Pagan Holidays and Nature Celebrations
Yule, or Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice, or Yule, begins when we experience the longest night and the shortest day of the year. In a climate such as in New Jersey, the ground may already have some snow, and the weather begins to get very cold. The short days cause many people to leave for work in the dark of morning and return in the late afternoon when it is already dark again. The cold weather, darkness, and continuing snow and ice force us to spend more time indoors, so we can stay warm and safe from slippery roads.
Many of us get sick or have less energy in the winter, since more people stay inside and we do not engage in outside exercise as much as in warmer seasons. Our lives become more isolated as we travel less. The quietness and darkness of the winter months cause us to become more introspective, speculating on what we may have done better the year before, or what could have been done differently. By the same token, we look forward to the year ahead to make new goals, or new commitments to change our lives for the better. It is common for people to make New Year’s Resolutions, ambitious plans they may or may not carry out in the year to come. Sometimes we feel a little depressed by the lack of light during the short winter days, and feel an inner darkness, which we can navigate through by meditating and trying to cultivate inner stillness
Let Go of Old, Negative Energies
A Yule celebration can be held in a simply decorated room, with boughs of evergreen dressed with red bows. White and red pillar candles add soothing and pretty scents to the room, and a large Yule log in the center of a circle of people is very festive. Each person is “sprinkled” with a few drops of water with herbs added to aid in centering yourselves, and then a group meditation is beneficial. You can write down a list of positive events or traits that you want to see or cultivate in the coming year, and ones you want to let go. Then stand and face North, East, South and West, while raising your hands to rid yourselves of the waning year’s negative energies, and to welcome the New Year’s positive ones. Take a short while to think about pain, sorrow, guilt, anger, resentment, or judgments that we failed at meeting any of our goals that year, then do a visualization to just let it all go. Then read your list of positive things, and say a prayer and try to visualize yourself accomplishing what is written on that list. Read a chant together and sing a few songs, and try to feel peaceful about the year passing away, and centered about the new one to come.
Candlemas, Imbolc, Groundhog Day
By now many will recognize this ritual as one that is Pagan, or one that people who practice the religion of Wicca celebrate. I am not a practitioner of Wicca, but do appreciate some of the pagan ways of both honoring and respecting the Earth, and celebrating it on special days. I did some research on these days, and understood that even though we may not realize it, our American culture actually does still perform certain tasks or rituals at particular times of the year that help us stay in communion with nature. There are in fact seven more of these nature celebrations, and I would like to share the information I found.
Six weeks after December 21st and six weeks before the Spring Equinox, comes a day known as Candlemas, where new energy and life force are beginning to get ready to sprout. The days are starting to have a little more sunshine as they are thankfully getting a little longer. Our healing and sexual energies start to get stronger. It is still cold, but just the fact that it does not get dark as early helps us to see that we have already made our way through at least half of the long winter.
February 2nd is known to us as Groundhog Day, where we learn that if the groundhog does not see his shadow Spring will come more quickly. It may seem like a silly tradition, and is certainly not scientifically true, but by mid-winter in a cold climate it is helpful to have a hope that the cold and snow will soon be a memory. This day is also known as Imbolc, which is literally translated as “in the belly of the Mother”. In the womb of the Earth new life is beginning to stir and be noticeable. You just may see an early blooming flower or a crocus peeking its head out of the snow, even though the Earth is very cold. This is also known as a day of purification, once again sweeping out the old to make room for the new, emotionally and physically.
Nuts and seeds symbolize new starts, so baking bread with those ingredients in it and visualizing yourself creating a loving and prosperous future may will it to be so. Wiccans use a practice called smudging to purify the space around them. A small cauldron or heavy candle holder and charcoal is needed, along with herbs; sage is a preferred one for clearing out negative energies. Once the charcoal burns down the herbs of choice can be added. The burning of incense and herbs is a very powerful force for opening up your psychic senses, cleansing your space of unproductive energies, possibly even putting you in an altered state of consciousness. You carry the smudge pot or cauldron around so it can purify all your rooms. Any metaphysical store will carry a large variety of herbs for this and other purposes, and I find that incense and scented candles are just soothing in themselves.
Spring Flowers Emerge
Ostara, or Spring Equinox
The Spring Equinox occurs on or near March 21st, when the day and night are once again equal in length. Ostara is another name for the first day of Spring. Eostre was the Teutonic Goddess of Life, and Easter is named after her. We color Easter eggs with our children because it is traditional, fun, and the beautiful colors are bright and cheerful. This rite became popular because eggs are an ancient symbol of fertility. Small leaves begin to bud on trees and the lovely yellow daffodils that signal the beginning of Spring are appearing. Now the days are noticeably longer and the sun is out more, as the rites of Spring burst into bloom, along with our own life energies. They feel so strong that the air almost seems alive with promise. We have survived one more cold winter, and somehow along with the sunshine comes the romance and happiness that Spring brings along with its return.
Trees will begin to bud and bloom and Earth begins to turn green again. Daylight savings time also returns soon, which brings even more light hours into our days. A nice, private way to celebrate the return of Spring is to go outdoors by yourself. Find a nice tree and sit under it, imagining your own roots moving down into the Earth to join those of the tree. Let yourself sink into the experience of being one with nature, and spend fifteen or twenty minutes in silence. Try to think about what you need to do to help make yourself stronger, more clear minded, and to heal yourself. Breathe in the new smells of the season, and concentrate on what elements in life you think may bring you more happiness.
Beltane, or May Day
May 1st is called May Day, or Beltane, which began as an Irish/Gaelic fertility festival. The land is also ripe and fertile now. In olden days, people danced around a Maypole, decorated with flowers to celebrate the season. I read somewhere that in those times, people only bathed once a year, on May Day, as this was the day where all the young people who were ready to wed had a large, group wedding ceremony. They must have smelled pretty “ripe” by the next May Day! Beltane teaches us about children, the faery realm, and the “little people”, and of course, the magical energies of love, sensuality, and fertility. I am part Irish myself, and most people with Irish blood tend to have the second sight, or are “fey”, meaning psychic.
Pagans used to have huge Beltane bonfires and jump over them, to celebrate the fire within us. This is the time of year when your physical senses come alive, and dancing and lovemaking are popular activities. I have read in Rituals and Practices With the Motherpeace Tarot that on May Day, young people in Britain ran around naked and made love in the cornfields on Beltane Eve. Maybe some of my British readers can fill me in on more of this lore! But this was the time of year to begin concentrating on agriculture, and all these energies and vibrations almost seemed to affect the crops while bringing harmony and abundance to the land and everyone living in it.
The Maypole dance is now an activity that children participate in, and some communities still crown a May Queen. In Mexico, on May 5th, the great Cinco de Mayo festivities are held. This always entails parades and parties in the streets. Indians in Arizona weave flowers in their hair and parade through flower covered arches they create. A May Day activity for our times may include planting seeds with children so they can learn a lifelong hobby of gardening, or at least see how food grows from the seeds they plant. This demonstrates what power and life force our sun actually has.
Litha, the Summer Solstice
The summer solstice, or Litha, begins on or around June 21st, and is both the longest day of the year and has the shortest night. This time is also referred to as Midsummer, and at this time we experience our strongest surge of energy. However, as soon as we have the pleasure of enjoying the longest days, the nights will begin to get longer, by one minute each day that passes. There is always such a bittersweet quality to summer, with its summer romances that do not really last, and that poignant quality of those sultry summer nights, filled with so much yin and yang energies.
Ancient people in the Southwestern U.S. in a place called Chaco Canyon piled large boulders high upon a mesa that caught the first ray of sun on the first morn of the Summer Solstice, and this ray went down into a spiral they had carved on a rock. It is known as the “Sun Dagger”. The ray of light went down into the spiral and came out in a few minutes, creating what seemed like a miracle. Other tribes around the planet honored the sun in various ways to mark its most powerful point in the year’s cycle. I have had the good fortune to visit the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde, CO, and they are truly amazing. The area is desert now, but it is unbelievable that tribes living at that time had the ability to build such a complex village. Nobody knows the true reason why they left, it is speculated that their irrigation systems went dry. It was a high climb on small ladders to get all the way up there to see how these tribes once lived. But it was a beautiful experience I will always carry with me, knowing ancient peoples could survive in such harsh country by respectfully harnessing the energies of the sun and of water.
In our times, school is out, and families are going on summer vacations. Everyone spends lots of time outside, and we feel a sense of freedom and liberation in doing so. And we have the added bonus of the first plants of our summer gardens soon! A great summer solstice activity would be hiking, either by yourself or with a group. Open your senses up to get the most out of the energies of this time of year. Be careful in the heat and honor the sun and all it helps produce in some way.
Lammas, Harvest Time, August First
August Eve on August 1st, or Lammas, occurs at the warmest time of summer or the “first fruits” time of year. Now the days already become a bit shorter, so it is considered the beginning quarter of the Autumn part of the year. We often experience a lot of rain in August, and the temperatures begin to cool later in the month. The harvest is in now, and in New Jersey we have our delicious tomatoes, corn, blueberries and cranberries. All your squash ripens now too, as we reap all the goodness of the harvest. In older times, this was the season to gather at annual fairs, once again to marry, (I do not know if you get another bath), and winning livestock and produce are displayed.
This still happens today. In northwest and southern NJ there are many farms, and we have a huge fair in August, The Sussex County Fair, where farmers display their largest vegetables, and booths sell food that is both cooked, or you may buy it straight from the farms. I believe Danbury, CT also has a huge yearly fair. Baking, sharing and eating bread are great ways to celebrate this holiday, and normally many places have Renaissance or Medieval Fairs in August. There are jousting matches, and maidens and men in period clothing act out Shakespearean plays while the spectators sit on large bales of hay. Many of the spectators also dress up in costume and the women visitors wear bowers of flowers in their hair. This is a great time to play, and to gather together to praise the Earth for all it gives to us.
The Splendor of Autumn Leaves
Mabon, Autumn Equinox
The Autumn Equinox falls around September 21st, and is also known as Mabon. The second equinox, or period of equal day and night urges us to find our balance. It is the time of the last harvest of the year, and we see leaves beginning to turn glorious colors and birds starting to fly south. This is a time to think about what aspects of your life you wish to preserve, and which you plan to discard, much as you will be doing in your gardens. The last fruits of the vine must be picked and stored, and the change in the season will soon challenge us to gather ourselves in again.
The strong, outdoor activities of the summer fall away and we get ready to begin the quieter and more introverted cycle of our lives again. School starts again, and the children will begin whatever activities they enjoy in the Fall. Feasts with friends are popular now so you can take advantage of all the food and flowers left in your gardens. It is also the correct time to plant your Spring bulbs, do not wait until the Earth gets too cold again! We start to descend into a deeper communion with our inner selves again, and with the Divine in all of nature. Some people still dry fruits, can vegetables, and put up preserves to begin to prepare for the winter months. This was an ancient form of survival at one time, finding its basis in treating the Earth right and living in harmony with it. A good activity to celebrate Autumn is to collect rocks, leaves, shells, feathers, bones and other natural trinkets to make an amulet for protection in the cold months that will arrive sooner or later.
Halloween Magic in the Air!
October 31st is Halloween, the night that the veil between life and death is the thinnest, and we may receive messages from the Spirit world if we are open to it. Spirits are believed to walk the Earth more on this day than any other, so this is the time to try to communicate with them if you want to try. I once had an extremely vivid dream about someone I used to care about quite deeply, but we parted ways and I never saw him again. I “heard” him in my dream one Halloween night and many of the questions I had were answered, so I felt at peace. Divination of any sort will be at its highest level on Halloween.
This day is also known as All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain if you are a Wiccan. In the U.S. Halloween is a holiday where children dress up in any costume for the day and night so they can “be” whatever they want for one day out of the year. Many adults also enjoy the ritual of dressing up as something that they are not for the one day of the year that it is acceptable. The custom of carving pumpkins and putting candles in them, or Jack-o-Lanterns, became popular in Europe, so they would provide light at night, as it now gets dark early once again.
The beauty of the falling leaves is almost over now, and they leave a sweet scent in the air. I love Fall, the cool, crisp air and the overwhelmingly lovely leaves make me feel so alive and happy. Even though they die, they come back again, so Autumn is the time of transitions, and reinforces the belief of reincarnation, because although the death of plants occurs, they do come alive again in Spring. This can be a good time for scrying or looking into a crystal ball, and is generally the best time to try any kind of clairvoyant activity you have in mind. Since the veil is not as thick, you may be able to “see” much better than at any other time. Quiet your mind and try to see if you can communicate with your ancestors or someone you miss.
A Winter Scene
Time for the Next Winter Solstice!
Finally, the Wheel has brought us all the way through the year and back to the Winter Solstice, or Yule, once again. You have completed your Spiritual Path for one more year. May the next year in your life be filled with light and life, joy and reverence, love and peace.
© 2011 Jean Bakula