Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 25 in 2016) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born.

Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain. This article was first published in December 2, 2016.

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Celebrating Advent

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The period of Advent, which means “to come,” is a period of anticipation, of looking forward, of waiting. What are we waiting for? In the Christian tradition: the birth of the Christ Child, who will be recognized as the Son of Light at Candlemas (February 2, when Mary presents him at the temple). In the pagan tradition, the rebirth of the Sun, for the Winter Solstice is the moment when the sun is at its nadir (for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere). For a few days, the sun appears to stand still, and then begins its northward journey again, bringing more light into the world with each passing day.

In the Church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Liturgical year. Advent is celebrated on the four Sundays before December 25, Christmas, beginning with the Sunday closest to November 30, St. Andrew’s Day. This period was first observed, as a time of solemnity and fasting, in medieval times. At the time of the Reformation, it became part of the liturgical calendar of Anglicans and Lutherans, and was subsequently adopted by other Protestant groups. According to Father Reardon, in Orthodox churches, Advent begins on the feast day of St. Phillip, November 15, and last for 40 days, echoing the 40 days of Lent in Spring. In fact, it is often called the Winter Lent or St Phillip’s Fast.

If you prefer to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun instead of Christmas as the turning point in the year, you could mark the beginning of Advent four Sundays before Winter Solstice (which is calculated astronomically and can fall on December 20, 21 or 22). This year, both Christian Advent and Pagan Advent begin on Sunday, November 28.

Most Advent customs have to do with marking time: opening doors in an Advent calendar, lighting candles in an Advent wreath, putting symbols on a Jesse tree. All of these customs are fairly modern. Though both evergreen wreaths and candles were important symbols during the winter holidays, the Advent wreath is first mentioned in the 19th century in Germany and spread to the United States in the 1930s. The first Advent calendar was also created in Germany in 1851 and the first printed versions were made in Munich in 1908. (We also have Germany to thank for the concept of the Christmas tree.) The idea of marking time with a Jesse tree (a symbol of the tree outlining Christ’s lineage on which symbols are placed that correspond with Bible stories) is even more modern, developed in American Protestant churches in the twentieth century. Before we used these devices for marking time, there were simpler customs, for instance, marking the passing days with chalk on a doorway, lighting a candle every day, or marking lines on a tall candle (like the one on the right which I found at the Wikipedia article on the Advent wreath) and burning it for a short period each day.

Although I remember Advent from my Catholic childhood, it was a minor celebration, easily overwhelmed by all the emphasis on Christmas (presents, decorations, etc.). But I have been a big fan of celebrating Advent ever since I read The Advent Sunwheel by Helen Farias (available at my store). She outlines a weekly ceremony to be performed every Sunday (Sunday being the Sun’s day) in which you light one candle on the Advent wreath, read a story (I love the stories Helen wrote but you could use any holiday or light-in-the-darkness tale), spend a few minutes enjoying the candlelight, then indulge in seasonal food and drink. This is a lovely tradition to share with family or friends. At our house, the grand finale comes on the Sunday before Solstice, when we host our annual Winter Solstice party and St. Lucy arrives to light the Sun candle in the center of the Advent wreath.

My particular spin on the tradition is to make my own Advent wreath from evergreens I collect in my neighborhood. It is part of my goal of living seasonally and knowing what is available at this time of the year. I go on a long walk on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before Advent begins, to gather the greens, returning every year to the same trees and bushes. In my neighborhood, I can find cedar, holly, pine, fir, spruce, and, I hope this year, my new best friend, cryptomeria japonica.

Another Advent-related holiday (which I have not celebrated) is Stir-Up Sunday, the Sunday before Advent begins, celebrated this year on the full moon of November 21 in 2010. The name comes from the Church of England collect for that day which begins “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” That became a reminder that it was time to start stirring up the Christmas puddings and was parodied with this verse.

Stir up, we beseech thee
The pudding in the pot
And when we do get home
We’ll eat it piping hot.

Charles Kightly in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore mentions the belief that Christmas puddings should always be stirred with a wooden spoon and all present should take a turn in order, mother, father, children and babies, by seniority, then visitors. I like it that the mother comes first in this list! Not so in Roman customs where the paterfamilias usually takes the lead.

I do observe another cooking-related Advent custom recommended by Helen Farias, and that is the baking of 13 different kinds of winter holiday cookies, including Lucy cats, Advent pretzels, gingerbread men, cinnamon stars (Zimsterne), and shortbread. Because that’s a lot of cookies, I begin baking them at the start of Advent, making three or four different kinds a week so that they will all be done in time for the Solstice Party. You can get my cookie recipes and a schedule for baking that will allow you to serve the appropriate cookie each Advent Sunday if you buy my Thirteen Cookies for Christmas book.)

Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher and dancer. She founded School of the Seasons, edits Living in Season and is the author of Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life. First published November 07, 2010.

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Mid-Autumn Moon

On the full moon of the eighth Chinese lunar month, women celebrate the Moon. This moon is usually the full moon closest to the Equinox, and the same as the Harvest Moon in the West.  It corresponds with the Full Moon of October 5 in 2017.

In China, this is the beginning of the yin part of the year, when the dark takes precedence over the light, and the Moon is the symbol of yin energy, which also includes water, women and night. In the old Chinese agrarian system, autumn and winter were the women’s seasons.

The Moon Goddess, known as Hengo or Chang-o rules the Jade Palace of the Moon. Sometimes she is associated with a rabbit, sometimes with a toad. She drank the elixir of immortality meant for her husband and floated up to the Moon.

To honor the Moon, the women build an altar in the courtyard and put a figure of the Moon Hare in the center. Also on the altar are 13 moon cakes (to represent the 13 lunar months in the year), incense sticks, candles and plates of pomegranates, melons, grapes, apples and peaches. The pomegranates and melons represent children, the apples and grapes fertility and the peaches long life.

According to Anneli Rufus in The World Holiday Book, another popular fruit for the altars is the grapefruit-like pomelo, whose Chinese name, yow, is a homophone for “to have.” She also describes the filling of the moon cakes: sweet bean paste or lotus seed with a boiled egg at the heart to symbolize the moon.

When the full moon rises after sunset, the woman of the house approaches the altar and bows to the moon, followed by all the other women present. They sit in the courtyard all night long, feasting and drinking, some studying the moon for auguries, some composing poems about the beauty of the moon and the night, some playing the game of “Capturing the Moon,” by trying to catch her reflection in a bowl of water.

In Korea, to the north, this is a harvest festival. In Vietnam, it is celebrated by children who march in the night, carrying lanterns shaped like animals, birds, and fish, moving with a swaying motion, and chanting nonsense rhymes.

In Japan, this holiday is called Tsukimi. People gather at lakes or in special moon-viewing pavilions and eat “moon-viewing noodles”: thick white udon in broth with an egg yolk floating on top.

Photo by Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

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Falling Leaves Day

Photo Credit: Cate Kerr of Beyond the Fields We Know

This has emerged in recent years as I have spent time focusing on the in between seasons. There is a time when almost all the leaves have left the trees. The trees stand bare and quite exposed but there is usually one of two leaves quivering and clinging to the last breath. This is a day that I like to spend with the leaves and it is a truly personal day created by me for me.

In itself the process of creation speaks a story that will unfold as the years do the same. This year that day is almost upon me. Once I see the day has arrived everything will be suspended. Mother Nature is in charge of when this day falls and that is one of the most enchanting things about falling leaves day.

My day with leaves will involve all sorts of creative activities with leaves. I have created leaf rubbings since I was small but I still get a gentle moment of excitement as the crayon finds the shape. Recent years have seen me dry leaves before creating a leaf garland to celebrate autumn.  My leaves are drying in readiness. Using cotton and a needle I make a small stitch into the back of the largest vein  in the leaf before leaving a gap of cotton and then continuing to sew. This garland remains in my sitting room for many months.

Over the years leaves have inspired many poems and short pieces of fictional writing and this will form the bulk of my inside time while sat next to my open fire. Before that though a ‘walk with the leaves’ is the heart of the day. Hoping for a dry crisp day where I can walk through piles of leaves tossing them into the air as I go. On our smallholding we use decaying leaves as a winter mulch and feed for the soil so some brushing of leaves will feature in the day. This raises the heart beat and reminds you that you are alive.

As I close my journal on my falling leaves day I will spend just a few minutes remembering all the times I have walked with the leaves.  It is a ritual that speaks to my spirit that immediately connects my soul to Mother Nature.

It promises to be the best of all holidays.

Fiona Doubleday is an artist who live on the Isle of Arran. Her most recent creative adventure has taken her into the textile arts. She is making and selling exquisite bowls made out of recycled and natural materials. She has also blogged for years under the name Scottish Island Mum.

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Summer Celebrations: Assumption

(Photo of the Barley Moon by Catherine Kerr)

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The Full Moon Festival of August is one of the oldest continuous holidays of the Goddess. At this turning point in the year, between the yang energy of summer solstice and the turning inward of the autumn, the Goddess comes into her own as protector, provider and mediator between the worlds.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon. All three are invoked for protection of the grain and the fruit which is so vulnerable to storms in these weeks before harvest. And all three are mediators between the worlds: Artemis in her origin as Goddess of the shamanistic cultures of the North (see Geoffrey Ashe’s book Dawn Behind the Dawn), Hecate as the one who stands at the crossroads between life and death, who goes down into the darkness of the Underworld with her two torches blazing, and Mary as the mediator between Earth and Heaven.

Below I trace the way this holiday developed and provide links to articles about how it is celebrated around the world.

Ancient Greece: Artemis-Hecate

This feast of the goddess was first celebrated in Greece at the full moon of Metageitnion. In Erkhia, Artemis (as Hecate) was invoked, along with Kourotrophos, and beseeched for protection summer storms, which could flatten and destroy the crops. This image from a Greek vase (ca 440 BCE) shows Hecate lighting the way with her torches as Persephone emerges from the Underworld to be reunited with her mother while Hermes looks on.

Rome: Nemoralia

In Rome, the Greek lunar festival honoring Artemis-Hecate was placed on the fixed solar calendar on August 13th and called the Nemoralia, also known as Diana’s Feast of the Torches. Roman women made torchlight processions to the temples of Diana and Hecate or visited the groves of Diana with their hunting dogs leashed. Hair-washing was an important ritual activity.

Early Christianity: Assumption

The story of Mary’s Assumption derives from ancient stories called the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which were written in Syria at the beginning of the third century (or about 150 years after the event they relate). The story of “The Departure of My Lady Mary From this World” tells how Mary was lifted up into Heaven bodily, in other words, she did not die, but became immortal (a goddess). To commemorate this extraordinary event, the Apostles proclaimed a holiday in Her honor:

And the apostles also ordered that there should be a commemoration of the Blessed One on the thirteenth Ab, on account of the vines bearing bunches of grapes and on account of the trees bearing fruit, that clouds of hail, bearing stones of wrath, might not come, and the trees be broken, and the vines with their clusters.

According to the story, Mary’s Assumption took place at Ephesus, where she was living under the care of the apostle, John. Ephesus was one of the most famous sanctuaries of Artemis, the home of the famous statue of Artemis with many breasts, symbolizing the productive and nurturing powers of the earth. Mary, who is also well known for her nurturing and protecting qualities (she is so tender-hearted she cannot deny any sincere request for help), was clearly carrying this role.

Ab is the Jewish lunar month of Av and the thirteenth of Ab is therefore a full moon. So quite early on, long before Emperor Maurice proclaimed the Assumption a Church holiday during the seventh century, the apostles chose the full-moon feast honoring Artemis-Hecate as the time to honor Mary, as protector of the crops and mediator between worlds.

Wherever this holiday is celebrated, and it is a major holiday in many parts of the world, it is blended with native customs to produce a unique celebration.

Celtic Scotland

In 19th century Scotland, this holiday was called Great St. Mary’s Feast of the Harvest. It’s probable that many of its customs were once those of Lammas Day. Women made a magical bannock (a kind of cake) on this day, from ears of new corn which were dried in the sun, husked by hand, ground with stones, kneading on a sheepskin and toasted over a fire made of magical rowan wood. Each member of the family ate a piece of the bannock, in order by age, and all walked sunwise around the fire. Then the embers were gathered into a pot and carried sunwise around the farm and field, while reciting this charm:

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant, Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks, I cut me a handful of the new corn, I dried it gently in the sun, I rubbed it sharply from the husk, With mine own palms.

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk,
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mother Mary
Who promised to preserve me
Who did protect me
Who will preserve me
In peace, in flocks, in righteousness of heart,
In labor, in love,
In wisdom, in mercy,
For the sake of Thy Passion.
Thou Christ of grace
Who till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
Oh, till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
– Carmina Gadelica

Poland: Blessed Mother of the Herbs

Virgin of Czestochowska

Virgin of Czestochowska

As early as the tenth century, the aroma of herbs and flowers was associated with Mary’s victory over death, and people brought medicinal herbs and plants to church (periwinkle, verbena, thyme) to be incensed and blessed, bound into a sheaf and kept all year to ward off illness, disaster and death.

In Poland, this holiday was called Matka Boska Zielna, Blessed Mother of the Herbs. Women gathered the plants growing in their gardens and brought them to church to be blessed. The blessed flowers were then tucked behind icons and over doorways in the house, and scattered into the seed sacks and feed bags, to bless them as well. Today August 15 is the day when pilgrims process to the shrine of the Virgin of Czestochowska.

In central Europe, August 15 was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

If you like charming little stories written in a rural, 1950’s folksy tone with lots of references to Scripture, you will like this story about a Catholic family gathering flowers and herbs by moonlight in honor of Our Lady.

Armenia: Blessing of the Grapes

In central Europe, it was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

In Armenia, the Sunday nearest the Assumption is called Blessing of the Grapes. None are eaten until this day when every churchgoer gets a cluster as she leaves church. This is also the name day for women named Mary, who host parties in vineyards or at their homes. The Syrian festival is characterized by offerings of new wheat and small three-cornered cakes.

Brazil: Our Lady of the Good Death

In Bahia, where Christian customs are mingled with African traditions, and the orixas are honored on the feast days of Catholic saints, a group of women created a lay sisterhood called the Sisters of the Good Death which worked to free slaves. Their descendants still celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Good Death today. Paola Gianturco who has been photographing women’s celebrations all over the globe has a photoessay about this festival at her web site.

Bolivia: The Virgin of Urkupiña

In Bolivia, August 15 is the holiday of the Virgin of Urkupiña and combines pagan and Christian traditions. There is a parade through town with dancing and costumes reminiscent of Carnival celebrations, followed the next day by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin, where people leave items that represent their wishes. I learned about the holiday from Paola Gianturco, but also found descriptions of how it is celebrated at this blog and slide show at the Democracy Center web site.

Today Where You Live

Do you have any traditions you celebrate on this day? Or any customs you want to adopt? Will you pick herbs and flowers from your garden on August 15? Or do, as I do, and gather wild grasses? Will you wash your hair like the Roman women did on August 13? Will you leave an offering for Hecate on a crossroads on the full moon? Will you eat grapes for the first time on Sunday, August 16? Will you bake a magical bannock with ingredients you grew yourself? Let me know how you plan to celebrate this holiday.

First published July 21, 2009

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Celebrating Summer Solstice

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Julie Coningham

The summer solstice is the time when the sun is in its glory. This is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The date of the summer solstice varies slightly from year to year. This year it falls on June 21st. Summer solstice customs are also associated with a fixed date: June 24 the Midsummer’s Day. June 23rd is Midsummer’s Eve.

As the name “Midsummer” indicates, this is considered the height of the summer. Yet there is an undertone of darkness in the light. While we celebrate the power of the sun, we also note its decline. From now on the hours of sunlight will decrease.

The Fire and the Sun

The great solar festival of the year is celebrated from North Africa to Scandinavia with fire. This is a traditional time for a bonfire which is lit as the sun sets. People dance around the fire clockwise and carry lit torches. In some places, they set fire to wheels of hay which are rolled downhill.

Flowers and May Day wreaths are tossed into the fire. They burn and die just as the heat of the summer consumes the spring and brings us closer to the decline of autumn and the death of vegetation in winter. As we begin the decline, it’s important to remember that the wheel of the year is a circle. The spring will come again. The sun will triumph over the darkness again. Thus, the circle is an important symbol. Wreaths are hung on doors. People gaze at the fire through wreaths and wear necklaces of golden flowers.

Before the calendar was changed in the 18th century, Midsummer fell on 4th of July. When you celebrate Fourth of July, think of all those brilliant fireworks and blazing Catherine wheels as devotions in honor of the sun.

St John and Honeymoons

Midsummer’s Eve is also called St John’s Eve. The official version says that St. John was assigned this feast because he was born six months before Christ (who gets the other great solar festival, the winter solstice). Actually it may have more to do with the story of St John losing his head to Salome. In ancient times, a ritual sacrifice was made to the goddess of midsummer.

Other midsummer symbols also accumulate around St John. He’s the patron of shepherds and beekeepers. This is a time to acknowledge those wild things which man culls but cannot tame, like the sheep and bees. The full moon which occurs in June is sometimes called the Mead Moon. The hives are full of honey. In ancient times, the honey was fermented and made into mead. According to Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year, this is the derivation of honeymoon.

Midsummer fire in Finland

This is a traditional time for honoring water, perhaps because it plays such a vital role in maintaining life while the sun is blazing overhead. Several of the goddesses worshipped at midsummer — Matuta, Anahita and Kupala — are associated with moisture and dampness. St John baptized with water while Christ baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In Mexico, St John presides over all waters. People dress wells and fountains with flowers, candles and paper festoons. They go out and bathe at midnight in the nearest body of water. In the city, they celebrate at the bathhouse or pool with diving and swimming contests.

Herbs and Lovers

Photo by Alyss Broderick

Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. This is the most potent night (and midnight the most potent time) for gathering magical herbs, particularly St John’s wort, vervain, mugwort, mistletoe, ivy and fern seed. In some legends, a special plant, which is guarded by demons, flowers only on this one night a year. Successfully picking it gives one magical powers, like being able to understand the language of the trees.

This is also a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” According to Dorothy Gladys Spicer in The Book of Festivals, Irish girls drop melted lead into water and interpret the shapes it makes. In Spain, girls do the same with eggs. In Poland, they combine three of the symbols of the holiday for a divination. Girls make a wreath of wild flowers, put a candle in the middle, set it adrift on the river and tell the future by observing its fate.

Celebrating

This is a great festival to celebrate outdoors. Go camping. Go out into the woods or up into the mountains or down to the beach. Find some place where you can build a bonfire and light it when the sun sets. Bring along plenty of flowers (especially roses or yellow flowers like calendulas, St John’s wort, or marigolds). Fashion them into wreaths, wear them as you dance around the fire and throw them into the fire at the end of the night. Bring along sparklers too (but use them carefully). Indoors, use whatever symbols represent light and warmth to you: golden discs, sunflowers, shiny metal trays, chili pepper lights.

Gather magical and healing herbs at night on June 23. Hang St John’s wort over your doors and windows for protection; toss some on the fire as well. Harvest your garden herbs now so they will be extra potent.

To acknowledge the gift of water in your everyday life, decorate the faucets in your house. Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time suggests walking to the nearest body of water, making a wish and then throwing in a rose you have kissed to carry your wish home. She provides the following wishing poem:

Yes, you are here in the soft buzzing grass.
Yes, you are listening among the flowering gardens.
Yes, you are shining from the most royal blue sky.
Yes, you are granting me what I wish tonight.
Grant me a healthy life rich with high purpose,
A true partner to share my joys and my tears,
Wisdom to hear your voice giving me guidance,
Wealth to give to others as you have given to me.

Honoring Your Strength

The sun is associated with will, vitality, accomplishment, victory and fame. As you throw your flowers into the fire, acknowledge your accomplishments. Write about these at length in your journal, perhaps while sipping a cup of tea sweetened with honey, or gather your friends in a circle and go around several times with each person boasting about their strengths. Assign a different topic for each round, for instance, aspirations, courage, achievement, competence. Toast each other (with mead, if you can find it). This is your night to shine.

This is an excerpt from my book, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy Days, which also contains ideas and suggestions for the other seasonal holidays like Lammas, Autumn Equinox, Yule and so forth. It is available for purchase at my store.

The same material, much expanded, can be found in my Midsummer packet, available at my store.

The attributed photos were taken by School of the Seasons readers who contributed them for my Leaves on the Tree of Time weekly planner.

Some cool links I found while looking for images:

A great article from Max Dashi on Midsummer dances.

A lovely entry about Latvian Midsummer celebrations.

Article about a Polish Midsummer celebration in Washington D.C. showing girls throwing their flower wreaths into the Reflecting Pool.

First published June 20, 2010.

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Ascension Thursday

Ascension Thursday is one of the oldest festivals in the Catholic Church, having been celebrated since 68 AD. Water is the primary element of this holy day, celebrated on May 29 in 2014.

The Armenians believe that on Ascension Eve, stones, stars and other soulless objects are said to receive the gift of speech and to share each other’s secrets. And in Poland, “the dragon who guards hidden treasures throughout the night, exposes them to view on Ascension, when he sets them out to air.” The sun is said to dance on this day when it rises.

In Armenia, girls tell their fortunes from tokens thrown into a bowl of water drawn from seven springs. All brooks and springs are said to be filled with healing power at midnight. If you don’t want to visit your local body of water at midnight, you might just put out a container and hope it rains since any water that falls from the skies on this day can also heal. In a somewhat related vein, in Sweden, a person who fishes from dawn until night on the Ascension will learn the hour when the fish bite best and be lucky in her angling all year.

In Greece, Ascension Day is considered the start of the swimming season. In Venice, the Doge used to wed the sea on this day by throwing in a wedding ring and some holy water. In Tissington, Derbyshire, wells are decorated on this day. In Nantwich, they bless the Brine, a very old pit, which is visited and hung with garlands. These customs seem to hark back to an old rite propitiating the spirit of the well (or the ocean).

In the early 19th century, the Halliwell (Holy Well) Wake was held on this day in the hamlet of Rorrington on the Shropshire/Wales border. The local people met at the holy well on the hillside at Rorrington Green and decorated with well with green boughs, flowers and rushes. A maypole was erected. While a fife, drum and fiddle played, the people danced and frolicked around the hill, followed by feasting, drinking and more dancing.

In Italy, Ascension is called La Festa del Grillo, the outdoor festival of crickets. People spend the day outdoors, reclining under the shade of trees, feasting on picnic and BBQ foods. Kids look for crickets, true symbols of spring, poking a piece of grass into their holes to lure them into cages already prepared with a piece of lettuce at the bottom. Nowadays the crickets are sold in pretty painted cages.

According to Toor, the Etruscans called the cricket scarabeus and honored it. The Greeks and Romans connected its chirping to the muses and music. The Greeks and Etruscans believed that the longer the confined grillo lived, the longer the life of its owner. The murals of Pompei depict tiny grillo cages made of reed. In Florence, they say that a singing grillo brings good luck. Freeing them also brings good luck. Children sing a song to their caged grillos (which reminds me of the American lady bug song):

Grillo, mio Grillo                    Cricket, my Cricket,
Se tu vo’ moglie dillo!              If you want a wife say so!
Se poi t’un la voi,                     If later you repent
Abbada a’ fatti tuoi!                 Then hold your peace!

References

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Toor, Frances, Festivals and Folkways of Italy, Crown 1953
First published on May 14, 2012
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Bringing in the May

Excerpt from my May Day/Beltane holiday e-book:

Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning.

In Ireland, Beltane is the only safe day for wearing Irish lilacs (I’m not sure why). In France, the flower of May Day is the lily of the valley. Any wish made while wearing it comes true. The marsh-marigold or kingcup is called the herb of Beltane and is strewn against evil in the Isle of Man. Rosemary is another Beltane herb.

In England, there was a tradition of carrying about May garlands. At Horncastle in Lincolnshire, young boy carried May gads: peeled willow wands were wreathed with cowslips. In other parts of England, the garlands are small wooden crosses covered with flowers and greenery. But the hoop-garland is the most common: made from a framework of intersecting hoops so that the final effect is of a flower-covered globe. Sometimes a May Doll (sometimes said to represent Flora) is placed within or upon it. In Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons.

Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, and pear for the popular. In Lancashire, the flowers rhymed with their qualities. Any kind of thorn meant scorn (except for whitethorn or May), while holly was folly, briar for liars, rowan for affection and a plum in bloom rhymed with “married soon.” According to Porter, in Cambridgeshire, boys gave the popular girls sloe blossoms, while “the girl of loose manners had a blackthorn planted by hers’ the slattern had an elder tree planted by hers; and the scold had a bunch of nettles tied to the latch of her cottage door.” According to Hole, lime (which rhymes with prime) was a compliment and so was pear which rhymed with fair. The rowan (or quicken) since it rhymes with chicken was a sign of affection. But briar, holly and plum stood for liar, folly and glum while the alder (pronounced “owler” in some districts) rhymed with “scowler.” A nut-branch meant the woman was a slut, while a gorse in bloom implied her reputation was doubtful. Other plants you did not want to receive included nettles, thistles, sloes, crab-tree branches and elders. Obviously there are some contradictions in this list, and some unkindness as well.

I find it interesting that the three plants most often associated with May Day: Sweet Woodruff, Lily of the Valley and Hawthorn, all are connected in folklore with the heart. Summer is the time when Chinese medicine places the emphasis on strengthening the heart and the circulatory system. It also seems appropriate for the time of the year when we are focused on relationships and coupling.

For many more ideas on celebrating May Day and Beltane, see my May Day e-book.

References:

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow  1990

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976

Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press 1997

Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore, 1969, quoted in Hutton

Image Credit: The hawthorn illustration is from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

First published by April 19, 2010

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Floralia Sparks May Day

Floradetail_WaterhouseThe Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.flora maria szobrok pinterest

In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.

Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
This article was first published on April 28,2014
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Earth Day/Arbor Day

Earth Day is a fairly new holiday. Earth Day was first proclaimed on March 21, the Spring Equinox in San Francisco in 1970. Doesn’t that seem perfect? The spring after the Summer of Love. Just a few weeks later, also in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin, called for an Environmental Teach-in (modeled after the Vietnam war sit-ins) on April 22, which had been celebrated for many years as Arbor Day.

Arbor Day is almost one hundred years older than Earth Day, but still young for a holiday. In 1872, J. Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, declared April 10 a day for planting trees (according to this history compiled by the Arbor Day Foundation).  In 1885, it was declared a legal holiday in the State of Nebraska and moved to April 22, Morton’s birthday. It was adopted as a holiday by other states but the date has varied, depending on when tree planting is ideal. It is now usually celebrated on the last Friday in April but it seems to have fallen out of favor as Earth Day has gained popularity.

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although Arbor Day and Earth Day are relatively new holidays, they align with many older traditions. There are many ancient April festivals which honor the goddess as garden guardian (Venus Verticordia on April 1) and Earth mother (Megalisa on April 3, Cerealia on April 13, and Fordicalia on April 15). April is also the month of St. George (his feast day is April 23), the dragon slaying saint. For centuries, the celebrations in honor of St. George have associations with verdant nature. The very name George means farmer.

In Carinthia and Transylvania, a birch tree or willow tree, decked with flowers, is called Green George. Sometimes a boy is dressed up in branches, leaves and flowers. Albanians slaughter a lamb on this day and smear blood on sills (recalling the Jewish holiday of Passover) to protect them from evil. Before an icon of St George, they pray: “Holy St George, this year thou hast sent me this lamb, next year, I beseech you, send me a larger one.” People go on picnics and weigh themselves holding sprigs of green. St George or Mari Ghergis is the most popular saint in Egypt where he is associated with El Khider, the green man, who appears to travelers who are lost or in despair.

Mrs Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach) celebrates Earth Day by doing an inventory garden tools and supplies. She makes presents of gardening gloves and other accessories. Each of her children has a tree, and on this day they clean around their own tree and tie a ribbon on the trunk to honor it.

On the very first Arbor Day, more than one  million trees were planted in Nebraska. Planting a tree can still be a great way to celebrate.

Or you can simply admire trees. Go on  a tree walk like the one I took two weeks ago at the University of Washington with our local plant and tree expert, Arthur Lee Jacobson.
I was delighted when we entered the quad which is famous for its flowering cherry trees and found it thronged with people. Students were lounging on the lawns. Japanese families were taking photos of their young ones under the trees. The profusion of pink flowers seemed like an ample reason for celebration.

If you don’t have knowledgeable guide, the Arbor Day Foundation provides this useful key which will help you identify trees.

In honor of Earth Day, experiment with eating only local food. Determine what foods are available within 250 miles of your home and create meals based on those foods. Find out where your eggs come from. Visit a local farm. Stop at a roadside stand. Invite your friends for a feast or a potluck to celebrate local foods.

Resources:
Al Khidr web site (source of picture)

Arbor Day Foundation web site
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Legend, Maria Leach, editor, Harper and Row 1984
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Morrow, Susan Brind, The Names of Things, Riverhead 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
Wikipedia article on Earth Day

First published on April 12, 2012

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