Tag Archives: cross-quarter days

Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

Stbrigid

Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.

Origin of Halloween

Perhaps the most misunderstood of holidays, Halloween has grown into a major commercial holiday. Outsold only by Christmas in the United States, Halloween now supports its own seasonal stores that cash in on the massive public interest. A few years ago a wrote a book explaining the holidays for teens/tweens. The book was never published, and I’ve been putting excerpts on this blog on appropriate occasions. For the full story of Halloween, please check out the Full Essays page (link above).

Accusations of a demonic origin may fit in with the popular creatures of the holiday, but they are far from the truth of the matter. A cross-quarter day, Halloween comes in the opposite side of the year from May Day (remember Walpurgis Night) when spirits make their way back into the mortal world. It represents the passing of fall into winter and the shades of death that accompany it. How much more religious can you get?

From ancient times people have been aware of how weak our control over our lives really is. We depend on the sun and the weather to cooperate for our crops. We fear the darkness when our eyes can’t compete with those of our predators. As the year descends into longer and longer nights, we secretly fear that eventually night will not end. The dark time of the year belonged to the spirits.

Just as all ancient people celebrated the vernal equinox (if you missed it, check out the Passover-Easter Complex for more), they marked the autumnal equinox with festivals. Although Halloween is six weeks after the equinox, it seems to have inherited some of the ancient associations of that season. One of the ancient feasts of the equinox was for Pomona, the Roman goddess associated with fruits and seeds. There is more of Thanksgiving than Halloween in this festival, however.

Halloween, as we have come to know it, is usually traced to the same people who gave us St. Patrick’s Day – the Celts. The Irish calendar was divided into four quarters, marked between the solstices and equinoxes by the cross-quarter days. The fall cross-quarter day was Samhain (in case you don’t speak Gaelic, this is pronounced “sow-win”). Samhain can be understood as “summer’s end” and it was the traditional marking of the onset of winter; it actually comes just a month before meteorological winter.

The Celts, as well as other ancient peoples, believed that spirits of the dead were active as the trees lost their leaves, the grass began to dry and, and the world itself seemed to be dying. Huge bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits, and perhaps bloody sacrifices were made to ensure the safety of the living.

No matter what modern Halloween critics may say, the Celts did not worship Satan and the origins of the holiday are not satanic. Pagan, maybe, but who isn’t somebody else’s pagan? The idea was to fend off evil, not worship it. The shamans, or “medicine men” of the Celts were a class of priests called Druids. Samhain would have been one of the festivals overseen by the Druids. These guys were priests of a religion that focused on nature, not the Devil. They did play a little rough though. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice once in a while, but Samhain was more often about killing off livestock before the winter. Either you can keep your animals alive and they will eat the little food you have, or you can butcher them and add to the little food you have. After all, not much grows in winter.

[See Full Essays for the rest]

Holy May Days

The first few weeks of May are peppered with holidays, some religious, some secular. As my regular readers know, I’ve been working on a book about holidays for kids, so I showcase a few pieces on this blog, on occasion. Instead of providing several posts on May’s holidays, I’m combining the first three special days into a holiday compendium for early May.

May Day (May 1) is, in origin, a religious holiday. It is an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic holiday called Beltane, it celebrates fertility, and it is a day that workers throughout the world fight for fair treatment. Sometimes it is associated with Communism. So, where do we begin to unpack all that? To start with, May Day is a cross-quarter day (Groundhog Day and Halloween are two others). Cross-quarter days fall halfway between the solstices and equinoxes – the days that mark the change of seasons. Ancient Europeans believed that cross-quarter days allowed spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings into the human world, as can be seen in the Germanic Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1). Although named after a saint (Walburga, d. Feb. 25, 779) Walpurgis Night has deep pre-Christian roots in northern Europe. It celebrates the coming of May, or summer, with huge bonfires lit at night. It Germany it was also called Witches’ Night (Hexennacht) because it was believed that witches gathered on Brocken mountain to await the coming of May. The Celtic May 1 is Beltane. For the Celts Beltane marked the start of summer and it was one of their two major holidays (the other comes around Halloween). Like the Germanic tribes, the Celts lit bonfires on Beltane. Druids would light two fires to purify those who would pass between them. In Ireland people would dress their windows and doors with May Boughs and would set up May Bushes. These were signs of the returning fertility of the earth. This tradition survives in parts of the United States in the form of the May Basket. May Baskets are filled with treats and are left at someone’s door. The tradition is to knock and run, but if you get caught, the gift recipient gets to kiss you! These days, however, an unexpected basket at the door is more likely to result in a call to the bomb squad, so let your sweetie know ahead of time if you plan to give a May Basket!

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and like most things Hispanic, it is misunderstood by many Angelos. Frequently Cinco de Mayo is represented as Mexico’s day of independence. What it actually commemorates, however, is a historic battle. Napoleon III’s French Army was in Mexico in 1862. These guys were in the state of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican force under 33 year-old General Ignacio Zargoza actually beat them on May 5. In the States, Cinco de Mayo is becoming a day to showcase Mexican culture, kind of like St. Patrick’s Day is for Irish culture. The Battle of Puebla is not Mexico’s independence day – that falls on September 16 and often escapes notice in the United States.

And, of course, Sunday is Mother’s Day. People around the world celebrate their mothers at various times of the year, but many don’t realize that this holiday goes back to the ancient Near East. Cybele was an ancient goddess associated with all things motherly. Originally from the Levant, the Greeks and Romans believed her to have been from Turkey (Phrygia). She had a festival day at the vernal equinox. Although there is no direct connection with the date or form of our Mother’s Day, it is possible that this annual recognition of an exceptional mother gave people the idea for Mother’s Day. Whatever it ancient origins may have been, Mother’s Day as we know it started in the United States as a protest against the Civil War. Many women believed war to be wrong. During the Civil War Anna Jarvis organized Mothers’ Work Days (as if they didn’t already have enough to do!) to improve sanitation for both armies. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, which was a document calling for the end of the war. The idea was to unite women in protest and bring the conflict to a close. After the war ended Anna Jarvis’ daughter (who had the same name as her mother) campaigned for a memorial day for women. Because of her efforts, a Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908. After that various states began to observe Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914, ironically the year the First World War began. It is celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

For whatever spirits, political ideals, or goddesses you admire, May is the appropriate time to celebrate.

Inter-species Prognostication

Groundhog Day is a holiday easily forgotten by all but Bill Murray fans and residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The day, however, has a role deep in European folk religion that was reflected in the “cross-quarter days.” From ancient times, the four days of the year that fall precisely between the solstices and equinoxes were known as cross-quarter days, based on the day of the month that rent was due in England (“quarter days”). The Celts recognized this cross-quarter day in early February as Imbolc (later Christianized as Candlemas). Part of the folk religion held that animals had special powers on cross-quarter days, and that fair weather on Imbolc meant that more wintry weather was on the way.

In America, where Groundhog Day has its original burrow, the tradition began among German immigrants. The first historical reference to Groundhog Day was made in 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. By 1886 Punxsutawney had its groundhog Phil and the tradition has continued ever since.

Although it is a lighthearted holiday, I always tell my Hebrew Prophets class (which begins near Groundhog Day) that this is a form of socially accepted prognostication. Few believe that a marmot can predict the weather, but we like to believe that winter is on its way out when the cold starts to feel old and stubborn and we are ready for a few sunny days. The old tradition states that if Phil doesn’t see his shadow he won’t dash fearfully into his den and spring is on its way. Fact is, spring falls six weeks from Groundhog Day, so no matter what the rodent says, spring is on its way. Ancient religions always stress the hope that nature will continue as it has in the past and that spring will follow winter as it should. It is nevertheless a fun day to watch the largest member of the squirrel family amble out of his heated burrow, no doubt confused by all the furless bipeds standing around with cameras, and play the prophet for his fifteen minutes of national fame.

The world's hairiest prophet?