Tag Archives: celebration

Celebrating Yule

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Many covens meet just before dawn on the day of the Solstice to hold their Yule rituals, and then watch the rebirth of the God enacted as the Sun rises. In some traditions, the fires and/or candles are lit in encouragement of the Sun God’s emergence, welcoming his returning light. Themes of ritual may include regeneration, light in the darkness, and setting intentions for the new year. In some Wiccan traditions, this is the time to ritually reenact the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. These twin brothers represent the opposing poles of the Sun’s annual journey through the seasons. The Holly King, representing the dark half of the year, reigns until the Winter Solstice, when he is cut down by the Oak King, who heralds in the beginning of the waxing daylight. This cyclical story serves as a reminder that light and dark are both essential parts of existence in Nature—neither can exist without the other.

For solitary Wiccans who live “double lives” as far as mainstream society is concerned, Yule can be a challenging Sabbat to make time for, swamped as so many are with the obligations of the Christmas season. However, since plenty of the traditions associated with both holidays overlap, it’s easy enough to infuse more conventional practices with a little Yule magic.

For example, hang a sprig of holly above your door to ensure protection and good fortune for your family and your guests. Magically charge your Christmas tree ornaments before placing them on the branches. Whisper an incantation to the Goddess over any cookies, spiced cider, or any other holiday goods you make for your friends, family or coworkers. You can spread the blessings of your own
personal holiday throughout your community without anyone even knowing it! For those without indoor hearths, a Yule log can be fashioned from a small tree branch—flatten it on one side so it will sit evenly on the altar and drill small holes to place candles into. Go outside and gather boughs of fir, juniper or cedar, as well as pinecones, holly berries, and any other “natural decor” to bring the energies of protection, prosperity, and renewal into your home.

Use mistletoe to bring peace and healing to your life by placing leaves in a sachet or hanging it over your door. Honor the rebirth of the Sun by inscribing discs, pinwheels, or other solar symbols into a large red, orange or yellow pillar candle. Light it at dawn on the day of the Winter Solstice to welcome the Sun and the new beginning of the Wheel of the Year.

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Imbolc Correspondences

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Colors: red, white, yellow, pink
Stones: garnet, ruby, onyx, bloodstone, amethyst
Herbs: angelica, basil, bay leaf, myrrh, coltsfoot, heather
Flowers: snowdrops, violets, crocus, daffodils, forsythia
Incense: myrrh, cinnamon, violet, wisteria, jasmine, vanilla
Altar decorations/symbols: white flowers, potted bulbs, Brighid’s cross, Brídeóg, sheep, cows, ploughs, cauldron, poems or poetry book, candles or candle wheel
Foods: pumpkin and sunflower seeds, poppyseed pastries, dairy products, early spring vegetables

Celebrating Samhain

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For Wiccans and other Pagans, Samhain is very much rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions. It is often described as the night when “the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest,” and many choose to honor their ancestors and other departed loved ones at this time. Food and drink are left out for any wandering spirits, and many Witches seek communication with the Other Side.

We do not fear mischief or retribution from the dead, as we know our ancestors don’t mean us harm, but we do honor and respect their presence. The Wiccan belief in reincarnation is also meditated upon at Samhain, as we recognize that the life/death/rebirth cycle applies to all living beings. We know that we do not return to the Other Side permanently, but rest and enjoy ourselves there until we’re ready to be reborn into the physical world.

Samhain is a key occasion for divination of all kinds, including scrying, Tarot, runes and I-Ching, as well as various uses of apples. For those who work with the faeries, this is definitely an important night to leave offerings for them!

In many traditions, Samhain is also considered the start of the new year, as it is believed that the Celtic year began on the evening of October 31st. Scholars disagree about whether there is sufficient evidence for this, but Samhain is listed in Irish medieval literature as the first of the four cross-quarter day festivals, so the association has stuck.

Whether your tradition considers the year to begin now or at Yule, however, Samhain is an excellent time to reflect on your life and any changes you wish to make during the year ahead. This is the time in between death and new life, as the Crone/Mother Goddess waits for the God to be reborn.

What in your personal world do you wish to allow to die, and what new developments would you like to give birth to? What has ended that you need to fully let go of in order to make room for the new?

Coven rituals at Samhain are often held outdoors, at night, around a sacred bonfire. The coven members may focus on letting go of bad habits and other unwanted energies, symbolically releasing them into the fire to be transformed. Other ritual themes may include bidding farewell to the Old God, tapping into the wisdom of the Crone, and formally honoring the dead.

And of course, any Wiccans who practice spellwork are certain to do so on this night, the most potent time of the entire year for magic! Any type of work is bound to be effective, but in keeping with the themes of this Sabbat, goals related to banishing, releasing, and strengthening your psychic abilities are especially appropriate.

On your Samhain altar, include photographs or mementos from deceased loved ones and light a votive candle specifically for them. Since this is the Sabbat most associated with Witchcraft, include symbols like cauldrons, besoms (ritual brooms), and pentacles, even if you don’t necessarily work with these tools regularly. As always, seasonal decorations of all kinds are key, but try to include a pumpkin if you can—carved and illuminated if possible!

Finally, be sure to give your sacred space a very thorough sweeping before beginning any ritual or spellwork. As you clean, visualize all unwanted energies and influences from the past year being swept away and out of your life.

The Lighting of the Balefire

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The name “Beltane” has been traced back to an old Celtic word meaning “bright fire,” and is thought by some scholars to be related to the ancient Sun god Belenos, whose name has been translated as “bright shining one.” Belenos was worshipped throughout Celtic Europe and his feast day was on May 1st, so this connection seems logical, but is not universally accepted by historians.

For one thing, Belenos (also known as Bel or Beil) doesn’t make significant appearances in the mythology of the areas where Beltane was historically celebrated: Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Mann. In fact, he was much more significant to the Gaulish Celts of the European continent, where the May 1st festivals are known by different names. Nonetheless, the ritual importance of fire was a central focus of Beltane for the ancient Celts of the western-most islands, where the first references to the holiday are found.

The chief event at Beltane in ancient Ireland was the lighting of the balefire on the eve of May 1, the first fire of the light half of the Celtic year. In preparation for this event, every household hearth was extinguished.

Legend has it that tribal representatives from all over Ireland met at the hill of Uisneach, a sacred site where a giant bonfire was lit. Each representative would light a torch from the great fire, and carry it back to their village, where the people waited in the darkness. From the village torch, each household would then relight their home fires, so that all of Ireland was set alight from the same initial flame. In another version of this story, the fire at Uisneach could be seen from several miles away in every direction, signaling to the surrounding villages to light their own central fires, which was then spread throughout their communities. Either way, this act marked the beginning of summer, with hopes for plentiful sunshine throughout the season.

As a living symbol of the Sun, ritual fire was clearly seen as having magical powers. In many Celtic areas, the Beltane fires were also used for ritual purification of cattle before they were turned out into the summer pastures. The cattle were driven between two large bonfires, which were tended by Druids who used special incantations to imbue the fires with sacred energy.

The fire would clear the animals of any lingering winter disease and protect them from illness and accidents throughout the summer. People would also walk between the fires, or jump over them, for luck and fertility through the coming year. In some areas, the ashes from the smoldering fire would be sprinkled over crops, livestock, and the people themselves.

Over time, the annual Beltane fires grew into larger festivals, where people came to greet each other after the long winter. Dancing, music, games and great feasts became traditions, along with a free license for sexual promiscuity on this special occasion. Other customs observed at this time included eating “Beltane bannock”—a special oatcake that bestowed an abundant growing season and protection of livestock—and making a “May Bush,” a branch or bough from a tree decorated with brightly colored ribbons, flowers, and egg shells.

People would dance around the May Bush on Beltane, and then either place it by the front door for luck or burn it in the bonfire. This was believed to be a remnant of Druidic tradition, which held many trees to be sacred and possess magical qualities. A related custom was hanging a rowan branch over the hearth or weaving it into the ceiling to protect the house for the coming year.

Trees, herbs and flowers in general played a part at Beltane and at other May Day celebrations throughout Europe. Primrose flowers and hawthorne and hazel blossoms were gathered and placed at doors and windows, made into garlands, and even used to adorn cattle. Yellow flowers were prized for their association with the Sun.

Herbs gathered on this day were said to be especially potent for magic and healing, especially if gathered at dawn or while the morning dew was still on them. The “May dew” inspired a variety of traditions around beauty. Young women would roll naked in the dew or collect it to wash their faces with, as it was said to purify the skin, maintain youthful looks and help attract a love partner.

Celebrating Imbolc

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Fire plays a big role in most Wiccan Imbolc traditions. At coven celebrations, a high priestess may wear a crown of lit candles or carry tapers during ritual. This is done in honor of the Goddess stepping into her Maiden aspect and the God’s growth into boyhood.

Candles are lit in each room of the house to welcome the Sun. Bonfires are held if the weather is fair, and any evergreen decorations from the Yule Sabbat are burned as a way of letting go of the past season, or even the past year.

For Wiccans, Brighid’s status as a Fire goddess makes her an appropriate deity to be recognized on this Sabbat that celebrates the return of the Sun. You can honor her in a variety of ways—by visiting a  natural spring or holy well and making offerings, cleaning and purifying your home, lighting candles for her at your altar, or even engaging in writing or other creative activities.

Try making a Brídeóg to place on your altar, and make a Brighid’s bed for her to rest in. If you made a “Corn Mother” for Lammas last year, you can repurpose it, dressing her this time in white, yellow or pink (think “Maiden” colors). The bed can be a small basket, a wooden box, or even a well-decorated shoe box. Just be sure to make it comfortable and attractive, with blankets and flowers, ribbons, etc.
Place your Brídeóg in the bed near your hearth (or altar, if you don’t have a fireplace). Some traditions leave a small wand with her, which she can use to bless your home. You can also make your own Brighid’s cross to hang over your doorway. Instructions for these Imbolc crafts can be easily found online or in other print sources.

Other traditional Imbolc activities include going for walks or hikes to look for signs of spring in the surrounding countryside, taking a ritual bath for physical and energetic purification, and decorating and blessing farm equipment (such as ploughs) for the coming season. Placing a besom, or ritual broom, by the front door symbolizes sweeping out the stale energy of winter and allowing fresh new energy to enter your home and your life.

As with all cross-quarter Sabbats, a special feast is a great idea, particularly on Feb 1st, or “Imbolc Eve.” Bringing food to those in need after the long winter—such as homeless shelters and elderly shut-ins—is an excellent way to raise abundance energy for your community.

Finally, Imbolc is a good time to perform self-dedication rituals, or to undergo coven initiation if you are in a position to do so.