Autumn Equinox, the poor relation of all the Sabbats. We are on familiar ground with the customs of all the others; Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lammas. The names are paganised nowadays, but those of us old enough to have had legally compulsory daily hymn singing at school, know them from the church approved versions of our youth. We are familiar with what these festivities are, what they mean to us, from early years. But Mabon? Mabon is the black sheep.
First up it was only named in 1970, by a known person. This makes it a ‘made-up’ festival (unlike the others…). This middle of the three harvest celebrations marks what I recall from my own childhood as the first religious highlight of the school term. Traditionally the Church celebrates on the Sunday near or on the Harvest Moon. This is the full Moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox, which this year grew to golden glory on the 15-16th September, making last Sunday (the 18th), Harvest Festival in the Church calendar. Unlike that other lunar based moveable feast of Easter, its counterpart on the opposite side of the Wheel, it never acquired any holiday time, probably because it falls at such a vitally busy period. We used to bring in to school homegrown produce to be sent to those in need; vegetables and apples, jars of freshly made jam, but health & safety in the intervening years meant that my children got to take tins of food to their schools… not quite the same!
Our present day detachment from the rural cycle has accompanied the removal of our dependence upon local foodstuffs, so harvest simply doesn’t mean much these days, not in the ‘how pleasant will life be this winter?’ way it did until fairly recently. What might Mabon (previously known as Harvest Festival) mean to us in 2016?
(Parking that question for a parenthesised paragraph, I’d like to remind those suffering from premature annunciations each year on Sept 21st that the autumnal equinox falls on the 23rd, give or take a day. This year, to be precise, at 1421h UTC on the 22nd.)
I have wondered about it in the past but this year, so soon after my recent visit to Cae Mabon, where part of the story of the hero of that name was related with such spirit, I felt moved to think about it.
Mabon is the middle of the three harvesting festivals. The work of the year reaches a frenzy of picking, preserving, and packing away of the fruits of our (or others) labours. Time to pause and take stock comes at Samhain, at the end of the harvest which started at Lammas, but for now we can count on a period of work, active devotion to the processes of our lives, gathering in as we prepare to feed ourselves while making plans in the months ahead. In this time of evenings which are neither one thing nor the other, half light half dark, we sit outside in the last of the sunshine knowing that in a few minutes the night will fall; catching up with friends takes place in snatched moments between all that shifting into the dark season entails, and brainstorming future projects.
The sun shines on
Merry Easter to those in the other hemisphere, and Merry Mabon to those closer to home. How to celebrate or mark it is more or less up to individual tastes; now that the redistribution of surplus fresh food to those lacking is deemed unsafe, perhaps make an equivalent gesture in a more magickal way, by conjuring for a better, fairer future using the resources you have to hand?
These pagan festivals of ours, rooted in Church festivals of past centuries, in turn rooted in earlier festivals of this land, continue to grow and take shapes as our culture alters. Corn dolls and Harvest Suppers have faded, perhaps to be replaced with carefully constructed photo albums and tales of summer adventures, full of insights to share. Long dark nights are on the horizon, during which we can sit with friends around fires, philosophising, enjoying what we do have, and feeling inspired about what we can grow next year.