Did our ancestors celebrate the fall equinox? The question is an interesting one, and left for much interpretation. Certainly, some of our ancestors did pay attention to the equinox, as marked by many paleolithic stone circles. However, if we’re talking about those ancestors in the Viking Age, the idea gets a bit more muddled. I’ll explain.
Our planet, Earth, revolves around the sun. One circuit around the sun equals one year. The Earth spins around its axis as well, and the length of time it takes to make one full revolution is approximately 24 hours. With me so far?
But the Earth’s axis is tilted compared to the plane of its path around the sun. The Earth is tilted because it “spins” similar to a top. But unlike a top, the Earth’s wobble occurs over millions of years, and not seconds, like the toy. Because the Earth is in a tilt, it stays in the tilt as it revolves around the sun. So, winter occurs in our hemisphere when our hemisphere is furthest away from the sun. That is the winter solstice. The equinox occurs midway between winter and summer solstice when the sun is equal distant between the North and South poles.
Did Our Ancestors Recognize the Equinox?
So, the equinox occurs when the sun crosses the equator, giving us a near equal day and night. Hence the name, Equinox, meaning “equal night.” But did our ancestors recognize the equinox, and did it have any special meaning to them? Did they celebrate the fall equinox? (Or spring equinox, for that matter?)
We can look at various archaeological digs and find that yes, our ancestors did know about the equinox, and in some cultures, it must have had a religious significance. Stonehenge and Newgrange are two archaeological sites that keep track of the solstices and eclipses. Other sites across Ireland and Great Britain may also track the sun.
Other cultures, notably the Mayans, Chinese, Native Americans, and Egyptians also tracked the sun with their pyramids and monuments. So, it is likely that ancient European cultures were aware of the equinoxes. But how did our Northern ancestors celebrate the Fall equinox?
The Northern Ancestors’ Year
The Norse kept a calendar that had only two seasons: winter and summer. The reason is pretty obvious. There was snow, and there was no snow and farming time. The solstices seemed to have played a bigger role in Norse beliefs, hence Yule and Midsummer.
Solstices were More Important
Other pagan cultures celebrated Mabon, and today we have Winter Finding. As much as I would like to think the equinoxes were important, I suspect that the Solstices were more so. The first month of winter is in October in the old Norse calendar, and the first month of summer is in April. So, obviously the spring and fall equinox wasn’t as important as the solstices. But, they still had some importance. Eostre was celebrated close to the spring equinox and harvest celebrations were close to the fall equinox.
As always, if you have insights, be sure to let me know.
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I was reading a blog post on Patheos about society and merchants killing Thanksgiving. I found it an interesting read and I had to sit and think about the idea a bit. The blogger, I think, got it right in some ways and wrong in others. Since I am most likely older than the blogger (I painfully admit this), I can probably add my two cents as to what is happening to the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
What Thanksgiving was in Relation to Christmas
Before I get some push back, let me state that even though I’m Heathen, I recognize that the “holiday season” is largely the Christmas season. That’s because the majority of people in the US are still Christian, and even those who aren’t Christian still celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. So even though Christmas is just a hijacked Yule, I’m going to be a realist here and talk about what the majority of Americans celebrate.
Thanksgiving was born out of the traditional harvest festivals. It became an official American holiday in 1863 thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Before that, it was mostly celebrated in New England, although presidents before Lincoln would often declare a day of Thanksgiving. If you want the whole story, you can read my post on it.
Thanksgiving, due to its proximity to Christmas, was a natural start of the holiday season, once Christmas became popular, thanks to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. (Christmas, by the way, was not that popular of a holiday in the New World, thanks to our Puritan founders.) Even in Europe, Christmas was unpopular by the 19th century, requiring Dickens to give it a facelift. In Medieval times, it was a time of communal feasting and playing games. Much of that stopped abruptly when the Black Death hit.
So, by the time World War II came along, Christmas had enjoyed enough popularity to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt tinker with the date of Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of the month so that merchants could plan their holiday sales. Seriously.
Thanksgiving and the Christmas Buying Season
The blogger bemoaned the fact that Thanksgiving is being run over by black Friday sales that start on Thursday in the hopes to lure more shoppers to buy. And in truth, the holiday season is often a make or break time for many merchants. But should it mean that the stores should be open for you to buy stuff when people should be staying home with their families?
As old as I am (old as dirt, I reckon), I seem to recall that the Christmas buying season started around Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember Black Fridays until at least the 70s, but the term was coined in the 50s because cops had to pull 12 hour shifts to deal with the shoppers. Since I didn’t live in Philadelphia, that’s probably why I don’t remember it much when I was a kid. This Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving is a headache and one either people will embrace or decide to skip. It depends on how popular it will be for the trend to survive, but I’m counting on people to use their smartphones and buy online on Thanksgiving.
What I’m More Concerned With
As depressing as Christmas shopping taking over Thanksgiving is, I’m more concerned with the lack of association of the Thanksgiving and Harvest festivals. Sure, kids learn to draw turkeys and pumpkins and corn, but in most cases kids don’t see turkeys other than in books and in videos and have never stepped foot in a field where corn and pumpkins are grown. They and probably their parents look at the world through their extremely urban or suburban living. Sure, they might get a chance to visit a farm on a school trip, but that really is about the extent. So when they have their highly processed bird at Thanksgiving, they haven’t really had a connection to the harvest. Instead, it’s an excuse to eat and then sit on the couch and play video games or watch football. And yes. we look at Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas buying season. Yay.
There’s a town I enter when I hunt in a certain area which has an honest-to-gods harvest festival annually. That’s because it’s a farm town. When I saw the signs, I was delighted and intrigued. If it wasn’t hunting season, I’d be there just to watch what went on. Unfortunately Skadi has not gifted me an elk this season thus far, so I’m busy looking for those.
Understanding harvest, which is where Thanksgiving comes from, is important. Knowing where our food is from. Actually growing crops and tending livestock. Thanking Freyr for the abundance. Saving the last sheaf of wheat for the wights and gods. Remembering ancestors. That’s what I believe is endangered.
Thanksgiving will undoubtedly morph into something more commercial, if Madison Avenue has its way. But hopefully as Heathenism grows, perhaps more people will pay attention to its roots and recognize the importance of Harvest.
I’ve been looking up information about harvest celebrations in Viking times, and apparently there were a few worth noting. Lithasblot (Harvest) and Mabon (Harvest End) seem to be the two that are associated with our northern ancestors. These days were celebrated with feasting, drinking, and partying, because the food harvested would hopefully get them through the long, dark winter….
Thanksgiving is often touted as a truly traditional American holiday. As Heathens, we should be quick to note the overall similarities between Thanksgiving and harvest celebrations, but is Thanksgiving truly a harvest celebration, or is it mired in Christian beliefs to the point where we should just ignore it for something else like Freyfaxi? Here are some of my thoughts.
A Brief History of Thanksgiving
Unless you’re from a country outside of the United States, you’ve heard the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, so I won’t bother repeating what is common knowledge. For those who either live under a rock, or in another country, (or maybe both) here is a nice piece by The History Channel.
But thanksgiving celebrations were common in the New World even before the Mayflower showed up at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Jamestown had thanksgiving celebrations as early as 1607. Before that, the French and the Spaniards had thanksgiving celebrations in the 1500s. So, the Pilgrims were not exclusive when it came to thanking the Christian god for harvest, victory over enemies, or any time someone wanted a party. The pilgrims had a thanksgiving celebration in 1621 and again in 1623. The second thanksgiving probably sparked the observances.
Okay, Maybe Not So Brief…
People in different states, particularly in New England, had thanksgiving celebrations after that time. George Washington requested a thanksgiving celebration in 1777 in December after the colonial army’s victory against the British at Saratoga. There were national proclamations for thanksgiving in 1782, but it was more a day of prayer. In 1789, Washington declared November 26th to be a day of thanksgiving. But this was a one-time shot which he declared again in 1795. Later presidents also declared days of thanksgiving.
It wasn’t until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln fixed the national holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of the November. Franklin D. Roosevelt tinkered with the holiday date as making it the fourth Thursday of the month because November occasionally had five Thursdays.
So Where Does Harvest Fit In?
Originally, the pilgrims probably held thanksgiving in September or October to coincide with harvest and to give thanks to the Christian god for their food. The British harvest festival, celebrated around the equinox since pagan times, no doubt inspired the pilgrims’ day of thanks. So, is our celebration Harvest or Thanksgiving?
Well, the answer depends. If you take it purely from the American historical perspective, then yeah, we can say that the holiday is Christian. All the Christian trappings pretty much tie into Thanksgiving nicely. But if we look at the original harvest traditions that inspired Thanksgiving, we can accept it as a pagan holiday, even if the celebration is during a month when the fields are already fallow for the winter. There are certainly great harvest traditions that we can add to Thanksgiving to give it more meaning besides eating turkey and pumpkin pie. Giving thanks to our gods and goddesses for making the food possible is never a bad thing.
Well, it’s harvest time. Today I was preserving some peaches I received from a local farmer, and it occurred to me that most people really aren’t in touch with their food. Oh sure, you go to the grocery store and buy stuff. Maybe you plant a small garden, if you have the space, but many people don’t. So, you buy your food from who knows where, and pray to Freyr that maybe he’ll accept your thanks.
Kids, we need to talk.
Freyr isn’t Going to Bless those PopTarts
Let’s get one thing straight: I like PopTarts as much as the next person. They’re great junk food, but they’re not what harvest is about. (Actually I don’t eat PopTarts; I’ll eat the organic “toaster pastries.”) Anything that is over processed really isn’t great for you. I would argue that the more processed the food is, the farther away from you it is, the more chemicals added, the less healthy and the less nutritious it’s likely to be.
I also think that if you don’t pay much attention to where your food comes from and what goes into your body, you need to rethink your commitment to being Heathen. You may argue that where you get your food doesn’t matter, so I guess I’m going to try to reason through this.
Our Ancestors Were Farmers
When we talk about Freyfaxi and Harvest celebrations, we’re celebrating the harvest and thanking the gods, particularly Freyr, for the bounty. Most of our ancestors were farmers at one point, and if you go back far enough, they were hunter-gatherers. In all human history of some 200,000 years when homo sapiens has been in existence, people have been in touch with the land and nature until very recently. You could argue that the first cities emerged in 4000 BCE in Mesopotamia, and while that was very long ago, when you consider humans have been around 200,000 years, we really haven’t been in cities that long. What really started separating people from agrarian life was the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.
Now, I am not a Luddite against progress, but the Industrial Revolution started moving people
The present study provides strong evidence that the use of arsenic-based drugs contributes to dietary iAs [inorganic arsenic] exposure in consumers of conventionally produced chickens. Our findings suggest that eliminating the use of arsenic-based drugs in food animal production could reduce the burden of arsenic-related disease in the U.S. population.
As an aside, Snopes.com, which usually gets things right, has this somewhat misleading title. While 70 percent of the chicken in stores may or may not have elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, the actual study showed that half of the conventional chicken tested positive for roxasone in the study and that the roxasone decreased while inorganic arsenic increased. The study suggests that an additional 3.7 people in 100,000 could be exposed to enough arsenic to cause bladder and lung cancers.
Why Being Self Sufficient is Important for Heathens (and
As a semi-subsistance hunter, I look at the way foods are produced and ask myself how this is good for the land, the next generations, and for myself. I’m not a rabid environmentalist, but even I realize that we can’t sustain our current conventional growing and farming methods. This is not a healthy way, nor is it a way I could imagine any god would approve of. So if you’ve celebrating or are celebrating Harvest Home, Freyfaxi, Thanksgiving, or another harvest tradition, look at what kind foods you’re being thankful for. Are they from our fields and woodlands, neighbors, or local farmers, or are they from big industry agriculture and maybe halfway around the globe? In the first case, you have connection to your food. Maybe you know the farmer whom you bought the peaches from (like I do), or maybe you grew an apple tree in your yard and you’re canning apples and baking apple pie.
Being Self Sufficient isn’t Easy
While it’s incredibly hard in this age to be truly self sufficient, there are many things that you can and should do, even if you live in a city. Maybe you have to rely on someone for most of your food. Do it responsibly. Here are my suggestions:
Plant a small herb garden in pots. Maybe plant some tomatoes and peppers in a patio garden.
Hunt. Yes, hunt (and fish). The meat is healthier for you and it is completely carbon neutral.
Learn the local edible plants and learn how to prepare them.