Summer Solstice

Monday marks the summer solstice,the longest day of the year. In Celtic mythology, the sun God is at the peak of his powers, the mother Goddess is pregnant with his child who will be born at the winter solstice. In Australia, New Zealand, and a chunk of South America, it is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There they huddle before a warm fire, and celebrate the opposite solstice in December at the beach.

The four sky holidays (equinoxes ans solstices) are celebrated with bonfires–spring at dawn, summer and midday,autumn at dusk, winter at midnight. If those times of day remind you of Easter sunrise services and midnight mass, you have penetrated the Celtic roots of some of our non-biblical religious customs. Many of the quaint practices of Easter–rabbits, eggs, lilies, new clothes–are vestiges of pre-Christian religious customs celebrating the arrival of spring.

The ancient Celts, according to tradition, observed eight evenly spaced nature holidays. Solstices and equinoxes were dictated by the rotation of the earth around the sun, while the four cross-quarter holidays were earth-centered. The Celtic New year (Samhain) was on November 1st, surviving as Halloween and All Saints Day and the Mexican Day of he Dead (November 2nd). Like the Jews, whose New Year is observed in the fall, the Celts began their days at desk and went through the darkness of both night and winter into the light of renewal, revival, and rebirth.Samhain was the time of the final harvest and bringing the animals back from pasture for the winter.

Anticipation of spring with the birth of lambs gave the February 1st the name of Imbolc, or ewe’s milk. We observe it as Groundhog Day on February 2nd. This ancient holiday was a time to clean house n anticipation of spring. (Last chance to take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations!) .

Beltane was a fertility festival celebrated on May 1st. May Day was originally a flower-centered festival, gathering wildflowers and planting crops, not an international labor holiday. Lammas or Lughnasad, August 1st, celebrated the first harvest. It comes much sooner in warmer climates in the northern hemisphere, but these holidays originated in Northern Europe. Colonial New Englanders continued the ancient Celtic custom of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to church to be blessed and shared at Lammas. (I prefer a blessing of the vegetables to a blessing of the animals. Vegetables are much better behaved in church.)

We modern humans are largely disconnected from these rhythms of earth and sky, insulated by air-conditioning and food from the grocery store that can be frozen or refrigerated. WE can eat blueberries and watermelon year-round even if it means shipping them long distance from Chile or other pints far south. Change of clothing is one of our few requirements as the seasons change and we swap coats and sweaters for t-shirts and bathing suits. And yet, the pull of the rhythm of the seasons is still strong. The urge to plant is evident int he spring, even if we are more often planting for beauty than for sustenance. Recreation moves outdoors in the warm summer months, while long winter nights are a time to huddle in front of the fireplace, with short daytime forays for snow sports in colder climates. We can try to insulate ourselves from nature,but we are in fact a part of nature,and our bodies and hearts pulsate to its changes. We are also dependent on nature for all the resources that sustain us–food, water, electricity, fossil fuels, metals and minerals, plants and animals.

Each season brings different gifts of both beauty and sustenance, challenge and opportunity. If a single word unites these eight ancient holidays into a common thread, it should be gratitude. Gratitude for rain and sun, soil and water, food and fuel,beauty and wonder. Eight chances to county our blessings and honor Mother Earth and Father Sky. A joyous summer solstice to all my readers!

A Torrent of Holidays

February usual begins quietly with Groundhog Day on the 2n,, pauses for Superbowl Sunday,  then cruises on through  Valentine’s Day on the 14th, Presidents’ Day on the third Monday, and Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which fall sometimes in February and sometimes in early March depending on the phases of the moon.  This year we experienced  a confluence of holidays, each calling for a different emotional attitude, as there were four holidays in a row on the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th.  Unlike the Christmas holidays, each called for a different kind of emotional response.  Valentine’s Day is lighthearted and sentimental, hearts and chocolates and flowers and cards.   Presidents’ Day invites us to be patriotic, closing the banks and the Post Office and in many places, the schools.  There is also the invitation to shop at the Presidents’ Day sales, spending some of that green stuff with presidential pictures on the front.   Mardi Gras is the final celebratory fling (the carnival, literally meaning farewell to meat) before Ash Wednesday calls observant Christians to the austere penitential six weeks of Lent.( Even those of us whose faith traditions didn’t make a big deal out of Lent felt compelled growing up to join our  more high church comrades in giving something up for Lent. Nothing like a holiday the celebrates self-denial.) By Thursday al of us will be in for a good rest with no significant holidays till Saint Patrick’s Day a month later. Whew!

All of these holidays have an interpersonal aspect in their observances that don’t work well with a pandemic, even one that is starting to recede.  Valentine’s Day is for hugs and kisses and exchanging cards—maybe not in a pandemic.  Presidents’ Day means the kids are out of school and some of the parents off work, which might mean some playtime or family time or a weekend adventure somewhere.  Not during a pandemic.  Mardi Gras is observed in various ways ranging from church pancake suppoers to a party or a trip to New Orleans—not during a pandemic.  Even the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is hard for churches to manage during a pandemic.  At least the pandemic can’t mess with Lent, since this season of austerity  has come during a time when we are already being asked to practice self-denial—what’s another six weeks of it?

All of these holidays have a common element, however, and that element is hope.  Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman fertility holiday. The name of the month, February, refers to the fever of love. The earth is preparing to be bloom again and humans are willing to go along with it by celebrating romantic love, even if it is only by watching Bridgerton on Netflix. Renewal of plant and animal life as we all start to emerge from winter’s hibernation is a source of hope.  As the weather warms, even those of us practicing social distancing can do more of it outdoors and see other humans as more than a head in a rectangle on Zoom.

With the inauguration of a new president and political tempers cooling after the post-election drama, there is also a renewal of hope that perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace, a good thought for Presidents’ Day. I just heard the statistic that politically speaking, 25% of Americans are Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 50% are Independents.  There actually is a majority—it’s the No Party Party!  Perhaps efforts to woo those independents will pull both parties back toward the center.

Finally, Mardi Gras is about letting go, turning one’s back on self-indulgence after one last fling and instead make an effort at cultivating the spirit. (In medieval times, it was also a way to stretch the food supply in the final months before spring crops began to come in.) It is long enough to change, short enough to see the light of Easter at the end of the Lenten tunnel, with the hope that by Ester, the holiday of renewal and rebirth, we will be reborn as better, wiser, more patient and less greedy and gluttonous than we were six weeks ago.  That’s a tall order, but we have to start somewhere.

So as we zip through these back to back holidays, let us celebrate hope.  Especially the hope that we have actually learned something from the pandemic and will remember it next year when these last gasp of winter/start of sprig holidays come round again.