among ancient Celtic warriors, as is portrayed among many artifacts and pieces of jewelry and armor from the Bronze Age. It was highly-valued as a food source at military gatherings, wherein men would honor the animal's qualities and invoke them, as they feasted upon its flesh. Its tusks were worn as talismans to confer bravery on the wearer.

Many royal banquets at Christmas had memorable menus that included huge amounts of exotic foods. Richard II once held a feast for 10,000 people that served 200 oxen and 200 tubs of wine. Henry V held one unforgettable event where a dish called brawn (the flesh from the boar's belly) was the main dish; there was also "dates with mottled cream, carp, prawns, turbot, perch, fresh sturgeons with whelks, roasted porpoise, eels and lampreys, leached meats garnished with hawthorn, and marzipan," among other delicacies. The food was not the only spectacle, however; it was also customary to hire entertainment for these feasts; whether harpers, singers, story-tellers, or minstrels. While the feasts hosted by the wealthy were very opulent, it was also common for communities to organize their own, more humble, events, with church parishes pooling their resources to purchase food and drink, and to hire their own entertainment, or to put on their own productions (this tradition is still very much alive in the U. S. with the traditional "Christmas pageant").

It is not hard to see how Christmas, over time, evolved into a holiday of excess, centered upon food, drink and fun; and, of course, gift giving. Though the orgy of shopping makes us numb to the true pleasure of gift giving, its origins at this season were based in very simple values of generosity and hospitality.

Gift giving seems to originate in another December holiday. The feast of Saturnalia (which honored the god Saturn) was long established by the Romans before they invaded Britain, and was celebrated from December 12-17. It was a time when masters waited on servants at mealtime, and gifts of light were given, particularly candles (this may have been in honor of a solar deity for the upcoming solstice). Other traditional gifts exchanged were coins, honey, figs and pastry. Honey and figs were believed to be aphrodisiacs, but also they were highly-prized for their nutritional value (honey is a natural preservative and is believed to restore youthfulness to the skin). The giving of coins predates the traditions in England of handing out coins to the less fortunate, or the opening of a lord's purse to feed his household servants. These Roman customs surrounding the use of candles, and the exchange of gifts at midwinter, shows that many later Yuletide traditions may have originated in the older festival of Saturnalia. It may also be where the tradition of wassailing and caroling door to door, in expectation of gifts of money, arose, but many of these customs developed somewhat naturally over the years out of various practices by both the nobility and the peasant classes of England.

Wassailing, for example, is a well-loved custom that inspired many songs written especially for the occasion.

"Wassail, wassail, all over the town,

Our bowl it is white and our ale it is brown

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree

With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee."

The term wassail in Old English means "your health." The traditional bowl or cup full of mulled wine originates in the fourteenth century; the leader of a gathering would take up a bowl and cry out "Wassail!" and toast the others; the cup would then be passed on to the next person, with a kiss, until all in the room had drunk from it. Interestingly, some modern Wiccan covens observe this tradition when passing cakes and wine in circle. On another note related to modern Wiccan practice, Hutton also observes that a traditional dance developed that over time that was performed with the customary wassailing carols; and that this dance was performed with a ring of men and women holding hands! Sounds like many a Gardnerian ritual circle I have been to...this is one more example of an ancient folk custom of rural Britain being passed down to modern times and utilized in Witchcraft rites.

 

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Midsummer/Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

Author: Christina Aubin [a WitchVox Sponsor]

Posted: June 23rd. 2001

"Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you." -- Maori proverb

Summer Solstice falls at the precise moment when the Sun's power is at its zenith. It is the time of year when the noon sun appears to be farthest north from the celestial equator. "Solstice" is Latin for "sun stands still" (sol "sun" and sistere "to stand"). Summer Solstice is so named because to the naked eye the sun appears stationary in its northern and southern progression. The sun is directly over the tropic of Cancer at the summer solstice, at which time the sun is 23¡27' north. The sun travels 23.5 degrees to reach its maximum distance from the celestial equator during both the summer and winter solstice.

It is the longest day and shortest night of the year. From the moment of Summer Solstice, the Sun immediately begins to wane. The journey into the harvest season has begun.  

Midsummer has been one of the important solar events throughout the evolution of humankind. It was an indicator that the year was about to begin waning, thus winter would be again returning. Although not all the ancients were as precise in the calculations from an astronomical point, you can be sure that they were keenly aware of the sun's progression, and did most assuredly know when Solstice was upon them, as the sun appeared to stand still in its northern progression.

The axis of Stonehenge, which aligns with the monument's entrance, is oriented in the direction of the midsummer sunrise. The Teotihuac‡n Temple of the Sun, a pre-Columbian temple located in Mexico, was also oriented to the sun's passage at the Summer Solstice. During the time of the ancient Egyptians, Sirius (the dog star) rose on the Summer Solstice (today it rises August 10) heralding the beginning of their new year, just before the season of the Nile's flooding. Richard Hinckley Allen suggests that the star is connected with the dog because it was thought of by the ancients as the "guardian of the horizon and also the solstices" (Richard Hinckley Allen's Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning).Ê The impact of the sun's journey was one that traversed all the world's population throughout all time.

The ancients knew that life came from the sun, it was life giving, life supporting, without it life would be lost. The journey of the sun impacted life at every level in the course of time, only relatively recently with the advances of electricity, greenhouses, transportation networks, has human reliance on the passage of the sun been lessened. Even with this dependence lessening, in this technological age, necessity of the sun and its path is crucial to our existence, however it is not as apparent today to many.

Midsummer celebrations begin with Midsummer eve, as the Celts and many ancient groups, reckoned the beginning of day to occur at dream-time or nightfall. Through the progression of Christianity Midsummer's Eve became Saint John's Eve, but the roots of which are and were firmly planted in their Pagan origins.

Midsummer Eve is the evening of herbs. The herbs and flowers gathered this night are considered exceptionally potent. St John's wort, burdock, thorn, and nettle , harvested on Midsummer Eve are hung on doors and windows and placed around the home for protection. Houses are decorated with fennel, orpine (also know as Sedum; live forever; stone crop), St. John's Wort and birch branches. Royal Fern (Raithneach na Ri) seeds which are gathered on midsummer are said to make the possessor invisible. They who find Royal Fern blossoms on Midsummer's eve become wise, lucky, wealthy and and all around happy folk. Women wear braided circlets of clover and flowers, while men wear chaplets of oak leaves and flowers around their heads. In times past livestock were also decorated with garlands made of flowers, foliage, and oak leaves.

It is at Midsummer that the Holly King, God of the Waning Year, has encountered the Oak King and succeeded in usurping the reign of the year. In Celtic Mythology the Young God withdraws into the Wheel of the Stars and it is here he waits and learn before his rebirth at Winter Solstice. It is the time when Belenus, Belenos - the Sun god, begins to die, fir-branches; Balefires; were kindled to light his downward path, he will return again at the Winter Solstice, when the Yule logs and lit fir-braches will guide His return. A few of other deities associated with Midsummer include: Lugh, Lleu, Lugos, Aine.

Fire is an important aspect to Midsummer celebrations. The balefires, bonfires on hilltops, at crossroads, or any place where folks could gather reaches far back through the progression of time. The fire of Midsummer is traditionally kindled from the friction of two sacred woods, fir and oak. Nine different types of herbs are thrown upon the Midsummer fire. These consist of mistletoe, vervain, St. John's Wort, heartsease, lavender, and a choice of four others chosen from herbs typical of this season such as yarrow. Folks would feast, dance and jump the fire for luck and fertility. The herds were driven through the embers in days long ago to purge disease and illness from them. When the fires had burned down, folks would carry ashes back to their homes to sprinkle on fields, the four corners, and lay embers on the hearth. Ashes bring powers of protection, health and luck.

Water is the other important aspect of Midsummer. In times past folks swam in waters that flowed towards the rising sun as it climbed in Midsummer morning sky. Bathing in springs and rivers on Midsummer brings healing, cleansing and protection. The dew of Midsummer is said to bestow health to whomever drinks of it. Especially powerful is fetching running water of Midsummer morn and mixing it with ashes from the bonfire, sprinkling it around the house, yard and on oneself bestows protection and luck.

Midsummer is the time of sweet strawberries, blueberries, cherries, blackberries and more. New potatoes, lettuce, peas, carrots, radishes and onions are ready for picking. Tarragon, chamomile, sweet woodruff, St. John's wort, hyssop, lovage, mint and other herbs are fresh and delightfully robust. Bee balm, phylox, oxeye daisies, roses, lily of the valley, calendulas, St John's wort, marigolds and others are in bloom, it is a time of olfactory abundance. Foods and decorations center around what nature has bestowed, rich, colorful and flavorful - mint iced teas, dandelion salads, strawberry shortcakes, geranium leaf sorbet, berry pies, daisy chains, lavender wreaths, rosemary garlands. The pure enjoyment that only summer fresh foods, sweet summer flowers and joyful company that only midsummer can bestow.

Midsummer is the time when everything is abundant and flourishing. Flowers smell their sweetest, colors are their most vibrant, trees are their greenest, berries are their sweetest, and faeries are their most playful, it is the time that nature's lavishness has reached a pinnacle point. It is said that during a full moon on Midsummer Eve a mortal may witness fairy dances and celebrations. Be sure to leave an offering for the fey on Midsummer eve, so they may think fondly of you and yours.

The passion at Midsummer has escalated from the playfulness of Beltane to a more fervent intensity. Couples who handfasted the year before at Beltane, tend to marry in a more formal handfasting at Midsummer or Lughnasadh. Divination on matters of love are especially powerful Midsummer's eve. In Scandinavian countries, the night before Midsummer, every young girl places a bunch of flowers tied with nine pieces of grass or nine flowers under her pillow, upon which she will sleep and dream of her future husband. In Ireland the young lasses place yarrow under her pillow to dream of her mate.

The moon of Midsummer have a few names one being the Honey Moon, as this is a time when the hives are been rich in honey, which gathered and fermented into a drink known as mead, customarily, drunk at wedding parties. Mead is rumored to be an aphrodisiac; thus we can observe the roots of modern day marriage practices and "honeymoons", in their Pagan soil.

This being the season of passion, will, strength and surprisingly that of soothing love - Midsummer is the perfect time to understand the dynamic aspects of passion, will, strength and the need of the corresponding gentle aspects that love can bestow. The Sun and fire, akin to the Spirit upon which we ride, is coupled with, the Soul, the softening Lunar and water influence. Spirit without Soul is ego in a frenzy whereas Soul without Spirit languishes, there needs to be a proper balance between Fire and Water; Sun and Moon; Spirit and Soul. For it is only through understanding these dynamics, acknowledging our deep pounding passions, our intense sense of will, and the strength united with the gentility of love that is bestow upon us can we utilize them correctly. Giving us a sense of purpose, a direction, a heartfelt and determined course upon which we can set sail. For these passions, will take us to heights unseen, will fuel our creativity, and bring us into realms unrealized in the mundane mind and life.

It is through this season that we can see the beauty of life, the intensity of being, the rapture of passion, the exhilaration of awareness, possibilities of creation and the surprising tenderness of love. For it is passion and love that have driven humankind to realize some of its greatest treasures and its most extreme violations. It is only through awareness and conscious action that passion can bring us to the zenith of existence. This is the time to experience our passions and the force within, to be conscious of how we use them and the gifts they can bring and experience our own true power.

Blessed Midsummer to you and yours!

 

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You Call It Groundhog Day, We Call It Imbolc

Imbolc, the beginning of spring

Author: Peg Aloi

Posted: February 3rd. 2000

"I trudge over the snow-covered lawn to my backdoor, ignoring my earlier tracks and breaking new ones. I enter the house this way each night, initially because I misplaced my keys, but now because I like to use this roundabout path. It allows me to look up at the huge bare trees silhoetted against the blue night sky, and to check the birdfeeders, to see if the starlings, bluejays, cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows (not to mention the marauding squirrels) need more food. Crunching through the white crust, made glassy and sugary from a recent sleet storm on top of a foot of powdery snow, the sound is enormous: crunch, crunch, CRUNCH...I am a kid again, smashing my boots onto frozen puddles and frost-rimed grass, whacking at icicles with a stick, just to hear the sound of frozen water breaking.

As I usually do, I look up to gaze upon the moon...but I can't see it. She is shrouded in greyish, opaque mist...her light gives the clouds form but not brightness. She wears the frozen fog like a gossamer cloak, through which she may peek at any moment...for now, I can see the surface of the snow reflecting the lights of neighboring houses, lamps, televisions, throwing gleaming color across the white expanse of snow-lawn, shimmering now blue, now orange, now pale green.  

I think of the approaching festival of Imbolc, the midwinter fire festival honoring Brigid, and I picture the beautiful Irish goddess up there beside her sister the Moon, also wrapped in a white gossamer cloak, both of them aglow from the cold air...offering us their gifts of healing and hope as we wait for a brief respite from the single-digit temperatures, a thaw, a day or two when the snows melt away, the buds tremble with incipient growth and all living creatures feel a small, fiery flutter deep within our beings, as we whisper, gladly, "Spring will come again! Spring will come again!"

A Day to Divine the Weather

From the time we are schoolchildren in this country, we are taught the folklore of Groundhog Day, one of the last surviving vestiges of weather divination from old European customs. If, on February 2nd, the groundhog (most notably "Punxsutawney Phil" in the small Pennsylvania town that bears his name) sees his shadow, we may expect six more weeks of winter. If he does not, good weather will arrive sooner. It is largely a meaningless holiday, since whether it is sunny or cloudy on this day has not been shown to have much effect on how soon spring arrives. But the history of Groundhog Day is far more complex than what it has become: a staged event in which poor Phil is observed in the glare of television cameras so our local meteorologists have a cute sound byte and a brief close-up of his blinking, bewildered groundhog face, a yearly ritual that appears on the morning news. The origin of Groundhog Day is derived from earlier celebrations held on the cross-quarter day of February 2, dates variously known as Brigid's Night in Ireland (festival of the Celtic goddess of poetry, birth, weddings, smithcraft, and healing), Oimelc/Imbolc/Imbolg in Scotland, and Candlemas in England. The cross-quarter days (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa) were always associated in ancient times with divination--the veil between the worlds is believed to be its thinnest, and the balance of energies between solstice and equinox was thought to be very significant.

The type of divination associated with each tends to be connected to the purpose of the festival or the most crucial matters pertaining to the season. For example, Beltane was a time of planting and mating of livestock; so humans practice fertility rites and divination involving marriage and romance. Samhain, being the dark time before winter and associated with the risk of death from starvation or exposure, usually has rites of communing with or honoring the dead. Lughnasa, the time of harvest, is a time of thanksgiving, but also a time of sacrifice, reflecting the killing of part of the herd to feed the community through winter; these rites often involved ritual slaying of a harvest lord and fire divination (scrying) to give strength for the coming months. At Imbolc (which means "in the belly"; Oimelc refers to milk; both terms are said to connect to the animals known to give birth at this time: sheep), when it was still very much winter in the Northern lands, this was naturally a time to divine the return of warmth and growth.

Imbolc was known as Brigid's Night in Ireland, and was celebrated, like the other cross-quarter festivals, from the eve of the holiday through the following night. Brigid, (pronounced "Breed" and also known as Brigit, Bridget, Brighid and Brid; she gives her name to our word "bride") as the patroness of healing and birth, was honored with sacred bonfires, symbolizing the heat of the lifeforce, kindled on this night. Fires purify and cleanse, and the fires were often utilized in rites to bless livestock, as they were at Yule. Others seeking Brigid's blessing, particularly smiths and poets or artists, also saw their own vocations blessed by these fires: the smith, for whom fire was a necessary tool for his art, and the poet, whose creative imagination was blessed with the fire of inspiration.

Brigid and Mary: Healing Goddesses

As the Roman Christian Church sought to usurp this holiday (as they also did with Christmas, Easter, All Soul's Day, and Lammas, among others, which are all based on pagan festivals), they changed the name to Candlemas, thus retaining the symbols of fire. Candles were blessed by clergy, and chapels were decorated with many burning candles. Candlemas later became, for the Catholics, the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Ireland in particular, with its strong Catholic tradition, many of the early pagan goddess festivals were converted to days honoring the Virgin Mary. That February 2 became a rite of purification has several implications. First, Imbolc and Brigid's Night both featured fires of purification. Second, February 2 was forty days after Christ's birth; it was believed women were impure for six weeks after giving birth, and so for Mary to become pure again this holy day was necessary. As with Candlemas, churches were filled with burning candles to honor Mary's purity--and parishioners received candles blessed by the priests. Catholics also used the blessed candles in a rite the following day called St. Blaise's Day: parishioners were blessed with the consecrated candles held to their throats to help prevent colds and flu--maybe this is subconsciously meant to offer healing to the throat (heart) chakra, as yet another holdover to the festival of Brigid, patroness of women about to be betrothed.

Why a Groundhog?

The transition of Candlemas and other ancient celebrations to Groundhog Day dates back to the time of the Roman conquest of Northern Europe: the Christian celebration of Candlemas was associated with songs like this one:

If Candlemas be fair and bright

Come, winter, have another flight

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go, winter, and come not again.

This practice of divining the weather on this day spread to Germany, and was brought to this country by some of its first German settlers, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch: hence the location of the most famous groundhog. Also, the groundhog (also known affectionately as a woodchuck) was not the original prototypical weather-divining creature: in Europe it was a hedgehog. But early American settlers were nothing if not adaptable, and so the local creature most closely resembling a hedgehog was chosen for this ritual. Like hedgehogs, groundhogs are no-nonsense, practical animals; the same can be said for bears and badgers, who were also associated with weather divination in European folklore. If a groundhog sees his shadow on the 2nd, some inner sense tells him it's not spring yet (does he feel the chill in the air most clear winter days have? or is the sunny day from an early thaw, which often presages a return to wintry weather?)--and he hightails it back to his burrow. Likewise, humans observe midwinter as a milestone, a moment which is on the cusp of change, between the harsh, cold winds of winter and the fragrant, sensual breezes of spring.

All Earth's Critters

Groundhogs are exceedingly shy, and exceptionally cute. They abound in the Northeast, and as a child in western New York State, I saw them often on drives through the country, placidly sitting up on their haunches, nibbling grasses, or slowly scampering back to their burrows when a passing car scared them. That these smart, unassuming creatures, who I have admired since I was very young, are associated with a holiday I now observe as the Feast of Imbolc, or the feast of Februa, has special meaning for me now. I used to wonder why groundhogs had anything to do with predicting the weather. Now, after a lifetime spent cherishing all nature has to offer, and the last thirteen years spent honoring and learning from the many gods, goddesses, sprites, devas, fairies, dryads and other inhabitants of the natural world, I understand that all is as it should be. The earthy god of the woodlands, Pan, is revered by many witches at Imbolc, who call on him to awaken the flora and fauna in spring, and to bless them with his fiery fertility, passion and ecstasy. Pan is the perfect balance to Brigid, whose fiery energy is centered upon healing, creativity and purification. As man and beast approach a new season of rejuvenation and rebirth, they remember again what they need to do to reawaken, to survive and flourish. Just as Brigid bestows her blessings upon humans according to their needs, so Pan shares his wily knowhow and animal passion with the beasts and birds. And that includes the groundhog. May he return to sleep after his brief outing in the morning...to his groundhog burrow, comfortable and built to design as only a groundhog knows how to build...may he return to his warm, calm, unassuming, groundhog dreams, where he nibbles grasses, sits proudly up on his haunches, and waves shyly at people out for a drive in the country.

 

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Pagan Holidays: Beyond Traditional Meaning

Pagan Holidays: Beyond Traditional Meaning

Author: Rachel

Posted: July 2nd. 2006

One thing that is inevitable in life is change. All of us experience change constantly, whether we are happy about it or not. We can fight change, but eventually it will catch up with us. As the seasons change and the "wheel" turns we Pagans celebrate the next chapter that the year has to bring us.

I have gone through a lot of spiritual changes over the past few years. I went from being an extremely observant Pagan, to a fairly lazy Pagan, to something I'm not sure I have a name for. However, I have recently returned to a more "active" Pagan lifestyle if you will. On my way back to this life that I treasure so much I had the merit to learn quite a bit. I want to share as I learn so if nothing more I can give at least one person a new perspective, or even just a few moments to look a little deeper into time honored celebrations that should be so much more.

As I believe many Pagans experience when learning about our holidays, I learned a lot of generic information. This is for fertility, now we celebrate birth, this time of the year is for marriage, this is the light half of the year, this is the dark half of the year. On the night of (fill in the blank) you can do love spells, this time is good for money spells etc. In the beginning these answers were great. Learning about the wheel of the year was a lot of fun, I especially enjoyed (and still do) all of the myths and lore.  

Without boring you with the details of my life I will say that at some point I slowly began to slip away, and eventually I was gone. I stopped observing holidays, or doing anything for that matter. Only recently in the past few months have I started my return/rebirth into my Pagan roots. I know now that the path of The Lady is the true path of my soul, it's the only path to ever make my heart sing. Anyway, on my path of return I wanted more, more than the basic and traditional answers to the wheel of the year. I decided to find out what is the true meaning of each holiday. I hope I will have a new article each holiday as I learn throughout the year. For now, I will start with the summer solstice.

First of all I want to note that while I did do research in all of the widely known books (Ancient Ways, Circle Round, etc.) I found that the books left much to be desired. Not because they weren't informative, but because reading won't make us FEEL the turning of the year, the passing of the time, or the AWESOME energy available to us on the sacred days. I found that the most incredible information and understanding came from within. It came from sitting quietly and trying to feel the subtle changes in the energy as the solstice came near, from asking for guidance and understanding, and being open to receive that guidance in whatever form it came in. I won't say that I succeeded in every attempt to connect to the changes going on around me, but with each try I came closer to not only understanding the solstice intellectually, but making it apart of myself, and becoming a part of it. That's what the real celebration is about.

What I've found to be my truth of The Summer Solstice is simple, and beautiful to me. For one thing, when we talk about the turning of the year we have to know that it's about more than the simple changes of the seasons, more than harvest time, or planting time. Every sabbat and esbat is not just a holiday, but a cosmic opening for a specific energy to enter our world. It's bigger than just casting a certain spell on that night. So much bigger. These days are cosmic events. Imagine that on a certain day each year you could simply say, "I want to win the lottery", and it would be true!!!! That's what our holidays are really about. Winning the spiritual lottery.

The "lottery" of the summer solstice is largely about realization and revelation. On the longest day of the year, there is energy available to help us awaken to the wonders of our every day lives. There is magick hidden everywhere, mostly right in front of our faces. One of the most overlooked aspects of the solstice is the ability to tap into an energy that will help us reveal "secrets" hidden right in front of our very eyes.

So, what exactly does that mean? I'll give a practical example. How many times have you "lost" your car keys only to find them a while later sitting in plain sight, or gone looking for your sunglasses when they were sitting right on top of your head. Most of the answers we seek from the simplest to the most profound questions are usually like sunglasses on our head. As it is with human nature, instead of looking first to ourselves, or at least near ourselves for the answers, we look outside ourselves, sometimes very far away.

The solstice is a cosmic opening that will "shed light" onto our current situations, if we're willing to stop and listen/look/feel. It is a time when we can reveal magick hidden within ourselves. Not small magick, but the true magick, the magick of who we are. The energy that is made available to us on the summer solstice will support us in receiving answers to our deepest questions. For those of you who are used to thinking of magick as only spells (I know there are many people on this site who are beyond that) than this might not seem like an important explanation. For those of you who know magick to be as natural as the air we breath, you will understand how important it is. A day where all can be revealed, where I can touch, and bring forth the truest part of my being. THAT'S MAGICK.

The solstice is about realizing the opportunities around us each day, becoming aware of them so we don't miss out. The Summer Solstice is an extremely powerful time to channel energy of awakening out into the world. Depending upon your tradition, whatever ritual, meditation, or other form that may take doesn't really matter. What does matter is our intention. When our intention is aligned with the energies available at a specific time, the energy/magick is multiplied beyond what I can say. With the solstice being a time of revelation it presents us with a perfect opportunity to channel that intention to the entire world. The idea being that more and more souls will awaken to truth.

These last few months have only been the beginning of my search deeper into the mystery and meaning behind our holidays. I suggest to everyone to try searching for your own meaning to these powerful times of the year. Don't wait until the holiday is here. Start now. Take time each day, or even once a week to feel the energy around us. Not just the energy in your immediate environment. Search beyond and tap into the energy of the earth. The more you do this, you'll start to feel the shift in energy as we move further from one holiday into the next. You'll find the hidden truth to our precious holidays. More than celebrations, they are gifts to our world. Precious openings for us to draw upon.

Blessed Be.

 

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