Yule and Ritual 2017

On Thursday it is the great feast of Yule, the rebirth of the Sun. Each festival I do a ritual using the ADF format. My outline of the format can be found on my ritual page here.

When it reaches the “Statement of Purpose” section, I do the following…

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Yule, the sacred wheel of the year has turned once again and it is now midwinter. As my ancestors did in times before, so tonight I honour the old ways. It is the Solstice, the longest night and shortest day. Today I celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. Though the night is dark, and the Earth sleeps in winter, I await with patience the return of light and life to the world. Since the summer, it has gradually become colder and darker, but from this time forwards, the days shall get longer and lighter and warmer again. The Solar year has run its course and completed its cycle and a new year begins, bringing light, life and hope to the earth.”

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Celebrating Samhain/ WinterNights 2017

Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, Samhain or Winter Nights is the festival on which the ancient Celts and Anglo Saxons celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter.

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weakest animals are being culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over and winter is here. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts are about to begin and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits. It was a time to give offerings to the gods in thanksgiving for the good harvest the people had.

Historian Ronald Hutton says “A feast with ritual practices…was…well known in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland. There was, however, no common rite as there had been at Beltane.” He further states that “there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time a major pagan festival was celebrated” but that there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead or that it was the new year. Rather, the association with the dead came through Christianity and the development of All Souls Day. However, it was a time to guard against and propitiate supernatural forces.

Samhain is the most widely mentioned festival in Irish mythology and the Gaulish Colignay calendar also mentions it as the end of the pastoral year. It is mentioned as the first festival in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire as “Samhain, when summer goes to rest.” It is the time when the Morrighan and An Dagda mate in a river for victory at the second battle of Magh Tuiredh, and it is a time to honour Donn, the father of the Irish race and chief of the sons of Mil. He is the Celtic lord of the dead, the dark one who was drowned in the battle to invade Ireland. He now dwells on a small island named Tech Duinn, the waiting place of the dead before they journey to the Otherworld. In contrast, Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says that the god Bile is also a god of the dead who transports souls to the Otherworld. Another story related to this time of harvest is the story of why offerings are given to the Tuathe De Danaan. After the Milesians (ancient Irish) conquered Ireland from the Tuatha De Danaan, the land was divided up with the Milesians on the land and the Tuathe De Danaan under the ground. But the Tuathe continued to destroy the crops and stop cows producing milk so an agreement was reached with An Dagda so that the Irish offered a portion of their harvest to the Tuathe De Danaan in exchange for their friendship and blessing on the land. The Cailleach Bheur, the old hag of winter can also be honoured at this time.

Bede said october was named “Vuinter-fylleth” as it signified the beginning of winter, while November was named “blod-monath”because this was when the annual slaughter of livestock occurred to reduce the number of animals kept through the lean months. Hutton says that pagan Scandinavia held its own major festival at the opening of winter, called winter nights, on the Saturday between 11th and 17th of October, but that there is no evidence this ever came to Britain.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. Just like Beltane, at this time the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and human world could interact. As a night of liminality, transition, uncertainty, chaos and danger, it was believed that many otherworldly beings would be roaming on this night.

While there were fires lit in some areas on Samhain eve e.g. Scotland and Wales, this was not the case in Ireland, where Parshell Crosses were placed in the entrance to the house instead. Other practices at this time have included communal meals, candles being lit and prayers said for the dead, drinking and games, putting pieces of bread on windowsills for one’s ancestors, taking precautions against witches, divination by casting nuts into the bonfire to learn about death and marriage, carrying lights around in turnips and dressing up as monsters while causing mischief. It is also a time to sain and ward one’s property by walking the boundaries with fire and making rowan charms.

Gaelic reconstructionists avoid going out on this evening as the spirits as most active, or if they do, its in disguise. They light bonfires and carry flames around their property to protect and sain it. They carve turnip lanterns, hold big feasts, do divinations, give offerings to the gods and ancestors, leave food out for the dead and light candles for them. Its also a time to play games, sing songs and make a parshell cross.

Neo-pagans often celebrate this time with a dumb supper to honour the dead. For Anglo Saxons and Norse heathens, its a good time to honour Woden as psychopomp and the leader of the wild hunt across the winter skies, or to honour Hel as the goddess of death as well as the ancestors and elves. In ancient times there is evidence of the practice of burning grains on the graves of ancestors as offerings, and it may also be a good time to do “sitting out” – sleeping on old burial mounds or graves in the hope of receiving a message from our ancestors. Anglo Saxon pagans often hold a Sumbel at this time, with toasts to the ancestors.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. This practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It’s also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I often have a party with friends, decorate the house and eat traditional foods like Pumpkin soup, Colcannon (mashed potato with kale or cabbage), baked apples and gingerbread. I also carve a pumpkin, leave out a meal for the ancestors and drink lots of mulled cider. Apples are a particularly good offering for ancestors to leave at grave sites or on your altar as they are seasonal and represent immortality in folklore. In nearby Cornwall this time is celebrated there as Allantide, where it is customary to give an Allan apple to each family member as a symbol of good luck and children would often put it under their pillows.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford.A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. London: Penguin Books, 1964.

http://www.tairis.co.uk/
http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/
http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm

Celebrating Yule 2016

Happy Yule everyone. Also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice, Yule has its roots in many cultures, including Roman Saturnalia, Christian Christmas and most importantly Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon Yule. It is the longest night and the day when the Sun is “reborn.” Since the summer, the days have been getting shorter and colder, but after Yule they begin to lengthen again as we approach spring. It is a time of light and hope in the depths of cold winter.

The first mention of a midwinter celebration is in the writings of a 4th century Christian who said that at this time pagans celebrated the birthday of the sun by kindling lights, giving presents, feasting and the closure of schools and shops. However this festival of Saturnalia only began in 274ad. By the 8th century there were 12 days of celebration at Christmas. There is little evidence of celebration in Ireland before the 12th century. However, Bede, writing in 730ad said that most important festival of the Anglo Saxons in England had been “Modranicht” or “Mothers Night” on 24th December. This was the night which opened the new year and “they kept watch during it with religious rites.” The word Yule came through Danish rule over England, however there is no mention of it in early Scandinavian literature. Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson says that there was a three day celebration at this time, including a sacrifice for a good crop. Historian Ronald Hutton says “the consensus between Bede and Snorri, that the winter solstice was a major feast of the ancient Scandinavian and Norse people’s, and opened their year, is still an impressive one.” There are many records from the 4th to 11th centuries of church leaders denouncing revelries, sorcery, divination, dressing in animal skins and feasting to excess at this time of the year. Across European society, it seems to have been a time for role reversal and the relaxation of norms. Hutton says that Welsh literature also shows good evidence for a midwinter “new year’s feast.” He further states that “it was the general custom in pagan Europe to decorate spaces with greenery and flowers at festivals, attested wherever records have survived.” These were often evergreens such as holly and ivy. Despite this, many of the traditional festivities we associate with Christmas now e.g. stockings, Christmas cards, paper decorations and crackers either were invented in the 19th century or came over from Germany at that time. Other traditional Christmas festivities such as the Christmas Tree (in the Rhineland), Yule Log and Wassailing the orchards can be traced back to Tudor times but no further.

While the Celtic people’s didn’t celebrate at midwinter as far as we know, the pre-celtic people’s who built monuments such as stonehenge and newgrange to align with the Winter Solstice, probably did have some kind of festival at this time. Celtic Pagans do sometimes get involved with Wren Day on Dec 26th, guising, lighting candles for this the longest night, honouring the winter hag Cailleach,  and the usual Christmas festivities.

Norse and Anglo Saxon re-constructionists celebrate Mothers Night (Modrinacht) as a time to honour the “Mothers”. In modern reconstructions, these “Mothers” are interpreted as goddesses and one’s female ancestors, however I think it is more likely the “Modra/ Matres” were the triple goddesses depicted on altars and votive offerings across northern and central Europe. They were linked with fate, prosperity, fertility and therefore probably similar to the Norse concept of the Norns.” Twelve days of feasting follow with the burning of a yule log, meditating on the nine noble virtues, lighting candles, doing divinations and making oaths on New Years Eve. Yule signified the height of the Wild Hunt, when a ghostly procession led by the god Woden/ Odin, and sometimes Frau Holla, marched across the night sky. It was a time when the dead were permitted to leave their mounds and return to the land of the living. In southwest England where I am from, this myth has evolved into a belief that it is hell hounds (known as Yeth or Wisht hounds) chasing sinners or the unbaptised. Similarly, myths surrounding Woden/ Odin and Thunor/ Thor may have contributed to our modern Santa Claus. Yule can be a time for honouring many of the gods – Woden who leads the wild hunt, Frige as the goddess of the home and hearth, Thunor for stopping the ice giants, Frey/ Ing for prosperity, Sunne and Baldur for the Suns rebirth and the winter deities Ullr and Skadhi.

Modern Neopagans like Wiccans celebrate this day with the myth of the mother goddess who gives birth to the sun god, while Druids tell of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, in which the Oak King overcomes the Holly King on this day and rules until Midsummer.

In the deepest depths of winter, it is traditional to celebrate Yule with gift giving, spending time with loved ones, decorating with evergreens and lights, having a yule tree and yule log, drinking and feasting. Wassailing is another tradition and in medieval times, villagers in southwest England would go to orchards and wassail the apple trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the Autumn. To celebrate the cycles of nature and connect with the world around us, we can go out and watch the Solstice sunrise, ringing it in with the sound of bells. We can also go for a walk in nature, toasting the trees, and putting out food for the birds and animals struggling to find something to eat in the cold winter. Boxing day (26th December) was traditionally a time when the rich would give their servants the day off and provide food/ drink for them. I think dedicating this day to helping others would also be a great practice for Pagans.

My Yule feast usually includes a nut roast, sage & onion stuffing, mapled brussel sprouts with apple and walnuts, sweet & sour red cabbage, spiced swede mash, cranberry sauce and garlic & herb roast potatoes. I also often have a party with friends, burn a yule log, do a ritual, stay up all night in a candlelight vigil to greet the morning sunrise, go for a walk in nature and eat a traditional yule breakfast of porridge. I honour , the housewight and the Mothers on the Solstice eve, while honouring Sunne as she rises the next morning. Twelfth night (New Years Eve) is a good time for reflection, making plans for the next year, doing a cleaning of the house and eating a traditional New Year’s cake. It is also the time to have a big party with friends, to burn the yule log of the season and to wassail the apple trees.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

The Time of Patience

I was reading a blog post by Druid in the Swamp earlier and it inspired me so thought I’d write a bit about what this time of year means to me as a Pantheist. January is a time of quietness and patience. With the busyness of preparing for Yule and Christmas, and then the hectic-ness of the holidays themselves, it is hard to ever find a time to stop, to slow down and to relax. But with New Years parties and drunkenness over, family and friends having left, and stomachs feeling over fed, now is the time for slowness. Like the calm morning after a stormy night, we now enter the period of resting and recovering as we wait patiently for the coming warmth of spring.

Franken in Winter

Winter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This month is the time for planning and preparing for the year ahead, whether its making new years resolutions, stocking up on garden supplies or doing a spring clean. It is a time to draw inwards, to spend long cold nights close to the fire with loved ones or wrapped up cosily reading a book. And it is a time to wait patiently for warmer weather and longer days. Talking of new years resolutions, I have previously written about the practice of Shinrinyoku here. This is a Japanese word meaning “Forest Bathing” and scientists in Japan have been doing a lot of research recently into the positive health effects of simply taking time to walk in a forest and enjoy all it has to offer. There was an article published about it here today which I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to as it points out how beneficial it can be. Maybe as Pantheists, we could all make a new years resolution to spend more time in local woodland or forests to experience the wonders of Shinrinyoku too?

Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronouned Sow-een) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

At this time the earth has appeared to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves have fallen from the trees and the harvests have been collected from the fields. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities.

Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of venerating ancestors, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid. 

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have spent much of the past month researching my family history in order to create a family tree and know more about the ancestors I wish to honour. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. This year that will include both my grandmother and her dog. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods.

Hope you have a wonderful Samhain and a happy Celtic New Year to you,