campania-roman-wine-amphorae-and-fresco-in-pompeiThe day on which Romans sampled both old wine and the new wine, wine that was not yet fully fermented. This ritual sampling cured disease, according to this verse which was recited:

Novum vetus vinum bibo,
Novo veteri morbo medeor
I drink new and old wine,
I cure new and old disease.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press

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St Francis of Assisi

giotto_-_legend_of_st_francis_-_-15-_-_sermon_to_the_birdsAs a young man he led a carefree and frivolous life until one day in the Church of San Damiano he heard the statue of Christ say to him, “Francis, repair my falling house,” whereupon he went and sold a bale of fabric from his father’s warehouse to pay for the repair of the church. His father was not amused and disowned him whereupon Francis left home, to become a roving preacher of poverty and simplicity. Although he’s not, he should be the patron of the Voluntary Simplicity movement. He was also a friend to animals and known for respecting the life force in everything, referring to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In many places around the world, animals are brought to church on this day to be blessed. Officially he is the patron of Italy, merchants (an association he would probably have abhorred) and ecologists (thanks to Pope John Paul II).

A good day to lighten your possessions or bless your animals; see everything in your life as a fellow creature. Read Patricia Hampl’s wonderful book, Virgin Time, on her quest for the contemplative life, during which she spends some time following in the footsteps of St. Francis.

 For a beautiful visual interpretation of St. Francis, see this illuminated scroll created by Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved.

The illustration above is from the mural done by Giotto in the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Assisi

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The Most Holy Rosary of Mary

Dominic came up with the idea of the rosary during his 13th century campaign against the Albigenisians. Despite this unsavory beginning (the Dominicans went on to become Grand Inquisitors), the rosary is simply the Catholic version of an ancient spiritual practice. Certain prayers are recited as the worshipper’s fingers move along beads of different sizes and shapes strung in a circle. Other spiritual traditions use prayer beads or prayer wheels. The repetition of the physical action and words creates a trance-like effect.

Originally it was the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father…”) that was recited, hence the name “paternosters” for chains of beads. Hail Marys were added in the twelfth century when Mary worship was at its height.

In a recent issue of Goddess Regenerated, Jude Morton writes about her devotion to the rosary and the Black Madonna. After walking the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, she bought a rosary and replaced the crucifix with an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. Based on ideas from Weber’s book on the rosary, she meditates on the fifteen mysteries as she prays: The Joyful Mysteries (The Call to the Divine, The Mother, Birth, Release, Love’s Presence), the Sorrowful Mysteries (Fear, Emptiness, Despair, Unknowing and Death) and the Glorious Mysteries (The Open Heart, Universal Connection, Spirit in Everything, The Mother’s Return, and The Mother’s Divine Love). She also adapted the Hail Mary so that it better suited her spiritual beliefs.

Eventually Morton bought a one-decade rosary, a rosary with ten beads, also called a pocket rosary, which she wears around her wrist so she can pray anywhere: at bus stops, on airplanes. She writes that it has helped make waiting bearable and notes that “repetitive prayer works like drumming and other rituals to induce a light trance. This trance can also be the trance of focus: it is a rite of grounding…”

The Zinacantecos of Mexico have chosen this day to honor the sacred salt well in the village of Zinacantan. The image of the Virgen del Rosario is brought from the village of Salinas. Two special censers filled with copal incense are lowered into the salt well which is then covered with reed mats. The Mayordomos and their wives are then required to spend three days and nights dancing without stopping except to eat and drink rum to pay homage to the Virgen and the well.

Create your own version of the rosary, a ritual device that helps you pray. Or perform a ceremony to honor salt. Lunaea Weatherstone makes and sells beautiful goddess rosary necklaces which she sells at her website. And Elyn MacGinnis has written a book about how to make beads from roses and it’s available from Amazon.


Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999Morton, Jude, “The Dark Circle: Prayers to the Black Madonna,” Goddess Regenerated, Issue #14, 2001
Vogt, Evan Z,, The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970, p. 90
Weber, Christin Lore, Circle of Mysteries: The Women’s Rosary Book, St Paul, MN: Yes International Publishers, 1995, 1997

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Guardian Angels

guardian-angelA church feast since 1670 when the guardian angels were given their own feast (they used to share Sep 29 with St Michael). The concept of a personal guardian is much older.  In Rome every man had his genius, every woman her Iuno. In the New Age we have spirit guides and totem animals.

A day to honor your own personal angel. Or daimon. Choose a totem animal from the deck by Jamie Sams and David Carson. Read The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, a delightful fantasy story about a world in which everyone has a daimon, a sort of animal familiar.

Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

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This is the feast day of St. Michael and all the Angels. It is the most ancient of all the angel festivals. The Anglican church celebrates all angels, both name and unnamed on one day. Roman and Orthodox Churches separate them into two categories (with the unnamed angels having their feast day on October 2nd).

From fairly early on, Michaelmas was an important holiday, the religious or Christian equivalent of the autumn equinox. In England, it was considered the start of a new quarter. It marked the start of a new business year, a time for electing officials, making contracts, paying rent, hiring servants, holding court and starting school. Obviously we still see the remnants of this in the timing of our elections and school year.

This is also a time when the weather is known to change. In Italy, they say “For St. Michael, heat goes into the heavens.” In Ireland, people expect a marked decrease in sickness or disease. The Irish also consider this a lucky day for fishing:

Plenty comes to the boat on Michael’s Day.

Barolini records a nursery rhyme about hours of sleep:

Nature requires five,
Custom gives seven,
Laziness takes nine
And Michaelmas eleven.

michaelmas-processionMichaelmas became the fixed date for the feast otherwise associated with Autumn Equinox or the harvest. As early as 1014, the laws of Ethelred in England prescribe a three day fast for all Christians before the feast. Servants weren’t allowed to work during these days. Michaelmas was a time when rents were due, and rents were often paid in food. The traditional rent for Michaelmas was a goose.

Eating something rich like goose at this turning point of the year brings good luck. In Nottingham they say “If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year.” In Norfolk, they say, “if you don’t baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you will want money all year.” In Yorkshire, they use the condition of the meat of the goose to predict the weather:

If the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull
We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.

Fitzgibbon says the Irish used to stuff the goose with potato to cut the grease and absorb the flavor. This is like the traditional onion sauce served with goose in the 18th and 19th centuries and made from onions cooked in half milk and half water, with a slice of turnip, then mixed with butter, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper and mashed. Apple sauce is the most common topping today.

In Italy, where this is clearly considered a harvest festival, they say “For St. Michael all the last fruits of the year are honeyed and ripe.”

Cosman says that it is traditional to eat ginger on Michaelmas. She mentions ginger ale, beer and wine, gingerbread, ginger snaps, fish baked with ginger and two ginger desserts: charwardon (made with large succulent wardon pears, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger) and ginger caramels with curls of ginger-root shavings on top.

Michaelmas daisy is the name given to flowers of the aster family which bloom at this time. I’ve seen it applied mostly to purple asters but Barolini says she used to pick yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on that day.

st-michaelSt Michael

Michael is a warrior angel often pictured poised with a sword over a dragon (or demon) that he tramples underfoot. Other times he rides a white steed, and carries a three-pronged spear in his right hand and a three-cornered shield in his left. He cast Lucifer and the other evil angels out of Paradise. Thus, in the Middle Ages was invoked as the patron of knights and warriors and in modern times, of military personnel and the police.

He’s been honored since ancient times as a protector. Most of his churches are on high places, for instance, Mont St. Michel in Brittany, the church on the tor at Glastonbury, the church on the tumulus at Carnac. They were often built on the sites where Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, was worshipped earlier.

Although all angels are sent as messengers from on high, Michael has a special task. He’s sent to fetch the souls of those who have died for judgement. For this reason he is also considered the patron saint of all trades that use scales which mean he looks after pastry chefs and weighers of grain.

My friend Carolee Colter translated this Litany of Saint Michael from the French prayer card she purchased while visiting Mont St Michel in Brittany:

Saint Michael, archangel, pray for us.
Saint Michael, chief of all the angels, pray for us.
Saint Michael, filled with the wisdom of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, very glorious prince, pray for us.
Saint Michael, strong in combat, pray for us.
Saint Michael, terror of demons, pray for us.
Saint Michael, vanquisher of Satan, pray for us.
Saint Michael, our support in the fight against evil, pray for us.
Saint Michael, prince of the celestial militia, pray for us.
Saint Michael, faithful servant of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, messenger of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, angel of peace, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian of Paradise, pray for us.
Saint Michael, support of the people of God, pray for us.
Saint Michael, guardian and patron of the church, pray for us.
Saint Michael, benefactor of people who honor you, pray for us.
Saint Michael, whose prayers reach to heaven, pray for us.
Saint Michael, who introduces souls to the eternal light, pray for us.
Pray for us, Saint Michael, archangel.

For more information about St Michael, see the images and information at the Saints Preserved website.

Elegba: In the voodoo tradition, Michael is equated with Elegba, the messenger god. All ceremonies begin and end with petitions to Elegba, the god of the crossroads, whose shrine is behind the door.

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations, Scribners
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Fitzgibbon, Theodora, A Taste of Ireland: Irish Traditional Foods, NY: Avenel Boosk 1978, p 105Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, Yearbook of English Festivals, H W Wilson 1954
Teish, Luisah, Jambalaya, Harper San Francisco 1979
Tickle, Phyllis, Ordinary Time

The photo of the procession is from a delightful article about reviving Michaelmas traditions written by Alys Hurn for Gardens Illustrated.

The painting of St Michael is by Guido Reni and was created in 1636.

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meskel-crossIn Ethiopia, the Feast of the Holy Cross is celebrated on the 27th rather than the 14th of September (the 28th in leap years; “Meskel” means cross. People build huge structures called demera in a meadow, basically teepees made of logs and decorated with yellow flowers. There is a feeling of spring in the air (even though Ethiopia lies north of the equator, the summer rainy season is called “winter” because it’s so cold.) In the late afternoon, the priests bless the demera, and everyone circles them three times (for the Trinity). At sunset, the demera is lit on fire. Then the people feast and sing and dance into the night. The following day, they draw a cross on their forehead with the charcoal from the demera fire, but this is not a solemn day but a day for feasting and visiting.

meskel-fireLevine, Donald, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 62
Perl, Lilia, Ethiopia: Land of the Lion, William Morrow 1972, pp.72-3

The photos were found at the Sandford School site.

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Michaelmas Eve

In the Scottish highlands and islands, an unblemished ram lamb called the Michael Lamb is killed for tomorrow’s feast. Women make special cakes called struan Michael or Michaelmas cakes, from equal parts of all types of grain grown on the farm, kneaded with butter, eggs and sheep’s milk, marked with a cross and cooked on a stone heated by a fire of sacred oak, rowan and bramble wood. A piece of the cake is thrown into the fire as a tithe to St. Michael’s opponent, the Devil. Other cakes are made for special people, for the family and for the community. Cranberries, bilberries, brambleberries, caraway seeds and wild honey are baked into the cakes. Clearly part of the purpose of this charm is to take the bounty of the farm’s harvest and use it to fashion an offering of thanks. I found a recipe for 5 Grain Struan at the Better Baking site which traces its origins to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides).

It is OK to steal horses on the eve of Michaelmas so the men sit up and watch their horses.

In Surrey, this day is known as Crack Nut Day and nuts are cracked and eaten in churches (see September 14). In Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, people build bonfires on the Eve of Michaelmas and scatter grain for the wild birds to bring luck to the farm.

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987


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Ss Cosmas and Damian

800px-beinwunder_cosmas_und_damianAccording to legend, these two twin Arabian brothers who were famous healers, were martyred in Syria because they were also Christian. Some scholars believe they inherited some of the qualities of the Dioscuri, the twin sons of Zeus (also known as Castor and Pollux, the twins of the constellation Gemini).

Popular throughout the Middle Ages, Cosmas and Damian were known as the “holy moneyless ones” because they cured without charging for their services and invoked as the patron saints of doctors (which seems contradictory). For many centuries, invalids made a pilgrimage to their shrine where they would fall asleep and the brothers would appear to them in dreams, diagnosing and curing them. One famous miracle that was recorded in many versions, told of a man who went to sleep in a church dedicated to Ss. Cosmas & Damian who dreamed that the saints replaced the diseased flesh of his thigh with a thigh from a black man recently buried in the churchyard (one of the earliest transplants?). When he awoke, with his leg healed, the corpse of the black man was exhumed and it was noted that his thigh was missing.

In Sicily, bakers make special bread called pace rimacinato, shaped like the two brothers, hand in hand, on their feast day.

For more information and beautiful art see the Saints Preserved website
Attwater, Donald, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Penguin, 2nd edition 1983
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994


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Autumn Equinox

Like its sister equinox, halfway across the Wheel of the Year, the Autumn Equinox is a good occasion for a ritual feast. Decorate the table with colorful autumn leaves in a basket. Display the fruits of the harvest – corn, gourds, nuts, grapes, apples – preferably in a cornucopia (a horn of plenty). Or decorate with wildflowers, acorns, nuts, berries, cocoons, anything that represents the harvest to you.

Plan a meal that uses seasonal and symbolic fruits and vegetables. You can serve bread, squash, corn, apples, cider and wine. Drawing on the imagery of the Eleusinian Mysteries, hold up an ear of corn in silence. Or cut open a pomegranate and feed each other the seeds.

The following poem (used by Starhawk in the equinox ritual in (public domain image)

) comes from Mother Goose. Use this or make up your own variation as a grace. Have everyone at the feast repeat this, adding their own thanks:

We have sown, we have tended
We have grown, we have gathered
We have reaped a good harvest
Lady, we thank you for your gifts
Lord, we thank you for your bounty
I thank you for [fill in yourself].

Giving Thanks
Give thanks to the Goddess for the gifts you’ve received this year. You might want to make a list of your gifts or find objects to represent them. Consider how you can make your offering to her. You can represent your thanks symbolically (tying a ribbon on a tree branch or pouring some wine on the ground) or directly (by making a stronger commitment to recycling or scattering seed for the birds). If you buy (or make) a basket to use while shopping, you’ll be purchasing a symbol of Demeter and helping save the lives of her trees at the same time.

balanceCreating Balance
Use this time of balance, to look closely at the balance in our life. How do you balance your personal needs with your commitments to the outside world? How do you receive and how do you give? You might want to reflect on this in your journal or make it concrete by putting objects on a scale. For everything which represents one side of the scale to you (for instance, a book representing quiet time alone), place something on the other side which represents its opposite (a letter or phone for reaching out to friends).

Learning and Creating
For those of us who spend time in or around schools (as teachers, students or the parents of school-age children), this is not a time of ending but of beginning. We are just starting to get back into the rhythm of the school year. We may feel sad that the playfulness and freedom of summer are disappearing as we fall back into our fall routines and structures but we also have more focus and direction.

This is a good time to begin new projects. As the nights lengthen, you have more time to be alone, to concentrate, to nurture a seed which may not blossom until spring. Give yourself permissions to try something absolutely new. Take a class that teaches you how to do something you’ve always wanted to do–maybe basket-making Call your local college and ask about community education classes.

In Starhawk’s Autumn Equinox ritual, there is a time for weaving seed pods, shells, feathers and small pine cones into strands of yarn while thinking of what you want to create in your life. This or some variation of it would make a wonderful group activity or family project. You could also just set aside a certain amount of time (an evening, a Saturday) which is creative time, for you to make anything you want.

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper San Francisco 1983

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Shobun No Hi

japanese_footbridge-claude_monetJapanese Buddhists view the equinoxes as bridges, times when the dead can cross the mythical waters between here and higan, the far shore. The whole week surrounding the equinox is a special time called higan. On the day of the autumn equinox, the Japanese visit cemeteries, where they sprinkle water on the graves of their ancestors to cleanse them and leave behind food, flowers and burning incense sticks.

A Japanese proverb says: “No summer heat lingers beyond this equinox day.”

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

The painting “Japanese Footbridge” is by Monet.

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