In Ancient Rome the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia began today, December 17. It was a festival that lasted for seven days.
Created to honor Saturn, the father of the gods, it was interestingly celebrated by suspending discipline and a reversal of the usual order.
It was said that this was the time to suspend grudges. Businesses, courts, and schools were closed. Some accounts say that even warfare was suspended for the week.
Want to celebrate Saturnalia? If you need another reason to have a party, here are some suggestions from the Romans. Masquerades were common. Traditional gifts were real or imitation fruit (fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (small symbols of pagan solstice bonfire celebrations).
I have read that a mock king would be chosen. It would probably be a slave or criminal. It sounds like a good thing since this king was able to run wild for the week, but unfortunately, the king was usually killed at the end.
As with much of the Roman empire, Saturnalia degenerated into a week of debauchery and crimes. Today the word “saturnalia” means a period of unrestrained license and revelry.
You can go out this week and look at the sky and see Saturn. In the Northern Hemisphere, if you look at the constellation Gemini which rises above the eastern horizon, a bit west of Gemini is the brilliant planet Jupiter looking like a star to most people. Just before sunrise, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury appear above the southeastern horizon.
May Day (May first) is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is celebrated unofficially in many other countries.
The month of May goes back to the Greek goddess Maia for its name. She is the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes (Mercury). Some form of this goddess’s name was known to people from Ireland and as far away as India. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia, a family festival for the purification and protection of farmland.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries
In the Celtic cultures, May was called Mai or Maj, a month of sexual freedom. Green was worn during this month to honor the Earth Mother.
May 1 was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a festival celebrating the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.
In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and was often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance are a remnant of these old festivities.
Bona Dea, the Roman Good Goddess, had her festival on the night between May 2 and 3. No men were allowed to attend.
The Greeks had a special festival for the god Pan during May. Pan was a wild-looking deity that was half-man, half-goat. Pan invented the syrinx, or pan-pipes, made out of reeds.
In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan whose twigs and branches were used as protection against witches and evil in that part of the world.
In more modern tradition, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. include the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.
On May 1, 1886, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. The protests turned violent when police attacked workers. Meeting in the city’s Haymarket Square, things turned bloodier and a bomb even exploded and police and civilians were killed.
Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning. Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.
Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.
American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.
The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.
There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.
Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.
Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.
America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.
It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.
Winter solstice 2020 in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 5:02 AM (10:02 UTC) on Monday, December 21.
What can I say about solstices or the winter solstice specifically that I haven’t said in years past?
You’ve probably seen photos of neo-Pagans celebrating at Stonehenge or elsewhere with the solstice sunrise. That’s a kind of fire, and other celebrations often involve a fire. A nice fire in winter certainly makes sense.
Of course, tomorrow will the summer solstice for those lucky people on the bottom half of the planet. No fires required, though you can still have one to look at while you sip a drink or to put under those shrimp when you slip them on the barbie.
Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop) because those ancient observers believed that the Sun stopped and headed in another direction to start the winter solstitium.
It occurs in our calendar near the end of the year, but in ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They observed the rising of the star Sirius which happen around this time. It coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River which was important to agriculture.
According to Wikipedia, there are other celebrations on the winter solstice.
Maybe I’ll write about those celebrations in the years to come. One celebration that I feel a bit of an ancestral connection to is the Slavic Korochun. Its origin doesn’t seem to be clear, but modern scholars tend to associate this holiday with ancestor worship. The winter solstice was a day to make fires at cemeteries to keep their loved ones warm. They would hold feasts to honor the dead and keep them fed. They also lit wooden logs at local crossroads. (Crossroads figure in folk magic and mythology – see this earlier post.)
I think setting a fire in a cemetery or burning logs at my local crossroads would be seriously frowned upon by the authorities. Perhaps, just a Viking toast to the solstice tomorrow night?
Today, June 16, is Bloomsday. At least it is celebrated as such by fans of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. It is the day that Leopold Bloom walks around Dublin for the 732 pages of that radical and now classic novel.
It is a novel that changed literature. I tried to read it. Several times. As an English major in college, I had to say I had read it. I had to say that it was extraordinary. But I just found it frustrating to read.
But that’s me. I did attend a Bloomsday celebration a few times that was held at the Old York Books (long gone) on Easton Ave. in New Brunswick near my Rutgers campus.
People will go to Sweny’s Pharmacy to buy lemon soap, like Bloom did in the novel. Fans will be making many stops in Dublin, some in period costume. They will do public readings. They will definitely be going to the pubs.
Some Bloomsday readings focus on the “easy” parts, some do the tougher sections and certainly some readings include the dirtiest parts. After all, the dirty/profane/obscene parts are what made it subject of a landmark American obscenity case.
In a letter written in 1924 by James Joyce, he acknowledged that even then “There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June.”
The Bailey pub in Dublin has the door from No. 7 Eccles Street that was Leopold Bloom’s front door.
You might have picked up on allusions to the day in pop culture. The Mel Brooks’ play/film featured the character Leo Bloom, and in the play Leo asks, “When will it be Bloom’s day?” When Leo and Max meet, the office’s calendar shows the date as June 16.
Irish rockers, U2, have a song “Breathe” which refers to events taking place on a modern-day 16 June Bloomsday. It’s not a tale from the novel, but on the album where it first appeared (No Line on the Horizon) Bono uses several characters in the songs and the narrator within “Breathe” is one who is able to find redemption – something Mr. Bloom is concerned with in the novel.
The goddess Hecate had many celebrations throughout the year, but November 16 was known as the Night of Hecate.
Hecate is part of the most ancient form of the triple Moon goddesses as the Crone of the Dark (New) Moon. Artemis was the Crescent Moon, and Selene was the Full Moon.
Most of Hecate’s worship, and especially on this night, was performed at a three-way crossroad at night. Food was left there as an offering to her.
She ruled the passages of life and transformation, birth and death. She was associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, fire, light, the Moon, magic, witchcraft, a knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, necromancy, and sorcery.
November was the ninth month in the oldest Roman calendar. Hecate closely parallels the Roman goddess Trivia, with whom she was identified in Rome.
Today Hecate is one of the ‘patron’ goddesses of many witches, who in some traditions refer to her in the Goddess’s aspect of the “Crone”. But other traditional witches associate her with the Maiden and/or with the Mother as well, for Hecate has three faces, or phases.
Modern worshipers honor this tripartite goddess as the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. A modern writer, Robert Graves, wrote about her in The White Goddess.
Historical depictions and descriptions show her facing in three different directions and later Greek references say she had the heads of animals and refer to her as the “Mistress of Animals.” Her chosen animals were the toad, the owl, the dog and the bat.