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Chapter 7

Celebrating the Seasons
The Festivals

All religions have sacred days. What sets the Pagan holy days apart from those of the rest of the Western religions is that they do not celebrate historical events. They celebrate themselves. What is special about this day is that it is this day. A Pagan lives in the world and finds religious meaning in the events of the world. The most radical and at the same time most enduring of these events are those concerned with seasonal change and so Pagans build our lives around them and celebrate their turning points.

Some have thought that ancient Pagans believed that without their rituals the seasons would not change. Perhaps some did believe this. But what really matters is that Pagans and the world are doing the same thing. Whether there is cause and effect is irrelevant. We do what we do because it is right for us to do it. We pattern our lives around the pattern of the seasons.

When we celebrate the festivals, we are honoring the seasons as we find them. We are recognizing them as sacred. But more than that, we are taking part in the continual creation of the Universe. It isn't something made long ago and then fixed in place, but a continual unfolding of the sacred. The Gods are continually giving birth to the world, and we are their midwives as well as their children.

As the seasons change they turn the Wheel of the Year. This is the Neo-Pagan term for the seasonal changes when seen as a whole. Many Pagans have a particular form of the Wheel, expressed as a myth. These myths vary from group to group, but usually contain elements in common: the birth of the Sun, marriage of Goddess and God, death of the God, battle between Winter and Summer or the waxing and waning years.

Other Pagans see each day as special in itself, with no necessary relation to the other days.

Whatever form of the myth is used (or none at all), however, the particular days celebrated by North American Neo-Pagans are generally those of Wicca. The Wiccan sacred calendar has eight holy days or festivals: Samhain, (Halloween), Yule (Winter Solstice), Imbolc (Feb. 2), Ostara (Spring Equinox), Beltane (May Day), Midsummers (Summer Solstice), Lammas (August Eve), and Harvest (Fall Equinox). In figure 2, Yule is at the top and the others of course go clockwise. This is the skeleton of the year; celebrating it is the flesh.

The Wiccan calendar is usually described as Celtic and there are indeed strong Celtic elements in it. The Gaels certainly celebrated four of the festivals (the evidence for the other Celts is sketchy, although they seem to have celebrated at least some of the four.) The solstices and the fall equinox were a later addition to British Paganism, however, brought in by the Romans and the Saxons. The spring equinox may have been introduced by the Romans, it may have been introduced for symmetry with fall, or it may have been modeled on Easter. Yule is definitely Saxon, and Midsummers almost certainly so, although there is a small chance it was celebrated by the Britons. There were further influences by Vikings and Christians. Modern Pagans have added elements from Greece and the Ancient Near East.

British Paganism had many mothers, then, and more have been added since. And to an even larger extent, so too does American Neo-Paganism. That is one reason these festivals draw from many traditions, going beyond their British origins, and even beyond Europe, to include customs from the whole world. There is always room to draw from more. Although for most of us our ancestors are Indo-European and we are most comfortable with Indo-European ways, further back all people are one people, and the wisdom of any may be appreciated by all.

These rituals are written for a northern temperate climate, the one in which the British Wheel of the Year developed. If you live in a different climate please do not celebrate them on the traditional dates. Think about the meaning of each festival and choose a date which corresponds locally to that meaning. Remember, one of the points of being a Pagan is to be in tune with Nature. That's hard to do if your calendar is out of whack.

I remember celebrating May Day in Gulfport, Mississippi, with a Maypole and ritual combat between Winter and Summer. There we were, celebrating the beginning of a season that had actually begun a month and a half earlier. It just didn't work.

If you feel that you must celebrate the traditional dates (and the solstices and equinoxes certainly deserve to be celebrated) change the rituals to reflect the season where you are. What is going on at your time and your place? That is what you must celebrate.

A common mistake made in interpreting seasonal customs of other cultures is to look at the date on the calendar instead of the seasons of the place where the customs originated. This has waylaid many, for instance, into thinking that the dying and resurrecting God of the Ancient Near East (Tammuz, Adonis, et al.) was a God of Spring. His festival does occur near the spring equinox, it is true, and there is much equinoctal symbolism in his myth and cult. But in the area where he was worshipped the Spring equinox is the time of the barley harvest, not the return of life after death and cold. Rituals inspired by his myths would therefore be more appropriate in our fall. For this reason, some of the suggestions for celebrating these festivals that have been taken from cultures in different climates have been shifted away from their traditional calendar dates. Your rituals should reflect nature's calendar, not Pope Gregory's.

Look around you for other days that should be celebrated. My family has been known to celebrate baseball's opening day. (Well, the Yankees' opening day, to be precise.) If you live in a fishing community, what are its major days? If you farm, when are your crops planted and harvested? Pagans in a community that relies on skiers for its livelihood might well celebrate the first snowfall. Paganism has a long history of supporting the economic well-being of its followers.

Think also about what secular holidays (Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day) are near the festivals and what can be incorporated. Don't forget non-Pagan celebrations in your community. Some of these have a long history (harvest fairs, for instance), while others are more recent (First Night celebrations in many American cities), but they are all responses by people to the seasons. Consider celebrating secular holidays in a Pagan way. They are part of our culture and reflect the changing of the seasons. Or just celebrate them in their secular form -- you are part of a community, most of which is non-Pagan, but forming strong community ties is a very Pagan thing to do.

Few Neo-Pagans grew up in our religion. But we did grow up in a different kind of household, for most of us a Christian one, that did certain things for certain days. Some of these things are Christian adaptations of Pagan customs. This is not to say that all Christian customs were stolen from us. There are certain characteristics shared by all humans and because of this certain symbols will call to them no matter what religion they are. (And Christians can be as creative as Pagans, so you must keep in mind that some of these symbols and practices will have been invented by them.) The local versions of these symbols will vary, but the truth behind them will not.

To see what these basic symbols are, think of your own childhood. I grew up Roman Catholic, so let me use that as an example. The biggest festival for me as a child was of course Christmas. When I think of Christmas I think of decorations, foods, family gatherings, and presents. I don't think of ritual words. It is a mistake to take mystery rites and adapt them for home use. After all, Roman Catholics don't usually say masses in their homes. (One of my sister's brothers-in-law is a priest, and I have been to a mass celebrated in their home, but that is certainly an exception). And the Pagans of old didn't celebrate the mysteries with their families.

Emphasize the importance of foods, decorations, clothing; things you do, not things you say, then. Think about your own childhood and what things were important about holidays and incorporate them into your celebrations.

For some of the festivals, the most important element in Pagan times seems to have been a feast. This is certainly Pagan; eating is a sacred act, especially when done in the presence of the Gods. An air of festivity surrounded the feasts, with games and songs. Were there rituals as well? We don't know. There are in modern Pagan festivals, but they must never take the place of the feast. Simply calling to the Gods, feasting with them, and then having some sort of fun can serve as a practice for any holy day.

The importance of traditional foods cannot be overemphasized. In my house when I was growing up it just wouldn't have been Christmas without certain kinds of cookies. Children can help with food preparation and learn useful skills while having fun celebrating the seasons.

Decorations provide both an air of festivity and a constant reminder of the occasion. Children can help make them and they can help put them up. Seasonal decorations that can be made by children are found in magazines and teachers' resource books. Making them is a great way to teach the significance of the occasions.

Seasonal flowers are always appropriate as decorations. These are simply the flowers in bloom at the time you are celebrating. I cannot give a list that would be appropriate everywhere this book may be used, so you will have to go out looking for them. Take your child with you and they may learn something. The flowers may be grown in your yard or a window box, or they may be gathered from along roads.

Don't neglect "weeds." Plants are only weeds where they are not wanted. A sure sign of late spring are the dandelions brought home by schoolchildren everywhere as gifts for their parents. If you can gather wildflowers you will always be sure of having the right ones for the season and the change of flowers from festival to festival will reinforce the message of the changing of the seasons. After the holiday they can either stay where they are until they die completely (and then onto the compost heap with them) or they can be placed in your shrine. In the winter you can use bare sticks or evergreen branches.

As one exception to the seasonal rule, branches with buds can be cut in the spring, brought inside, and forced. This could even be seen as a kind of magic to bring in the change of season.

On all festivals, only necessary work should be done. This is standard practice for holy days, and "holiday" originally meant "holy day." In our predominantly Christian society, for instance, very little is open on Christmas. Similarly, in ancient Rome no public business could be performed on the major religious holidays. And in old Ireland it was traditional to avoid all work that involved turning -- spinning, driving of carts, etc. Perhaps this was an attempt to keep the holiday for as long as possible, before the Wheel of the Year turned and went on to less special days.

On the other hand, there is no ban on fun of any kind on these days. Besides rituals, food, and decorations, find fun things to do. Do them as a family. For all four of the solar festivals, the solstices and equinoxes, the traditional symbol is the wheel or the ball, the sun brought down to earth. So depending on the season, try whiffleball, throwing disks, bicycling, roller skating, volleyball, sledding in plastic saucers, marbles, or bowling. Go to an amusement park and ride the great wheels of light, the merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and those large drums that spin around so fast that you don't fall even when they tip. (The ones my mother would never let me go on because she said they were too dangerous.)

Clean your house for the festivals. This is especially important for Samhain, Yule, and Brighid's Day, when someone is being invited into your home. The effort expended in cleaning is an offering, and the clean house is a sign of respect towards your guests.

The rituals for the solar festivals in this book use a Sun candle. It is the thread that ties the solar rituals together. It is a large candle that is a solar color (red, yellow, orange, or gold). Since it is used on four different festivals, an unscented one is best. A scent which would fit perfectly with one of the festivals might clash with another. Decorate its base for each of its days -- holly, flowers, leaves, and fruit or grain. A design such as a sun can be cut into it with a hot knife. Keep it in your shrine when not in use.

Some of these rituals use fires, either bonfires or barbecue fires. Offerings can be made to (or through) the fire, a sort of sacrifice. Give a portion of your own food and a bit of your own drink so the fire can share the feast with you. The ashes from the fire should be put on your garden if you have one. They may also be given to trees or sprinkled around the outside of the house to protect it. (Ashes from barbecue briquettes are not good as fertilizer.)

Before having a bonfire, check with your local authorities to make sure it is allowed and safe. Some towns require permits, and when conditions are dry some towns don't allow them at all. Be sure the ground under the fire is free of anything that might burn, and clear an area around the fire as well. Surround the fire with a circle of rocks to further keep in the burning wood. Make sure you have buckets of water or sand, or a fire extinguisher handy in case the fire gets out of control.

When the fire is out, make sure it is all the way out before leaving it by soaking it with water, stirring it, soaking again, and then checking with your hand for hot spots. To do this, run you hand over the ashes (don't actually touch them), stir the ashes, and repeat. Don't leave the fire untended until you are sure it is out. Starting forest or brush fires will not make friends for Pagans either with the Spirits of the Wild or our neighbors.

Some of these rites may best be performed on the eve of the day. Night can be considered to have begun the moment the first star can be seen, or if the horizon can be seen from your home, the family can watch the sunset before starting the ritual.

Samhain (October 31st)

Samhain -- Halloween -- is more closely associated with modern Paganism than any other holiday. It has preserved many Pagan customs and more have grown up around it in Christian days. Indeed, unlike most Pagan occasions there are almost too many customs to be integrate them all easily.

The Irish name Samhain, pronounced "Sowen" (the Scottish Gaelic is "Samhuin"), has been adopted by most American Neo-Pagans. The medieval Irish Cormacís Glossary explains its meaning as "summer's end," and that is its religious meaning among modern Pagans. Modern scholarship has cast doubt on this etymology, however. One recent suggestion is that it means "summer's beginning" -- the summer of the Underworld, where the seasons are the opposite of ours. What is beyond doubt is that this day that begins the cold part of the year has "summer" in its name.

This is a good place to point out an error found in many books on Samhain that has unfortunately recently made its way into the Pagan community. "Samhain" is not the name of a Celtic God of the Dead (several recent books said "Aryan"). Celtic Gods are not as easily categorized as Graeco-Roman, and if the Celts had a God of the Dead it is unlikely that we will ever be sure who he was. But there was no God named "Samhain", or "Samana" as it is sometimes given. This may have arisen from a confusion with "Shamana," a title of Yama, the Vedic God of the dead. This name means "Settler," and is not connected in any way with "Samhain."

"Samhain" properly refers to the daylight portion of the festival, to Nov. 1st. The night of Oct. 31st goes by a number of names -- Oiche na Sprideanna (Spirit Night), Oiche Shamhna (Samhain Eve), Puca Night. It is a night of magic, when fairies and ghosts are about, and the puca spits on the blackberries, making them unfit to eat.

Among the Celts, as among the Hebrews and many others, the day began at sunset, with the dark time. The Celtic year also began with the dark -- with Samhain. Just as a plant is born from the dark below the ground, so too the year comes from the dark time. Samhain is the Celtic New Year's Day, then. If you work in a system with a different New Year's Day, you might consider transferring some of these customs to that day. For instance, Norse customs and myths surrounding the winter solstice are very similar to those surrounding Samhain. Roman customs of late February are similar as well, as the Romans were preparing for the old New Year in March.

The overwhelming cultural importance of the secular calendar has decreased the importance of the New Year aspect of Samhain for most Neo-Pagans. But if Samhain does not end the calendar year for us, it still marks the end of the year's growth. Not only does the world start to die, but it no longer grows to replace death. This is the end of the farmer's year. Cattle and sheep are brought in from the far pastures, winter wheat is already planted, wood is gathered.

Those of use who do not farm or even garden can use this time to wind up other things in our lives. For instance, debts can be paid if possible, to close the year so that a new one can begin free from connections to the old. Are there jobs around the house that you've been meaning to get to? Do them now, and free yourself to look forward instead of back.

Samhain eve is the night of death, when the fairy mounds open and the dead and the old Gods walk the earth. Gifts of food and drink are left out for them, either in appeasement or greeting. It is the night when the veil is thin between our world and that of Gods and spirits, and anyone may pass through either way.

Many Samhain customs are designed to protect the home from the spirits or the fairies. As Pagans we welcome the spirits and fairies, and so we do not keep some of these customs. Some of them we reinterpret. The jack-o-lantern, far from scaring off spirits, may be seen as evidence of them in our midst.

It says in "The Wooing of Etain" that among the Irish Samhain was a day of peace, when no one could take arms against another. This is a characteristic law of tribal assemblies, and indeed, there is a slight possibility that "Samhain" means "assembly." Samhain is the great assembly day. If you are part of a Pagan group, gather them together for Samhain; if your extended family is Pagan, do likewise. If you have no group with which to assemble, do not worry. The spirits of your ancestors will gather with you. This is one time when Pagans do not stand alone.

In ancient Ireland, Samhain was actually part of a week long celebration, divided into three parts: the three days before it, the day itself, and the three days after it. The feast was long and well-celebrated.

In remembrance of this, your celebration should extend for at least three days. That is why there are three rituals given here. Unlike the other festivals, where several rituals are provided to give a choice, all three of these are meant to be performed, one on each of three days. It is best to perform them on consecutive days, but depending on local custom, you may have to reschedule one of the rituals so as not to conflict with trick or treating.

The origin of trick or treating has been the subject of a lot of speculation, some of it based on evidence and some not. I would not like to be the one more person saying "this is how it began." I don't think we can know for sure.

What we can know is that everywhere in the ancient world the days before New Year's and feasts of the dead were days of ritual chaos. The world dissolved, the cosmos disintegrated, and the human community allowed itself to fall apart as well. There were celebrations with costume wearing, general lawlessness, children's revolts, and trick or treating. The meaning seems to have been that with the old year dying and the new one not yet begun the old rules are dead and new ones not yet in place. It is a time for both fear and merry-making. Pre-Ash Wednesday customs are probably the best known: Mardi Gras, Fasching, and Carnival.

We know that in the British Isles there are many customs associated with particular days that involve going from door to door collecting goodies: Pace Egging, Guy Fawkes, caroling, and, in areas influenced by Gaels (or, in modern times, by Americans), Halloween. These customs died out in America, but the influx of Irish during the Potato Famine was probably what revived Halloween. This is conjecture, but the traditions are old and probably pre-Christian.

Secular Halloween customs are thus quite appropriate. Take part in them with a good conscience. As well as taking part in the local seasonal festivals, something that any self-respecting Pagan should be glad to do, and as well as giving your children the chance to feel that they are not that different from other children (something I'm sure most parents are glad to be able to do), you will be observing the Festival of the Death of the Year in traditional fashion. Go for it.

After the dissolution to chaos comes the recreation of the world. This is the origin of the belief in many parts of the world that what happens on New Year's sets the pattern for rest of the year. One offshoot of this belief is the custom of practicing divination on days like this. The pattern of a thing is set at its beginning, so the year's pattern can be seen or altered by divination on Samhain.

Each of the three rituals deals with a different aspect of the day. First there is the seasonal aspect. This is the time of the year when things are dying. Even the plants that will survive the winter are shutting down and shedding unnecessary parts. Many animals, especially insects and spiders, don't survive the winter. The species overwinter as eggs or larvae.

In a pre-electricity culture even some of the domestic animals would be killed. There was only so much food and usually not all of the herds could be kept in good health until spring. As well as being carefully preserved for the winter, some of the food was used for a feast, not unlike the American Thanksgiving. On Martinmas (Nov. 11th, and thus Halloween in the old Julian calendar) farmers in Ireland killed an animal and sprinkled the blood on the threshold and the four corners for protection. The meat was shared with the poor.

Next there is the placating of the spirits of the animals eaten during the year. This is a recognition that we live by killing. Being a vegetarian is no way out of this, either. Life is life, and even vegetarians are responsible for death. In hunting cultures it is common to placate the spirits of the dead animals. This is partly to ensure their return and that they will continue to cooperate in the business of living and dying. But at least part of it is a recognition that the animals too have a life that people have to take, and a spirit that deserves respect.

Third, there is the honoring of ancestors. Samhain is the night when the distinction between this world and the next is thin. Perhaps the fear of going out on this night arose not so much from concern about running into spirits of the dead as fear of crossing over into the Otherworld oneself.

A fourth aspect is the facing of personal mortality. This hardly seems appropriate for a gathering with children, however, but it is certain to be part of any meeting of adults or individual rites that may be held during this time. The most effective way of scheduling these rituals would be to observe them in the order given here -- plants, animals, people. This brings the message of Samhain closer to us personally each night. It should reach its crescendo on the night of Samhain itself, with only grave visits left. Your scheduling may have to be different, but in any case the honoring of ancestors is best left for the night of Samhain itself.

On one or more of the days of observance it is appropriate to fast, except for the ritual itself. This is a custom often associated with New Year's days, as well as with preparations to meet with spirits. It fits in also with the coming of the hard times of winter, when in a subsistence culture going without food might be a necessity. Since the center part of each day's observance is a meal, fasting will also give greater emphasis to the ritual. If your family decides to fast, limit the fasting to healthy non-pregnant adults. Taking on the fast will be one of the responsibilities shared by those who have come of age. The money saved by fasting should be given to charity.

Pagans spend so much energy thinking about nature that it would be all too easy to forget about the human community. So on Samhain it is fitting to make a special act of charity. It has always been a day for giving, one where it is not proper to turn the stranger from your door (perhaps another theory of the origin of trick or treating. Samhain is the perfect day to ask for gifts; they will not be refused.) It is the end of harvest, when our storehouses are full and we can certainly spare some of our goods. We call to the ancestors and say, "Thank you for what you have done for us," and they say, "So, and what have you done for each other? And what have you done for your descendants?" If we are to face them without shame we must have an answer.

This is a time to clean your house extra well. You will be inviting the ancestors in, and simple politeness requires a clean house. But further, this is the new year: you should be able to face it with as little baggage from the old year as possible. In the same vein, wear new clothes for the rituals, especially for the night of the ancestors.

On the first day of the three, set up an extra table at one end of your kitchen or dining room table. Any size will do as long as it is at least as high as the other one (and preferably higher). This will serve as your Samhain altar. It will remain throughout the festival, decorated differently for each of the three days. Ordinarily your table serves as your altar, but for this special day a special altar is in order.

Decorations: Symbols of fall, harvest, and death, such as sickles, scythes, jack-o-lanterns, skulls, skeletons, grave rubbings, root vegetables, squashes, and apples.

Food and drink: Dark food and foods that keep over the winter. Nuts, blackberries, applecakes, applesauce, roots, squashes, beef, pork, dark bread, mulled cider or wine.

Traditions to raid: All Saints Day (Nov. 1), All Souls Day (Nov. 2), and Martinmas (Nov. 11) (European); Parentalia (Feb. 13-22), Fevalia (Feb. 21), and Lemuralia (May 9, 11, and 15) (Roman); Bon (Aug. 13-15) (Japanese); Yom Kippur, Passover (Jewish, dates vary); Memorial Day, New Year's Eve.

The Night of Harvest's End

Prepare a meal that emphasizes vegetables and fruit. Include a heavy dark bread, a dark rye or pumpernickel, unsliced. This will be eaten from each night, so make sure there is some left over until the last night. Leave it on the altar for all three nights.

When the food is ready and the table set, gather the family together about it. After establishing sacred time, an adult says:

This is the first night of Samhain,
Harvest's End.
Summer is over and winter is upon us,
the time to enjoy what our summer's work has earned us
and the time to prepare for summer's return.
Blessed be winter, this sacred time of the year.

Go out to your garden. Stand right in the middle of it, facing west, the direction of the dying sun and of the journey made by the dead. Make one last offering to the spirits of the garden (beer or wine are appropriate) and say:
Goodbye, Summer.
We have planted
We have weeded
We have harvested
We have watched the garden
and helped it grow
and now its end has come.

This would be a good point for the children to join in, thinking of things that have been done to help the garden and adding them to the list. If they have their own garden, they must perform this part of the ritual by themselves in that garden.

Then put the garden to sleep for the winter. Make the final harvest and pile the results in bowls. Pull up all the plants and haul them to your compost heap. Lay down mulch and compost. Then, from some of the remains of the plants make a figure of a man. This will be your image of Winter. He will rule over your household until May Day.

To make the figure, make two bundles of stalks, one slightly thinner than the other but both the same length. The thinner bundle will be the arms. Be sure to include some of each plant. With a long piece of string, tie the large bundle together about one fourth of the way from one end. (Figure 3a.) This will be the head end. Separate the bundle slightly below the string and insert the smaller bundle. Wrap the string diagonally across and around to hold the arms in place (3b). Tie it off, leaving plenty of extra string. Spread the lower portion of the large bundle apart to form the legs. Run the string down through the dividing point, back up to one arm, down to the dividing point again, and back up to the other arm (3c). Pull the string tight to keep the legs divided and tie it off. You may also tie the ends of the bundles together if you wish. We like to keep ours rough, but you may make yours it as elaborate as you care to.

If you grow corn your figure of Winter can be quite large. With different plants, you may need to make a smaller one. One and a half feet to two feet is a good size.

Put Winter in the north, the direction of dark, cold, and death. Face it and say:

Welcome, Winter.

If you don't have a garden you can find weeds along the road or in a vacant lot and make your figure of Winter out of them. Use dead and dry weeds, especially those with seeds in them. The first year my family did this ritual, we didn't have a garden, so we used dried grass from a nearby vacant lot. You can also make the figure from wheat stalks, which can be bought in craft supply stores, or corn shocks, which can be bought in many garden stores for decorations at this time of year. In this case, you will also need bowls of fruits and vegetables, preferably from local farms.

Bring Winter into the house with ceremony and place him at the table. Prop him to make him stand at his own place, with his own plate. The string that ties him together can be slipped over the top of a wine bottle to hold him up. Put your bowls of fruit and vegetables in front of him. Put bits of your food on Winter's plate as you eat, serving him first. Afterward leave the food out for the spirits of the wild or of the garden.

Keep Winter in a place of honor all winter until Beltane. If it is safe you could put him in the garden on a pole in the north to watch over the garden for the winter. If you do this, put the offerings of food in front of him.

This is the night for traditional Halloween games such as bobbing for apples or trying to eat donuts that are suspended on strings.

The Night of the Animal Spirits

If you keep any animals (including pets), no one may eat dinner until they are fed. Leave out food for wild animals as well.

Among the food include a soup containing a little bit of every food animal eaten during the year. Use any soup recipe with small pieces of the other animals added. Beef works well as the base, as its strong flavor is not easily overpowered by other meats. It may be difficult to include every type of animal; traditionally beef stands for all animals, so it can be used by itself alone. If you are vegetarian, make a soup using as many plants as possible and adapt the ritual accordingly. When everything is ready, establish sacred time. Then an adult says:

This is the second night of Samhain,
the Night of the Animal Spirits.
This is the night when we thank the animals who have died for us.
Blessed be the eaters
Blessed be the eaten
Blessed be the eating
Blessed be the being eaten
Blessed be life
Blessed be death.

The other family members repeat each of the "Blessed be's." Then an adult says:

This is the great secret of life:
That it feeds on death
and they are close twins.
The wheel is always turning.
The spirits of the animals are here,
of all that we have eaten.
They have played their part in the turning of the wheel
so tonight we do them honor.
Thank you.

All: Thank you.

Adult: Thank you.

All: Thank you.

Adult: Thank you.

All: Thank you.

Adult: Thank you, animal spirits;
we will not forget your gifts.

Serve the soup. Then eat your dinner, taking special care to taste and enjoy your food. Do not rush through the meal. That would be disrespectful to the animal spirits. Either make sure all leftovers are eaten or leave some out for the spirits. Whatever you do, don't waste any.

The Night of Remembering

The ancestors have been often ignored by Neo-Pagans. Perhaps it's that we have been enraptured by the Celts and have associated ancestor religion with Africa, China, and Japan. Or maybe it's because so many of us have seen our path as breaking away from our family's religion. Or maybe it's just that Wicca lacks an emphasis on the ancestors. It is indeed ironic that those of those who seek to revive the ways of our ancestors have thought so rarely of the Way of the Ancestors.

But the ancestors are who we are. Their genes live in us, their culture shapes our days, their signs are all around us. The land itself speaks of them. And on the night of Samhain itself it is only right that we should speak of them as well. Speak, and remember. For what the ancestors desire most of all, and what we need most to do, is to remember them.

The meal on this night should include pork, the sacred feast animal of Northern Europe and food of the dead; apples, fruit of the tree that grows in the Otherworld; and the dark bread that has been on the table for the first two nights.

Decorate the room with symbols of your ancestors. These can include:

Family trees
Flags, postcards, foods, statues, books, photographs, or other items from the countries of your ancestors.
Family heirlooms. These need not be anything fancy. A letter, a piece of clothing, a book -- anything from any ancestor. One of my favorite heirlooms is a hammer my grandfather used.
Photographs of ancestors.
Rubbings or photographs of gravestones
This is a case where a cluttered altar is called for. Many sources have poured themselves into us and the result is a complicated culture filled with complicated people. Make your altar just as complicated. For tools, jewelry, and clothes raid your heirlooms and the traditions of your ancestors' cultures.

Put images of your ancestors on the altar. If your household guardians are figures of your ancestors you will of course use them. If not, you could use masks made just for this rite, jack-o-lanterns, or ethnic symbols. Set a place for them in front of their images. Also put on the altar a candle for each relative who has died since last Samhain, plus an extra candle for all of your other ancestors. These candles can also be put in the window, to show the spirits the way to your home.
The oldest adult present presides this night.

Dress in dark clothes. This is the night of the Underworld, the Nightworld. Ordinarily we live in the day world, but this night we enter the world of the dark. The night world is the world of mystery, just like the world of death is. We cannot see what comes to us out of the dark.

Put the candles for the dead in front of the ancestral images. As you light each one that is being lit for a specific person, say that person's name. These candles should be lit by whomever in the family was closest to the person. After the candles are lit, the oldest adult says:

Tonight is the last night of Samhain, the Night of Remembering.
It is the feast of dark bread.
It is the feast of apples.
It is the feast of pork.
On this night
we welcome the spirits of our ancestors.
On this night
we welcome you to our house.
We share our meal with you who have given us so much.

Put a bit of every food at the meal on the ancestors' plate as it is served, before serving any family members.

After the meal, clear the dinner dishes, except for the place of the ancestors. Put an apple, a pomegranate, a sharp knife, and a cup of dark wine or cider on the table. The wine or cider can be served mulled but cold by adding cloves and cinnamon sticks and soaking overnight. Stir or shake to mix the flavors before pouring. Pass the cup around. It may go either counter-clockwise (thereby going down to death) or from youngest to oldest (thereby approaching the ancestors.) Whichever way it goes, have it end up at the place of the ancestors.

As each person receives the cup she recites her genealogy, women and girls in the female line and men and boys in the male line. Say:

I am ( ), daughter of ( ), daughter of ( ).

Go as far back as you know or as you wish. Include at least one ancestor who is dead. If you do not know the names of your ancestors, at the point that the line disappears say, "daughter of a woman unknown." After each person does this, she drinks a toast in the direction of the place of the ancestors. When everyone has spoken and the drink and food are at the place of the ancestors, someone says:

We offer the cup of fellowship to the ancestors:
They are dead but not gone.
We are all one people and tonight we eat and drink together once more.

Someone else says:

We are not the first
We will not be the last
We are not the river's source
nor are we its end.
Life flows on from the ancestors
through us and beyond.
Daily we are carried along as life streams on.
Tonight we turn and look upstream
and honor our source
before turning again and plunging once more into life.
Tonight we remember our ancestors:
Gone but remembered
Left but revered
Away but near our hearts.
That which is remembered is still alive.
Those we remember are with us still.
We speak their names and remember.

Then remember, saying their names. After each name, tell what you know about that person. If anyone has died since last Samhain, name them first. It is all right to call out the names of friends as well as family. We are one people.

There are many ancestors you will not know, of course. Call them by what you do know; where they came from, or what their trade was, or their relationship with you. There are many of mine of whom I know nothing except a name. That isn't really much, but it is enough.

Speak their names and remember them. When there are no more to remember, say:

Ancestors going back into the darkness,
forgotten by history,
your lives unrecorded:
You who are unknown to us but who made us ourselves.
Don't be afraid:
You are not forgotten.
We remember you.

And everyone says:

We remember you.

Then tell any of your people's stories that haven't yet been told. Tell stories of ancestors who have died. Tell the old myths of your people. Recite the genealogies. And when the stories have died away, sit in silence and remember. Don't be afraid to cry. Your tears will be an offering to them. Don't be ashamed not to cry. The remembering may bring you comfort without the need to cry.

When the remembering has died away, someone says:

Every day we will remember and every night when we sleep.
We will always remember and we will never forget.
These are our people and we remember them.

If you have any messages you wish sent to your ancestors, especially ones you don't wish to say out loud, write them down on a piece of paper. Put the paper with incense on a burning piece of charcoal, or burn them in the flames of the candles of the ancestors. The smoke will take your messages to the ancestors for you.

When all the talk is done and all the messages sent, the oldest adult says:

The table of remembering is over but the Night of Remembering goes on.
But there is one thing more we still have to do.
For three days we have spoken of death:
of plants, of animals, of our ancestors.
But our way is life.

He picks up the pomegranate and says:

This is a fruit of life
It is filled with many seeds
But it was just these seeds that kept Persephone in the land of the dead.
So what does this fruit say to us?
It is life, whose shadow is death.

He cuts it open. Then he holds up the apple and says:

This is a fruit of death
It grows in the Otherworld where our ancestors live,
where they are rested and refreshed,
which is thus called the Land of Apples.

He cuts it through the middle horizontally and holds it up to show the star formed by the seed chambers. He says:

But hidden inside is the star of rebirth.
So what does this fruit say to us?
It is death, whose shadow is life and promises rebirth.

He holds them both out and says:

Which is our way?
Which path are we on?
Are we on the path of death?
Or are we on the path of life?

All: We are on the path of life.

He puts the fruits down and passes the pomegranate around so everyone can have at least one seed. He puts the apple back together and puts it on the altar and says:

And this is your path:
Death, with the promise of rebirth.
We say goodbye to you for now
as you go your way and we go ours.

Blow out the candles and share the pomegranate.

Samhain was one of the great bonfire days of the Gaels. Any of the festivals may be celebrated outside with a bonfire, and the Night of Remembering is particularly appropriate for its inside equivalent, the fire in the fireplace, where you may gather after the meal for more stories of the ancestors. On the first night, you might also light a bonfire in the garden or fields and carry fire around them to bless them.

Save the apple and the offerings on the ancestors' plate for the next day. The day of Samhain is as magical as the night. The door between the worlds is still open. Visit a cemetery. If possible, visit one where actual ancestors of yours are buried. If you can't do this, find the oldest one possible. Walk through it, reading the names on the tombstones out loud. Try to imagine who these people were. If your ancestors are buried there, point out their graves to your children and explain who they were and how they are related. Leave offerings, including the apple and the food from the ancestor's plate on some of the older graves, especially of your actual ancestors. Say:

We remember you, all our ancestors.
See, here we are;
We have not forgotten you.
See, here are our gifts.
We have not been idle.
We have not wasted what you have left us.

Any offerings in addition to the food from the previous night will depend on the culture you and they come from. In most cases some sort of bread and drink will be right. A common gift in Indo-European cultures is beans. Seeds of all sorts are appropriate as promises of rebirth. If you use drink, you may pour it on the ground. You may even wish to use hair, a part of you that is often given as an offering in rites. If you visit the graves of your own relatives you can leave offerings of their favorite foods or drawings made by your children.

Many cultures used what the British call "soulcakes" -- small loaves made from the local grain. In India, they were of rice. The Ainu of northern Japan used millet cakes. In parts of the British Isles, they were basically pancakes. In parts of Russia, gingerbread was used. The most traditional soulcake, therefore, is whatever bread, cake, or cookie you commonly eat. Pancakes, crepes, cornbread, pita bread, biscuits, Irish soda bread -- what sort of cakes do you wish to share with your ancestors? What kind do you think they will like?

For a sweet soulcake with only three ingredients, try shortbread. It's easy to make:

4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tbs. sugar
1 1/2 cups flour

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl. Sift the flour into the bowl. Work into the butter and sugar until smooth. Divide dough in half and shape each half into a circle about 1/2" thick. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut partially through into eight pieces and decorate with fork marks. Preheat oven to 375. Bake for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 325 and bake for 20 minutes more. Cool.

As well as being given to the dead, soulcakes have been given to the poor and to children who come to the door. The first is an expression of the giving of the final harvest's bounty, and the second is yet another possible origin for trick or treating. Either may be a substitute for giving to the dead. In modern times, since the poor do not come to your door, you can go to theirs and leave baskets of food anonymously, donate food to a food bank, or donate some of your time to a soup kitchen.
If you are from a culture that reveres its ancestors, research its rites. If, like the Chinese, your culture already has a day for revering the ancestors, perhaps you should perform these rites on that day. And of course, when looking at cultures to derive customs from, don't forget our own, with its wreaths and flowers.


Yule is the winter solstice, which, because the calendar year and the solar year are not exactly the same, can be on different days in different years. It is always near December 21st, though, and a calendar or almanac will give the exact day and time. You might want to celebrate it on December 25th, though. And why not; the rest of the country (most of it, anyway) is celebrating, and the date for Christmas was originally taken from the Roman Pagan feast of the Unconquered Sun. Fine day for celebrating.

"Solstice" means "the sun stands still." Since Midsummers the sun has been rising and setting further south and thus staying lower in the sky and for a shorter time each day. Now we start to wonder: will this continue? Will the Earth grow darker and colder as the sun disappears into the south until only darkness is left?

But on Yule a wonderful thing happens. The sun stops its decline and for a few days it rises in about the same place. This is the crucial time, the cusp between events. The sun stands still, and everyone waits for the turning.

In our heads we know the light will return. But in the dark of winter, can we be sure? Do our hearts believe what our heads tell us? Will light keep its promises? We all have moments of darkness, when we don't know how much deeper we will go before the light starts to return (or even if it will). The world has its moments too; it understands us, and lives as we do.

The sun does start north again and the light comes back. In the world, in our lives, the light comes back. This is indeed something worth celebrating, and it has been celebrated throughout the northern hemisphere in remarkably similar ways.

The most important part of the celebration is light, in all its forms -- Yule logs, bonfires, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa candles, Menorahs. The meaning of the lights vary from culture to culture and even from person to person. They can be magic to help the sun's return, a sign of hope in the dark and cold, a symbol of the Unconquerable Sun to cheer us, or a festival multiplication of the necessary lights of dark times. But then, Paganism is a religion of doing, not believing, and so what matters is that you do what should be done for Yule. Bring back the light in your home and know that it will also be coming back in the world.

The word "Yule", according to the Venerable Bede, means "Wheel." It was "Giuli" back then. We don't know whether it was meant to refer to the wheel of the sun or the turning of the Wheel of the Year, but either would be appropriate. It apparently meant the entire season, the last month of one year and the first of the next. Most recent scholars have been less certain and are more like to give its origin as simply "Germanic, origi-nal meaning unknown." We are lucky to have "Yule" though, no matter what its original meaning; it is a short friendly word that fits well into our language. It is familiar even to non- Pagans through songs, originally written for Christmas, that use it and that can be adopted by Pagans.
Many Christmas customs are derived from Yule customs. The tree, the Yule log, wreaths, lights, fires -- all have their origin in Pagan Midwinter customs.

Yet as we have them, these customs are definitely Christian. The Christmas tree as we know it was not put up by the Pagans of old. It is true that northern Europeans decorated their homes with pine boughs and that Romans hung trees with masks and fruit in honor of the new year. Still, the modern Christmas tree is the result of years of development within a Christian framework. Because of this, some may wish to skip it, (especially people who grew up as non- Christians), or they may wish to return to a simpler, more Pagan version.

Others may choose to adopt the whole set of decorations and customs, even those that had no Pagan origin, with suitable thanks for the creativity of Christianity. There is no reason why these symbols of life in death and light out of darkness cannot be used both by Christians and by Pagans.

If you use a tree, make a big deal out of it. Put it up in the afternoon of Yule and leave it up either for twelve days (one for each month, and also to tie in with medieval Twelfth Night customs) or until Imbolc (or until the needles start to fall off if you use a cut tree.)
Whether to use a cut tree, live tree to be planted in the spring, or artificial tree is a personal decision. Pagans can use any in good conscience. A live tree is perhaps the best, but we don't all have the luxury of land to plant on. Cut trees are grown on farms, and if it will be disposed of responsibly a Pagan should feel no worse about using one than about eating a carrot. Many communities collect trees for mulching or erosion control, or you could put yours in the woods where it will provide shelter for small animals. Pagans are not overly fond of plastic, but an artificial tree, which will last for years, is an entirely appropriate use for it. If a member of your family has allergies it may be your only choice.

Many commercially available or easily homemade tree decorations are fine for Yule trees. You can use small masks like the Romans, who hung masks of Bacchus on trees for Saturnalia, their Midwinter feast. Strung cranberries (solar symbols) and popcorn, which can be put outside for birds, are homey and traditional. Roosters, horses, golden balls and discs, candles, oranges, flame-colored ribbons and streamers, wheels, chariots, lights, wreaths, six-pointed stars, dragons, phoenixes, eagles, hawks, lions -- all are sun symbols. Simple colored balls are sold in the sun colors of red, gold, yellow, and orange, and figures of elves and fairies are sold in stores. And don't forget the symbols of winter, the white balls, icicles and snowflakes. One thing my family does is to run gold-colored ribbons from the chandelier over our kitchen table to the walls, and suspend sun symbols from them. Over the years I have collected quite a few sun ornaments, and they are mixed in with gold-colored balls. The result is quite striking; with the light turned on the room seems to glow. A good meal for the afternoon (while trimming the tree) is a light one that leaves room for feasting later and doesn't take much time to make. Soup, salad, and melted cheese on bread is enough. For a special treat, toast pita bread (white or whole wheat) under the broiler, cover with sliced tomatoes, broil again, and then top with cheddar cheese sprinkled with chopped basil. Broil until the cheese melts. It's messy to eat, but good, and full of solar symbolism -- round bread, golden cheese, and red wheels of tomato make up your own suns on earth.

For drinks serve cranberry or orange juice or eggnog. Cranberry juice is good served hot, especially with clove and cinnamon added. For a simple mulled wine, add cloves and cinnamon sticks to commercially prepared sangria. Heat over low heat (do not boil) and serve. There will be more spice flavor if the spices are soaked in the wine overnight in the refrigerator before heating. For decoration and a little extra flavor, you can add an orange or lemon studded with cloves.

When the tree is set up in its stand and the decorations are ready to hang, gather around the tree with a bowl of water and an asperser made of evergreen branches. An adult says:

The Spirit of Growth is here in our house,
here in the midst of winter,
to tell us to wait with hope and with longing
for the Sun's return
and green's rebirth.

Then sprinkle the tree and each other, and decorate. You may turn on the lights momentarily to test them, but do not leave them on longer than necessary until after the night ritual.

The ritual extinguishing and relighting of fires is found in many traditions. The day on which it is done varies, but Yule is popular. Although we no longer have a central hearth with a continually burning fire many of us do have appliances with continually burning pilot lights that, though they lack romance, certainly serve the same function. These may be turned off early in the day (remember to turn off the gas as well!) and relit during the ritual. It will get cold. Real gung-ho Pagans can try going without heat, hot water, or cooked food for the day.

Decorations: Candles, lights of all kinds, evergreens, roosters, suns, holly and ivy, mistletoe (the plant so Pagan it was banned from churches). Luminaria (paper bags, filled partway with sand, that have a lit candle in the sand. The candle shines through with a golden brown glow, perfect for Yule.)

Food and drink: Anything round, golden, or hot. Shortbread, fruitcake, eggnog, mulled wine, cranberry juice, orange juice, corn bread baked in a round pan, oranges, gingerbread, chicken, suet pudding. The last is what is more commonly called "plum pudding," even though it has no plums in it. It is often served with brandy poured on it and lit, making it a burning wheel and thus a perfect symbol of Yule (although not originally Pagan.) Here is my family's recipe:

3 cups flour
1 cup ground suet
1 cup raisins or currants
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 cup molasses
1 cup milk

Mix everything together and put in a greased round pan. Fill only half full. Cover tightly with foil and put on a rack in a large pot. Fill with water to halfway up the pan. Steam for three hours, adding water when necessary. When cool, remove from the pan, wrap in foil, and put in the refrigerator or freezer. This has to be made at least a month in advance to allow the flavors to mellow. (Trust me; it tastes lousy if you don't do this.)

To reheat, steam again. It may also be steamed sliced, with the slices wrapped in foil. Slices can be individually heated in a microwave. Serve with flaming brandy or hard sauce (butter with enough confectioners sugar to make it stiff. Vanilla extract or brandy may also be added.)

Traditions to raid: St. Lucy's Day (Dec. 13) (Swedish), Hanukkah (date variable) (Jewish), Saturnalia (Dec. 17-24) (Roman), Kwanzaa (Dec 26-Jan 1) (Black American), Advent, and of course Christmas.

After decorating the tree, but before lighting it (except for a quick check of the lights), eat your evening meal. Use your best dishes and have appropriate foods. These could be the foods listed above or culturally traditional Midwinter and festival foods.

After your meal, clear the table. Wash and dry the dishes and put them away. Then take every candle you own and put it in some kind of holder. Use saucers and bowls if you run out of candlesticks. Melt some wax onto the dish and stick the candle in it before the wax hardens. You might want to do this earlier in the day as it can take some time. Put all these candles on the table, with your Sun candle in the middle. Turn off every light in the house. When everyone is seated and the house is dark, an adult says:

For half the year, day by day,
slowly the world has grown darker.
For half the year, night by night,
slowly the dark has grown longer.
Tonight that ends and the wheel turns.
Our land turns back to the light.

Light the sun candle, and continue:

The darkness was never complete
A spark was always waiting,
to return and turn again.
And now it will grow greater and greater.
The light will come back.
The cold will go away.
And once more we will dance in the warmth
until the wheel turns again.
It has always been this way,
The wheel turning from darkness to light and back again
and our people have always known this and have turned with it.

All: The wheel is turning and light's returning.

An adult starts a litany. The response to each line is:

Light is reborn.

With each answer another candle is lit, until they are all burning. The lines of the litany can go like this:

In the greatest darkness
Out of Winter's cold
From our deepest fears
When we most despair
When all seems lost
When the earth lies waste
When animals hide
From fallen leaves
When the river is frozen
When the ground is hard
From the midst of the wasteland
When hope is gone
Out from the hard times

Continue in this way until half the candles are lit. Then change the emphasis of the litany like this:

Shadows are fleeing
Light is returning
Warmth will come again
Summer will be here once more
Plants will grow again
Animals will be seen once more
Life will continue
Green will come again
Death will not be forever

Continue until all the candles are lit. When they are, take a deep breath, bask in the candlelight for just a second, and then run through the house (carry small children) and turn on every light you have. Running is important to add a touch of festivity and abandon. Don't forget closets, attics, stoves, and even flashlights. If you have lights for decorations on a Yule tree or outside, turn them on as well. You will find that children are quite good at finding lights you have forgotten.

When all the lights are on, return to the table. Sit in the glow for a while, eating, drinking, and talking. This is one of my favorite moments of the year; I can feel the light throbbing through the walls. For a family in which turning off unneeded lights is an obsession, this is a special moment indeed. The feeling stays with me for days.

Bring out the cookies and eggnog and have some fun. Then slowly go through the house again, turning the lights back off. Blow out the candles. Leave the Sun candle burning until you have to go to bed. Light it first thing in the morning and leave it burning all day if you can. Burn it each day as long as the tree is up.

You may wish instead to celebrate at dawn. If you have adopted the Christian custom of presents under the tree, there is a good chance your children will be getting up at dawn anyway. Light the candles and house lights as soon as you see the sun (alternatively, you can start at false dawn, the period of growing light before the sun actually rises.) Because you will be present at the actual rebirth of the sun, dispense with the words for the lighting, or limit them to a simple:

The Sun is back
He is born again.

Then, with the lights still burning, you can open presents and eat breakfast.

It was (and I hope still is) traditional in some parts of England to bless the fruit trees at this time of year. People would make a bowl of wassail (a spiced ale drink), drink some, and sprinkle the trees with some, crying out, "Waes-hail!" ("Be whole!") This was accompanied by loud noises, including the firing of guns.

To make wassail, heat (but do not boil) ale with ginger added. Use about 1/2" of fresh ginger to each bottle of ale. When it is warm enough and the ale has picked up enough ginger flavor, sweeten to taste. While the ale is heating, core one apple for each bottle of ale and bake at 350 until soft. Add them to the ale when it is ready. Although children won't be able to drink the wassail, they can certainly shout, sprinkle, and make loud noises.


February 2nd has many names. Its Gaelic names are "Imbolc" (the "b" is silent) and Oimelc. The medieval Irish glossaries give the meaning as "ewe's milk." Modern scholars are not so sure, but propose "Imbolc" to be related to a word for bag, full belly, or womb. In English it is called "Candlemas" (a Christian name). An Anglo-Celtic name is "Brighid's Day." And to many Neo-Pagans it is "Lady's Day" (although some use that for Beltane or Ostara.)

These many names show some of the meanings of the day. It is basically a precursor to spring. (In the gentle climate of Ireland, warmed by the Gulf Stream, it is considered the first day of spring.) Lambs are born; ewes lactate; candles are blessed; Brighid, Lady of Fire, returns; and the groundhog pokes his head out. In the climate of northern America, winter is half over, and households should therefore be no more than halfway through their winter stores of food and fuel.

The Gaelic sagas are silent about Imbolc's significance (it is not even mentioned in non-Gaelic Celtic traditions), but it is a day for which it is easy to find folk traditions. In America it is mostly known as "Groundhog's Day." The original idea was that if it was fair on Imbolc then winter would continue, but if it was foul, then winter was over. In Ireland the decision was made by the hedgehog, an animal with many a role in folklore, but in America his place had to be taken by the groundhog. The traditions surrounding Brighid's Day in Ireland are extensive. (See below.)

From the Roman Lupercalia and the Christian Candlemas comes a theme of purification. The former took place on Feb. 15 when a goat was sacrificed outside the city and two men, dressed only in a thong made from its hide, ran through Rome. They struck people as they went with thongs from the goatskin. It was especially fortunate for women to be struck. The Romans themselves didn't know the meaning of this ritual, but thought it had to do with fertility and purification in anticipation of the spring sowing. "Februa" appears to have a meaning connected with purification.

Candlemas, on the other hand, is a purely Christian feast. Hebrew religion required the ritual purification of women on a certain day after childbirth (a custom which survived into recent times as the churching of women). With the birth of Christ set on Dec. 25, the time for Mary's purification fell on Feb. 2. The candle connection came from the words of Simeon in Luke 2:32, that Jesus would be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles," not from a Pagan source.

Some Wiccan traditions have declared Imbolc to be the purification ("revirginization," if you will) of the Goddess after the birth of the Sun God. This is great poetry and fine myth, but it must be remembered that it is a modern interpretation inspired by Christian practice rather than an ancient Pagan belief.

No matter the source, the purification theme is best suited to a Mediterranean climate, as a preparation for sowing. Pagans living in such a climate might wish to emphasize that theme. Those who live in a temperate climate would wish to emphasize the midpoint of winter.

Food: Dairy products, sprouts, fruitcakes (maybe you can finally finish that last bit of Yule fruitcake), lamb.

Traditions to raid: Candlemas (Feb. 2) (Christian), Lupercalia (Feb 15) (Roman), Valentine's Day (Feb. 14).

Up in New England we have something called "January Thaw." It's a period of a week or two when the temperature rises and some of the snow melts. When I was in high school my yard's snow was always the last on the street to melt in the spring. We would take advantage of January Thaw to shovel some of the snow onto the snow-warmed driveway and sidewalk, where it would melt, leaving that much less for the spring.

One peculiar thing about January Thaw is that it frequently comes the first week of February. If your area has a similar weather event, consider celebrating Imbolc then, even if it actually comes in January.

Ritual of Melting:

Prepare a collection of small bells (jingle bells will do fine), one set for each person. Go outside with them, a small candle, (such as a birthday candle), matches, and an empty bowl. Draw a symbol of spring in the snow. This could be fire, a sun, a flower, running water, or anything else that means spring to you. Your children can help decide. They can each draw one of their own in a circle if you wish. Ring the bells to symbolize the melting of ice and snow, and say:

The snow will melt and Spring will come again.

Put the candle in the middle of the symbol, light it, and say:

Here in the snow a spark of Spring is growing.

Fill the bowl with snow and bring it inside, ringing the bells as you go. Leave the candle to burn out. Place the bowl on the table and have your holiday meal. At the end, an adult holds up the now-melted snow (it's OK to cheat a little and put it somewhere extra warm) and says:

The snow may lie deep

Everyone says:

but the melting time will come.

The adult says:

The water may stand still in hard ice

Everyone says:

but the time will come for it to flow.

While the bells are again rung, the adult then pours the water into another bowl, saying:

See, it's true:
Winter won't last forever!
The sun is indeed growing strong and bringing back the warmth.
The snow will melt and the earth grow green again.

The water may then be used to bless the family members or to water a plant.

Brighid's Day
Under the name of "Brighid's Day" Imbolc is a living festival in Ireland. The Irish of course have a strong history of blending the Old Ways with Catholicism, and in their Brighid's Days they have most likely preserved many customs from Pagan days.

The Irish Goddess Brighid (or Brigid, Bride, or Brigit, traditionally pronounced "Breed", but now often pronounced like the name "Bridget"), who became the Catholic Saint Bridget, is a multifaceted (or multiple) Goddess of poetry, smithing, healing, fire and Spring. Her name means "The High or Exalted One," and from this and from her functions it is obvious that she is a very great Goddess. Her fire associations most likely came from the forge of the smith, the inspiration of the poet, and the life heat of the healer. (Then again, it may have been the other way around, and she may have been a fire Goddess first.) In the folk tradition, from which this ritual comes, she has worn down some (as deities tend to do), and now her fire burns on the hearth of Irish homes, where she serves as the home guardian. She is thus a partial equivalent of Hestia or Vesta; she watches over all energy in a house and protects the house from danger, especially from fire.

Brighid is the patroness of all who work with cows, and all who deal in dairy products. She travels the world with her red-eared white cow, and is especially likely to come to visit on her day.

Offerings are left out for Brighid and her cow, which are taken by the poor in her name. This is therefore a traditional day for giving charity, especially food, and especially to the homeless.

If you celebrate this ritual, you will have called Brighid as your Hearth Guardian. If you have an affinity with a different Hearth Guardian, use her name and symbol in the ritual or perform a different ritual.

For the ritual will need a Brighid's cross. This takes different forms in different parts of Ireland. The most common and simplest of these is essentially a God's eye made of two sticks and straw. The best-known, however (in this country at least), is an off-center cross.

The legends of St. Bridget say she wove the first one while explaining Christianity to her father, but it is possible it is pre-Christian. It is usually interpreted as a fire-wheel, which certainly describes its off-center version, but this description doesn't fit the other forms it comes in.

Brighid's crosses may be bought in Irish craft stores. Even brass ones can be bought, one of which decorates our front door. It is customary to burn last year's, but the same one can be used year after year. It you can't find one, don't worry; making them is one of the traditional events of the day.

They may be made from reeds, straw, or construction paper. If you are using dry reeds or straw, soak the materials overnight to soften them. Some reeds will not soften much, so you may want to experiment by yourself before trying this with children. The pieces may be of any convenient length. The cross you will end up with will be slightly larger than the length of one piece.

To start, bend two pieces in their middles to form loops. (This will be done with each piece as you make the cross.) Link them together as shown in figure 5a. Turn the pieces so they lie flat and form a right angle as in 5b. This is the only time in the construction when the pieces will be hooked through each other like this. This two-piece construction is the base.

Next bend another piece and loop it over one of the two base pieces as shown in 5c. Both legs of the loop in the new piece pass over both legs of the base piece. Pull it tight and hold it in place. Bend another piece and loop it over the two legs of the last piece you put on (5d.) Continue to do so as in 5e until the cross is the size you want. Tie the ends together with string, reed, or straw (tape construction paper) and trim.

In old Ireland there was one hearth, over which the cross was hung. When more than one was made, they were hung other places as well. The hearth was the source of the household's warmth, cooking, light, and hot water. Modern houses have several different devices to do these things. Rather than have several crosses, one for each, the cross is hung over the stove and the others (furnace and water heater) make do with crosses drawn on them with charcoal. Indeed, in some parts of Ireland Brighid's crosses were drawn on people and walls with charcoal as a mark of protection. You may wish to do this as well. If you have several children and they each make one, you will have to hang all the crosses up, either together or one at each "hearth."

The crosses are said to protect the house from lightning, fire, and storm, and family members from illness.

Brighid's Day Ritual:

Set the table with your best dishes. Prepare the food for the meal, but do not cook it yet.

Among the food include a loaf of bread in the shape of a Brighid's cross. Use bread recipe for this. After the last rising, divide the dough in fourths. Shape each piece into a long roll and fold in half. Hook the pieces together to make a simple Brighid's cross and squeeze the tips together. You can bake it the day before or later in the ritual with the rest of the food.

When everything is ready, a woman or girl from the family goes outside with the cross and a lit candle. Alternatively, use a small oil lamp which you can keep next to the stove the rest of the year. She knocks on the door and says:

Brighid is here, to bless this house.
Open the door, and let her enter.

She does this three times. After the third time, those inside open the door and say:

Brighid, Brighid,
Come in, come in:
Welcome to our house.
A thousand times welcome.

Brighid comes in and holds up the candle and cross. The others say:

Lady of Fire, Burn in our hearts.
Bring the Spring.

She then passes the cross over the flame, saying:

May the blessing of Brighid be on this cross
and on the place where it hangs
and on all who see it
through all the year.

If the weather is too cold, instead of having a person outside, just put the cross outside, near the door. Put the lit candle or lamp next to it. Try to do this without being caught by any of your children. When everyone is ready, welcome Brighid and open the door. Bring in the cross and candle and continue with the ritual as written. This may also be done if there is no woman or girl to be Brighid.

One person takes the candle and another the cross and everyone goes to every room in the house. A child can carry the cross. If you have more than one child, they can take turns, changing when you go from one room to another. In each room the cross and candle are held up while someone or everyone says:

Brighid, Lady of Fire,
Watch over this room.

Mark Brighid's crosses with charcoal on your water heater, furnace, and fireplaces or woodstoves as you come to them.

You may wish to bring incense with you as well. Pine is an appropriate incense for Brighid, as it burns fast and hot. The needles of your Yule tree, if you use a cut one, are perfect.

Go to your kitchen last. If you have a gas stove, blow out the pilot light. Relight it with flame from the candle (using something as an intermediary) while saying:

It is Brighid's fire that cooks our food.

(If you relit your pilot light at Yule, do not do so now.)Then hang the cross over the stove, saying:

Brighid, Queen of the Hearth,
Keep us safe,
Keep us warm,
Extend your blessing over this our home.

After the cross is hung turn on the oven to start cooking your food. Put the lit candle on the table until after the meal is over. While waiting for the food to cook, spend the time doing something as a family.

After dinner the candle is put out by the one who was Brighid at the door (or by the mother or father if you didn't have someone at the door.) She says:

Brighid will shine in our house through the whole year.

Everyone says:

Blessings to our Lady Brighid.

Each time you cook or bake, as you turn the oven on say:

I cook with Brighid's fire.

This is a good reinforcement of her function as hearth guardian. If you use an oil lamp instead of a candle for the ritual, light it when you cook, especially on religious holidays.


Imbolc brings the promise of new warmth and light. But it isn't until Ostara that the light is equal to the darkness. For Ostara is the spring equinox -- the "equal night." After Ostara, there can be no doubt. The tide has definitely turned. The light half of the year has begun."

Ostara" is one of a number of similar names that are used for this day. "Eoster" and "Eostre" are also popular, and, especially among Norse Pagans, "Easter." It is ironic that the English word for the holiest day in the Christian year should have a Pagan origin. Bede relates it to Eostre, the Germanic spring Goddess. There is some doubt that a such a Goddess actually existed. However, it definitely comes from the Indo-European "*Ausro," from the root "*aus-", meaning "to rise." Johann Knobloch has theorized that the Germanic word therefore originally meant "dawn" (Robbins, 1978, p. 202). Ostara is the dawn of the year, then.

The choice among the different names is up to you. "Easter", while defensible, is confusing. "Ostara" is Old High German, but it fits Modern English better than the Old English "Eoster" and is probably the best choice. Some Pagans call it "Lady Day." This is one of the names of the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), and is probably of Christian origin.

One point that must be made here is that "Easter" is not related to "Ishtar" or "Astarte." The names of these Goddesses are Semitic, not Indo-European. It is true, however, that their myths and rituals are sympathetic to Ostara, and may be incorporated into its celebration (subject to the removal of harvest associations).

Although its name is Germanic, we don't now if the Pagan Germans actually celebrated the spring equinox. It may have been celebrated in northern Europe in Neolithic times, but in the recorded period its first introduction there is by the Romans. The Celts didn't celebrate the equinoxes at all, so the next infusion into the north was by the Christians.

In southern Europe and the Ancient Near East things were different. Among many of the peoples there (the Romans and Babylonians, for instance) Ostara was New Year's. The Romans even originally had a gap between the end of December and the equinox which wasn't on the calendar (hence the names of October -- December, the 8th-10th months of the year.) When the equinox came around, the agricultural year started again.

As mentioned earlier, in the Ancient Near East the spring equinox was the time of the barley harvest. If you wish to include customs from that area in your Ostara celebration, then, be careful to distinguish which customs are appropriate to the equinox and which are appropriate to harvest.

Since the Celts didn't celebrate Ostara, there is some overlap between it and the Celtic festivals. Ostara can be seen as either the culmination of Imbolc or a precursor to Beltane; alternatively the main emphasis can be on the solar or astrological significance of the day.

The Jewish holiday of Passover occurs about this time. While it has fewer Pagan elements than Easter, it owes its origins in part to the spring festivals of the Ancient Near East. (I am not referring to the possibly historical Exodus but to the way in which this event is celebrated.)

Because of the difference of seasons, though, Passover is not a good source of customs for Pagans. It originated at the beginning of the main grain harvest, when the winter rains gave way to summer showers. As celebrated today, Passover has few accretions from European Paganism. In fact, with its emphasis on the stories of the Jewish people and the place set for Elijah, it reminds me most of Samhain.

The secular customs that surround Easter are not exactly Christian, but they may not be specifically Pagan either. Eggs are obvious symbols of new life, and the flamboyant mating of rabbits and hares at this time ("mad as a March hare") make them equally appropriate. They are certainly found in many Pagan cultures. In fact, most secular Easter customs can be adopted wholeheartedly by Neo-Pagans. Some have been invented by Christians, but as natural reactions to the seasons rather than as developments of the Christian message.

So colored eggs, baskets, jelly beans, candy rabbits, and flowers -- use them all. Chocolate bunnies may not be of Pagan origin, but who cares? They are festive and many people certainly view chocolate with religious fervor.

If you have a garden, this is a good day to plant it if you live in an area where the threat of frost is past. If you live in a cold climate, start planting it in peat pots on this day, to be planted outside on May Day. When you plant your garden, leave part of it (or at least part of your yard) for the Spirits of the Wild. Give them offerings each year before planting. If you do not have a good relationship with the wild you have no business planting a garden.

If you don't think you have space for a garden, remember that a garden can be tomato plants on a balcony, peas on a sun porch, or herbs growing in a sunny window. It is important for Pagans to be involved in the production of at least part of their own food. It's an easy way to be involved in the life and death cycle. If you must do this because you have no yard, you should still find a nearby patch of wild and cultivate a relationship with it.

Go fly a kite. It is March, after all, the month of wind. Make it a bright yellow one, with ribbons hanging from it, or one in the shape of a solar hawk or eagle.

Decorations: Suns, wind socks, leaves, new flowers (especially yellow (sun colored) ones such as daffodils or forsythias), pussy willows. The foliage can be used to bless, either by using them as aspergers or simply by passing them over family members. Anything yellow or green, especially spring green. Rabbits, eggs -- all the secular Easter symbols are fine.

Food: Solar foods -- chicken, red, yellow, and orange side dishes. Quiche is also good, being round, golden, and made of eggs. To relieve the monotony, include a salad with strong green colors and sprouts in it. Eggs.

Traditions to raid: St. Patrick's Day (March 17), Easter, Spring Cleaning, April Fool's Day.

Use your best dishes. Put the Sun candle in the center of the table, with early spring flowers around it if any are up yet.

In the first ritual, Ostara is a precursor of Beltane. Warmth is predicted and invoked, and the beginning of spring is acknowledged. The second ritual sees the fulfillment of Imbolc. Winter is over, and snow and ice are melting. Both rituals work with the solar symbolism that is the hallmark of the day.

Ritual 1:

Prepare an outdoor fire, either a bonfire or in a barbecue. Gather around it in daylight with noisemakers. These can be drums (put right on the ground, even if frame drums), rattles, horns, and any of the little noisemakers sold for parties. The father has the Sun candle and matches. He holds them up and says:

We are here to wake up the spring.

He then lights the candle and holds it up to the sun. Then, from it, he lights the fire (using intermediary tapers or matches), saying:

Here in front of us the fire leaps up,
reaching from us up to the sky
up to where the sun is shining,
the sun in the sky that is looking down
looking down here where our fire is burning.
Fire of the Sun,
Burn in our midst.
Fire of the Sun,
Burn in our midst.
Fire of the Spring,
Burn in our midst.
Warm us and the world as the season turns to spring.

Everyone joins in with "Burn in our midst."

Then everyone makes noise, using their noisemakers and pounding on the ground or drums. While they do this, they repeat:

Wake up, Earth.

Continue the noisemaking until you want to stop. If it is warm enough, you can stay outside around the fire. If not, go inside for a meal.

Ritual 2:

During the day, boil thirteen eggs as a family. If there are a large number of people in your family, boil twenty-five. Dye all but one of them Sun colors (red, yellow, and orange). This can be done the previous day if time is a problem. Leave one white. At dinner, put them in a bowl next to the sun candle in the middle of your table. Put the white egg on the top of the pile. What you will have is a bowl of one or two suns for each month of the year, plus one winter egg.

After sacred time is established, an adult picks up the white egg and bangs it on the table to crack it, and removes the shell, saying:

The ice cracks

He removes the white, saying:

The snow melts

He holds up the yolk, saying:

The Sun is coming back.
And now that he is armed
and now that he is strong
He will chase away the cold,
he will bring us spring
and summer is sure to follow.

Pass around the pieces of the egg for everyone to share before starting the rest of the meal. Eat the colored eggs with the meal. If desired, one can be reserved for an offering.

An Easter tradition practiced in many places that is good here (especially if your version of the Wheel of the Year puts the beginning of the battle between winter and spring at the spring equinox) is egg fights. Each person chooses an egg. Two people then face the small ends of their eggs towards each other. One of them hits the other's egg with his own. When one person's cracks, he turns his around and has another chance with the other side. When both ends of an egg are cracked, that person is out. The game continues until one egg is triumphant.

Another game that is fun to play is balancing eggs. There is a belief that the only day that a hard-boiled egg can be balanced on end is the equinox. (Not true, unfortunately; it can be done any time, although it is always hard.) The idea would seem to be that on the day of balance between night and day other things can be balanced too. Since you'll have a whole bowl of them in front of you it would be hard to keep from giving it a try.

Save the colored shells until May Day.

May Day

May Day, called "Beltane" ("Bright Fire?") by the Gaels, is the great day of celebration in Europe, celebrated from Ireland to Russia. Finally the weather is warm. Winter is officially over. In Ireland, it was the day that the cattle were sent to their summer pastures.

Beltane is halfway around the year from Samhain, and they are similar in many ways. Both are days when the veil is thin between the worlds, both are bonfire days, both begin halves of the year. In Welsh legend Beltane is the day for supernatural happenings, as Samhain is in Ireland.

In Scotland Beltane once lasted for eight days, with the first and the last especially important. This makes it one more day than Samhain, perhaps to make the time celebrating life longer than that celebrating death.

Since Beltane got its name from its bonfires (the name might also mean "Bel's Fire," Bel apparently being a solar God. His name survives in latinized forms such as Belenus, and is similar but completely unrelated to the Semitic God Baal), it is a perfect day for one. In the ritual it has been replaced with a barbecue, but if you can have a bonfire, do so. In Celtic times, cattle were driven between two bonfires on Beltane to protect them before they were sent out to pasture. People would jump over the fires, both as a blessing and for sheer fun or sport. (If you do this, please be careful. Don't wear loose fitting clothes, and don't push yourself to see who can jump the farthest or over the highest flames. It isn't a contest.) For a couple to jump over a Beltane fire together is as good as an announce ment of betrothal. (Perhaps arranged while a-Maying in the woods the night before?)

This is a day that deserves our full celebration. Take the day off, take the kids out of school, and go on a picnic. Play outdoor games: throw around a ball, have a game of tag, run races, play croquet. Archery is particularly associated with this day, being found in both England (where of course it was connected with Robin Hood) and Germany. All target games are good.

May Day as we know it is a combination of the Celtic Beltane, with its bonfires and rowan, and the Roman Floralia, with its May Queen and flowers. The Floralia elements have come to predominate, as shown by what Leach (pp. 695-6) lists as elements of a typical European May Day celebration:

1. Gathering of green branches and flowers on May Eve or very early May Day morning.

2. Choosing and crowning a May Queen (often also a king) who goes singing from door to door carrying flowers or a May Tree, soliciting donations in return for the "blessing of the May." She was seen by the English as representing the Roman Goddess Flora.

3. Erection and decoration of a May tree, bush, or pole.

Pick a tree or bush in your yard and hang it with ribbons, flowers, and the eggshells saved from Ostara. This is the May Bush, around which May rituals are frequently performed. Maypoles are better suited for gatherings larger than a family. If you like, you can see the May Bush as the family version of Maypole. It is customary to dance around it, just as the Maypole is danced around.

Large indoor plants such as ficus trees can be used as Maybushes. Ribbons can also decorate decks, balconies, or windows. Our garden each summer is decorated with ribbons in the colors of the elements. We buy new ribbons each year, and the old ones are added to the supply for next spring's May Day.

Leave cloths out on the eve to soak up the dew. This dew can then used for a variety of purposes. Washing with it is said to make the skin beautiful, and it is a good basis for herbal brews.

Oddly enough, there is a Roman holiday that is even more similar to Beltane than Floralia is. On April 21st, the Romans celebrated Parilia. For this shepherd's festival, the animals' stalls were swept, and decorated with foliage. Offerings of cakes, milk, and meat were offered to Pales, a pastoral deity (the Romans did not know whether Pales was a God or a Goddess). The flocks were then driven through fires and blessed with the smoke, after which the people washed their hands in dew, drank milk and wine, and jumped three times over the fires to the east.

The intent of Parilia was to increase the fertility and milk production of the herds. What make this festival particularly interesting is the date. Since the climate in Rome is milder than in the British Isles, it is only to be expected that the Romans would celebrate the same festival earlier than the Celts. And here it is -- flocks driven through bonfires and people purified in dew. This is a clear example of a widespread celebration of this season.

If your children are older, and especially if there are other Pagans in the area, they should either get up very early or stay up very late to gather greens to decorate each others' doors. The rowan is the traditional source of decorations, although any greenery and flowers will do. The deed should be done in time to be discovered by the sun.

The eve of May Day is Winter's last hurrah. One last night of rule, and then he dies. Six months ago the figure of Winter was made and feted; now do it once more. Drink toasts to him and offer to him.

Decorations: Flowers, ribbons, rowan branches, branches with new leaves or buds, wreaths of flowers. Decorate your shrine with flowers.

Food and drink: May wine (sweet wine flavored with woodruff; it can be bought already prepared), especially with strawberry halves in the glasses, green food (especially fresh mint), violets (both the flowers and the leaves can be eaten, and the flowers look interesting in a salad.)

Traditions to raid: Parilia (Apr. 21), Floralia (Apr 28-May 3) (Roman).

Ritual 1:

May Day, the great day of picnics, is a perfect day for a barbecue. Prepare the grill. If this is you first barbecue of the season, remove all the ashes from last year and start a new season. Be sure to use lots of lighter fluid. You want it to blaze up. Practice conservation some other time; May Day is all about excess. The parts of the father may be performed instead by the oldest male present (provided he has come of age).

The parts assigned to the May Queen may be performed by any of the women present. Which one does so is chosen by lot. Use marbles in a box, one of a different color, or roll dice or draw cards. (The first May Day after a woman comes of age, she is automatically entitled to preside.) The woman chosen is the May Queen and should be crowned with a wreath of flowers or leaves before the ritual.

Put matches, lighter fluid, the figure of Winter, a pot (either a cauldron that you use in coven or personal rituals, or one you use for cooking), and a bucket or pot of water (for fire safety) next to the barbecue. When everything is ready, gather about the barbecue. The May Queen says:

The fire of spring has been burning.
The Wheel of the Year has been turning.
The fire and the wheel have brought us here to May Day,
beginning of summer.
It's time now to light the fire of summer,
to burn away all that remains of winter.

Then the father lights the barbecue. (Give it one more squirt of lighter fluid first.) When the flames have died down some, the May Queen take the figure of Winter and lights it in them. She puts it into the pot or cauldron to finish burning. If your backyard is private enough or the neighbors sufficiently understanding, do the burning (or perhaps the whole ritual) in the garden itself. While Winter burns, say:

Winter is gone and summer is here.
Winter is dead and summer is alive.
Winter is ashes in summer's green earth.

Fan the smoke so it blows on each person present as a blessing. When Winter is all burnt, scatter the ashes in the garden. Dig a deep hole earlier in the day to put the remains in, in case Winter doesn't burn completely. (If you have made him out of dead grass this is more likely than if he is made of garden plants.) If you don't have a garden the ashes can be scattered in a local wild spot or a friend's garden. As you bury or scatter them say:

From the ashes of winter
Summer springs up:
Green and bright and shining and warm.

Throughout the year save nail clippings and hair trimmings (including stubble cleaned from electric razors) in a bag. After scattering the ashes, scatter the hair and nails and work into the soil, saying:

From the Earth to us
From us to the Earth
The wheel is always turning.

Then barbecue. Spare ribs are particularly good; the sacred pig, bright red, spicy (hot), and messy--the perfect food for a celebration.

The day after May Day transplant your peat pots and prepare the rest of the garden.

Ritual 2:

This is adopted from a Scottish Beltane ritual recorded in 1769 by Thomas Pennant. It may be interwoven with the first ritual, or done on its own. It is appropriate for people with nowhere to plant a garden.

Bake a round loaf of bread. Make it of the main grain eaten in your area, or, if you live in an agricultural region, the main grain grown there. Go to a wild spot as close to your house as you can find with the loaf. Break off pieces of it (this can be done in turn by family members) and cast them into the wild spot. With each casting, say something like:

Take this offering, mice, and spare the crop.
Take this offering, disease, and spare the grain.
Take this offering, wolves, and spare the sheep.

With the last piece, say:

Take this offering, all that would harm us,
and spare us and ours, our household all,
for the summer that lies ahead.

Then back to the house (or even out to a restaurant) for a good fancy meal.


Midsummers, the summer solstice, is the high point of the sun. At no other time will it rise so far in the north or be so high at noon. What started at Yule reaches its completion. The European traditions universally used bonfires and commonly water as well in their Midsummer celebrations. Wheels covered in straw were lit on fire and then rolled down hills to land in a pond, or were thrown straight-away into water. Bonfires were lit on hilltops. St. John's day (June 23) is celebrated with bonfires in many places to this day, especially in Ireland.

Maybe it's the direct opposition of fire and water that makes them attractive for a day such as this. Although it is the day on which the sun is the strongest, it is also the day on which it starts to weaken. Then again, perhaps the purpose is not so much to celebrate the sun's height as to mitigate its heat. The intent may well be to prevent drought during a crucial growing season by subordinating the sun wheel to water.

Midsummers calls for a bonfire if possible. If not, the barbecue can substitute. A good time for the barbecue ritual is noon, the high point of the sun, but a bonfire should be lit at sunset so it will show up better in the dark.

To include water in your celebrations while having fun with children, try water sports. These can be swimming, running through sprinklers, or water fights. It's hard to beat the fun and symbolism of sun-colored water balloons. This is a good day to establish a tradition of going to the beach.

The first two rituals use an asperger. One way to make this is to tie a bunch of St. John's wort (so called because it blooms about this day; June 23rd is St. John's Day in the Catholic calendar) together with a gold ribbon. After the ritual, hang the asperger in your home. This herb is said to protect the house from lightning. If St. John's wort does not bloom around this day in your area, use instead a flower that does, preferably a red or yellow one, or daisies ("day's eyes").

Food: Summery food, food that is red or yellow, picnic food. Strawberries, watermelon, barbecued anything (but especially chicken and pork). Spicy food (Mexican food, with its golden corn and red tomatoes, is good.)

Decorations: Floating candles on a pool, a bird bath, or even in a basin. Suns.

Traditions to raid: John the Baptist's Day (June 23), July Fourth, Holi (Hindu Spring festival).

Ritual 1:

Once again the barbecue serves as a substitute bonfire. Pour the charcoal and soak it with lighter fluid. Put the grate on and on top of it a pot of water (you can use the same pot you used for May Day, but be careful of plastic handles. They can melt). Nearby put the lighter fluid, the matches, and an asperger.

When everything is ready and everybody around the barbecue, establish sacred time. Then the father (or the oldest adult male present) says:

Today the wheel has come to a special point.
Since Yule the light has been growing.
At Ostara the light became greater than the dark
and it kept on growing.
It has grown until today: Midsummers, the middle of the light time.
Tomorrow the light will start to fade as the wheel turns to darkness
until it is Yule again.
But today it is bright
Today the sun is high
Today the world is warm and bright
and we celebrate this with fire.
The Lord Sun blazes above
Our fire blazes below.

He lights the fire (with one more squirt of lighter fluid first). When the flames have died down a bit, everyone can take an asperger, dip it in the water, and sprinkle everyone else with it. Then take the pot off and, after it cools, water your garden or a tree with it. While waiting for the coals to be ready, a water fight would be a good idea. Then barbecue.

Ritual 2:

This one is written to be performed on a beach. If you are lucky enough to live near the ocean that would be perfect. If not, a lake or pond is fine. It can be (and has been) performed quite satisfactorily inside with a bowl of water. Start it at noon.

You will need a bucket or basin (a sand pail works fine), a candle, something to sprinkle water with, and matches. Go down to the water and fill the bucket. Bring it back up the beach. Somewhere in between the high and low tide marks is best. That is the in-between area, neither land nor water, and thus sacred. Light the candle and hold it up and say:

The sun is high on the longest day.

Lower it to the surface of the water and say:
Starting today it starts to get darker
as the sun goes into the water.

Submerge the candle and say:

The sun goes into the water,
blesses it,
and fertilizes it.

Use the water to sprinkle to the four quarters, saying:

The waters of life flow to all directions of the Earth

Sprinkle each other, saying:

and they bless all who live on it.

Follow the ritual with a water fight, swimming, a picnic, and other beach activities. If you do it at home, play throwing games, with balls and throwing disks, or water games (squirt guns, sprinklers, and water balloons.)

Ritual 3:
If you are fortunate enough to have a home where you can have a bonfire, that is the best way to celebrate Midsummers. Make it big and of very dry wood. Use lots of tinder and don't rule out aids such as lighter fluid. Use a torch to light it. Your pile should light quickly and impressively. Remember to have water or a fire extinguisher nearby in case the fire gets out of hand.

Use the same fire lighting ritual as Ritual 1. As the flames start to rise up, the father says:

The Sun high in the sky
The Sun here on earth.

The others can repeat this, perhaps to drumming or other instruments. Sing, dance, tell stories, toast marshmallows. It can be jumped over, like the Mayday fire (with the same caution). Small children can be carried over when it has died down very low.

The Midsummers fire is the perfect way to destroy broken or worn religious objects. These must be disposed of in a respectful way, and although some might be buried or cast into the sea, burning is best for those that can be burnt. Don't leave the fire before it is all out and the ashes cold. The ashes can be used in blessings. Put them on your garden and on your threshold, or draw protective symbols (see appendix) with them on your house and each other.


Lammas begins the harvest season. It is the feast of first fruits, the first of the three harvest festivals. Grain is ripening, and the first apples are ready. Although the traditional date is August 1st, if you farm and have a major crop, celebrate Lammas (under the name "Feast of First Fruits") when that crop becomes ripe and then again on the traditional date in honor of the grain. If your major crop is grain, celebrate it once when the grain starts to be ready to harvest.

Lammas derives its name from the Old English "Hlafmas", or "Loaf-mass." The name says it all. It is the feast of bread. On this day in early Christian times (and the name is apparently Christian, although the traditions it reflects are probably Pagan) loaves made from the first grain were blessed in the church. In Pagan times, they were almost certainly used in some ritual. Perhaps they were blessed and shared. Perhaps they were given as offerings to the Gods. First fruit offerings are nearly universal -- the first of anything belongs to the Gods.

In Ireland it was considered "just not done" to harvest grain any earlier than this; it was a sign that the previous year's harvest had not lasted long enough. This was a serious failing, either on the part of the farmer for not growing enough or on the part of his wife for not conserving the store. But the first grain was cut this morning and made into bread or porridge by evening.

The Gaelic word for this day is "Lughnasadh", pronounced "Loo-nah-sah" -- the feast of Lugh. Lugh is a Celtic God, the one whose name is most widespread, from Lyons to Carlisle (which the Romans called "Luguvalium", "Strong in Lugh"). In Wales he was "Lleu Llaw Gyffes", "Lleu of the Skillful Hand," and in Ireland he was "Lugh Samhildanach" (pronounced "Loo Saw-vil-dah-nakh"), "Lugh, Skilled in all the Arts." "Lugh" and "Lleu" themselves mean "bright, shining," which has led some to describe him as a solar God, which he was not; his myths connect him with other Indo-European storm Gods.

His titles describe him: he is the skillful one, the craftsman God. There is a wonderful story in the tale of the Battle of Magh Tuiredh of how Lugh came to the court at Tara while a feast was going on. It was the custom there for no one to be admitted during a feast unless he possessed a skill that no one who was already there possessed. Lugh listed his skills one by one -- wright, smith, champion, harper, hero, poet, magician, healer, cupbearer, craftsman -- and the doorkeeper told him each time that there was already someone at Tara who could do that. Finally, Lugh asked if there was anyone who had all these skills. There was no one, and he was allowed to enter. This is the Lugh we know from the tales, the God of skills and crafts, the shining ruler with the great spear (possibly of lightning). The date of his festival makes it possible that he was an agricultural deity identified with the ripening grain (perhaps identified with the shining spears of wheat?), but the myths do not seem to reflect this.

There seem to be two themes for this date, then. One is the agricultural, represented by the Saxon Lammas, and the other is the feast of Lugh, represented by the Irish Lughnasadh. Their common ground may be found in the blessing of agricultural tools before harvest. Unless you are a grower of grain this is not very meaningful, though. There are two rituals given here, then, one for Lammas, and one for Lughnasadh.

Lammas begins a strange time of the year. To most people it is high summer. These are the hottest days of the year. It is a time for vacations and the beach.

But look more closely. Wheat is ripening. Pokeberries appear. And what is that about the light of late afternoon? Not only is it fading earlier each day; there is something in it that whispers "fall." Its angle is changing, and shadows are growing. No, it isn't time to turn toward the dark yet, not by any means. But we can feel the shadow behind us, hard on our heels. Soon the days will be cold and dark. That is why the bread at each of the harvest festivals grows progressively darker.

For now, though, we celebrate this strange time -- the Loaf Mass, the Feast of Lugh. The sun is high, the days are long and hot. The wheat is golden, ready to be cut. And we reflect on the coming harvest of all that we have done.

Decorations: Sickles, scythes, garden vegetables, corn dollies, grain, grapes, vines, poppies, dried grains.

Food: Early harvest foods, especially those grown in your area. Grain products, corn on the cob, grapes, plums. Sometimes the early apples are available for Lammas. If so, be sure to include them.

Traditions to raid: Feast of the Green Corn (American Indian), Succoth (date varies) (Jewish).

Lammas Ritual:

This is a time for the giving of your gains. Sometime during the harvest, between now and Samhain, give your major charity donation. Also leave out grain and bread for the wild animals in your area (even if these are just pigeons and sparrows.)

Set the table with your best settings. Prepare all the food except that which will come from your own garden. This is the time for all harvests to be celebrated, so include anything you have produced since last Lammas -- art, writing, crafts, music, money; any symbol of your work.

If you have a garden or farm, start the ritual there. In fact, if you have enough space and privacy, hold the entire ritual there, on a picnic table or even on the ground. If you do not grow food, include some grown in the local area, especially the early apples. Most areas have farms where you can pick your own produce. Take your children to them and they will see that food does not come from supermarkets.

Bake a white bread in the shape of a man. The simplest way to do this is to take the dough after it has finished its last rise and cut three slits in it. (See figure 6.) Spread the two which are opposite each other out to form arms and spread the two bottom pieces apart form legs. Round out the head part and bake. This bread will serve as the emblem of the god whose seeds now stand in the field. Some of these seeds will be eaten, and some will be used to impregnate the Earth again in the spring.

When the table is set and the food ready, with the bread as the centerpiece, go out to your garden. The father holds a sickle. While everybody harvests something, the father says:

Harvest is beginning
Gold Sun, bright days,
Gold wheat, bright bread.

He uses the sickle to harvest something himself. If you do not have a garden, these words can simply be said outdoors.

Then go in and gather around your table. The father lifts up the bread, holding the sickle in his other hand. He turns slowly around, presenting them to all directions, and then says:

Harvest is beginning, now in the height of summer.
Cold will have its turn but today it is warm.
It is the feast of bright bread.
It is the feast of first fruits.
It is the hot time of the year
while cold waits to creep in.
Watch for the signs of fall:
The fruits
The berries
The seeds
They are coming.
Soon the nights will be cold but now the days are hot.

He holds the bread out to the mother, who holds her hands over it and says:

Our God is here, in the bread we eat.

The father puts down the sickle and passes the bread around. Each person touches it in blessing and says:

We bless the bread, the bread blesses us.

When the bread returns to the father, he blesses it and then says:

We have all blessed the bread and now it will bless us.

He cuts the head from the bread with the sickle and passes the bread around again. (He reserves the head.) This time everyone breaks off a piece of it. When everyone has a piece, all say:

The grain dies and we eat it and live.
It blesses us and we thank it.

Everyone eats a bit of it and the rest is served with the dinner. Any bread left over is left out as an offering. The head is either used as an offering or buried in the garden.

Lughnasadh Ritual:

Gather together your tools -- tool box, computer, pencils, pots and pans, brooms -- whatever you use in your work. Use part or a symbol if the whole is too awkward or if you don't want to carry a computer home from work. Photographs can be used, or a small piece; a floppy disk for example.

Children should include their own tools. School age children can use their school supplies. If a child is starting school in the fall, this is a wonderful time to have the supplies ready so they can be blessed. Younger children can use favorite toys; the proper work of young children is playing. Those old enough to have assigned chores can use the tools they use in those chores.

Put them together on a table in the room where you eat. (Not on the table you will be eating on, or there won't be room for the food.) In the middle of the tools put a candle with matches next to it.

Wear the kind of clothes you wear when you work with these tools.

After the food is prepared and the table set with your best settings, stand around the table with the tools on it. Establish sacred time. An adult lights the candle, saying:

Be with us, Lugh Samhildanach,
gifted in all the arts,
the holder and giver of all skills.
You who are open handed, be here today to give us your blessing.

Each person then holds his hands over his own tools and says (either individually or together):

I bless these tools in Lugh's name.
I will use them well and properly in the service of the Gods and my people.

Then have your meal and talk about what work you have done and what still remains to do.


Fall is a uniquely ambivalent season. It is happy because it is the harvest. In the old times it would be a season when there was lots of food. Lots of work, but lots of food. Here in New England it is especially beautiful, and the air has a quality to it that defies description.

But fall is a time of death. Those beautiful leaves are being stripped from the trees by the cold wind of the north and falling to the ground to rot. The plants in the fields have made their seeds and their work is done, so they grow brown and brittle. And the first hard frost runs its sickle through the tomatoes.

It is only fitting that there be this ambivalence. After all, it is the equinox, the time of balance. It is a crossover point, when what came before and what is coming after are equally present. Harvest is one of the four solar festivals, and its message is that light and dark are in balance, though the dark may start to prevail. But we know that halfway around the year is Ostara, Harvest's twin, and only a few months away is Yule, the rebirth of light. From this knowledge we gain the assurance to accept and even celebrate the wonderful death of the year.

The first ritual is mostly a Harvest celebration and may appeal more to those who don't want the thoughts of death to intrude too strongly into this time of year. In the second the emphasis on the dying of the year is stronger.

Both rituals are written to be done indoors. If it is warm and you have a farm or a large garden they may be done there. This is a day when instead of dressing up you might wish to dress down, wearing the clothes you would wear to work in your garden.

The most important element of Harvest is the feast. Feasting, especially at harvest time, is a religious act. Eating large amounts of food in the company of family and friends is a way of thanking the Earth, of cementing ties of love, and of reflecting the generosity of the season. Celebrate Harvest as an early Thanksgiving. (There is no Pagan reason not to celebrate the legal date as well.) Even if you do nothing else for this day, have a large festive meal. If preparation time is a problem the celebration may be shifted to a weekend.

For a meal to function as the centerpiece of a celebration, there must be special aspects to it. Particular foods eaten only on a holiday are obvious examples. Usually these are time-consuming to make, very tasty, and not particularly good for you.

A large number of people is another essential element to a feast. This is a time to invite friends and family, as many as you can handle, and as many as you think can handle helping you celebrate the day. On holidays it is especially good luck to be able to extend hospitality to a stranger (perhaps a friend of a friend).

Include with the meal whole wheat bread. Any whole wheat recipe will do. You can add sunflower seeds to it if you wish. Bake it in the shape of a sun. To do this, after the dough's final rising divide it into two pieces, one three times the size of the other. Shape the smaller piece into a round loaf. Roll the other into a long cylinder and then flatten it slightly. Cut it in a zigzag shape to make triangles. Although six is a traditional solar number, make more than that or your sun will look like a turtle. (Trust me on this one.) Attach the triangles to the loaf (use an egg and water mixture to stick them on) to form the rays. Then bake it. Another way to avoid a whole wheat turtle is to shape the bread into a circle and cut a sun into it immediately before putting the bread in the oven.

Decorations: Sunflower seeds. Seeds in general. (They can be glued on paper or cardboard to make collages.) Sickles, scythes. Suns, autumn leaves. Fall decorations in general.

Traditions to raid: Succoth (date variable) (Jewish), Michaelmas (Sep. 29).

Ritual 1:

At one end of your table put a bunch of dried ears of corn and something harvested from your garden. Put the Sun candle in the center with the bread next to it. When all the food is ready and the table set with your best dishes, establish sacred time. Then an adult says:

Today the wheel has come to a special point.
For half the year now there has been more light than dark.
Since Midsummers, though, the light has been fading
and today dark and light are equal
and tomorrow the dark half of the year will begin.
That is why we celebrate today.
It is the balance point between light and dark.
It is the beginning of the return of cold and dark.
To the light time as it leaves we say Hail and farewell!

All say:

Hail and farewell!

Light the Sun candle and then continue:

To the dark time as it comes in we say Welcome!
Be gentle with your cold, be loving in your dark.
Welcome dark!

All say:

Welcome dark!

Hold up the bread, the corn, and some of the harvest, and say:

All summer the food has been growing and now Harvest is here.
These are both sacred grains:
Corn, the sacred grain of this country
Wheat, the sacred grain of our ancestors.
We bless them.
May they bless us.

Pass the bread around, each person taking a piece and eating some. Then eat your meal. Afterwards, hang the corn on your front door, saying:

Hang here till Samhain comes and the world grows darker still.
Hang here and bless our house
in all our coming in and all our going out.

You may actually want to leave them there at least until Thanksgiving, the Harvest Home of American culture. In fact, the first, solar part of the ritual can be celebrated on the Equinox and the second, harvest part on Thanksgiving.

Save part of the bread for offerings to your household guardians and also for the spirits of the wild.

Ritual 2:

On the table put your best dishes, the Sun candle, the sun bread, matches, some dried leaves and a pot. Leave a door to the outside open. When the food is ready to serve and everyone at the table, establish sacred time. Then an adult gets up and slams the door shut and says:

Outdoors time is over and indoors time begins.
More and more, now, we will be pulling ourselves in.

Another adult lights the Sun candle, saying:

He is in our midst, the lord of the sky.

That person then picks up the dried leaves, lights them from the candle, and burns them in the pot, saying:

The Sun leaps up, the Sun dies down.
It fades, it passes, and darkness comes
but with one last flash of light.

(This will make a lot of smoke. If this bothers you, do it outside at the beginning of the ritual, and then come inside, slamming the door on the way in.)

Then she takes the ashes and puts a mark on the faces and hands of everyone, saying:

In a flash of fire the autumn leaves burn

and leave behind the ashes of winter.

The marks are left on until the end of the meal, when they are wiped off with a wet cloth. The one doing the wiping says:

The rains of spring will come again, and bring life from the ashes.

After the meal at the end of either ritual, blow out the Sun candle, saying:

The sun has gone into the fruits of summer and now it fades from the sky.