Candlemas, Imbolc and Groundhog Day: Welcome spring, new beginnings

Rows of lit candles

Traditionally, candles are blessed at Candlemas. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Groundhog Day may have evolved from Imbolc, an ancient pagan festival, but furry woodland creatures 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. Be sure to put away those last ornaments and take down your tree, too—leaving any Christmas decorations lingering after Candlemas is, per old tradition, inauspicious!

For Pagans, the first days of February bring new beginnings, too: the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring.


In European countries, Christ’s crèche is put away on Candlemas Eve (February 1), and across the Church, attention shifts to the approaching Passion. 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. Both Eastern and Western Christians recognize this event. 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, named 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.

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, Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In France, delicate crepes are eaten after 8 p.m.; 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.

Grass in x-shape on worn red-plank wood door

The Brighid cross. Photo in public domain


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. After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

In the belly: 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 symbolize new beginnings.

Legend has it that on this day, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring and 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.


On February 2, we all ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Groundhog on ground looking away from camera

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What started as an ancient Pagan festival 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, 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.

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: ChristianInterfaithNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Yule: Throw a log on the fire and enjoy the longest night of the year

Fire lit in fireplace, darkened room, rock at base and lighted greens draped on mantle

The burning of a Yule log is an ancient custom near the winter solstice. Photo by Justin Kern, courtesy of Flickr

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22: Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere brings the longest night of the year—so pull up a chair, pour a glass of wassail or hot cider and celebrate Yule! (Note: Date may vary by location.) Yuletide was originally observed by Germanic peoples, as a welcoming of winter and the return of lengthening days; today, the Yule log and Yule singing are still seen in several regions of the world. Whether a Yule log is placed on the fire or eaten as a buche de noel, the longest night of the year is the perfect time to get warm by the fireplace and revel in the joy of the season.

Did you know? One of the largest Yuletide celebrations in the United States is actually an interfaith ceremony at William & Mary. The Yule Log ceremony has taken place at William & Mary since 1934, and encompasses throwing holly sprigs, singing carols and sharing the holidays of different faiths.

The custom of bringing in a Yule log still held immense popularity in the 19th century, and centuries before, bonfires were lit in fields as the center of Yule activities. Tradition has it that the Yule log is chopped from the base of a Yule tree, and then allowed to burn through the entire night of the solstice. The log smolders for the next 12 days. Ancient Druids gathered what they regarded as the most sacred of Yuletide plants—holly and ivy—and decorated their homes with the live greens.

Today, Wiccans and Pagans may greet the Sun King on Yule and smolder a Yule log; Christians observe the time as Christmastide.


Though Germanic peoples are credited with Yule, festivals for solstice are embedded in almost every culture. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia and Brumalia were festivals for the sun god, with food, gift giving and more. 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.

Slice of swirled cake on plate with white frosting and red and green sprinkles

A slice of buche de noel, or a Yule log cake. Photo by Arkomas, courtesy of Flickr


In Beulah, Colo., the annual community-wide Yule Log Hunt has been tradition for more than 60 years. Read the news story about this year’s hunt, which drew hundreds for the small mountain town’s annual search.

At Indiana University, the second annual Yule Ball brought purple lighting, hanging candles and orchestral music to hundreds of attendees, in what organizers say has become an immensely popular event. The ball was inspired by the Yule dance of the “Harry Potter” series.

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Halloween, Samhain and Allhallowtide

Three lit jack-o-lanterns with faces

Photo by William Warby, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 31: 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.

For Christians, the triduum of Halloween recalls deceased loved ones and martyrs; secularly, Halloween is a time for costumes, pumpkins and candy. For centuries, this has been regarded as an occasion when the veil between this world and—the other-world—is at its thinnest point.


Borough_Market_Halloween (1)

Photo by Rene Cunningham shared via Flickr and Creative Commons.

It’s huge at nearly $7 billion for candies, costumes, decorations and other Halloween items this year. However, Halloween spending by Americans still ranks as only half of what we lay out for Easter (more than $16 billion). The annual retail bonanza remains Christmas with hundreds of billions spent—and the future of many retail giants on the line, each year.

The National Retail Federation’s Treacy Reynolds reports that we’re actually cutting back a bit on Halloween, this year. “The average person celebrating will spend $74.34, compared with $77.52 last year,” Reynolds writes.

The bottom line for retailers, Reynolds reports: “After a long summer, Americans are eager to embrace fall and all of the celebrations that come with it,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. “We expect those celebrating Halloween this year will look for several different activities to do with their family and friends. Consumers are ready to take advantage of promotions on candy, decorations and costumes, and retailers are ready to serve them.”

Why has American spending on Halloween dipped a bit (from $7.5 billion last year)? TIME magazine reports: “More than 80% of consumers polled by the NRF said the economy is having an impact on their Halloween spending, with nearly 80% saying they will spend less overall this year as a direct result.”


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. As even the earliest cultures believed that spirits could access our world most easily at this time of year, 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, welcoming the “darker” season and preparing feasts with apples, nuts, meats, seasonal vegetables and mulled wines.


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.

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.

The word Halloween is of Christian origin, and many Christians visit graveyards during this time to pray and place flowers and candles at the graves of their deceased loved ones. The two days following All Hallows Eve—All Saints Day, and All Souls Day—pay homage to the souls that many Christians believe are now with God. In medieval England, Christians went “souling” on Halloween, begging for soul cakes in exchange for prayers in local churches.


Dog Pumpkin Costume (1)

Just one of the many dog pumpkin costumes for sale on Amazon this year.


An estimated 20 million people will dress their pets in costume this Halloween. Can you guess the most popular costumes for furry friends this year? Pumpkins and hot dogs are the two most common costumes for Kitty and Fido.

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Categories: International ObservancesNational ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Mabon and Equinox : Celebrate fall harvest for the autumnal equinox

Park with trees and picnic bench in fall, ground covered in orange and red leaves, no people

Photo by B. Monginoux, courtesy of

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23: The sharp scent of cinnamon and the sweet taste of apple cider marks autumn, and today, astrological events signal the autumnal equinox. Known as Mabon to Pagans and Wiccans, autumn equinox brings the hours of daylight and darkness into balance, after which the number of hours of sunlight each day will wane until the winter solstice.

Harvested gourds, pumpkins and squashes are plentiful; horns of plenty display the bounty of food that has come to symbolize autumn.

Did you know? The term Mabon was coined around 1970, as a reference to a character from Welsh mythology. Nevertheless, the festival’s core rituals are of ancient nature.

Glass of sparkling apple cider with apple and apples in back, high contrast lighting

Sparkling hard cider. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr

For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is the second harvest festival; Lughnassadh precedes it, and Samhain will come later. Family is drawn together, feasts are prepared and individuals look to the dark of winter—a time of rest. (Learn more from Cider, wines and herbs are offered to gods while decorations are crafted in red, orange, brown and gold.


Autumn’s abundance of harvest foods, combined with a shift to cooler temperatures, has long made it a popular time to reflect, renew and gather.

Looking for a DIY project for autumn? For centuries, people have been making apple dolls and corn dollies at harvest time. Learn how to make applehead dolls and corn dollies, with tutorials from Mother Earth News.

In search of fall recipes? First, check out Bobbie Lewis’s Mabon column, complete with a delicious recipe for apple cake. Want more? You’ll find other options at AllRecipes, Food Network, Taste of Home and Epicurious.

Love the smells of autumn? Bring the scents home with a make-it-yourself scented pinecone wreath.

Gardeners, rejoice! Organic farmer Leonard Moorehead offers tips and insights into making autumn the best time of year for your garden.

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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

SATURDAY, 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). In Wicca and ancient pagan tradition, Lughnassadh is the time for the funeral games of Lugh, the sun god. In a manner similar to ancient Olympic games, the games of Lugh were in honor of his foster mother and included athletic games, feasting, matchmaking and ritual visits to holy wells. Today, common foods on the table at Lughnasadh are apples, grains, breads and berries. (Learn more from 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. (In Eastbourne, England, a Lammas festival took place July 25-26.) 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.

Hungry for a few good wheat bread recipes? Check out the fresh-from-the-oven suggestions of AllRecipes, Betty Crocker, Food Network and New York Times.

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Categories: ChristianWiccan / Pagan

Call it Litha, Midsummer or Solstice: Celebrate northern height of summer

Large crowd dancing outdoors in a circle, with farmhouse and meadows in background

Midsummer dancing in Sweden, June 2013. Photo by Lars Andersson, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 21: Picnics on the beach, Midsummer parties and bonfires abound at the summer solstice—and, across the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the “longest day of the year.” Astronomically, the summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth’s semi-axis in the northern hemisphere is most inclined toward the sun; thus, inhabitants of the north experience more hours and minutes of daylight today than on any other day of the year. (Wikipedia has details.) In several Scandinavian countries, the day is celebrated as Midsummer’s Eve and then Midsummer, complete with an entire day’s worth of outdoor activities for citizens young and old. Wiccans and Pagans may observe Litha, a holiday of gratitude for light and life.

Smiling young girl with blonde hair and a crown of daisies and other flowers

A young girl wears a crown of flowers at a Midsummer celebration in New York. Photo by SwedenNewYork, courtesy of Flickr


In Scandinavian countries, the longest day of the year is one of the most beloved holidays of the year. Affectionately termed Midsummer, many spend the day outdoors with an extravagant smorgasbord lunch, games for the entire community, time at the beach, dancing and bonfires. (Learn more—and check out an authentic Swedish YouTube video of Midsummer—in our all-summer column.) Whether the long, dark Scandinavian winters are the reason for Midsummer exhilaration or it’s something else altogether, this holiday is unrivaled in many countries of the world.

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 and Cosmopolitan.

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 and ideas on how to spend the longest day of the year, check out the UK’s The Independent.


Adherents of Wicca and Paganism look to the Sun God on the summer solstice, noting 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. ( has more.) 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: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

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

FRIDAY, 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.


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.


In 1988, the Beltane Fire Festival made an attempt to revive the energy and atmosphere of ancient Celtic bonfires. With a focus on appreciation for the cyclical nature of seasons and the environment, the first Beltane Fire Festival was organized in collaboration with a folklorist from the Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. Five performers and less than 100 attendees were present; by 1999, the event drew 10,000 spectators. Today, approximately 300 performers attend and audience numbers vary between 6,000 and 12,000.

This year, organizers are announcing a debut of never-before-seen fire-related performance elements, along with glowing elements in a giant faerie garden made from wax gathered from Edinburgh’s underground caves. (STV Edinburgh has the story.)

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan