Luckily, the weather’s perfect today, and I can write this outside — which seems the only fair way to describe holidays heralding the return of warmth and light.
Most Western holidays commemorate a person or event in history: Thanksgiving, for instance, remembers the shared feast of the Pilgrims and Indians. Christmas recognizes the birthday of Jesus Christ. And Passover symbolizes a segment of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament.
There are, however, special days of the year that stand out simply because of where they fall in the calendar.
The seasonal cycle is created by the tilt of the earth’s axis, leaning either toward or away from the sun. Solstices mark the extreme points, when the days and nights are shortest or longest. On equinoxes, the days and nights are of equal length. The midpoints between each solstice and equinox also serve as natural turning points in the earth’s rotation around the sun. These eight days form the spokes of the wheel of the year and symbolize an annual, microcosmic life span.
In order to understand the significance of these days — considered holy in Pagan (pre-Christian) culture — we must redefine when the year begins. Almost every culture on earth has a different date to mark the start of the new year. According to traditional earth-centered religions, it begins on Nov. 1, right after the celebration of Halloween (known to most Pagans as Samhain). Three months later, on Feb. 2, Pagans celebrate Imbolc, which represents the half-way point between the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) and the Spring Equinox (March 20).
H. Byron Ballard is a Dianic High Priestess in the order of Ianna and a member of local Wiccan coven Notre Dame de l’Herbe Mouillee. Ballard directs the Mother Song project, a woman-centered performing-arts group. For her, Imbolc is a joyous time:
“It is the festival of Bridget, who is the goddess of the hearth, among many other things. Imbolc is a good time to make resolutions in order to fix something that is not working in your life, and leave behind things you don’t need anymore.
“Traditionally, in ancient times, Imbolc was when the ewe’s milk began to flow again, and anyone who was weak or sick from the winter knew they had survived the hardest part of the year and now their troubles were over,” she explains.
Imbolc marks the beginning of the new planting season and celebrates initiation, purification and the return of light after the winter months spent indoors. It also signifies a time of prophecy (the holiday’s just-for-fun mainstream counterpart, Groundhog Day, includes an element of divination as well).
By March 20, in these parts, the worst of winter has passed. During the Spring Equinox, which falls on this date, the day and night are of equal length: It’s even rumored than an egg will balance upright on this day. And this physical equality of light and dark reminds us to try and find balance in our personal lives.
Rebirth is a natural motif at this time of year. The Christian observance of Easter, in its secular segment, is symbolized by the notoriously fertile rabbit (manifested as the Easter Bunny) and also by eggs. In Greek mythology, spring announces the return of the Greek goddess Persephone from the Underworld to her mother Demeter, prompting the earth’s rejuvenation.
DeerEyes is a shamanic practitioner and owner of Elder Moon, a newly opened local shop dedicated to “supporting diversity in spirituality.” She explains that “shamans directly communicate with spiritual energies through trance states” and feels that, for this reason, what she practices “may differ from [some] others taught in the Wiccan tradition.”
Although it coincides with Easter, “Ostara [as some Pagans call the Equinox] honors the rebirth of nature, which is different from the rebirth of Christ,” she clarifies.
But without a doubt, Beltane is the sexiest holiday gracing the Pagan calendar. It’s the festival that celebrates all of the living world — and, most notably, fertility. Beltane and May Day — both traditionally celebrated by a dance around a ribbon-trimmed pole — are two names for the same day, May 1.
*Diuvei, the high priest of Asheville’s Coven Oldenwilde, describes his group’s method of celebrating Beltane: “We usually camp out in the woods, in a special place, and erect a maypole. The men carry it in, and if there is a virgin present at the celebration, she sits astride the pole as it is carried. After it has been erected, the pole is crowned with a wreath and there are ribbons hanging down. We weave them in and out until they are completely wound around the pole.” The pattern of the ribbons is also a form of divination, he explains. “The top represents the present, and we work our way down, making prophecies for the coming year based on the pattern.
“Beltane is an important fertility ritual,” *Diuvei emphasizes. “At some point during the night, couples usually disappear into the woods and return” — he pauses — “refreshed.”
The holiday has obvious similarities with the secular holiday Mother’s Day. While Beltane honors the life-giving forces of the universal mother, Mother’s Day celebrates the actual women who bring us into the world. It’s no coincidence that the maypole is an undeniably phallic symbol — this acknowledges that creation is not possible without the input of both the masculine and the feminine. With this union of opposites, Beltane celebrates the return of vitality, passion and consummated hopes.