We’re Halfway There. Turn the Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.” *

Today is the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Yes, it is Groundhog Day and I have written about that here before. But how many different ways can you explain the origin of our tradition of expecting an animal to predict the coming weather? I can always explain to people my love of the film Groundhog Day, but I’ve done that here too.

Today I’ll just write about the winter midpoint, also known as a cross-quarter day. No matter what that groundhog (or a badger, as the original German tradition had it) or any animal does when he pokes his head out from hibernation today, be optimistic. We are halfway through winter.

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It can be considered to have either four or eight festivals. Some people celebrate the four solstices and equinoxes, which are known as the “quarter days.” Some also celebrate the four midpoints between, such as today, which are known as the “cross-quarter days.”

Festivals celebrating the cycle of the seasons were far more important to people in the past. You might also hear Wiccans refer to these festivals as sabbats, a term from the Middle Ages. It was probably taken partially from the Jewish Shabbat.

Today is Imbolc on the wheel, the first cross-quarter day. It is supposed to be a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.

In Ancient Rome, this was a shepherd’s holiday. Among Celts, this day was associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs. Celtic pagans dedicated this day to the goddess Brigid.

The Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year with the fewest sunlit hours. But after that, the Sun started its return journey back toward us in the Northern Hemisphere. You didn’t notice that move back in December, but after today you can actually see and feel this gradual reappearance of the light.

Maybe you will pick up a hint of the coming of spring. Look for the first tiny buds. Some snowdrops will push their fragile blooms above the frosty soil or even through the snow.

Yes, hibernating animals are stirring in their dens and underground nests. They may even go out at night and grab a meal and then return to their winter tunnel.

If Groundhog Day seems silly, think of this as the Celtic Imbolc, or as the Chinese Li Chu’un, or the Christian Candlemas.

The Latin quote at the top of this essay is translated as a rhyme:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
winter will have another flight.
If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.” 
In other words, good weather today is a bad omen. Bad weather is a good sign. Reminds me of that groundhog. He sees his shadow if it is a sunny day, but that means more winter, though it would seem to indicate spring.

So, don’t be concerned with midwinter divinatory practices. Spring is six weeks away. Some of those days to come will be wintery; some will be springlike.  It’s okay to hibernate for another six weeks and feel like the universe has decided that’s the way it should be.

* That quote at the top of this post is open to greater interpretation as far as the weather ahead. It literally translates as: “If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying, after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

Saints, Souls, Hallows and Samhain

Photo by Victorya Gorbatikova on Pexels.com

Samhain (pronounced SAH-win, not Sam Hain) is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the “darker half” of the year.

It is celebrated from sunset on the last day of October until sunset on the first day of November. This time was chosen because it is the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. If you are wondering if this has some connection to our Halloween, read on.

Along with Imbolc,  Beltane and Lughnasadh it makes up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. I have written before about Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival meaning “May First.” It was traditionally celebrated with large bonfires to mark spring transitioning to summer.  Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

In Modern Irish, the name is Samhain, in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn and in Manx Gaelic Sauin. These are also the names for the month of November in each language, shortened from other forms.

These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin all of which referred to November first and the festival and royal assembly that was held on that date in medieval Ireland. It seems to have been translated as “summer’s end.”

If you read Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, he says that May 1 and November 1 may not have been important to European farmers, but they were important to herdsmen. The May date would be the beginning of summer and the time when herds could be driven to the upland summer pastures. November 1 would mark the beginning of winter and the time to bring them back. Frazer suggests that this halving of the year comes from the time when the Celts were mainly pastoral people who were dependent on their herds.

In medieval Ireland, Samhain marked the end of the season for trading and a time for tribal gatherings.  It was a time for storytelling and Samhain appears in pre-Christian Irish literature.  Many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.

In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints’ Day to November first, while the next day later became All Souls’ Day. The Church tried to turn many of the “pagan” holidays into something Catholic.

Over time, the last night of October came to be called All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even). Samhain certainly influenced All Hallows’ Eve, and All Hallows’ Eve influenced the celebration of Samhain, and the two eventually morphed into the secular holiday known as Halloween.

Since the late 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Samhain, or something based on it, as a religious holiday.

A Black Moon and Earthshine

Tomorrow night, April 30, 2022, there will be a Black Moon. It won’t look different, in fact, it won’t look like anything at all since a Black Moon is a name for a second New Moon in a single calendar month.

Full and New Moons can occur at different times because of time zone differences. It can even be in a different month. 

Black Moons may hold special significance to people who practice certain forms of Pagan religions and who believe certain actions become more potent when performed on the night of a Black Moon.

There was no New Moon in February this year which only happens about once every 19 years. There will be no Blue Moon in New York in 2022. That is a third Full Moon in a season with four Full Moons.

A sliver of a Waning Crescent Moon

The Waning Crescent Moon is the final stage of the lunar cycle and it begins when the sun illuminates less than half of the moon. This phase continues until the New Moon phase. This phase “ends” when the Moon and the Sun both rise at the same time, which starts the lunar cycle over again with the New Moon.

During this time, you can see the effect of “Earthshine.” It’s a matter of perspective. The Moon is always half-illuminated by sunlight just like Earth. A crescent Moon seen in the west after sunset or in the east before dawn is a sliver of the Moon’s lighted half.

When we see a crescent moon, that means that a nearly “Full Earth” appears in the Moon’s night sky. The full Earth illuminates the lunar landscape and that ic “Earthshine” – light from the nearly full Earth shining on the Moon.

Looking at Earth from the perspective of the far side of the Moon || Photo: Chinese Chang’e 5 T1 spacecraft

Feeling a Bit Pagan Today

bunny and eggs

There is a bit of the pagan in the air this spring Sunday.

The secular celebration of Easter is all from pagan traditions. You’re being a modern Anglo Saxon if you have that bunny and decorated eggs as part of this holiday weekend.

They worshipped Eostre who was their goddess of springtime. This was the time to celebrate the true return of the sun from a long winter. Not that the Sun had been gone entirely, but it did not hold the power that it has in the other three seasons. The Christian holiday of Easter and other religions used the spring equinox as a guide to their own holy days.

But how did we get a rabbit with eggs?

eggs Ukrainian Easter Eggs from the exhibition “The Pysanka: A Symbol Of Hope,” at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. via CNN

Eostre saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. That rabbit who had once been a bird retained its ability to lay eggs. Though never officially adapted by the church, the Easter Bunny was born.

Eggs had been a symbol of fertility for a much longer time than Christianity. Keep in mind that eggs from chickens and from birds natural come in many colors, so coloring them began as an imitation of nature.

Unlike today, eggs had once been much more scarce during the winter, so spring also meant the return of eggs to the diet. There are records of people giving each other decorated eggs at this time of year and as part of Easter celebrations that go back to the 11th century.

A Week of Saturnalia

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet

I forgot to mark the start of Saturnalia this year.  This Roman holiday was a time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of trees. Sound familiar?

Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of Saturn who controlled the sowing of the new season’s crops, but Romans also began to spend the holiday gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts.

First-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as “the best of times… dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.”

It’s not too late to do some Saturnalia celebrating as the holiday became a weeklong festival.

Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season and to honor Saturn (satus means sowing) and the cult of Saturn survived until the early third century AD in some places. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.

During the reign of Emperor Augustus, it was a two-day celebration on December 17 and 18. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event from December 17-25 and included the Winter Solstice.  Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25. Is this where Christmas came from?

Christmas owes something to this ancient Roman holiday and pagan festival. As with Christmas, Saturnalia started as a religious holiday, honoring the god Saturn, but evolved (or devolved) into just an excuse for revelry with its religious origins mostly forgotten.

I will note that devout Christians and some Biblical scholars will say that Saturnalia has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. They would say that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.

An Elder Moon Ends the Year

Celtic trees
Celtic Tree cards

In the Northern Hemisphere, tonight’s December Full Moon is often called the Cold Moon or the Long Nights Moon. Certainly, this month is cold in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and the long nights that accompany the winter solstice also make sense for a name.

Early Pagans saw this as a time of cleansing and ending bad habits to make one stronger to survive the cold winter ahead.

The Algonquin Indians used the Cold Moon name but I have also seen that some cultures connect this Full Moon with warmth. I had not heard of the Deborean Clan. A combination of Celtic traditional magical beliefs and Native American Cherokee spirituality make up their beliefs. Like the Wishram tribe who named this the Winter Houses Moon, this time is associated with being home and warm before a fire. The Zuni tribe called this the Moon Where the Sun Comes Home to Rest and maybe we should all try, if possible, to rest and recharge from this very difficult 2020.

The Sioux call this the Moon When Deer Shed Their Antlers which suggests the new start aspect that pagans celebrate at this time of year.

Celtic Tree

The Celts, on the other hand, call this the Elder Moon.  The first time I saw that name I thought it meant elder as in those of a greater age than us. I know that “elders” serve a large role in Native American traditions and culture. But in the Celtic Tree Calendar, this is the Elder Moon. I have since done some reading on Celtic Tree symbolism.

Elder trees are fragile and easily damaged but they recover quickly. In North America, Acer negundo, the box elder, is a native species of maple.  It grows quickly, often looks like a large bush and is a short-lived tree compared to oaks and other hardwoods.

The flowers and berries of the elder can be used to make wine. Elderflower wine was drunk at the Beltane celebrations. Elderberries were made into a wine at Samhain which was consumed to promote divination and hallucinations. My mother always bought elderberry wine at the end of the year, though divination and hallucinations were never part of our drinking of it. CAUTION The seeds, bark, leaves and flowers of the elder can be poisonous as is the unripe fruit so I would advise against preparing such beverages on your own.

With the winter solstice past, the Celts saw the Elder Moon as a time of endings. But endings also signal beginnings. This Full Moon is called Ruish by the Celts (roo-esh) who viewed this as an opportune time of creativity and renewal and planning for the new year.

Elder wood was said to protect against demons and other negative entities and it has magical connections to faeries and other nature spirits. In Ireland, the elder was considered a sacred tree and, like the hawthorn, it was forbidden to cut one down. The elder tree was prized for its many uses culinary, medicinal and mystical.

It is interesting that the early Christian church in trying to eliminate pagan beliefs gave the elder a bad reputation. It was said that the tree that Judas hanged himself from was an elder. It was sometimes said that Christ’s crucifixion cross was made of elder wood. The elder became associated with witches and tales of “elder-witches” associated with the devil were known in Ireland and Britain. Burning elder wood in your fireplace would bring the devil into your house.

More on Celtic tree divination in a future post. Right now, I have to get some elderberry wine.