Something notable about this time of the year is the number of festivals compared to other times. In the UK there are plenty of summer music festivals but hardly any summer seasonal festivals; a few people celebrate the summer solstice and in Derbyshire there is the tradition of well-dressing, but otherwise there are none. I’m tempted to think that in more agrarian times, when many of our traditions emerged, that people were just too taken up with the business of harvesting to find much time for them. In spring there is Easter of course, which many claim supplanted an earlier pagan celebration of the spring equinox.
In the darker months the festivals are more abundant and this is helpful if, like me, you are trying to conceive of winter as an evolving process rather than a static and stubborn entity. The festivals start in the autumn with what are mainly harvest festivals. These tend to occur around the time of the autumn equinox, when neither of Earth’s hemispheres is tilted either towards or away from the sun, giving us more or less equal days and nights (equinox means ‘equal night’) and when we are about to be tipped into the darker half of the year. This is around the 23rd of September and the full moon that is closest to it is called the Harvest Moon. It is around this time that many cultures celebrate the harvest and look ahead to the winter, historically with some trepidation as to how many would survive until spring, depending on how good the harvest was.
Having worked on an arable farm for several years I can attest to the dramatic changes that people would have experienced in their lifestyles when most worked and depended on the land. Late spring and summer are hectic periods of cutting, drying and harvesting when every dry daylight hour is made use of to complete the business of getting the crops in. Barley is harvested around July, wheat in August and main crop potatoes by early October, by which time next year’s wheat needs to be in the ground. It is also at this time of year that pasture stops growing and cattle are brought in from the fields. After such intense activity, autumn brings us to a relative standstill and makes for a natural contemplative point at which to assess the year’s harvest and consider the coming winter. It is a time of real change when we feel we are passing from one half of the year to the next.
Without wishing to stretch a metaphor too far it does feel that, in our agricultural pasts, once we had gathered the crops in we went through a process of gathering ourselves in, hunkering down for the winter with what we had managed to grow and store, trying to keep warm and well-fed. Although the industrial revolution changed our lives irrevocably over two hundred years ago, many of our customs relate strongly to times when the seasons were far more important to us than they are now, and we still sense the significance of these shifts and acknowledge this by continuing to celebrate harvest festivals. These include Thanksgiving in North America, Sukkot in the Jewish calendar, Harvest Festival in Britain and the mid-Autumn Festival in China, Taiwan and Vietnam during which the traditional moon cakes are made and eaten (photo courtesy of pondspider).
It is through the observance of seasonal festivals such as these that we mark the progress of and acknowledge the cyclical nature of time; therefore any of these festivals can be taken as a celebration of a rebirth, those festivals associated with the winter solstice being explicitly so (these will make up part two of this post).
I am particularly taken with the Gaelic festival Samhain which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter and the dark half of the year. It is celebrated from sunset on 31st of October to sunset on 1st of November and special fires are lit. This was also the time of year that cattle were brought in from the fields and livestock slaughtered. It seems the right time to be marking the passage from light to dark and is partnered by the festival of Imbolc at the end of January which marks the beginning of spring. There are not enough festivals in the latter half of winter so I will be marking that one; by that point I really need something to celebrate.