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Imbolc: Pagans, Wiccans reflect and embrace the approaching light of spring

Crocuses and green grass poke out from the snow

Imbolc welcomes the approach of spring while winter is still evident. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1: The depths of winter may be the snowy reality for many right now, but Wiccans and Pagans welcome the impending warmth and light of spring on Imbolc (or Lughnassadh, in the Southern Hemisphere). Set halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Imbolc is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals and the first of three fertility festivals. Derived from the Old Irish i mbolg, “in the belly,” Imbolc was first a reference to the onset of lactation in ewes, which signified the approaching births of spring. Today, candles and tributes to one’s inner light substitute for the sun’s rays in many regions, as devotees hold faith that spring will come. (Read more reasons for celebrating Imbolc in this article at Patheos.) Imbolc is also marked as Saint Brighid’s Day.

The earliest Irish literature contains evidence of Imbolc festivals, some of which are associated with events in Irish mythology. Megalithic monuments (and their inner chambers) in Ireland reflect the importance of Imbolc, and enormous feasts were held in Gaelic Ireland for the festival. For both ancient and modern pagans, Imbolc focuses on Brighid, the goddess of the hearth, fertility and the lighter half of the year. (Wikipedia has details.) Brighid crosses were woven and hung on doors for good luck, children wove Brighid dollies and young and old asked for her blessings; today, Pagans and Wiccans continue many of these practices. (Find instructions and more at this UK site.)

CUSTOMS, RITES AND EMBRACING WINTER’S CHILL

Winter’s snow cleanses the earth, and upon melting, it fills rivers and streams that millions will depend upon for drinking water during the spring and summer months. Still, the bitter, grey weather can be trying—so Pagans and Wiccans focus their energies on spiritual renewal, household and physical cleaning and an internal purification similar to the Roman februa (think February) rituals. Devotees of any religion can benefit from candlelit meditation, journaling and relaxing baths before welcoming the bounty of spring. (Learn more about Imbolc foods, herbs, activities and more at Wicca.com.)

Did you know? Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination. Pagans would watch for serpents and badgers, emerging from their winter dens, as an indicator of spring.

A cleansing journal exercise: Just as with life’s events, the earth’s seasons cannot be rushed—nor are they in our control. As one Wiccan writer shares in the Huffington Post, this time of year is ideal for exercising creativity and for examining one’s inner fire. Light a candle, sit by a window and, looking out at the snowy landscape, ask: What is this fire in my heart? How do I keep it burning? And, finally: How do I tend my own hearth fire?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan

Winter Solstice: Seasons change; Pagans, Wiccans observe Yule

Winter scene with snow in woods, sun shining through trees in back

Winter landscape in Sweden. Photo by Lisa Widerberg, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 21: The vast majority of our readers live in the Northern Hemisphere and to all of you we say: Welcome to the longest night of the year!

We also have many readers in the Southern Hemisphere, especially Australia and New Zealand, and to you we say: Enjoy midsummer!

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. (Learn more from Wicca.com.)

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.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Samhain: Pagans, Wiccans celebrate harvest festival

People gathering around candles, performing a ritual

Neopagans participate in a Samhain ritual that honors the dead. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 31: Cook up some acorn squash and apples, make a toast with mulled wine and learn the root of some of Halloween’s most ancient traditions, on Samhain. (You may also want to read our extensive column on the three days of Christian festivals that were established to eclipse Samhain.)

Originally a Gaelic festival that marked the end of harvest season and ushered in winter, Samhain is now celebrated by Wiccans and Pagans as a festival of darkness. In contrast to Beltane, which embraces the light and fertility of spring, Samhain rituals center around the spirits of the dead—both friendly and unfriendly. (Wikipedia has details.) From the earliest days, this time of year has been seen as the point at which the veil between this world and the afterworld is at its thinnest point.

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. Several essential events occurred annually on Samhain, such as taking stock of herds and ushering livestock into winter pastures. 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.

Several sites in Ireland are still associated with Samhain, such as Oweynagat—the “cave of the cats”—where otherworldly beings were said to emerge. The Hill of Ward in County Meath is rumored to have been the site of large Samhain gatherings and bonfires.

WICCANS, PAGANS & A MODERN SAMHAIN

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. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) The 19th and 20th centuries have brought a revival in ancient pagan festivals and customs, with an upsurge in visitation to age-old sites. Traditional colors include black, orange and white; foods include turnips, apples, gourds, nuts, mulled wines and beef; herbs include allspice and sage.

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan

Equinox, Mabon: Earth crosses celestial equator; Pagans mark autumn

Women walking in distance down a natural path in autumn

Photo courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: Relish the crisp, autumn air and the warm spices of the season, as Pagans celebrate Mabon and people around the Northern Hemisphere mark the autumnal equinox. For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is a type of Thanksgiving, recognizing the gifts of harvest; it is a time to seek 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. (Wikipedia has details.) The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn. (Check out photos of Saturn’s equinox at Boston.com.)

Did you know? Thousands of years ago, Julius Caesar created his calendar with a drifting equinox. This moving calendar spurred Pope Gregory XIII to create the modern Gregorian calendar in 1582.

“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. (Learn more from Wicca.com.) Families gather, and preparations are made for the coming winter months.

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 (get a DIY here).

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Categories: International Observances

Harvest time already? First fruits come forth in Lammas, Lughnasadh

Click the DVD cover to visit its Amazon page.

Click the DVD cover to visit its Amazon page.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 1: An ancient harvest festival resurfaces today—as Christians give thanks during Lammas Day and Pagan groups observe Lughnasadh. The first day of August traditionally has been associated with a wheat festival in England and Scotland and other related communities from that part of the world. This harvest festival is an important time of transition as grains mature in the fields and farmers begin harvesting for the winter.

EXOTIC NOW? NOT FOR SHAKESPEARE: Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare could make casual reference to Lammas to underscore a major theme in the tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare refers to Juliet’s birthday as Lammas Eve and tells us that she will be 14 as that festival approaches, again. In Shakespeare’s day, audiences knew that was a reference to celebrating the summer’s full bounty. However, as Shakespeare fans know to this day, Juliet never reaches that fateful Lammas and, thus, never reaches the fullness of her life.

ADAPTING ANCIENT TRADITIONS: Today, the holidays are resurfacing in popular culture across the Western world. In 1999, Meryl Streep co-starred in Dancing At Lughnasa, a bittersweet movie (based on a Tony-winning play) about unmarried sisters in 1930s Ireland. Contemporary Pagan groups now market a host of Lughnasadh-themed products from T-shirts and votive candles to special blends of herbs, grains and spices for the harvest festival. (Note: Spellings of the ancient holiday vary and, while the play and movie drop the final “dh,” most groups use the full spelling as in our headline today.)

GREEN and ECO-FRIENDLY: Worldwide, the term “Lammas” is more likely to be associated with green, eco-friendly sustainable events and projects. This might take the form of casual potluck picnics or might be as ambitious and utopian as the Lammas Ecovillage in West Wales.

BRING A LOAF TO CHURCH: Traditionally, Lammas was the season of the wheat harvest and families would bring their first loaf of bread to church for a blessing—although those loaves often became part of pre-Christian customs. One tradition was to place pieces of the blessed bread around the corners of a barn to prevent forces that might ruin crops stored in side.

RECIPES? There are lots of “Lammas” recipes floating around the Internet, usually involving wheat or, in some cases, corn and other grains. We recommend that you check out our new Read The Spirit department, called Feed The Spirit, hosted by food writer Bobbie Lewis. Near mid-summer, Bobbie wrote a column about Stonehenge and included a Wiccan Magic Cake recipe, which is absolutely delicious.

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this story. Or email this story to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: ChristianInternational Observances

BELTANE: Fires, flowers and spring dew mark Pagan festival

Young women holding ribbons attached to Maypole in black and white

A 1936 May Day festival at Georgia State Woman’s College. Photo in public domain

Beltane fires on Calton Hill by Bruce McAdam via Wikimedia

Symbols blazing in fire at the modern Pagan Beltane festival at Calton Hill. Photo by Bruce McAdam, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1: It’s May Day! Gather ‘round the May Pole and roll in the morning dew for the ancient celebration of spring. In Gaelic history, today is Beltane—otherwise known as the halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice. Although many traditional May Day festivities had ceased by the mid-20th century, there has been an upsurge among modern Pagans. One of the biggest is the Beltane Fire Festival of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland, which has been drawing crowds since 1988 for a rebirth of the famed nighttime ritual of Beltane bonfires.

Ancient Beltane events were performed with reverence for the spirits and faeries of springtime. In Celtic times, customs began the night before May 1, with enormous bonfires believed to hold protective powers. (Wikipedia has details.) Cattle and other livestock were driven between two bonfires, men leapt over the fires and the ashes were sprinkled on homes and crops, all in efforts to ensure a plentiful, healthy and fruitful year. In Celtic times, fertility rituals also were practiced around May Day.

On May 1, Celts collected the “magical” May morning dew for auspicious washing and drinking. Decorated poles and bushes were decorated for dancing, homes were adorned with yellow May flowers and women braided wildflowers into their hair. To ensure a bountiful dairy season, yellow flowers were sometimes made into bouquets and garlands and fastened to cows. In Dublin and Belfast, May bushes were decorated by an entire neighborhood, and neighborhoods competed to present the most beautiful May bush! Create your own May Day crafts with help from Mother Nature Network. Oatmeal cakes, honey and dairy foods were often consumed on Beltane and May Day.

Today’s Wiccans mark Beltane as one of the yearly Sabbats, or seasonal festivals.

In Hawaii, May Day has been known as “Lei Day” since 1928, in reverence for Hawaiian culture and, especially, the lei.

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Categories: International Observances

Equinox springs with Nowruz, Naw-Ruz, New Year

http://www.readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Noruz_New_Year.jpgDepiction of an Iranian family celebrating Nowruz around the Haftsin table. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commonshttp://www.readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-0320_chart_of_Equinox.jpgWEDNESDAY and THURSDAY, MARCH 20 and 21: Spring has sprung as the planet passes through the vernal equinox. For millions of families around the world, this also marks the New Year usually called Nowruz or Naw-Ruz. Spellings in English vary widely but the roots are the same—deep in the cultures of the region now known as Iran. More than 3,000 years ago in that part of the world, Zoroaster pointed his followers toward patterns of celestial movement.

Today, versions of this New Year’s tradition are celebrated by Zoroastrians, Sufis, Ismailis, Alawites, Baha’is—and others. In 2010, the United Nations recognized that these religious and cultural communities are minorities around the world, often persecuted or in the midst of other conflicts. So, the UN declared an International Day of Nowruz and called on all who observe the holiday to celebrate with a focus on peace and goodwill.

A GLOBAL ‘NEW DAY’: Though rooted in Iran and Persia, Norouz is now experienced throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and with festivals in North America, Europe and Asia. The Iran Heritage Foundation will host its annual Norouz Gala in London this year, while the House of Iran Nowruz Celebration will take place in San Diego; Chicago will host its own annual Nowruz Parade, and the Iranian Association of Boston will host a New Year’s bash. (Get an overview at Asia Society. Kids can get an age-appropriate breakdown of global Noruz at Asia Society Kids.)

HOW OLD IS NOWRUZ? Some texts point to Nowruz celebrations nearly 15,000 years ago, although the exact origins are impossible to confirm. (Wikipedia has details.) Nonetheless, the Shahnameh (a poem regarded as the national epic of Iranian culture) dates Nowruz back to the reign of Jamshid—a mythical Persian king who saved mankind from a winter so harsh that it was destined to kill every living creature. Legend has it that the king constructed himself a throne of gems and that, when the harsh winter had passed, he had demons raise him from the earth to the heavens. The world’s creatures gazed at King Jamshid in wonder, calling this the “New Day,” or Nowruz.

http://www.readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Noruz_Haftsin_Table.jpgA portion of a Haftsin tableIRANIAN NOWRUZ: For families observing these ancient customs, preparations have been underway for weeks! Just days ago, the children of Iran wrapped up pre-Nowruz traditions by parading through the streets in burial shrouds (while begging for candy from neighbors), in imitation of the ancient Iranian ritual of mourning the end of life at the end of the year.

THE HAFTSIN TABLE: Once again, English spellings vary widely in describing the symbolic table setting for the Persian New Year: Haftsin and Haft-Seen are among the renderings you’ll find. Wikipedia has settled on Haft-Seen as its standardized spelling. These gorgeous table settings often feature eggs, fruit and cakes—and the seven “S’s.” The Haftsin table, which varies slightly by region, contains seven objects that begin with the Persian sound of “s”: senjed (dried fruit); sir (garlic); serkeh (vinegar); sonbol (hyacinth flower); sekkeh (coins); sazbeh (green wheat sprouts); and samanau (sweet pudding).

Following 12 days of visits to family and friends, the 13th day commences as a day to picnic in the country. Nicknamed “the lie of the thirteenth,” it’s popular to tell white lies on the 13th day of Norouz, similar to the Western April Fool’s Day.

WORLDWIDE BAHA’I CELEBRATION OF NAW-RUZ

Baha’is approach this holiday in a different way. Regular readers of this column will recall that Baha’is have been engaged in a 19-Day Fast. On the evening of March 20, Baha’is gather with family and friends for an elaborate Now-Ruz dinner. Learn more from Wikipedia or the Baha’i Library Online. (And Naw-Ruz is currently fixed on March 21 for Baha’is outside of the Middle East.)

Prayers are recited as the faithful enter the “spiritual springtime.” Baha’is who fasted adhered to the words of Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha: “Fasting is the cause of awakening man.” Feeling refreshed, Baha’is follow the Now-Ruz dinner by suspending work and school to celebrate a day of Baha—that is, splendor, glory and the Day of God. While commemorating prophets and figures of the world’s major religions, Baha’is spend the additional 18 days of their first month of the year feasting, dancing and playing music. (Access Naw-Ruz prayers here.)

http://www.readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Noruz_Zoroastrian.jpgZoroastrian mythology tells that at the spring equinox, the perpetually fighting bull (earth) and lion (sun) are equal. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsZOROASTRIAN NOWRUZ

Founded by an astronomer, the Zoroastrian religion began thousands of years ago and many credit it as the starting point of modern Nowruz celebrations. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) pointed out the movement of the sun toward Aries—which thereby signaled the spring equinox and new season of regeneration—and followers across Western and Central Asia participated in Nowruz for centuries. (Learn more from the Heritage Institute.)

The ancients offered their god, Ahura Mazda, seven trays of symbolic objects that represented such virtues as truth and justice; the tradition continues today in elements of the Haft-Seen table. Of notable difference between the Zoroastrian Iranian Haft-Seen table and the Muslim/Iranian table is the presence of wine: “shin” was changed to “sin” with the Islamic disapproval of sharab, or wine. Zoroastrians today continue to place wine on the Nowruz table, along with a copy of the sacred book, a picture of Zarathustra, coins, fruits, sprouts, a mirror and a bowl of goldfish. The original, pre-Persian table also included milk, nectar and compote.

PAGAN / WICCAN OSTARA

As the northern hemisphere welcomes the onset of spring, modern Pagans and Wiccans celebrate Ostara. Themes of renewal and new beginnings are lifted up as adherents commemorate the sacred marriage of the Sun God and the young Maiden Goddess. (Wicca.com has more.) Stories tell that the Maiden Goddess conceives and that springtime symbols, such as the rabbit and egg, symbolize her fertility. Most Pagans and Wiccans partake in leafy greens, sprouts and dairy foods during this festival, participating in activities that emphasize the beauty and bounty of nature.

NOWRUZ ROUNDUP: NEWS AND RESOURCES

http://www.readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_313_Nowruz_food.jpgTraditional dishes on a Nowruz tableHungry for a taste of Persian cuisine? Try a recipe for Persian New Year’s Soup, courtesy of epicurious. The recipe’s author, esteemed food writer Louisa Shafia, will also be releasing The New Persian Kitchen next month: check out this interview for her firsthand take on Persian culture, the role of food in holidays like Norouz and the challenges of keeping tradition alive in the Diaspora.

In Los Angeles, the Persian community will kick off the New Year with a cause: the Midnight Mission homeless shelter. After handing out clothes and toys, the Persian community will underwrite Midnight Mission’s meal service for 13 days—the number of days the holiday lasts in Iran.

Across the world in Shiraz, Iran, volunteers have cooked 220 kg of samanoo for distribution to the needy. The sweet paste, used for the Haftsin table, is made of germinated wheat and traditionally cooked by women in an all-night gathering.

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Categories: Baha'iFaiths of IndiaInterfaithInternational Observances