Category Archives: Festivals Rituals Holidays

Szentiván-éj in the Nicolet Forest

Monday marked the longest day of the year in Chicago, and this year it is especially gorgeous with the full moon occurring alongside it. Last time we had such an astronomical occurrence was 70 years ago, literally a once in a lifetime event.

And I spent it recuperating and baking.

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Wild strawberries for the Strawberry Moon

You see, elaborate rituals are not my forte, and the past weekend was my actual celebration outdoors with observing the dance of the Sun and Moon in the sky, even if those days were not precisely the solstice. I had a wonderful last-minute opportunity to join friends from grad school at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest of Northern Wisconsin for a bird survey, a 30-year-old event that occurred every June. This year it happened to occur right by the solstice instead of early June, and I adapted my planned celebration to take advantage of the trip (I’m an ecologist by trade but birding is more of a hobby).

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The question is, are we the dorks or are the birds?

Saturday I woke at 3am to the serene quiet of a forest under a bright, nearly full moon (the sliver that was left to go was indiscernible). We were a group of roughly 30 people staying in small, lodge-like headquarters in a nature center and not a single sound of human civilization could be heard beyond ourselves. We quietly and quickly got ready and ate breakfast, embarking on a 45 minute trip to our designated sites scattered around the Eagle River-Florence forest sections. We had roughly 100 sq miles to ourselves for both days.

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Around 4:30 am we reached our first site, my favorite one, and immediately a wave of peace washed over me. I had not been well lately, poor sleeping patterns and all, and the night before was no exception. But all of a sudden I felt the healthiest I had been in a while, and nothing was bothering me. My head was clear and my body was pain-free. The bog was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, and pictures could not do it justice. The other sites were the same way, each one filling me with awe at their beauty and unique energies that you just can’t get at a local park or a backyard.

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The bog on “Grandma’s Lake”

We started the bird call survey (otherwise known as point counts) before the sun rose, so we were able to watch her rise and spread her warmth to the land as we worked. The bird calls increased in strength and frequency during those early hours, as if to also celebrate her return. The sky was clear and the temperatures were perfect for my cold-loving self.

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I basked in her warmth as the morning went on, but soon the birds died down and I too felt exhaustion come over me as she rose high in the sky for her noon debut. The survey was complete for the day and I went inside the lodge for a much-needed nap. I woke again at 5:30pm and joined the others for dinner and a bit of socializing. I caught up with friends I hadn’t seen for a couple of years and met new folks with a similar love for nature and nerd jokes. It was nice to be among a group that I could relax and participate in conversations with.

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Iris versicolor (Northern Blue Flag)

At about 8:30pm we gathered in a conference room to exchange our experiences for the day and discuss the results of almost 30 years of survey work, available for free by the US Forest Service. During the presentation of the data I was reminded of why I do this work, and why it is necessary. We are dependent upon the land for our lives, not just our livelihoods, and for the past several hundred years we have done nothing but exploit and poison it. The landwihts have been ignored and downright disrespected, their homes destroyed and taken over by us. My work as an ecologist and as a heathen is to help restore right relationships between humans, the land, and the wihts, to recover what I can of what was lost.

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During the meeting it was shown that bird populations had improved for most birds over those 30 years, likely due to more sensitive logging practices implemented a few years beforehand that left more habitat alone to provide maturing trees for the species that required them. It suggests that a balance between the industry and the forest was able to occur, a balance which is sorely needed in most other places. I too was in need of balance, and what better time to start restoring it than during the solstice?

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After the meeting I went down to the river dock to watch the sun set and contemplate the weekend’s many gifts. A fire burned nearby, a light breeze wafting the spicy scent of burning wood by me. Dragonflies hummed over the water and the calls of the birds we surveyed earlier were dying down again as they settled in for the night. Soon I could see a full moon rise over the tree tops, illuminating the forest below it with her dim light. I knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep in time before Sunday’s 3am start so I just stayed awake and experienced the night. A raccoon joined me, scouring the center field for insects and worms to munch on.

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Where the conference magic happens

The fieldwork on Sunday was just as fantastic to experience as Saturday despite my lack of sleep, and went by much quicker too as the sites were closer to each other. Csodaszarvas carried the sun beautifully through the sky and I gave brief praise to Her and Napkirály. Then it was time to end the survey for the year and drive back home.

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Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)

Due to the large amount of physical strain and sleep debt I had to spend the actual solstice recovering from the weekend and avoiding most work. I’m not able to quickly bounce back from a trip like that anymore, and part of restoring balance to oneself is allowing time for rest. I am grateful that I am able to rest without losing pay or other negative consequences. All I had to do was clean the kitchen to bake apple muffins, the closest I’m going to get to making a bonfire and throwing apples into it.

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yes, they were delicious

I am enjoying my newfound adherence to the holidays, and I’m finally starting to understand how important they can be in structuring one’s life and bringing us closer to the land. Next year I can watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan, which I had originally planned to do today, and then watch it set to complete the day. Maybe make an actual fire from the bones of my enemies and throw some apples into it. Now the real question is, Macintosh or Red Delicious?

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Crowning the Queen of May

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;

Every mid-to-late May at my Catholic school we would host a mass run by the students called the May Crowning, where Mary, Queen of Heaven was crowned with flowers donated by parishioners and carried up to the altar by us. Given that my birthday was also in May (my favorite month) and Mary was already an important figure in my life it was one of the only masses that I actually cared about and paid attention to (the other was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve). I was eager to be one of the students specially selected to carry the flower offerings to her statue and hold the candles to her honor. Some years I was lucky enough to do just that, other years I would look on in mild envy as I tried to praise her in song instead. Normally, due to my hearing impairment affecting my speech, I was discouraged from speaking at mass or singing, but during that mass I didn’t care if anyone heard me. I worked hard to memorize the songs for the mass and damn it I’m was gonna sing. I can still recite “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” by heart.

The Marian cult remains a constant, albeit a background, holdover from my Catholic childhood, a reminder of the few good things from the Church that I experienced. God was this abstract, formless being that was referred to, and used, as a hyper-masculine entity, but Mary was real. She had a form, she was once human like us, had to be strong in the face of her son’s torture and death, and then she became the eternal Queen of all of freaking HEAVEN. You don’t hear about Jesus being the King of Heaven nearly as much; King of Jews maybe, but not King of Heaven. In addition, she’s been named in various incarnations as the Queen of several countries, the supreme spiritual being of the entire nation for all its inhabitants, with no Kingly counterpart. Yet, for all her power she was still accessible and could relate to humans, constantly appearing to us and giving us tools to connect to her. She was real, God wasn’t.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our Glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

At least, that’s how it felt for me. Many people use her as an example of being a meek, quietly devoted mother and wife, something all women should aspire to be, and I don’t blame people for being uncomfortable with Mary as a result. The Church is inherently anti-feminist, so naturally their depiction of Mary follows suit. But for all the attempts by the Church to keep her in a generic box and control her image she just couldn’t be contained. Her cult developed in hundreds of different manifestations, absorbing remnants of pagan cults and deities, and she become the most popular saint in the world. The Church tries to regulate them all but like anything else they’re never fully successful. The May Crowning event is one such manifestation, born out of (presumably) Italian folk customs some 2-3 centuries ago that had since been recognized and spread to some Catholic regions, including some parishes in North America. It used to refer to the Crowning of Mary feast day, which occurred on May 31, but in 1954 that was changed to August 22 and the May Crowning tradition became a separate semi-official event. Nowadays the May Crowning can occur anytime during May, and the entire month is dedicated to her as well.

Queen Mary, in her incarnation as Nagy Boldogasszony-Queen of Hungary, retains a place in my ancestor shrine. She is a homage to my immediate ancestors, who have been Austrian and Hungarian Catholics for at least 6 generations (most likely much longer than that), as well as my distant ones with her possible pagan origins as a “birth and fertility goddess“. In that same pagan context she’s also the one I honor during planting, harvests, and family-specific events. Since old Magyar traditions beyond 1000 years ago are scanty and speculative at best, and Christianity already existed as one of many regional influences on Magyar culture(s), it is difficult to tell where the Catholic beliefs begin and the pagan ones end. Recorded folk traditions are likely a combination of both and that’s the assumption I rest most of my customs on. My worldview is pagan, but my traditions are a syncretic blend of the folk Catholicism I was raised in (which is inherently syncretic already) and the pagan customs of my heritage. Keeping Queen Mary as a presence in my life just seems to fit.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Art by Réka Somogyi

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Sources

Coronation of the Virgin: Wikipedia

Coronation of Mary: Jean Frisk

May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary: Wikipedia

The goddess of birth and fertility: Fred Hamori

“Flowers of the Rarest”: Wikipedia

 

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May Day

 
Winter expulsion ended last night in my part of the world with Walpurgisnacht. The ancestors and other winter wihts have been sent away or gone back to sleep, with the wihts of summer getting their busy schedules to full speed. With May Day summer’s growing season officially begins in my region. Leaves begin to form in the trees and shrubs, most of the migrating birds are back and already starting families. The risk of frost is practically gone and it is safe to plant outdoors now. 

This year May Day has taken on greater significance for me than usual. For roughly the past 2 and a half years I only did lip service at best for the holidays and wihts, only going as far as posting a happy ____ on Facebook and maybe here. I was completely devoid of spirituality and the past year I was at my lowest with having to move back in my parents house. Everything in my life was kept in boxes in the garage the entire time, including my sacred items, and I only had the basement couch at night to myself. Not surprisingly that year was also my worst with regards to depression and suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t really living anything in my life, just going through the motions and obsessed with trying to stay financially afloat after grad school. My student loans weren’t as bad as some and I was lucky enough to have a rent-free roof over my head, but it gets draining to have no peaceful space in a full house of hotheaded Catholic conservatives. I had few human connections, couldn’t do any of my hobbies except watch movies, and couldn’t be myself in that stifling environment. If it weren’t for my boyfriend and a few relatives I doubt I’d still be here. Now that I’m free in good jobs and have my own space in a lovely town I’m essentially starting from scratch again, figuring out who I want to be, what direction my spirituality and career should head towards, and trying to form connections with others. 

This summer I am starting a vegetable garden and investing more effort into my jobs to figure out my career options. My art and spinning supplies are unpacked and dusted off, ready to be used again. I’m traveling a bit more and trying new things. And most importantly, I’m able to feel happy and hopeful again. Hopeful that this growing season will result in a rich crop for me on many levels. 

Happy May Day to you all. 

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Today is also the day to Light The Beacons, to show heathens who stand in solidarity against racism and bigotry. While fire is more associated with the solstices in my religion, I will still #LightTheBeacons in support. 

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Day 7: Holidays

Slowly but surely we’re chugging along with the 30 days of Paganism meme, and this is one of my favorite topics to talk about!!

I love personal calendars, especially when you start seeing how they evolve according to one’s environment and home culture. Mine is no exception, as it’s a blend of Pagan and Catholic traditions from the ancestral lands carried into the US. Due to my currently solitary nature, continuous research, and the fact that changes in life are prone to happening, my calendar is tentative rather than being hard and fast (despite having specific dates listed), and is not entirely religious in nature.

Winter

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  • Feast of the Dead (October 31-November 2)
    • A mixture of US Halloween festivities and the more solemn ancestor worship of European All Soul’s Day, where ghosts and spirits are awoken and the ancestors return. The growing season has officially ended.
    • Honors: Ancestors
  • Harvest Celebrations (Late November)
    • These are usually several family-oriented days (including US Thanksgiving) that center around gratitude for the last of the harvest. Usually by this point all the native plant species have gone dormant for the winter, and the migratory birds have past. Deer hunting season traditionally occurs this time as well.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Krampus Night/St. Nick’s Day (December 5-6)
    • A fun little Christmas holiday where the kids leave out their clean shoes in anticipation of some goodies from St. Nick. A holdover from family traditions.
  • Green Sunday (1st week of December)
  • Copper Sunday (2nd week of December)
  • Silver Sunday (3rd week of December)
  • Gold Sunday (4th week of December)
    • These Sundays are a holdover from Advent, as mini-celebrations in anticipation of Karascunt and the Rough Nights. Due to the names I also use the days to reference a corresponding Magyar deity (Copper – Hadúr, Silver – Szélkirály, Gold – Napkirály)
  • Karascunt (December 21/22)
    • Winter Solstice festival full of fire, drink, and merryment to celebrate Csodaszarvas carrying the Sun over the river to begin the year anew and overcome the darkness. First day of the Rough Nights. Spinning stops by this night.
    • Honors: Csodaszarvas
  • Bertchten Day (January 5-6)
    • This day ends the Rough Nights and the new year begins. The sun finally overcame the darkness and the light continues to grow in strength. Spinning chores resume. Also known as Twelfth Night (evening of Jan. 5)
    • Honors: Fra Berta/Lutzl (though she is also associated with all 12 of the Rough Nights)
  • Day of the Bear (February 2)
    • Midwinter celebration in anticipation of the season’s end. The Bear awakes and bring with it the first hints of life and hope in a time where patience and food stores are wearing thin. “Spring cleaning” and purification processes occurs at this time. Winter expulsion begins.
    • Honors: Szélkirály
  • Zöldágjárás (usually mid-late March)
    • First hints of life appears in the trees and shrubs, and the initial bits of greenery is brought inside to continue the purification process. Boughs of greenery are formed into arches and wreathes for women and children to dance under, and boys splash water on girls (purity and fertility rite, most likely). Birds are migrating back at this time.
  • Fruit-grafting day (March 25)
    • Fruiting tree branches that are starting to bud are grafted and hopefully successful. Several traditions regarding death and fertility surround this day as it is also the Catholic holiday of Mary’s conception of Jesus.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Walpurgis Night (April 30)
    • Winter expulsion ends, compelling the ghosts and ancestors back to sleep. Most migratory birds have returned and begun their breeding season.

Summer

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  • May Day (May 1)
    • Summer begins. The fields and markets are readied for the growing season.
  • May Crowning (May, usually mid-to-late May)
    • Fields are cleared and sown, and seedlings transplanted, as the risk of frost is gone by this time. First harvest occurs around this time (depending on what plants are growing). Leaves have returned to the trees. Flowers are offered to the Queen of May by young girls.
    • Honors: Nagy Boldogasszony
  • Szentiván-éj (June 24)
    • A summer solstice celebration of fire, successful crop growth, and remembering the ancestors. Peak growth and first major harvests are occurring around this time. Apples are served to the fire and to the graves.
    • Honors: Csodaszarvas
  • Goldenrod Days (late September-early October)
    • A completely made-up period surrounding the autumn equinox to mark Summer drawing to a close. The Goldenrod flowers are in their full, yellow bloom, as if they absorbed part of the sun and took away some of its vigor. Apples are harvested at this time, and the birds are undergoing their fall migration.
    • Honors: Volos/Zomok

*Deities and their associations here will be discussed further in later posts of this meme. Some associations are traditional, some are not. Those with / between two names refer to the same being.

**The inconsistency of the names is due to some English counterparts being too vague to be a useful label, so the source culture’s holiday words are used instead to refer to their specific traditions that I observe (i.e. “Karascunt” in place of “Winter Solstice”). Exception being Zöldágjárás since there is no English counterpart in existence.

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The Longest Night

Oh wondrous headed doe, with horns of a thousand branches and knobs
Thousand branches and knobs and of a thousand bright candles
Amongst its horns it carries the light of the blessed sun
On it’s forehead there is a star, on it’s chest the moon
And it starts along the banks of the shining heavenly Danube
That it may be the messenger of heaven and bringer of news
About our creator and caring god

-Hungarian Christmas ballad

Today is the day Csodaszarvas carries the sun over the river to begin the year anew. Happy Solstice everyone!

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Honoring the Doe in the Hunt

Hunor and Magor hunting the White Stag, one of the more familiar Hungarian stories that has been told in a variety of ways over time. Art (c) Gyula László

So I’ve been thinking about hunting, particularly deer hunting, after experiencing the excitement around opener this previous November. I grew up near Chicago, so while hunting does occur there, it’s smaller and gets obscured by lots of other events in the same area. Where I’m at now in Wisconsin is more rural, so lots of things are different for me (and yet, a lot isn’t so different).

Opener refers to the opening of the deer hunting season that has become probably the biggest event next to football games. People go to bed early and wake up at an ungodly hour to bundle up and drive to hunting grounds all over the state, but especially the north. Once they get there they usually sit on their asses in the freezing cold hoping to get aim at a beautiful buck (but a doe is not safe from hunters either). Thanksgiving is especially enjoyed, as the hunters can come home to a glorious feast and pass out, even if they didn’t get anything that day.

Now let me clarify that this only refers to a season using firearms. Full deer hunting encompasses multiple seasons throughout fall and winter, with the differences being weapons (firearm vs archery), deer classification (antler presence and form, age, sex), and in my region’s case, managing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). On top of that, different states can have different regulations, and even individual counties can pass further regulations depending on the human population sizes (obviously not gonna be hunting in a large city like Chicago, but surrounding areas are fine, and more urbanized areas prefer archery to firearms).

Pretty complicated, right? Don’t worry, there’s more! Deer hunting (in Wisconsin at least) is a major political issue at the state-level. If a candidate for office even thinks about making the slightest restriction to accessing deer then they’ve already lost. It’s that big of a deal to people, causing a constant avalanche of hate directed towards people who try to manage deer herds, primarily the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Which is hilarious because the white-tail deer are not supposed to be here; there are more deer in Wisconsin than ever. While it’s wonderful that the deer bounced back from an endangered status last century, the sad fact is that they are constantly starving now. This drives them to strip bare native trees and saplings, ultimately destroying the understory of the threatened northern forests. These forests are where we get our maple syrup and logging from, but short of getting rid of most of the deer (along with buckthorns, earthworms, and all the other invasive species, both native and exotic), they’re pretty much dead forests in many places. They just don’t know they’re dead yet.

You may be wondering by now why I am explaining all of this to you. As you might remember from other posts, I honor a manifestation of a deer deity called Csodaszarvas (“Miraculous deer”, the term “szarvas” refers to both sexes, though I refer only to the female use due to the primary art/literature depictions). This carries through a fondness that I have for real-life deer of my region, the White-tailed deer, and the constant balancing act of life vs. death. Cultures all over the world have numerous, seemingly contradictory rules for treatment of deity-associated animals. You don’t hunt the animal, you do hunt it but only in a certain way, you can eat the flesh if it died on its own, or you don’t touch it under any circumstances.

What is my rule? I’m not sure. I have some basic ideas (no killing of albino or leucistic individuals, respect all animals in life and death by not torturing them, no trophies), but not a complete structure. There is no traditional rule available to me because I’m essentially reconstructing a new tradition out of remnants of my heritage, so I have to decide on my own. My meals are mostly vegetarian for monetary purposes (eggs are cheaper and quicker to eat) but I have eaten venison and concluded that it’s delicious. Given how deer (and other cervids) have been important sources of food for people throughout time, particularly in the winter, I’ve suspected that the recognition of deer and deer-like deities across cultures are because of their great importance as game. Food is central to any culture, so by proxy the deer are central as well.

In addition, there are now environmental concerns for many deer-heavy locations like the ones described earlier. Usually there are multiple predators, but now only humans remain. On one hand I find the idea of being in such a position of power, like a steward or a ruler, both offensive and full of hubris on part of us humans. We should no more be a steward than a beaver or a butterfly. But on the other hand, there’s really no choice if we want to maintain what we have left. We just can’t seem to agree on how to best do it (coupled with the fact that some people simply don’t WANT to do it). Stepping in as a predator for certain species seems to be the only choice left, otherwise they continue to starve to death en masse, taking many other species down with them.

It is also not universally clear on how the rules came about. There are some stories that depict the god themselves saying “don’t eat this!”, but the rest of them it’s a custom without a source. I suspect that hints (perhaps not so subtle ones) were given along the way when people ate a particular animal, resulting in bad luck for those who ate them. Given how often deer is eaten as a central part of a diet (particularly for winter diets when food is more scarce), and that I’ve experienced no bad luck or negative feelings since eating venison myself, I feel that eating deer flesh is not taboo for Csodaszarvas. The taboo, if one exists, would likely be for the treatment of the animal. Figuring out the particulars (aside from my basic respect for death in all animals) is something that will have to happen in the future, when I take up hunting for myself. I trust Csodaszarvas to guide me through her wishes when that happens.

Funny how this post was started at the very first of November, but didn’t finish until now, on Candlemas eve. Perhaps there’s some deeper meaning to it, but I’m sure the reality is that I just get lazier in winter.

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The Returning Sun

Welcome back dear Lady. Image (C) Garcia Foto (Erik Garcia)

This time of year (late January, early February) is usually the peak of Winter in my location. Those two months is when we tend to get the bulk of snowfall and the coldest temperatures. Of course, climate change has disrupted that pattern lately, but there is still some snowing and cold temperatures for now, thankfully (both are necessary for proper water levels and plant growth later in the year; an improper winter means a bad harvest).

This is also time time of year when the days noticeably get a bit longer, especially at sunset. While it may be common to celebrate the Sun’s return at the Winter Solstice for some, this felt strange to me. We know now through technology what the days’ lengths are right down to the seconds and so can calculate exactly which day starts the Sun’s waxing period. But you don’t “see” it, or feel it. A couple of seconds of extra daylight doesn’t seem to make a difference to humans, environmentally speaking, so I generally fail to see the point of celebrating that on the Winter Solstice. I have always preferred to read signals from the land rather than using astronomical patterns, and the return of the Sun is no exception.

In keeping with both my heritage and the land, my preferred day for this celebration is February 2nd. Called by many names in various religions, this day has a common association with light (candles, fire, lightening), hope (that the groundhog/badger/bear do not foretell a long winter), and renewal (purification of Mary, creating new fires, taking down Christmas decorations, the coming burst of life from the snow). It is also interesting to note that in both the Old High German calendar and the Ho-Chunk moon calender, the month that roughly corresponds to today’s February has associations with bears. According to one source (that’s sadly without citations, but I’m going to look into it further) Feb. 2nd is the “Day of the Bear” in places such as the Alps. Given that I recently became interested in the Eurasian bear cults, I find the timing of all this to be intriguing.

There is also the association with the Deer cult in various Eurasian sources. Not of this particular day, but of the Sun’s movement across the sky. It has been noted in Scytho-Siberian sources that the Deer cults and the Deer goddess (occasionally god) carried the Sun in her antlers, which is also attested in a Hungarian song (link is cached version because sadly the original site is unavailable). Due to the Doe’s importance in my own life, I personally find it appropriate to honor her on this day as well.

For now I keep the name Candlemas due to its familiarity. I’m slowly developing a holiday system as I go this year, allowing it to evolve organically with both research and real-time environmental changes, so my celebration of Candlemas will be simple this year. Candles and pancakes in honor of the Sun, with some deep cleaning of the apartment to promote a sense of renewal. I have already taken down my Christmas tree and other holiday decorations in preparation for that. It’s said in places like Poland that keeping such decorations up past Feb. 2nd is bad luck, and I certainly don’t want to put that thought to the test. Plus, as much as I like my tree, it was starting to get in the way.

Black-capped Chickadee, an animal that displays much energy and endurance through these cold winters. Photo (C) levahnbros.wordpress.com

This time of year is also associated with efforts to get “rid” of winter, understandable from an agricultural perspective. Food stores would be getting lean and game animals may be scarce, desiring a return of Spring as quickly as possible to start sowing seeds. While processions have occurred as early as November in Central Europe, many of them start gaining traction in February when Carnival season is at its peak. One of my earliest blog posts here references those processions. As a day of longing for the coming Spring, I find Candlemas to be appropriate for starting the “settling down” of winter activities and the start of preparing for the Summer. The “end” of that preparation period would be in late April, with Totaustragen repelling off the last of Winter, death, and disease, and the planting of seeds outdoors in early May.

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References*

School of the Seasons: February. http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/febdays1.html#grdhog (a nice collection of cross-cultural holiday traditions for February)

*the other references are linked in post as underlined content

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