Celebrating Lughnasadh

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This week it is the festival of Lughnasadh. Now, technically, Lughnasadh is the first day of August. Or perhaps the full moon the closest to the first of August. Or perhaps it is the day that is astronomically directly between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. So I tend to be a bit flexible, and more or less celebrate for almost a week. Other festivals get several days of celebration, and what else have I got going on right now?

Lughnasadh is a harvest celebration, the first of the year, and this year it seems even more appropriate to celebrate. In fact, I got a 20-lb. bag of freshly harvested and milled wheat flour from my favorite local farm on Sunday. I’ve been baking throughout our isolation for the last several months, but this weekend, I bumped it up. I made a loaf of sourdough, along with a pan of spiced pecan buns, and an apple pie. And I bought myself some small gifts to help with my baking — a new baking scale and a hand-carved dough lame.

Saturday, the first, I made my sourdough bread, along with some sourdough waffles with the discarded starter. I made a big dinner of pork chops, fresh local salad, and that beautiful fresh bread. Sunday was a breakfast celebration, with spiced buns made from the appropriately-sunny-colored dough from Max Miller’s Sally Lun Bun recipe, filled with ginger, cinnamon, allspice, honey, and pecans. That with a cup of Quantum Mechanics blend from Viridian Tea Company with a little extra fresh spearmint from the garden made for a delightfully festive breakfast before I sent my spouse to pick up the flour. And I set the table with some dried ornamental grass from our garden. It isn’t a corn dolly or ears of wheat, but it maintains the spirit. Then, the evening brought an apple pie with the fresh local apples that we’ve gotten from our farm box.

While most of the celebration was focused on the weekend, I did engage in a bit more bread baking once my new gifts had arrived. And since this promises to be a quarter of new beginnings for me, I made sure take some solitary time to meditate and read my tarot for guidance for the coming months.

Lughnasadh is similar to Imbolc in my mind. Where Imbolc starts to remind us that spring is coming, Lughnasadh promises the coolness of fall. We even got a bit of cooler weather this week (although Sunday was appropriately summery). But the harvest is starting and the weather will chill and the year keeps turning. Blessed Lughnasadh!

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Tea and a Story: Goddesses and Groundhogs

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This weekend is the Celtic feast of Imbolc, the kind of traditional start of spring in the Celtic and pagan calendar. As someone with a strong affinity to pagan traditions, I like this idea. I first realized that I was keeping pagan customs when I was a runner in graduate school and found myself counting down to the winter solstice, which is when the days started getting longer, so I was that much closer to being able to run first thing in the morning without being in the dark. One thing I remember from those days was that the end of January and the beginning of February felt like the deepest depths of winter, when it felt like I might never be warm again.

But I like the idea of spring starting at the beginning of February. Traditionally, it seems that the seasons started at the cross-quarter days (the days halfway between the solstices and equinoxes), which is why our first day of summer is also called “midsummer” and our first day of winter is called “midwinter.” Supposedly, Imbolc was the time when ewes would give birth, and start producing milk, so milk, dairy products, and lamb are all traditional foods. I like to make a big meal, perhaps with a cheesecake, or some pancakes. While eggs are more commonly associated with the spring equinox festivals, the beginning of spring would mean the birds would start laying again (traditionally, eggs are a seasonal food, same as strawberries or pomegranates). So pancakes at Imbolc (which was celebrated in the Christian world as Candlemas) are traditional as well.

Imbolc is also associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (later believed to have become the Christian St. Brigid), a goddess of inspiration, creativity, midwifery, healing, and fire. In one of the stories associated with her, she is kidnapped by the hag-goddess Cailleach and held captive in a cave underground through the winter, and then escapes to bring spring to the world. This is surprisingly reminiscent of the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, although in that story, the chthtonic goddess Hecate is her rescuer, not her captor. In some version of the story, Brigid and Cailleach are the same goddess, with the winter crone transforming into the spring maiden at Imbolc. This traditional view of the cyclical nature of the world mapping onto the life cycle of a person is one of the things that gave rise to traditional death customs that favored reincarnation as the explanation for what happens after you die.

But perhaps my favorite story of Imbolc has to do with the Cailleach, not Brigid. In some parts of the British isles, the Cailleach is a weather deity and has the power to control local weather conditions. So on the first day of spring, it’s believed that the Cailleach decides if she wants to extend the cold weather or not for another six weeks. If she decides that it will be a long winter, she makes Imbolc bright and sunny so she has nice weather to gather firewood for the rest of winter. But if she’s not going to make it a long winter, she sleeps in and doesn’t bother making the weather nice. So if the weather is bad on Imbolc, it’s a sign that winter will end soon.

Perhaps this sounds familiar, although with another creature in the place of a crone gathering wood. In the States, we celebrate Groundhog Day, where we wait and see if a certain groundhog sees his shadow when he comes out of his burrow. Now, the modern tradition says that the groundhog is afraid of his shadow and if he sees it, he runs back into his burrow to weather six more weeks of winter. But perhaps, he just sees that the Cailleach has made the weather sunny and is dashing back in to get cozy for the rest of the winter weather.

Blessed Imbolc to all my readers!

Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!