by Nancy West
"So, the shortest day came, and the year died,
and everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
came people singing, dancing
to drive the dark away."
Yule, also known as Winter Solstice, Mothernight, and Sun-Return marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. At this darkest time of the year, when the Earth seems bare and forlorn, we bring evergreens into our homes - the fir tree, holly, ivy and mistletoe- to remind ourselves that the Earth will be green again. We light candles in ritual circles to rekindle the fires of the Sun and the fires of faith and hope within us. We feast together and share stories, poems and songs in front of the fire to warm ourselves within and without. We gather together in the cold dawn to drum up the Sun and dance in the first rays that mark the turning point in the year and the return of the light to the land.
Thought the days are short, the light has a special quality and intensity. The Sun is low in the southern sky, and blinds us with its glare as if to remind us of its presence. At SpiritWays we watch the progression of the Sun from Samhain to Yule as its rays reach farther and farther into the interior of the shop. The windows sparkle with snowflakes, crystals and handblown glass, and rainbows dance on the ceiling. On the shortest day, Winter Solstice, the Sun's rays touch the farthest corner of the shop in a blaze of light. After Yule, the rays will gradually recede, until at Summer Solstice, they barely reach beyond the window ledge.
The long Winter weeks ahead are brightened by simple activities. Crafting, writing, baking, sewing, knitting, reading- all will enhance your experience from Yule to Imbolc. Spend time with family and friends - play games together or simply enjoy conversation. Connect with others and with yourself on the long dark evenings, knowing that each day is growing a little bit longer.
Whether you call it Yule or Winter Solstice or Christmas, the feeling at this time of year is one of anticipation, and hope for a change in the Universe that will bring happiness and joy to all. We wish a Blessed Yule to you and all of your loved ones.
"As promise wakens in the sleeping land
they carol, feast, give thanks,
and dearly love their friends,
and hope for peace.
And so do we,
this year and every year:
Aine Minogue - To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Imbolc, also known as the Feast of Brighid or Candlemas, celebrates the quickening of the year, the waxing of the sun's light and the first stirrings of Spring. It is a fire festival, focusing on light rather than heat, as the strengthening spark of the sun's light begins to pierce the gloom of winter. It celebrates marital union and the hearth, and in many countries, it marks the time when the first lambs are born.
Brigid is the radiant triple goddess, also known as Brid or Bride (Breed) or Brighid. She is the protector of women, children and newborn animals, as well as the goddess of the healing arts, poetry and song, and the patron of smiths and metal-workers. She is midwife to the Spring, warming the Earth with her breath and encouraging new growth and new projects. She was so beloved by the ancients that the Catholic church turned her into a saint. In his book The Golden Bough, Frazer says: "she is an old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak". According to legend, St. Brigid had the power to multiply food and drink to nourish the needy, including the ability to turn her bathwater into beer!
St. Brigid's Crosses of rush or straw are still made in Ireland and have evolved from pre-Christian ceremonies which were performed to bless the seed before planting crops. In Ireland, where there are over 3,000 holy wells, there are more wells dedicated to Brigid than any others, even St. Patrick.
Doreen Valiente writes in An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present: "The evergreens for Yuletide decorations were holly, ivy, mistletoe, the sweet-smelling bay and rosemary, and green branches of the box tree. By Candlemas, all had to be gathered up and burnt, or hobgoblins would haunt the house. In other words, by that time a new tide of life had started to flow through the whole world of nature, and people had to get rid of the past and look to the future. Spring cleaning was originally a nature ritual."
Another widespread custom in the British Isles, France, Germany and Spain is that fine weather on Candlemas Day means more Winter to come, while bad weather on that day means Winter is over. That belief survives in the U.S. in the form of Groundhog Day.
Brigid is the fire in the head of the poet and the fire in the belly of those who act upon their ideas. She is a goddess of inspiration and action, of renewal and transformation. At Imbolc, we celebrate changes around and inside us and renew our commitment to making the world a better place, and we honor the spark of Divine creativity within us.
So, this year when you do your Spring cleaning, sweep those pesky hobgoblins out of the door, and light a candle in honor of Brigid. Happy Imbolc!
Ostara, also known as the Spring Equinox or Vernal Equinox, celebrates conception, the sprouting seed, rejuvination, and feeling the balance necessary to begin anew. The forces of light and dark are equal on this day, and we rejoice in the knowledge that from this day forward until the Autumn Equinox, light is triumphant over darkness. The Sun King reigns! The name Ostara comes from the Teutonic lunar goddess, Eostre, whose totem,the hare, could be seen in the full moon, or cosmic egg. The name Eostre has links to Astarte, Ishtar and Aset (another name for Isis), as well as to the modern word estrus, which is defined as the period of maximum sexual receptivity of the female. Both the hare and the egg have been linked to this time of year for thousands of years as symbols of fertility, life force and renewal. Borrowed by the Christian holiday of Easter in the form of the Easter Bunny and his basket of eggs, this coupling of rabbit and eggs has puzzled many a child.
At Ostara, night and day are of equal length, and it is a solar festival, along with Litha, Mabon and Yule. For this reason many pagans will decorate their altars with a solar wheel, with candles at the north, south east and west. Both the equilateral Celtic cross and the Easter hot-cross bun derive from the solar wheel.
Eggs were originally dyed red for the sun, but now they are colo red all the hues of the rainbow. They can also be inscribed with symbols and then ritually eaten to draw the power of the symbol inside.
The flowers for this festival are daffodils, primroses and forsythia. Sometimes participants in an Ostara ritual will enter the circle by walking between a black candle and a white candle, pausing before stepping through the gateway into Spring and the burgeoning light, asking as they do so, how to restore the balance into their lives that will enable them to grow.
For the Earth, Ostara marks the return of overt signs of life. The Winter snow and ice are melting. The winds have shifted and are no longer blowing as cold. It may snow again, but it will quickly melt into the Earth as nourishing water. Hibernating animals begin to wake, and plants and trees begin to show new buds. The Great Mother has returned to us as the Spring Maiden, full of the joys of life.
The message of Ostara is rebirth, and we feel a sense of renewal and joy, having made it through the long Winter. This is a time to use our renewed energy to make plans for the future, so that we may blossom with the blossoming Earth and reach our full potential. Happy Ostara, Happy Spring!
Where did the last eight weeks go? Beltane snuck up on me as it does every year! I did leave gifts for the faeries and I did dance around a maypole, but to make myself stay inside this time of year and write a newsletter is close to impossible. The moment the Earth begins her greening is the moment that indoor tasks pale in comparison to the lure of the outdoors. This time of year I want to spend all of my time in my garden, clearing away the old and brown to make way for the new and green. It's always exciting for me to see which herbs and perennials have made it through the winter, and to greet their brave little shoots or leaves. This year we have been blessed with a fairly reasonable Spring without too many cold snaps to threaten the blossoms. Since early April, my crabapple, cherry, green apple and chokecherry trees have taken their blooming by turns to provide me with constant delights for my eyes and nose. The faery houses have been cleaned and swept and decorated with new treasures from friends, and now comes the happy pastime of watching them blend into their surroundings as the plants around them grow taller and fuller day by day. Happy Beltane, Happy May!
Beltane celebrates fertility and growth; it is a time of planting seeds, both physically and mentally. At this time, we honor the Green Man, consort of the Goddess and ancient Spirit of the Greenwood. Known as Jack-in-the-Green or Robin, he joins with his May-Queen. This is also the season of Herne, antler-crowned protector of the Greenwood and symbol of fertility, growth and change. After mating with the Goddess on May Eve, Herne declares his readiness to forsake his wanderings and take his place beside her as they prepare for the birth of the Star Child at Yule.
On Beltane Eve, some witches take to the woods to bring in the May blossoms at dawn. "Bringing in the May" could have had a double meaning for our ancestors, since the fields were often blessed by coupling in and around them. To this day, many pagan handfastings take place at this festival.
On the Wheel of the Year Beltane stands opposite Samhain, and the veil between the worlds is thin at both times. At Beltane, the worlds of mortals and faery are very close. What a good time to plant a Hawthorn tree for the Fae. In Ireland, farmers and even Earth-moving road builders are still reluctant to cut down lone hawthorns, as they are faery trees. The custom of hanging May Day baskets full of flowers on doors reflects the old traditions of decorating the doors and windows of the village houses with branches and flowers brought back from the woods on May morning. On this day only, the taboo against cutting hawthorn branches was lifted, and those could be brought into the house as well. Another belief that lasts to this day is that washing one's face in May-morning dew will beautify the skin. Yet another custom comes to us from the Romans, who honored their hearth deities or spirits of the home at this time.
Our Celtic ancestors drove cattle between two sacred fires on May 1st to protect them before sending them out to pasture - this was called the "bel-tine" or lucky fire. Beltane might be named for a Northern European deity named Bel or Belenos. Bel means bright, indicating a solar connection.
However you celebrate this time of year, be sure to remember the faeries and give them their due (or else they might "borrow" your keys!) Happy Beltane, everyone!
Summer Solstice, also called Litha or Midsummer, marks the longest day and shortest night of the year. Since Winter Solstice, or Yule, the sun has been growing stronger and the days longer. Now the sun reaches that moment when it peaks and then begins to wane. Although Litha marks the beginning of the sun's dying strength, on the common calendar it also marks the first day of summer, the season of abundant growth. Seeds that were planted in the spring have sprouted and grown, fruit trees have blossomed and begun to set fruit, herbs are green and lush, and flowers are everywhere. Now is the time to care for our gardens, to water and weed as plants mature and ripen in preparation for the harvest.
On Midsummer Eve (June 20th this year) I like to leave offerings for the elementals, who I believe bless my gardens with their presence and help my plants to grow. I set out little seashells filled with mead or lemonade and tiny pieces of cake or cookies. I tuck votive candles in safe places among the rocks and faerie houses in my yard, and I take some time to commune with the Fae. In the morning, the offerings will have been consumed.
Sometimes the elementals will leave gifts in return. One Midsummer Eve when my daughters were small, we prepared an elaborate feast and set it up along our "Faerie Walk". We had tiny goblets and plates and miniscule pieces of bright cloth rolled and tied for napkins. The next morning we hurried outside to see if the faeries had enjoyed their party. They had indeed. Treats had been consumed, plates and cups scattered, napkins unrolled. And all along the Faerie Walk, hundreds of tiny five-petaled toadstools had sprung up overnight. The faerie folk had left us a strange and beautiful gift, toadstools shaped like flowers! They sprang up, lingered for a day or two, and then disappeared. I have never seen anything like them before or since.
In this midpoint of the growing season, may we look within and tend to our inner gardens as well. Now is the time to revisit the hopes and dreams of spring, and to remove any obstacles that may be keeping our dreams from blossoming. Now is the time to provide the nurturing needed to bring our hopes to fruition.
Lughnassadh, also called Lammas or Loaf-mass, marks the first harvest before the large harvest later in the year. Lughnassadh celebrates the sacred marriage of the Sun and Earth. Pregnant and lush, the Earth needs the warm caress of the Sun for her fruits, grains and vegetables to swell and ripen. We can witness this sacred mystery every day as we watch flowers open to the Sun and fruits and vegetables ready themselves for our tables. The days are still long and hot. Lughnassadh is a celebration to refresh and revitalize the body and the spirit, and it is a time to give thanks for the bountiful harvest that can be seen and felt all around. It is a time to be one with the changing of the season, to enjoy the heat of the sun as well as the cool nights that hint of the autumn to come, to welcome the sudden rains as the blessing they are, and to give thanks for the abundance of the Earth.
The gods provide, but they provide only what we are willing to work for and harvest by our efforts. All that is provided will rot on the vine and grow wild or wither away from neglect if we do not add our labor of love and care. During the weeks ahead, as the Wheel of the Year moves toward Mabon, the Autumnal Equinox, reflect on the things you are most thankful for, and think about the ways you can love and care for those things.
Earth's bounty makes it especially easy and enjoyable to take good care of yourself and your family right now. If you have a garden, I'm sure you know the thrill of making a fresh salad with your own vegetables and herbs, or having just-picked cherry tomatoes for breakfast. If you don't have a garden, visit one of the farmer's markets or a store that carries local produce. Remember, the less distance food has to travel from where it grows to where you are, the better it tastes!
This time of year, I put something from the garden into every meal I prepare. The following recipe is one of my favorites because it's so easy to change according to what's ripe or abundant at the time.
Magick Herb-Cheese Fritatta
olive oil Directions
1 dozen eggs Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large pan.
1 package whole fresh mushrooms Thinly slice mushrooms and saute until brown and crispy.
2 large potatoes, cooked and sliced Remove and set aside. Thinly slice the peppers and onion
1 red bell pepper and saute until tender. If you are adding garlic, mince a
1 green bell pepper clove finely and saute. Drain and set aside. Use any oil that
1/2 sweet onion is left to coat well 2 nine-inch glass pie pans, adding more
2 large or 4 small tomatoes, sliced if needed (be generous!) Finely chop the herbs you are
Any (or all!) of the following herbs - using. Beat 6 eggs, adding salt and pepper and 1/2 of the
(I've listed their magickal properties) chopped herbs, and pour evenly into the two pans. Now
Basil (protection, good luck, wealth, love) build the fritattas: first the sliced potatoes, then sprinkle
Chive (prosperity, protection, healing) the mushrooms, then place the onion and pepper slices.
Garlic (protection, strength, courage) Cover with the remaining 6 eggs, salt, pepper and herbs
Oregano (prosperity) and sprinkle with grated cheddar and parmesan cheese.
Parsley (mystic arts, augments magickal workings) Bake until nicely browned and
Rosemary (attracts faeries, dispells depression, prevents nightmares) done in the center (about
Sage (wish-magick, longevity, protection) 25 minutes) Serves 6-12,
Tarragon (psychic powers) depending on your appetites.
Thyme (calls faeries, enables one to see the faery realm, dream magick, divination) Enjoy, and
Cheddar and Parmesan cheese, grated, (or any cheeses you have on hand) Happy Lughnassadh!
Mabon, also known as the Autumn Equinox, Wine Harvest and the Feast of Avalon, is the second Harvest festival in the year. It is that magical time, when for one day, September 21st this year, daylight and darkness are of equal length. From this point forward in the cycle, night will have dominion over day as each day the period of sunlight dwindles. It is already noticeable that darkness comes earler, and the feeling of Autumn is in the air.
For those of us who honor God and Goddess, this is the time when the dying Sun God begins his journey to the Underworld to sojourn with the Crone aspect of the triple Goddess, in the land of the dead at Samhain. He will return again at Yule as the Star Child of the Winter Solstice, beginning to grow once more in the womb of the young, vibrant Maiden aspect of the Goddess.
As the sun's light wanes and the darkness increases, we can see the weeks ahead as a time for introspection, for going within. It is a time of balance, of looking back and looking ahead, to take stock of our lives. It is a time to contemplate both the blessings and the challenges in our lives, and to weigh them in equal measure. It is also a good time to put our lives into a healthy balance, and to make sure we give to ourselves as well as to others.
Fruits and vegetables are wonderfully abundant at this time, but there is one fruit that illustrates the mysteries of this Sabbat especially well. Apple trees are thought to mark the boundaries between the worlds, and slicing open an apple reveals the mystery within: a five-pointed star symbolizing all the elements of life combined. During this Mabon season, when you eat an apple, be reminded that we walk between the worlds; that of consensual reality and that of our magickal Otherworld. At this festival, we stand between the pillars of light and darkness, ready to descend, with all those Goddesses whose myths are associated with the Underworld, into the long night of the year. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for the descent into the deep, creative darkness of the coming months. Just as seeds germinate in the rich darkness of the Earth, may we reach deeply into the places of regeneration inside us.
"The Harvest soon will be finished and done.
The grain and the storehouse then will be one.
That which we planted now taken and stored,
against the cold Winter - our life-giving hoard.
Equal again are the Sun God and Night;
but now Darkness will triumph with its shadowy might.
Farewell to the Sun God we say on this day;
Farewell 'til again his light strengthens our way.
And the wheel turns on..."
(from Turning of the Wheel by Stanley J. A. Modrzyk)
Samhain, also known as Hallowmas, Halloween and the Day of the Dead, celebrates the final harvest. It is the end and the beginning of the Witches' Year. For the Celts, it marked the beginning of winter, and was their New Year's Day as well. It is a time to honor the Crone Goddess and the dying God who will be reborn at Yule. Samhain is the night that the old God dies, returning to the Land of the Dead to await rebirth at Yule, and this is the time that the Crone Goddess goes into mourning, leaving her people in temporary darkness.
The veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest on this night, and the spirits of our departed loved ones walk the Earth, visit family and friends, and join in ritual celebrations. In some countries, this time is sacred for families, and people are given time off work so that they can travel to the towns in which they were born and honor their ancestors. Families meet at the graveyards and place offerings of food, drink and flowers on the graves. They visit with their beloved dead in solemn joy, sometimes staying all night.
The feeding of the dead is a widespread practice. In Britain and Ireland food is always left out for these sprit travelers, and candles are placed in windows to guide them along their way. Some think this is the origin of the modern customs of the jack-o-lantern and trick or treat.
Every year at this time, we gather together in circle to honor our ancestors with toasts and stories around the fire. After our ritual, which is held outside regardless of the weather, we go inside to feast with the Gods and Goddesses and our beloved dead. The corner cabinet behind the long feasting table has been cleared and shrouded, then filled with pictures of departed ancestors and friends, marigolds and colored leaves. We pass dishes and fill our plates, and then a ringing of a bell signals the beginning of our silent feast. We eat and drink, looking often at the pictures of our loved ones, raising glasses in silent toasts to them, and in the silence we feel their presence and sometimes receive messages. It is very beautiful and profound.
Samhain is a good time to look back on your life and the lessons you have learned. Even if your teachers have crossed beyond the veil, you can still thank them. You can also still make peace with them if you need to. The departed ones are more accessible to you at this time of year than at any other, so watch for messages from them in the coming days, whether they be in dreams or when you are awake. Take some time for relaxation and reflection, and have a Happy Samhain!