Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


February Festivities

One of the more commonly overlooked holiday complexes comes around Groundhog Day.  It may seem strange to be thinking about spring right now, but it’s on everyone’s mind.  (In this hemisphere anyway.)  When seasons actually begin is a matter of perspective, and that’s not just a north-south hemisphere divide.  With our scientific outlook, we take the path of equinoxes and solstices.  If you look closely, however, there is a set of seasonal holidays that falls midway between them, dividing the year into eight spokes.  These cross-quarter days were recognized in some cultures as the early inklings of a new season beginning.  If Halloween (Samhain) marks the start of winter, this holiday, Imbolc, is the beginning of spring.  The day had many associations, one of which was watching a groundhog (or other animal) to see if the weather would begin changing sooner or later.  Spring itself is inevitable.

The popularity of Groundhog Day owes quite a bit to the movie of that name.  The film is more complex than its classification as a comedy might suggest.  Although the day itself does deal with the cyclical nature of, well, nature, repetition isn’t an inherent theme in the holiday.  Neither is it part of the related Christian celebration of Candlemas.  Indeed, I tend to think Groundhog Day has the makings of a horror story.  Being stuck in time could represent a terrible fate for many.  Interestingly, Phil Conners (Bill Murray), after having been stuck in this same day for a considerable amount of time, suggests to Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) that he might be a god.  He is immortal and he knows everything that is to be known in Punxsutawney.  He can predict things before they happen (of course, he has become Punxsutawney Phil, in a manner of speaking).

A philosophically rich movie, the story has appealed to adherents of several religions.  That, in itself, is amazing.  The endless repetition could represent samsara to those of south and east Asian religious inclination.  The learning to be kind, and even forgiveness aspects, appeal to those who want to find a Christian message in it.  Not bad for a holiday nobody gets off of work, and which frequently falls in the middle of the week.  The holiday complex of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day represents what had once been a more prominent season than we currently recognize.  Revivals of the more ancient celebrations have begun to appear, but the endless repetition so valued by capitalistic systems has nearly captured us all.


Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?


When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.


Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

Stbrigid

Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.


Origin of Halloween

Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).

Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?

From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.

Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.

Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.

The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.

No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.

[See Full Essays for the rest]


Holy May Days

The first few weeks of May are peppered with holidays, some religious, some secular. As my regular readers know, I’ve been working on a book about holidays for kids, so I showcase a few pieces on this blog, on occasion. Instead of providing several posts on May’s holidays, I’m combining the first three special days into a holiday compendium for early May.

May Day (May 1) is, in origin, a religious holiday. It is an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic holiday called Beltane, it celebrates fertility, and it is a day that workers throughout the world fight for fair treatment. Sometimes it is associated with Communism. So, where do we begin to unpack all that? To start with, May Day is a cross-quarter day (Groundhog Day and Halloween are two others). Cross-quarter days fall halfway between the solstices and equinoxes – the days that mark the change of seasons. Ancient Europeans believed that cross-quarter days allowed spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings into the human world, as can be seen in the Germanic Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1). Although named after a saint (Walburga, d. Feb. 25, 779) Walpurgis Night has deep pre-Christian roots in northern Europe. It celebrates the coming of May, or summer, with huge bonfires lit at night. It Germany it was also called Witches’ Night (Hexennacht) because it was believed that witches gathered on Brocken mountain to await the coming of May. The Celtic May 1 is Beltane. For the Celts Beltane marked the start of summer and it was one of their two major holidays (the other comes around Halloween). Like the Germanic tribes, the Celts lit bonfires on Beltane. Druids would light two fires to purify those who would pass between them. In Ireland people would dress their windows and doors with May Boughs and would set up May Bushes. These were signs of the returning fertility of the earth. This tradition survives in parts of the United States in the form of the May Basket. May Baskets are filled with treats and are left at someone’s door. The tradition is to knock and run, but if you get caught, the gift recipient gets to kiss you! These days, however, an unexpected basket at the door is more likely to result in a call to the bomb squad, so let your sweetie know ahead of time if you plan to give a May Basket!

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and like most things Hispanic, it is misunderstood by many Angelos. Frequently Cinco de Mayo is represented as Mexico’s day of independence. What it actually commemorates, however, is a historic battle. Napoleon III’s French Army was in Mexico in 1862. These guys were in the state of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican force under 33 year-old General Ignacio Zargoza actually beat them on May 5. In the States, Cinco de Mayo is becoming a day to showcase Mexican culture, kind of like St. Patrick’s Day is for Irish culture. The Battle of Puebla is not Mexico’s independence day – that falls on September 16 and often escapes notice in the United States.

And, of course, Sunday is Mother’s Day. People around the world celebrate their mothers at various times of the year, but many don’t realize that this holiday goes back to the ancient Near East. Cybele was an ancient goddess associated with all things motherly. Originally from the Levant, the Greeks and Romans believed her to have been from Turkey (Phrygia). She had a festival day at the vernal equinox. Although there is no direct connection with the date or form of our Mother’s Day, it is possible that this annual recognition of an exceptional mother gave people the idea for Mother’s Day. Whatever it ancient origins may have been, Mother’s Day as we know it started in the United States as a protest against the Civil War. Many women believed war to be wrong. During the Civil War Anna Jarvis organized Mothers’ Work Days (as if they didn’t already have enough to do!) to improve sanitation for both armies. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, which was a document calling for the end of the war. The idea was to unite women in protest and bring the conflict to a close. After the war ended Anna Jarvis’ daughter (who had the same name as her mother) campaigned for a memorial day for women. Because of her efforts, a Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908. After that various states began to observe Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914, ironically the year the First World War began. It is celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

For whatever spirits, political ideals, or goddesses you admire, May is the appropriate time to celebrate.


Inter-species Prognostication

Groundhog Day is a holiday easily forgotten by all but Bill Murray fans and residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The day, however, has a role deep in European folk religion that was reflected in the “cross-quarter days.” From ancient times, the four days of the year that fall precisely between the solstices and equinoxes were known as cross-quarter days, based on the day of the month that rent was due in England (“quarter days”). The Celts recognized this cross-quarter day in early February as Imbolc (later Christianized as Candlemas). Part of the folk religion held that animals had special powers on cross-quarter days, and that fair weather on Imbolc meant that more wintry weather was on the way.

In America, where Groundhog Day has its original burrow, the tradition began among German immigrants. The first historical reference to Groundhog Day was made in 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. By 1886 Punxsutawney had its groundhog Phil and the tradition has continued ever since.

Although it is a lighthearted holiday, I always tell my Hebrew Prophets class (which begins near Groundhog Day) that this is a form of socially accepted prognostication. Few believe that a marmot can predict the weather, but we like to believe that winter is on its way out when the cold starts to feel old and stubborn and we are ready for a few sunny days. The old tradition states that if Phil doesn’t see his shadow he won’t dash fearfully into his den and spring is on its way. Fact is, spring falls six weeks from Groundhog Day, so no matter what the rodent says, spring is on its way. Ancient religions always stress the hope that nature will continue as it has in the past and that spring will follow winter as it should. It is nevertheless a fun day to watch the largest member of the squirrel family amble out of his heated burrow, no doubt confused by all the furless bipeds standing around with cameras, and play the prophet for his fifteen minutes of national fame.

The world's hairiest prophet?