This is one of my favorite times of year. Like me, most Witches observe the Wheel of the Year—eight Pagan holidays, or Sabbats, that follow the ebb and flow of the changing seasons. Starting with Lammas (also known as Lughnasadh), on August 1st, we celebrate three harvest festivals, culminating with Samhain on October 31st.
Each of these holidays focuses on a different aspect of the harvest season and each is associated with a new phase of the journey that the god and goddess travel in their changing forms throughout the year. But they all celebrate our gratitude for the abundance and joy in our own lives, and signal the wrapping up of that year's magick efforts. After all, we are harvesting the fruits of our spiritual endeavors now too, not just the vegetables we heap on our tables.
The harvest festivals are one of the most important traditions handed down to us from our earlier Pagan ancestors. These holidays may seem irrelevant to the modern Witch, who often doesn't even have a garden, but I actually think that they serve an important purpose. In my book, Everyday Witch A to Z, I talk about the importance of harvest festivals to today's Witch.
I pose the following question: "Why do we still celebrate harvest festivals like Lammas, now that we get most of our food from grocery stores and much of that is grown many hundreds of miles away from where we live? Are they really still relevant to our lives as modern pagans?"
And here is my answer: You bet your bippy they are. Not only do they serve as a connection to the Witches who came before us, and in whose path we follow, but they also remind us to be more mindful of where our food comes from and what it goes through to get to us.
We take this opportunity to express our gratitude to those who labor to grow the food we pick up so effortlessly at the store and to remember that it wasn't always this easy. And those of us who do grow some of our own food happily share it with those who don't.
We may not be as obviously dependent on the land as our pagan ancestors, but Lammas is a good time to be mindful of our continuing debt to our mother the Earth, and to say "thank you" out loud. We eat, drink, and are merry, but we also say a prayer for the health of the Earth, because it is still true that if the land fails, so do we all." 1
The harvest festivals are more than a time for celebration—although they are certainly that as well—they are holidays that remind us to appreciate all that we have, and to focus on the many blessings that the gods have bestowed upon us.
Lammas, or Lughnasadh, is observed on August 1st. Named for Lugh, the Celtic god of the sun, Lughnasadh celebrates light, food, and life. This Sabbat is centered around the grain harvest, and Witches often bake bread (or at least buy some nice artisan bread from the store) to share with their Witchy friends.
If you are going to have a ritual to celebrate Lammas, you can invoke one of the goddesses associated with growing things, like Demeter or Ceres. Since it is His day, you might want to call on Lugh, but other sun gods like Apollo or Ra are equally appropriate. Make sure that you have some form of grain for cakes and ale (yes, cookies count), and you may want to check in on the progress of your magickal goals for the year, since they should be nearing completion by this point.
Next comes Mabon. This Sabbat, which falls on or around September 21st, is also known as the Autumnal Equinox. On this day, the light and dark are in perfect balance, with the day and night exactly equal. Mabon is often referred to as the Witches' Thanksgiving, and it is the perfect opportunity to say a heartfelt "thank you" to the gods, and to those people who bring abundance and joy to your life.
In some traditions, the god sacrifices himself willingly to bring fertility to the Earth; some lore says this happens at Lammas, and some says it happens at Mabon. Either way, I often like to do a ritual at the Equinox in which I choose some aspect of my life that no longer works for me, and symbolically sacrifice it so that the other aspects of my existence can prosper and grow. (This can be done at Lammas instead, if you prefer.)
It is also a good time to do magickal work for balance and harmony—and which of us couldn't use more of that? If you want a nice easy ritual for this purpose, you can check out the one in my first book, Circle, Coven & Grove: A Year of Magickal Practice. Or you can simply walk out into a field and stand under the stars, if that suits you better. Just make sure, however you celebrate, that you remember to say thank you. After all, it's only polite.
The last of the three harvest festivals is Samhain, on October 31st. Most people probably don't think of this holiday as a harvest celebration. We tend to get caught up in its darker aspects, since it is the night on which the veil between the worlds is thinnest, when we say goodbye to all those we have lost during the previous year.
But don't make the mistake of seeing this as a sad occasion. Yes, it certainly has its shadowy side, but it is still a time for celebration, too.
Samhain is my favorite holiday for many reasons. It seems to me to be the most "Witchy" of all the Sabbats, and it was at a Samhain ritual that I discovered my own identity as a Witch, so it holds a special place in my heart. But more than that, Samhain is the perfect symbol of all the Witchcraft stands for—dark and light at the same time, an acknowledgement of the inevitability of sorrow and loss, and a celebration of life in the midst of death.
Fittingly, Samhain is known as the Witches' New Year. It is a night on which we observe both the end of the old year (and admit to the goals we never did accomplish) and the beginning of the new year, full of the potential for all that lies ahead. We mourn and rejoice all at the same time, because life is neither wholly dark nor wholly light, but rather an ever-changing mixture of them both.
I like to call on Hecate at this particular Sabbat. In Everyday Witch A to Z, I talk about her in detail, since she is one of my favorites, and the following description will probably explain why I see Samhain as Her holiday:
"Hecate guards the border between life and death, but also officiates at births and watches over women and children. Perhaps what draws me to Her the most is this balancing between the light and the dark, the physical and the spiritual. She seems to me to embody the essence of what Witchcraft is—mysterious and beautiful, capable of great acts of kindness but shadowed with darkness. As human beings, we are wonderful but often flawed—I'm sure that the Queen of Witches understands that, and loves us anyway."2
The world we live in can be dark and frightening, but it is also full of wonder, magick, and joy. So during this harvest season, do your best to make your peace with the shadows within and without. Then set aside some time to celebrate the bounty of your life, the gifts the gods have bestowed upon you, and all those who walk the path beside you. Let the harvest festivals remind you of your connection with the Pagans who came before us, and the Earth that feeds and sustains us. Eat, drink and merry meet!
1 Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring & Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn. 2008.