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

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.

CANDLEMAS: CREPES, CANDLES AND TAMALES

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

IMBOLC: A SPRING CUSTOM FOR 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. 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.

GROUNDHOG DAY: FORECASTING AND PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL

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

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.

HOW BIG IS HALLOWEEN IN AMERICA?

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.”

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. 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.

‘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.

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.

PET COSTUMES?

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 landscape-photo.net

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 Wicca.com.) Cider, wines and herbs are offered to gods while decorations are crafted in red, orange, brown and gold.

MABON: HOW TO …

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

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

MIDSUMMER: FROM SMORGASBORDS TO BONFIRES

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 Conrad.com 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.

LITHA: A TRIBUTE TO STRENGTH OF MID-SUMMER SUN

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. (Wicca.com 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

Groundhog Day / Imbolc: Can a shadow predict spring’s arrival?

Groundhog on ground looking away from camera

What will Punxsutawney Phil predict this year? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will he—or won’t he?

That’s the question asked by thousands of spectators in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and millions more following the story digitally. Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Tradition holds that, if a groundhog emerging from his burrow sees his shadow, winter will last another six weeks; if the groundhog does not see his shadow, an early spring is in store. Though much of the United States will be covered in snow on Groundhog Day 2015—with forecasters predicting a winter far from over—spectators will be left wondering until the much-anticipated emergence of the furry woodland creature.

The most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, resides in Pennsylvania, and his predictions have been publicized in beloved tradition for more than a century. This year, head on over to the official Punxsutawney website for information on the celebrations that last for days—dining, parties, music and much more are included.

Did you know? In Alaska, Feb. 2 is known as Marmot Day, since few groundhogs live in Alaska.

Origins of Groundhog Day lie in the ancient pagan holiday known as Imbolc, which falls between winter solstice and the spring equinox. Similar “prediction” holidays have existed around the world for hundreds of years, with native groups looking to a variety of hibernating animals, from bears to snakes (Wikipedia has details). Phil was declared the official forecasting groundhog of America in 1887, when the city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper made the declaration and began publishing stories about the groundhog.

Wondering what groundhogs really do on Groundhog Day? National Geographic offers the scoop on a different prediction.

IMBOLC:
PAGAN & WICCAN WELCOME TO SPRING

An ancient Gaelic festival that once was observed across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Imbolc honors the goddess Brigid and has long been associated with the coming of spring. (Wikipedia has details.) Gaelic for “ewe’s milk,” in honor of lactating sheep (and the new life of spring that they represent), Imbolc is, by some accounts, more than 12,000 years old. Traditionally, Imbolc was observed on Feb. 1, but today, dates vary.

In Gaelic Ireland, enormous feasts were held for Imbolc. The goddess Brigid was invoked for the blessing of livestock, homes were cleaned, and Brigid’s cross was fashioned and hung on front doors. Brigid was said to visit favored households on Imbolc Eve; in return, families would set aside feasting food and drink for her. The hag of Gaelic tradition, Cailleach, is said to have gathered firewood as a prediction of weather, and in some areas, snakes and woodland creatures are watched as they emerge from their homes and hibernation.

Today, feasts continue for Imbolc in some regions (the International Business Times reported, with photos from recent celebrations). Some adherents still follow ancient rituals, by visiting holy wells and molding Brigid crosses.

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Categories: National ObservancesWiccan / 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