Beltane: Welcome summer the ancient Celtic way

Young girls in fancy matching dresses dance around a Maypole with ribbons in their hands, others dance while crowd looks on

Children in Wiltshire dance around a Maypole, an integral part of ancient Beltane celebrations. Photo by Anguskirk, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 1: An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain.)

Enormous bonfires light a night sky that paints the backdrop for elaborate costumes, reenactments, dancing, fire-jumping and a revival of ancient rituals. Edinburgh now draws tens of thousands of attendees annually for its Beltane Fire Festival, which boasts hundreds of volunteers and performers; in some areas of Scotland and Ireland, remnants of old Beltane customs still remain. Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane has always ranked among the most significant of pagan festivals.

As usual, some of the most interesting Beltane headlines are coming from Scotland. This year, for example, the Herald and other Scottish news sources are reporting on a special “family day” program that’s been added to the huge Edinburgh festival.

BELTANE: FLOWERS, BONFIRES AND A MAYPOLE DANCE

The earliest Irish literature mentions Beltane, and for the pastoral Celts this festival marked a key time of year. In daylight hours, cattle were adorned in flowers and driven to summer pastures; at nighttime, people and cattle walked or leapt between bonfires in a cleansing and protective ritual. During this sacred time of year, early pagan customs were meant to protect crops, cattle and people from disease and other forces of nature. (Wikipedia has details.) A home’s doors and windows were decorated with May flowers, and holy wells were visited. The morning dew of Beltane was believed to hold unique qualities that conserved youthfulness and beauty. Candles and hearth fires that had been put out on Beltane Eve were re-lit with the Beltane bonfire.

Dark, nighttime, outdoors, crowds in front of building with pillars holding enormous bonfires

The Beltane Fire Festival at Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Samhain commemorates the dark half of the year, Beltane celebrates the light half of the year. New life springs forth, the sun returns in full strength and energy is abundant. In centuries past, both Beltane and Samhain were regarded as days of “no time”—that is, when veils between this world and the other world are thinnest. With this belief, pagans would protect themselves and their homes from spirits and mischievous faeries with rituals and natural objects, such as rowan branches, on the outside of their homes. Dancing would commence throughout the countryside and, following a promiscuous night in the woods, young people would gather in the morning to weave the ribbons of the Maypole. Feasts ensued, which were often accompanied by athletic tournaments, costumed performances, an elected king and queen and the decoration of flower wreaths and garlands.

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan

Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Feasts, festivals anticipate spring

Men in black cloaks, suits and hats, one holding a groundhog, gathering to look at a small paper scroll

Punxsutawney Phil and other Groundhog Day participants at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Photo by Anthony Quintano, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, but woodland creatures and coming-of-spring myths have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas.

No matter which holiday you’re celebrating, though, do so with the unifying themes for these first two days of February: renewal and hope. The first days of February bring new beginnings, and the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring. (And, this year, you can even raise a glass to Groundhog Day! That’s right—Punxsutawney Phil, the “official” groundhog of Groundhog Day, now has his own namesake “Philsner”—er, pilsner.)

CANDLEMAS: CANDLES, COINS AND BELLS

The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

Ice cream and chocolate drizzle on top of a crepe

Crepes are common fare across Europe for Candlemas, and the dairy products that often top them are symbolic foods for Imbolc. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

IMBOLC: SPRING, WOODLAND ANIMALS AND BRIGHID

On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. (Get a step-by-step, DIY version of Brighid crosses here.) After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Did you know? The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

GROUNDHOG DAY: SEASONAL PREDICTIONS AND GOOD OL’ PHIL

On February 2, many of us ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

What started as an ancient pagan festival’s legends on woodland animals “testing the weather” has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them to America, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day. In 2017, Phil will even be the namesake of a beer bottled in his honor: Punxsutawney Philsner, which is, according to handlers, already proving wildly successful. (Read more here.)

Getting it straight: Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.

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Categories: ChristianNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Winter solstice and Yule: Grab a warm drink, sit by the fire & enjoy winter’s peace

Glass of drink and cinnamon stick on table by fire in fireplace

Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21: The pale winter sun’s waning rays give way to the longest night of the year, on today’s winter solstice—known also as Yule, or midwinter. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: While enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.

Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, this is the winter solstice. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which will smolder for 12 days.

Want recipes? Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Food Network, Taste of Home and Martha Stewart. Sit back, grab a hot drink and relax in the serenity of winter.

Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide—which lasted approximately two months—many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky) and the god Odin (the leader of the Wild Hunt). Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods.

WINTER: FROM MACHU PICCU TO DONGZHI

Pot of wassail with orange slices floating in it, steaming on a stovetop

Wassail cider cooks on a stovetop. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.

YULE: EMBRACE THE CHILL

Winter got you down? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music. In years past, pagans “wassailed” their fields with cider drinks—but a tasty wassail is great for sipping! (Find a recipe here. For an alcoholic version, check out the New York Times.)

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

Feast dishes like Shortest Day Ham Loaf, Brighter Day Cheese Ball, Solstice Surprise Salad and Roasted Lamb Feast for a (Sun) King are at Wicca.com.

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

Interested in Yule songs? How about a Yule altar? Get an altar how-to, learn Yule songs for kids, access a Yule playlist, find suggestions of things to hang on a Pagan tree and more at PaganWiccan.about.com.

 

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Halloween, Samhain, Allhallowtide & Dia de los Muertos: legends abound!

Kid's fingers pressing eye onto Jack-o-Lantern decorated caramel apple

Photo by Personal Creations, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, OCTOBER 31 and TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 1 and WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 2: From mulled wine and apples to costumes and candy, deck the halls with fright and get ready for the spookiest night of the year: Halloween!

Drawing on ancient beliefs of wandering souls and spirits at this time of year, some traditions of Halloween shadow the rituals of an early Gaelic festival known as Samhain, which resonated across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Today’s Wiccans observe Samhain as a Sabbat, while Pagans—including Neopagans and Celtic Reconstructionists—attempt to observe its rituals as close as possible to their original form.

Beyond Scotland, Ireland and the migration of Scots and Irish to other parts of the world, the tradition of Halloween is fairly new in the long sweep of global culture. Of course, Western influence is potent stuff, and Western images of witches, black cats and trick or treating now have circled the planet. Halloween slowly picked up speed and now is observed as far from the Celtic homeland as Asia and Africa. Today, it’s common for children around the world to dress in costume, for adults to hold costume parties and for everyone to try a hand at carving jack-o’-lanterns. In some countries, bonfires and fireworks are common additions to nighttime trick-or-treating.

Group of three kids in Halloween costumes

Photo by popofatticus, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? The first record of pumpkin carving in America was penned in 1837; by the 1930s, so many Americans were trick-or-treating that mass-produced Halloween costumes were introduced in stores.

For Christians, the triduum of Halloween recalls deceased loved ones and martyrs; in Mexico and Latin American countries, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) vibrantly reflects these types of observances. Secularly, Halloween is a time for costumes, pumpkins and candy, though for centuries, this time of the year has been regarded as an occasion when the veil between this world and—the other-world—is at its thinnest point.

SAMHAIN AND IRISH MYTHOLOGY

Born of a pastoral people, Samhain began in the oral traditions of Irish mythology; it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when visiting Christian monks began penning some of the tales. Ancient pagan traditions regard this as a night beyond all nights; the beginning of the dark half of the year; the final harvest, and a space in time when spiritual veils are lifted. Even the earliest cultures believed that spirits could access our world most easily at this time of year, so bonfires were lit to protect and cleanse people, livestock and pastures. Feasts were prepared, and the spirits of deceased ancestors were invited into the home with altars. Evil spirits were kept away with “guising” (costuming to fool the spirits), and turnip lanterns were often set in windows to scare evil spirits or to represent spiritual beings—a custom that likely evolved into the modern jack-o-lantern.

Today, many Pagans and Wiccans keep the widespread traditions of lighting bonfires, paying homage to ancestors and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.

‘ALLHALLOWTIDE’

In worldwide Christian tradition, millions still observe “Allhallowtide,” which is the name of this triduum (or special three-day period) that begins with All Hallows Eve and continues through All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. While Catholics, Anglicans and many other denominations still have an “All Souls Day” on their liturgical calendars, many Protestant and evangelical churches have abandoned this traditional three-day cycle.

Did you know? The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and is also known as All Hallows Eve. All Saints’ Day is alternatively referred to as its counterpart: All Hallows, or Hallowmas.

Dancers in colorful Dia de los Muertos skirts and clothes, with faces painted

Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Chihuahua City, Mexico. Photo by Ted McGrath, courtesy of Flickr

The most popular of the three holidays in congregations coast to coast is All Saints Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. Millions of families will attend Sunday services on November 1 that include special remembrances of members who have passed in the previous year. Still mourning someone in your community? Show up at a local church observing All Saints Day and there likely will be a time to remember that person.

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS:
MEXICO’S COLORFUL DAY OF THE DEAD

Vibrant decorations for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, mark towns in Mexico and Latin American communities far and wide, as the lives of the departed are celebrated with vigor. The full festival of Dia de los Muertos typically lasts two or three days (in some regions, customs begin on October 31), and traditionally, November 1 pays tribute to the souls of children and the innocent while November 2 is dedicated to deceased adult souls. In Mexico, relatives adorn altars and graves with elaborate garlands and wreaths, crosses made of flowers and special foods. Families gather in cemeteries, where pastors bestow prayers upon the dead. For children, Dia de los Muertos celebrations mean candy like sugar skulls and once-a-year treats; music and dancing delight celebrants of all ages.

HALLOWEEN DECORATIONS, RECIPES & MORE

Decorating your home for Halloween? Get creative ideas at DIY Network.

For the more sophistocated crafter, Martha Stewart offers up ideas on homemade decorations.

Kids can give it a try with ideas from FamilyFun.

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Categories: International ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Equinox and Mabon, pumpkins and cider: Welcome, fall!

Pumpkins and barrels of apples on wooden platform

Photo by Ashley Christiano, courtesy of Pexels

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: Pick out a pumpkin and sip some warm cider, because fall is officially here! Relish the crisp, autumn air and the warm spices of the season; Pagans celebrate Mabon and people across the Northern Hemisphere mark the autumnal equinox. For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is a type of Thanksgiving, recognizing the gifts of the harvest and seeking blessings for the approaching winter months. Equinox, a celestial event, occurs twice per year and is so named because the length of day and night are (almost exactly) equal.

Did you know? The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn.

MABON: AN AUTUMN FESTIVAL

“Everything autumn” sums up the fare, symbols and activities of Mabon, as Pagans and Wiccans offer cider, wines and warming herbs and spices to gods and goddesses. Druids call this time Mea’n Fo’mhair, honoring the God of the Forest; Wiccans celebrate the Second Harvest Festival with altars, decorating them with pine cones, gourds, corn, apples and other autumn elements.

A time of mysteries, Wiccans recognize the aging of the goddess and visit ancestors’ graves, decorating them with leaves, acorns and other elements of fall. Tables are covered in feasts of breads, root vegetables and apple cider, as scents of cinnamon and nutmeg fill the air. Families gather, and preparations are made for the coming winter months. It’s also common to unwind and prepare for the end of the year, which is coming soon—at Samhain.

Looking for an autumn activity? The festivities of Mabon can be enjoyed by everyone. Take a walk through the woods, while enjoying the bold colors of autumn; make a horn of plenty that will grace the home through the season. Kids can create corn husk dolls or applehead dolls, and homes can smell like fall with the addition of scented pine cones.

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Lammas, Lughnasadh: Christians, Pagans observe ancient grain harvest festival

Wheat in field with blue sky in background

Lammas has historically been a festival of the wheat harvest, accompanied by athletic games, feasting and blessings. Photo by Chaitanya K., courtesy of Pixabay

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MONDAY, AUGUST 1: As the heat of July breaks into August—Christians, Pagans and many others from areas of England, Ireland and Scotland mark the feast of Lammas.

An ancient festival of the wheat harvest, Lammas—or Lughnasadh—has long been called “the feast of first fruits.” In England and some English-speaking countries, August 1 is “Lammas Day;” historically, it was customary to bring a loaf of bread made from the new wheat crop to church for a blessing. For many, Lammas was a time of gratitude, as the hard work of planting gave way to the bounty of the harvest.

Interested in the bread traditions of world faiths? Check out Lynne Meredith Golodner’s “The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads,” which includes recipes, photos and engaging stories of the place where bread and faith intersect.

Loaf of wheat bread cut into slices on wooden cutting board

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the Neopagan and Wiccan Wheels of the Year, Lughnasadh is one of eight sabbats and the first of three harvest festivals (the other harvest festivals being Mabon, or autumn equinox, and Samhain). Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Some mark this festival on July 31, though it is most widely observed on the first day of August.

For Christians, Lammas has been a time for blessing loaves made of fresh wheat. In time, Christians also created a version of the Scottish Highland Quarter Cake for Lammas, which bore Christian symbols on the top. (Catholic Culture has a recipe.)

Lughnasadh customs were commonplace until the 20th century, though evidence of ongoing tradition is seen in the popular Puck Fair of County Kerry and Christian pilgrimages. (Wikipedia has details on Lammas and Lughnassadh.) Throughout Ireland’s history, significant mountains and hills were climbed at Lughnasadh; the custom was brought into Christianity when Christian pilgrimages were undertaken near August 1. The most well-known pilgrimage of this type is Reek Sunday, a trek to the top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo in late July that continues to draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year.

Family reunions are still common among the Irish diaspora near August 1, and in Ireland, several towns have recently created Lughnasadh festivals and fairs to parallel Puck Fair. For centuries, Lammas has been a time to gather wild berries—bilberries, in particular, but also blackberries and blueberries–for eating, baking and making wine.

 

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Midsummer, Litha and solstice: Welcome, summer!

Three older girls smile while wearing wildflower crowns

Girls pose in Midsummer crowns of flowers. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JUNE 20: Bonfires, picnics on the beach, wreaths of wildflowers and Midsummer parties—Scandinavian-style—abound today, at the summer solstice. Across the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the “longest day of the year,” meaning that for astrological reasons, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight than on any other day of the year. In 2016, summer solstice will occur at 22:34 Universal Time (UTC).

For people around the world, Midsummer has been equated with sun gods, greenery, fertility rituals and medicinal herbs for millennia. In Scandinavian countries, the longest day is one of the most beloved holidays of the year. A Scandinavian Midsummer is complete with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old: extravagant smorgasbord lunches, outdoor games for the entire community, dancing and more.

Flower crowns are all the rage, and this ancient accessory for Midsummer fetes is as easy as gathering a few favorite flowers and basic craft materials. For a tutorial on how to create a chic one, check out Lauren Conrad.com.

The Midsummer menu is as dear to Scandinavians as the Christmas goose or ham is to celebrants of the winter holiday, and fresh strawberries often take center stage in cakes, shortcakes or eaten straight out of the bowl. Other traditional foods include the season’s first potatoes, made with dill and butter; a roast; herring or other types of fish and seafood; hard-boiled eggs and summer cabbage. For recipes, visit Bon Appetit or ScandinaviaFood.com.

Strawberries and cream in cups on tray of wood filled with wildflowers, red drink bottles in background

Strawberries—usually ripe for the picking at Midsummer—have a place at almost every Swedish smorgasbord luncheon. Photo by Karlis Dambrans, courtesy of Flickr

MIDSUMMER ACROSS THE GLOBE

In Finland, the summer holiday unofficially starts with Midsummer, and so many flock to countryside cottages that city streets can seem eerily empty. Saunas, bonfires, barbecues and fishing are enjoyed by hundreds.

Two northeastern towns in Brazil have been in lengthy competition for the title of “Biggest Saint John Festival in the World,” and throughout the South American country, dishes made with corn and sweet potatoes are favored.

In Austria, a spectacular procession of ships makes its way down the Danube River, while fireworks light up the night sky above castle ruins. In Latvia, homes, livestock and even cars are decorated with leaves, tree branches, flowers and other greenery.

The largest American celebrations of Midsummer take place in New York City, Seattle, Tucson and San Francisco. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, members of the large Finnish population celebrate Juhannus with beachfront bonfires and other outdoor activities.

LITHA: A WICCAN AND PAGAN SOLSTICE CELEBRATION

Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life. At Litha, adherents note the full abundance of nature at the point of mid-summer. Traditionally, fresh fruits and vegetables are the main course at shared meals, and bonfires are lit to pay homage to the full strength of the sun. In centuries past, torchlight processions were common; at Stonehenge, the heelstone marks the midsummer sunrise as viewed from the center of the stone circle.

Though harvest is not in full swing yet, many wild herbs are mature for picking and, thus, Midsummer is known as “Gathering Day” in Wales and in other various regions. Herbs, gathered most often for medicinal qualities, are gathered and dried for later use.

Interested in a modern-day take on gathering and drying healing herbs? Check out this story by Antioch College student Aubrey Hodapp, whose studies under an herbalist have helped her to deliver local, organic tea to her fellow students and much more (featured this week at FeedTheSpirit).

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Categories: InterfaithInternational ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan