Category Archives: Holidays

Bob Marley’s Rebel Music, My Guiding Light

Today would have been Bob Marley’s 75th birthday if he had lived. Tragically, he died of cancer on May 11, 1981 at the age of 36. Most people know that Bob Marley and the Wailers put reggae on the map, taking it from obscure local Jamaican music and turning it into the international phenomenon it became. But for me, Bob Marley isn’t just another name among the many other ground-breaking musicians of the 1960s and 70s. When we talk about Bob Marley we’re not just talking about music anymore; we’ve crossed into the subject of mysticism and religion. Bob Marley is less like a rock star and more like a biblical messenger.

I grew up in coastal and beach towns, so I always knew who Bob Marley was, but through a lot of my early teens I was more into punk rock and heavy metal. Then in 1993, I was the president of my church youth group at St. Anne’s and we took part in an annual Diocesan Youth Camp Out. This was two nights at an outdoor coastal retreat which brought high school kids together from Catholic churches over the whole Florida Panhandle. The theme that year was “One Love, One Life” and Bob Marley’s hit song was played at all the activities throughout the weekend. The t-shirts had red, green and gold on them. It was a genuine religious experience on a Florida beach with Bob Marley’s message front and center.

I was captivated by how much of Marley’s music was religious in its nature. It may as well be gospel music. Listening to Marley’s lyrics is like listening to a hymn, and that one-drop beat and the rootsy melodies are infectious. It wasn’t a stretch for Marley’s music to become an influential part of my ever-growing spiritual life.

As I grew into my late teens, I became more disillusioned with modern life. I’d had a miserable experience in public school. I came to realized that the Church is full of vipers, but only after I had been bitten. I became aware of the corruption of government. The ongoing and almost unconscious genocide of Native peoples weighed on my mind and my soul. I felt like I had been lied to my whole life, and that everything I thought I knew up to that point was propaganda. I didn’t know who I was.  What does any of it even mean? I became angry and a little bit radical. I learned that thinking for myself is an act of rebellion.

I could have gone bad at this point, but I didn’t. Instead this is when Bob Marley’s music became most important to me. It captured my frustration and soothed what it could, and redirected what it couldn’t into a positive fire. This was real rebel music. It was rooted in positivity and righteousness, rather than the negativity found in so much of other rebellious music. Rather than being angry, self-destructive and nihilistic, I learned to be impassioned about injustice, and constructive while invigorating my faith and maintaining a sense of wonder about the world. This is what held me together. The message I learned from Bob Marley and through him from other reggae artists and the Rastafarian movement is something that has continually been a guiding light for me over the years.


It encouraged me to embrace my roots.
It helped me bridge the gap between my indigenous traditions and my orthodoxy.
It helped me understand the significance of my place in the greater movement of history.
It helped me to see that each native struggle as another front of the same global struggle for freedom, and sovereignty.
It helped me to understand that I have a role to play in this struggle and how I can fulfill that mission through education, prayer, and service to my people and revitalization of our traditional cultures.

I can’t stress enough how important it was for me that this message of reggae didn’t just want to teach me rules and ethics and tell me to be a good boy, and it didn’t just encourage me to rebel without a cause. The Rastafarian philosophy freely recognized and validated my grievances with the modern world and gave me positive means to deal with negative realities.

So today isn’t just another birthday of another popular musician to me. It is the anniversary of the day a great man came into the world who would have a positive spiritual impact on many disillusioned youth throughout the world for over five decades now. He may have saved my life. While Bob Marley should be remembered for his groundbreaking music, he is also remembered for his role as an emissary of the divine, a messenger for the revolutionary word of God – Jah Rastafari.


Imbolc (St. Brigid’s Day)

Imbolc is an ancient Celtic Fire Festival traditionally celebrated on February 1st and heralds in the beginning of spring. For several hundred years this day has been the feast day of Saint Brigid of Kildare and before that of an Irish goddess by a similar name.

As the first day of spring, Imbolc is placed early in the season because Celtic people recognized that seasons begin upon their incubation rather than at their midpoint as the seasons are generally measured today. Similarly, the feast day itself as with all Celtic fire festivals begins the eve before the actual calendar date. Being a fire festival, Imbolc was marked by bonfires, hearthfires and candles. And as is traditional for the Irish any time of year, Imbolc would be celebrated with a solemn visit to sacred wells, or rivers

By Imbolc, the days have become noticeably longer since midwinter’s darkness as the sun continues to mature in the sky. The young earth is becoming fertile and the young sun begins to show signs of his virility. Seeds that have lain dormant in the earth will soon sprout. Life is becoming more active as the cold winter fades away. The stag begins to regrow his antlers and shall soon be searching for his spring-time mate. This is the day for coming of age.

In its earliest incarnations, Imbolc was a shepherd’s holiday likely called Oimelc, meaning “ewe’s milk.” At this time of year, the female sheep have often recently given birth and are lactating. Another proposed meaning of the name Imbolc would translate to “in the belly” carrying forward this theme of fertility, mating and pair-bonding.

Though Imbolc is still celebrated continuously in parts of Ireland and Britain, it was also adopted into the neopagan Eightfold Wheel of the Year in the mid twentieth century. In this progression, Imbolc is the first discernible evidence of the fulfillment of that divine promise of Yule, celebrating the returning of light and the fertility of the earth.


Anciently, Imbolc is the feast day of Brigid, patroness of poetry, medicine and metallurgy and celebrates her as the fertile virgin Earth-bride to be mated to the returning sun of spring personified as the youthful Green Man, an archetype of the springtime blooming. His hair and beard are usually represented as leaves and vines. His symbols are horns, vegetation and snakes. Though, the male hero plays an integral role in this relationship, Imbolc is truly in celebration of the Bride. Amongst her many epithets Brigid is referred to as “mistress of fire,” “old lady of the whirling fire,” and selchi shut emyss; “mistress of serpents.” The Catholic saint is portrayed just as strikingly though far less romantically as a bride of Christ.

The serpent is also a symbol of Imbolc. Much like the similar event of Groundhog Day which falls at this same time, the sighting of snakes at this time of year indicates the arrival of spring. Snakes brumate in the winter; a kind of mild hibernation. They return in the spring, making their reappearance a sign of springtime fertility. Snakes have been seen as symbolic of rebirth in many cultures due to the manner in which they slough their skin and are thus each time ‘reborn.’ The sighting of the first serpent of spring is considered a good omen bestowing virile blessings upon the seer. For this reason, the historical celebrations of Imbolc included the pounding of a serpent effigy and the pronouncement: “Today is the day of the Bride. The serpent shall come from his hole. I will not molest the serpent and the serpent will not molest me.”

As an agricultural celebration and the first fertility rite of the year, Imbolc is a time to prepare the fields for the sowing. Traditional celebrations for this time include breaking ground for new crops or blessing the fields, the plows and other farming tools, and offerings were made of milk, honey or mead, and cakes or bread.

Historically, by this time the winter supplies would be dwindling. Few if any fruits or vegetables were available. Wild animals are quite lean in late winter and so were the people having dropped their summer weight as they entered the lean season the Church would eventually institute as the season of Lent. Since wild foods are scarcest and our favorites scarcer still, this time period has historically marked a time of fasting.


Friday the 13th and the Ghost in My Backseat

Paraskevidekatriaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th, and this evening, I had my weird Friday the 13th experience.

I was on my way home from dropping off my daughter at her school dance. As I was turning a corner I saw for a brief flash in my rearview mirror the image of a ghastly woman as if she was sitting in my back seat. She had a sort of bluish illumination with two dark eyes with blackened mascara-like smears running down her face. Nothing too original, but it did cause me a split second’s release of adrenaline. The best part is that I know exactly what I saw and why.

Yeah, kinda like that!

For uncertain reasons in the Western world and especially the United States when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday it is believed to be an unlucky day.

I grew up with this superstition and believed in it to whatever degree young children can believe in anything they have no ability to understand and no reason to believe other than the influence of their peers. The fact that I was a very young child at the beginnings of the extremely successful Friday the 13th movie franchise has shaded my view of the event in a particular light for me.

I’m not unique in this, these days Americans particularly see Friday the 13th as a scary and dark day, a sort of reverse holiday similar to Halloween without the costumes or trick-or-treating. It comes with its own myths and urban legends. Much like the Santa Claus at Christmas of the Easter Bunny in spring, the murderous hockey mask clad and machete wielding zombie Jason Vorheese from the Friday the 13th movies is and for a long time to come will be in the future attached to this spooky unholiday. This really is a testament more to the quality of the marketing of the franchise than the quality of the movies themselves that even as I child I found to be more funny than frightening, but I still love them. Jason lives in mythology alongside classic legendary supernatural evils like the Headless Horseman, Dracula, or Frankenstein.

There’s a fair amount of speculation regarding the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition, but no one really knows for sure. The number 13 has been considered an unlucky number for hundreds of years. This is so prevalent that most hotels do not even host a 13th floor. The numbers on an elevator will often go straight from 12 to 14 because many people are afraid to rent a room on the 13th floor. It might seem crazy, but it’s true.

The superstition of 13 being bad luck seems to have arisen during the middle ages and is assumed to have come from the story of the arrest of Jesus after the Last Supper when He and His twelve apostles were present equaling thirteen.  Similarly, the fact Jesus was crucified on the following day; Friday made that day a particularly infamous part of the week, one which Catholics and Orthodox Christians still consider a day of fasting. These two beliefs combined seem to be the origin of the superstition; two unlucky points occurring at once although the origins of Friday the 13th being especially unlucky didn’t seem to arise until the 19th century.

In the 20th century authors such as Maurice Druon in his novel Le Roi de fer (1955), and John J. Robinson in his book Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry (1989) postulated a connection between this superstition and the day on which the Knights Templar were arrested on charges of heresy by King Philip the IV of France, Friday the 13th of October 1307. This was echoed in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), and other books, memes and papers since then. Although this is one of my favorite hypotheses, the evidence to support this being the origin of the superstition is dubious at best. It’s more likely a combination of reasons.


In my car, as quickly as the ghastly woman had appeared in my rearview mirror she was gone, but I could still see the impression of her eyes. They were spots of dirt with what appeared to be smeared finger print running down the glass. As I was turning the corner the setting sun passed directly behind me for just a brief moment. The sun’s rays reflected off of the mirror in a manner framing the fingerprints in a glow and accentuating the smudges. Then my lizard brain took over and assembled this into an image I could make sense out of based on the fact I’ve been thinking about Friday the 13th and creepy stuff all day. When my daughter gets home from her dance we plan on watching some scary movies.

Human psychology is such a fascinating subject.


Beltane, Fire of Life

Here we are the beginning of summer. The earth is waking up and her creatures are becoming active once more. The sun sets later in the evening. Flowers are blooming. Bees are pollinating the crops. Birds are laying their eggs. The mating season is in full swing. Life is abundant. This is the season of Beltane.

Beltane is an ancient festival traditionally celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. This holiday coincides with the Germanic festival of Walpurgis. It is traditionally celebrated on May 1st. Ancient Gaelic tradition, much like Jewish tradition considered the beginning of each new day to be at sunset. Therefore, May 1st on the Celtic calendar really begins at sunset on April 30th of the Gregorian calendar.

The name Beltane is thought to be derived from a Gaelic term meaning the “fire of Belenos,” referring to an obscure Celtic solar deity. This date is a celebration that officially kicks off the active summer season, fully separate from the dormant times of winter. It is the counterpart to and opposite or the season of Samhain.

Flowers and blossoms are especially symbolic of this date as the crops have set to full blossom, some even starting to fruit. For this reason, the Flower Maiden plays a central role in the theme of the season. Coming of age, the Lord in his guise as the youthful Green Man or Stag Lord regaining his antlers has arrived not only to court the Flower Maiden, but to consummate their relationship, in their symbolic roles of pistol and stamen. Here, the young maiden is transformed into a woman through the loss of her virginity.

Sexuality pervades the themes of Beltane. Ancient customs recall celebrations in which lovers met in the fields, the forests, or along the shores for sexual escapades. As the counterpart and opposite to Samhain, bonfires also characterize Beltane and many of these midnight trysts occur at the edges of the firelight. The Maypole was commonly danced at Beltane. Often times a new pole would be erected each year, while the previous year’s pole was burned as part of a bonfire. The new pole would be allowed to stand all throughout the year. In some cases a live tree would be used instead.

Amongst herders, two fires would be built close beside each other. Then they would drive their herds between them as a means of purification, protection and fertility. The people would in some cases themselves also pass between the fires. Jumping over the fires to secure good blessings was also a custom practiced in certain parts of Ireland. These festivities often continued all throughout the night and culminated with the participants observing the sunrise, and bathing or washing with water touched by the first light of the season.

The boar hunt was another traditional activity occurring this time of year, held with great ceremonial significance. Ham and other pork dishes are traditional Beltane feast items. According to Alexie Kondratiev, the mythology associated with this holiday is Maponos (the youthful male) slaying the boar that will later kill him at Samhain. The boar in this case represents the forces of winter and death which are keeping the Flower Maiden (the earth) imprisoned. The young warrior as the solar hero defeats the dominating beast, sometimes a hag or wicked parental figure, freeing the earth maiden, symbolizing the spring. The conquest of the beast frees the earth to be the bride of the sun. In some traditions the hero must conquer the boar to retrieve his tusks, or some other item to use as a weapon to defeat the beast which imprisons the maiden. Here we obsere a common theme regarding the quest for a weapon that deals both death and life. Examples of such stories occur all throughout Celtic literature such as in the Welsh Mabinog, and can be seen especially in the marriage of Blodeuwedd and Lleu.

This is the beginning of the Celtic summer.


Samhain (Halloween), Harvest of Souls

A Jack O’Lantern, an American twist on an ancient Halloween tradition.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. The spookiness, the costumes, and the troops of kids and families marching through the streets, shaking down the neighborhood for candy has left an indelible imprint upon my Autumnal expectations. Like most traditional Western holidays, Halloween and the rituals associated with it are descended from ancient traditions lost on most of modern society.

The name “Halloween” is actually a contraction of the phrase All Hallows Eve, but that is the later Christianized name for the holiday that stretches back into historical obscurity. The earlier and more indigenous form of the holiday is of Celtic origin and was known as Samhain (Sow-un) in Ireland.

Samhain is a three day festival that begins sunset on October 31 and ends at sunset on November 2. Traditionally, it celebrates the last harvest of the season and is often regarded as the Gaelic (Irish and Scottish Celtic) New Year. It was the highest feast day on the old calendar. Samhain translates from Gaelic for “Summer’s End,” and it represents the end of the active season and the beginning of the dormant season.

As a harvest festival Samhain is full of deep symbolism. The warm season is over. The season of light is at its close and darkness regains its dominion of the land. The last of the season’s crops have been harvested. The fields, formerly lush and bursting with life now lay stripped of their bounty. The harsh autumn sunlight cast upon the barren fields creates an eerie atmosphere and a sense of dread as winter approaches. Amongst herding communities this is the time that traditionally concluded with the fall slaughters. This is also a time amongst many communities that kicks off the traditional hunting season.


Surrounded by dead fields, bloody slaughters, the turn toward hunting as a means of subsistence, the waning of the sun’s influence, and the impending frost which will kill off what is left of the season’s greenery makes the theme of death inescapable. These are often somber days, therefore it is important that this day is celebrated with much festivity and jubilation as things will only become darker and colder as times progress toward Yule.

The last sheaf of the harvest would be traditionally cut ceremoniously and fashioned into a corn dolly. The corn dolly is named for the corn mother and placed in a special location where she can watch over the household, hall, circle, or clan. She will serve to continue to bestow the blessings of the harvest upon the community all throughout the barren winter months.

Due to the spirit of darkness and death, Samhain is a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. This time of year brings with it the highest potential for vision seeking and prophecy. This is a time for to meditate upon the subconscious powers of the inner cauldrons and the cauldron of Annwn.

There is much folklore associated with Samhain. Fairy mounds are abundant with the jubilance of the Shining Ones, the Fair Folk and the Sidhe. The Solar hero is slain in the boar hunt and lies dead until he is reborn at Yule. The Kernunnos archetype reigns from this time forward, leading the Wild Hunt through the skies and the countryside, herding the souls of those who died during the previous year and taken on animal forms. In Germanic tradition the Wild Hunt is lead by either Odin or Thor.

Traditional celebrations for this holiday are naturally enough centered on bonfires, torches, and lanterns. As the origin of the modern Halloween; masquerade balls and parades are also appropriate ways to celebrate Samhain. Revelers would march through the town streets from house to house singing seasonal songs. Soul cakes (little square cakes with currants) were given out to the roving bands, who would offer a prayer or song for the dead of that house. This is the origin of “trick or treat” in which young, costumed children venture from house to house collecting candy.

Harvest delicacies are abundant this time of year. Fresh fruits are traditional and symbolic. In Celtic countries apples are symbolic of the season. In America, corn and pumpkins are profound harvest symbols. In my celebration, all three are important. Corn and apples are paired as symbols of the old world and new world tradition and are the appropriate sacrifices for this day. Since Mabon is a traditional brewer’s holiday, by Samhain the beer is usually well prepared and properly aged. Ales and ciders are especially traditional at this time of year.

Halloween is a great holiday. Its roots run deep and its symbols have profound spiritual and practical significance that have been watered down by a civilization whose people largely no longer live in a seasonal and agricultural society dictated by the changing seasons, but within the preserved customs of Halloween, the real meaning of Samhain can still be observed.


Mabon, Harvest of Heroes

The Festival of Mabon is the second of three harvest festivals attributed to the neo-pagan and Western spiritual revivalist’s eight-fold Wheel of the Year. It is celebrated on or near September 21 and coincides with the autumn equinox. The festival has also been adopted by Revival Druidry as Alban Elfed; one of the four High Holy days.

Mabon is an interesting festival to write about. Although the date on which Mabon falls is astronomically significant, a festival by this name did not exist historically. Notable academic and occultist Aidan Kelly named the equinox festival “Mabon” after the Welsh legendary figure and member of King Arthur’s court, Mabon ap Modron. It’s positioned right next to Michaelmas, the Catholic Church’s Feast of St. Michael the Archangel who is said to be the most like God, and whose characteristics are perhaps the most reminiscent of the solar hero, complete even in archetype as a warrior and dragon-slayer.

Mabon is significant in that as the second of three harvest festivals it lies between two other significant historical Celtic holidays, Lugnasadh and Samhain (Halloween) and contains elements of both. The autumn equinox signals the end of the mythic cycle. With the sun’s height being at Midsummer, it has now begun to wane. Together with the spring holiday Ostara, Mabon is one of two days of the year when the daylight hours are of equal length as the nighttime hours.


To some degree Mabon is a time of mourning. The powers of light and darkness are balanced one final time, allegorically locked in combat. The hero meets his doom as either the hunter is slain by his intended prey, or as Arthur mortally wounded on the battlefield defending his kingdom against the forces of darkness and chaos. It could be a myriad of turns on this theme. The Solar Hero is dying, and the cold grip of winter begins moving in stealthily to rule the land.

Much like the other harvest festivals, this is a time to reflect on the past, especially the past year. What have your efforts yielded? What positive or negative results have you experienced as a result of your choices and behaviors? What did you do that has had positive results in your life that you could do more or again? What changes would you make for the coming year in order to have even better results? Give thanks for life and all the good fortune you have no matter how difficult the past year may have been.

Equinox time is also a traditional time to begin brewing. Consider that the season’s harvest of wheat and fruits is just now being gathered and distributed. The beers, wines, and ciders which are such a part of the Halloween and Yuletide traditions are begun at this time. Even as the summer’s project of cultivating the fields comes to a close, it’s time for the beginning of new projects.

Lughnasadh: Harvest of Life

The Irish Celtic Festival of Lughnasadh is traditionally celebrated on August 1st but extends throughout much of the month. It is the first genuine harvest festival of the year and it coincides directly with the Anglo-Saxon holiday of Lammas.



The holiday is named for Lugh, the Irish hero of light. His name derives from the word for lightning and illumination. Amongst Germanic peoples, this day was sacred to the god Thor: the god of thunder, storms and agriculture. Thunder and lightning are obvious signs of rain and storm which are naturally an important ecological phenomenon for agricultural societies.

Lugh is of course more than a simple agricultural deity. As a patron of light, Lugh is the embodiment of all things light represents: intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment. Science and artistry are also considered to have been invented by Lugh. Considering his close association with the Roman god Mars, Lugh is a patron of martial prowess, which is perhaps best exemplified through his son Cuchulain. All of these attributes, whether agricultural or innovative attest to Lugh as a god of wealth, the guardian and benefactor of the tribe’s prosperity.  It is probably more than mere coincidence that this time of year in Anglos-Saxon tradition, bondsmen would pay their rent.

This holiday, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Samhain represent the four main festivals of the medieval Irish calendar.  As the first true harvest festival in the seasonal cycle, Lughnasadh has certain associations with death.  In fact, the name itself translates roughly as “the wake of Lugh.”  Whereas holidays in the earlier seasons coincide with increasing life, harvest festivals are the first signs of the summer’s demise.  With the summer day’s becoming noticeably shorter at this time, it becomes quite obvious that winter’s grip is only a short way off.  Although the theme of a wake is a significant part of the festival, the overall atmosphere is generally one of joy and revelry.

The legends tell us that Lugh established the harvest fair of Lugnasadh in honor of his foster-mother Tailtiu at the Town of Teltown in County Meath.  Tailtu’s death was a necessary component in establishing the growing of the crops and the abundant harvest that follows.  These celebrations quite often resembled today’s Scottish Highland Games. Lugnasadh often involved horse races, and martial arts displays or competitions.  Competitive games such as chess were also a part of the festivities, representing Lugh’s victory over the Fomorian King Bres who previously controlled the powers of the Harvest, establishing the Irish agricultural tradition.

                     

Lugh is the hero of Light. For this reason he is often compared with the Sun, since the Sun is the greatest source of light with which humans and earthly crops interact. As a hero of Light, Lugh is also called Samh-ildánach, “the many gifted one,” because of his multiple skills in all the arts and trades.  Just as darkness represents ignorance, Light represents knowledge, and in this case knowledge of many, if not all things. In the old legends we find that Lugh (representing the Sun) conquers the Fomorians (representing darkness, ignorance and oppression). When this is done, Lugh wrestles from the King of primitive darkness the knowledge of cultivation and the harvest.

This is a celebration of the Harvest.  On this day families gather together to give thanks for the bounty of the Harvest and to reenact the mythological event that brought the Ancestors from a life of oppression and into a life of abundance with the knowledge of agriculture. It must be remembered that it is only with this knowledge that humankind has managed to not only survive, but to thrive in even inhospitable environments. It is agriculture that has allowed human beings to settle lands, build defensive structures and over all make life safer for acquiring food. This has allowed civilization to flourish and become specialized, developing art, literature, economics, and other remarkable aspects of material culture.

Midsummer

Midsummer is a traditional holiday celebrated throughout many of the world’s cultures, with ancient origins.  It is the celebration of the summer solstice, an important astronomical date on the annual cycle.  It is celebrated on or near the 21st of June. In many Celtic communities it is commonly celebrated on June 24th.

Due to its connection with the agricultural cycle, Midsummer is most often celebrated on the 21st of June by modern Heathens and neo-pagans as one of the eight sabbats. In Revival Druidry it is called Alban Heruin and is one of the four high holidays.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, with the sun at its strongest, therefore Midsummer represents the triumph of light over darkness.  The solar hero born at Yule and celebrated as the child of light is now at his peak.  He overthrows the oppressive king of winter and takes his rightful place upon the throne of the earth.  Just as in our time today, in ancient days marriages often occurred at Midsummer.

                    

As an agricultural holiday, in many parts of the world this is the earliest time that a harvest can be made since the springtime sowing; therefore it is a festival of first fruits. Traditional Midsummer rites are often centered on bonfires.  New fires would be kindled and offerings of flowers were made to them.  In many communities an effigy of a person would be burned in the bonfire.  Similarly to Beltane, cattle would be driven through the smoke of the fires as a means of blessing, protecting and enhancing the livelihood of the tribe and community.  Torches were lit from central bonfires and carried home where the hearth was lit.  Participants would dance around these fires and tend them throughout the night.  This all-night affair was commonly called “the watch,” and it was an integral part of the festivities.  Near the early morning when he fires had died down some, some of the revelers would jump over the flames for good luck and to encourage the crops to grow.

Midsummer Bonfire in Freiburg im Breisgau

Similar traditions are found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Native American communities such as the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokee, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and many others of the Eastern Woodland traditions celebrate the Green Corn rite: the new fire ceremony, the New Year, the greatest fast culminating in the first feast of the year.

At this time in the environment, the wild flora is also at its peak, especially of the medicinal variety, so this holiday also has a focus on gathering and honoring medicine.  Blackberries and wild plums are also ripening, making for natural symbols of this season. On the Muskogee calendar, June is Kvco Hvse or “Blackberry Sun.”

In many Germanic countries the Maypole is celebrated at Midsummer.  In some communities the Maypole was left up from Beltane and burned at Midsummer. Midsummer is the height of the spiritual year.  Medicine is strongest at this time.  Spirits of nature and of the ancestors, both good and malevolent are very active on a Midsummer’s night which inspired one of Shakespear’s most classic works; A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Yuletide and the Real Reason for the Season

Candle on German Christmas tree. Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Yule is an ancient Germanic midwinter celebration better known today by the name Christmas.  Being associated with the winter solstice, Yule is traditionally a twelve-day festival centered near the days of December 21st.  Although Yule is a holiday of Germanic origin, the traditions and symbolism associated with it have been absorbed by the Christmas holiday and practiced in variations throughout the world.  Similarly the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia: a festival of great significance on December 25th, the date that was adopted as the official date for Christmas.  Due to Christianization, these similar holidays are now united throughout most of Western society as Christmas, but many of the traditions associated with it are of pre-Christian, and Heathen origin.

Over the centuries through colonialism, missionary infiltration, and technological development unrelated and often foreign mythologies were grafted onto the significant dates so that the original meanings and reasons for our oldest holidays have been all but forgotten in popular culture.  It’s not just coincidence that the Yuldetide falls at the solstice time.  That is precisely the point.

Solstice time is significant to human society for a number of reasons.  Since the beginning of autumn as the earth has tilted on its axis, the sun’s rays have begun to hit the earth’s northern hemisphere less directly causing the air to cool off and the seasons to change into winter.  Winter in Northern Europe was a perilous time for the ancient tribal peoples of Northern Europe with average daily temperatures consistently below freezing.  Crops will not grow. The herds are thin and wild animals that were so abundant in the summer are scarce.   The grass is brown with death and trees stand naked, stripped bare save for the evergreen which has taken on the symbolism of everlasting life.  For our ancestors, the people fared little better.  We have a term for this time of year, “the dead of winter.” Since the harvest, death has seemed to surround the tribe.

During winter the daylight hours appear dimmer and get progressively shorter and the nights longer and colder.  Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.  It is the longest night and symbolically at least, the coldest of the winter nights.  It sounds depressing doesn’t it? For a lot of people it is. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real winter-induced condition that has otherwise been colloquially called the “winter blues” and has been documented in Northern Europe since the 6th century.  Recommended treatments include Light Therapy, exposure to bright light.  And what is Christmastime without Christmas lights? These LED bulbs that we cover our houses, yards and Christmas trees in are easily traced back to festive Christmas candles and most anciently and significantly the hearth fire, the social and spiritual center of the traditional Western home.

          

Notice the Yuletide is the annual time for good cheer. Why the middle of winter instead of any other time of year?   Because during no other time of year are people in need of such uplifting sentiment and behavior than in the dead of winter in Northern Europe.  Of course it is the darkest and often most depressing time of the year that the people would choose to lighten the mood with shimmering lights and “making spirits bright.” This ages old Yule tradition of decorating the house with lights, wreaths, ribbons, and shiny, joyous symbols is a wonderful way to lift the mood when it’s needed most.

And these festivities center and culminate around these particular dates in December for specific astronomical reasons.  At this point the Earth begins to tilt on her axis in a manner that allows for more of the sun’s rays to shine directly upon the northern hemisphere, allowing the days to grow longer and the frigid nights to grow shorter.  These are the first stirrings of the coming summer.  In contrast with the atmosphere of death that has surrounded the people through the autumn, we can now look forward once again toward spring and summer, the time of life and abundance.  It is almost as if the new year has been born again and we are saved.

Joseph Campbell took great effort to document the depth and breadth of the solar hero motif in its various forms from the divine child to the dying god, and metaphorically, poetically it’s a powerful image. This distinct relationship between the earth and the sun is likened to a procreative act that bares life and provides the conditions for abundance. The winter solstice bares the New Year sun like a child who will grow into a hero and eventually die before being reborn over and over again.  The hero’s life is a personified metaphor for the annual cycle.  The birth of the solar hero, the sun god, the god of the tribe is the first step toward the fulfillment of an annual prophecy: a divine promise that the summer will come again, that life will flourish once more on the earth.  The passing of these last days of the most deadly time of winter is celebrated with revelry at the birth of the sun, the personification of the sacred year.

Over thousands of years the prominence of one mythology over another distanced the people more and more from the astronomical significance and the agricultural affects associated with the winter solstice.  Depending on the region of the world different characters are associated with the holiday. For many people today Christmas is about the birth of Jesus.  For others the central figure is Santa Claus, a popularly marketed fusion of an old Christian Saint Nicholas and Odin, the Nordic Allfather.  In other countries there a witches, demonoid monsters, and logs that represent the winter holiday.  Otherwise the oldest and most traditional symbols of the Yuletide remain pretty consistent with their seasonal significance.

When we consider the Yuletide and are faced with deciphering the meaning of it all, or the reason for the season it’s important to remember it is the astronomical relationship between the earth and the sun which has caused the northern hemisphere to experience conditions antagonistic to survival.  It’s cold. It’s dark. It can be depressing.  So we light up and try to spread good cheer to each other during these times.  At the worst part of the year is the winter solstice and for the most part the worst of the winter is behind and we have the joys and abundance of summer ahead.  That is something worth celebrating.


Thanksgiving, Legend, and American Indians

the_first_thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the United States’ most significant national holidays. It’s probably second in popularity only to Christmas. Like most Americans, I grew up with it. There’s really not much to it other than cooking a lot of food and having a feast in the middle of the day, during which we are supposed to express our appreciation for all our good fortune as Americans. It has a slightly religious tone to it, but that is overshadowed by its more nationalistic implications.

Along with Columbus Day, and the Fourth of July/Independence Day celebration, the Thanksgiving story has served as one in the series of origin myths to help establish European roots in North America. It’s ritualistic like any holiday as we loosely reenact the nation’s “First Supper.”

The myth tells that in 1621 after the pilgrims came to America they failed to properly work the land and were in danger of suffering famine. The local Wampanoag Indians took pity upon the new arrivals and taught them how to work the land and most importantly how to grow corn. I seem to recall as a child I learned that the Indians taught the Pilgrims to plant their seeds with a fish and this insured a strong and healthy crop, but I haven’t encountered this part of the myth as an adult. After the Pilgrims had a successful harvest they invited the Wampanoag to a great feast to celebrate. The two peoples partied and had a Kumbaya moment. The Pilgrims made this an annual tradition and this became Thanksgiving. There isn’t much truth to this story, but it seems harmless enough.

Of course Thanksgiving has taken some flack in recent decades for its usage of Native Americans as props in a story that seems to essentially justify the usurpation of American Indian title to the North American continent by colonial society. Now there is even a video circulating on TeenVogue that uses teenage girls to try to convince us that Thanksgiving actually has its origins in feasts that white people celebrated after fighting and extinguishing a Native community. It really comes off as the type of faux-outrage you’d expect from half-educated adolescents with angst. I’ve been there. I think the real shame is that it’s lazy, shallow research. Myths and legends are one thing but this is almost a crime against history.

Thanksgiving is in reality a part of a long tradition of Anglo-Saxon harvest festivals that were celebrated every fall going back into historical obscurity. These were like any of the similar harvest celebrations held by agricultural communities throughout the history of the world including North America. It is essentially a part of the European wheel of the year, a vestige from the white continent’s indigenous and tribal past, but that’s true of most holidays.


Some people think Indians shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving for political reasons. I could never get onboard with that idea. Overall I don’t have any real problem with the holiday or its symbolism. I can get annoyed by the stereo-typical white-man’s Indian play-acting, redface, and other embarrassing behaviors it encourages in non-Indians from time to time. I am left feeling bereft at the sense of equality and brotherhood it depicts between whites and Indians that rarely if ever really existed, especially when today Native communities are still being deprived of rights, and resources by the colonial governments, and the dominant society seems so unmoved and so unconcerned by it. Considering how little attention Indians get in American history and modern social and political discourse I guess we should be glad we get to be the second most significant part of the country’s second most significant holiday.

At the end of the day I am an advocate for all people returning to their roots and their native traditions adjusted to their modern geographic and political circumstances. In large part that requires a meaningful celebration of the seasonal cycle for all people. Thanksgiving is a day, or an entire weekend for some folks to take time and celebrate the earth’s bounty and to strengthen our bonds with family, clan, tribe, and nation. I see a national harvest celebration as part of this ancient tradition kept alive in modern America with a uniquely American symbolism.

Some people will choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving for reasons they attribute to their values, and that’s cool with me. For me Thanksgiving is a real time of gratitude, reflection, and preparation for the road ahead. I’ll get back to work after the festival.

Happy Thanksgiving.