Harvest is a time when we reap the rewards of hard work. We pick the fruits from the orchards and the vegetables from the garden. We gather in the grain, and may even cull the livestock to provide meat for the cold months to come. Harvest is an ending. It’s a time of rewards for the effort we’ve put into growing our food. But it’s also a bit of a sad time, as the plants begin to die back and the weather turns cold. We mourn the loss of the warm, sunny days and the withering away of the greenery that was such an integral part of our summer days.
Harvest can be a metaphorical concept too and not just a literal one. We have grown up hearing that, “You reap what you sow.” Some harvests are creative ones. Some are the result of seeds we have sown in our personal or professional lives. And as we are warned when we first hear the ancient wisdom, a harvest can mean unpleasantness as well as success and prosperity. If we sow seeds of anger, deceit, or envy, this is exactly what we will reap at harvest-tide. The universe will return to us what we send out into the world. It’s a lesson in humility and in trying to find harmony with the world around us.
The Three Pagan Harvest Festivals
Fall is the season of harvests. In the Northern Hemisphere, fall weather usually starts around mid- to late September. But the turning point is much sooner if you watch for it. Olivia Morris writes about it in her post, “Gardeners are the Most Optimistic People in the World. Sometime in August, the chill night air sets in for the first time in months. We start to turn off the air conditioners and fans, to add a blanket back to the bed when we sleep. We may even contemplate turning the heat on if the weather has been damp.
Pagans all over North America and Europe celebrate a series of three harvest festivals from this time in August, right through to the end of the growing season in late October. As our religion is linked very closely to the cycles of the earth upon which we live, our greatest holy days are tied to the seasons of Mother Earth and the endless cycles of the sun and moon in the sky. We celebrate three harvest-themed Sabbats in the Craft, and even in other branches of Pagan religion, these holidays can be found – though sometimes under different names.
The holidays begin in August with a holiday most commonly called Lammas, a festival of grains and bread products. In September there is the fall equinox, sometimes called Mabon. This is a time to celebrate the harvest of apples, among other things. The third and final harvest celebration is Samhain, which has given the world many of its Halloween traditions.
Lughnasadh or Lammas
Lammas is traditionally celebrated on the eve of August 2nd. The date often coincides with the harvest not only of cereal grains but also of sweet corn, or maize. It’s common to see corn incorporated in the feast foods for Lammas. Two of my favourite foods at this time of year are corn on the cob and cornbread. Bread is one of the main symbols of Lammas, whose name literally translates as “loaf mass.” Although it still feels like summertime, it’s around Lammas that we begin to detect the first hint of a chill in the night air. The tides are turning and the long, lazy days of summer are becoming noticeably shorter. Fall is on its way, and winter won’t be long in following.
Cereal grains such as barley, wheat, and oats are often harvested around Lammas, as well. In addition to their association with the loaves of bread that are iconic to this Sabbat, grains are also the source of beer and distilled spirits that would traditionally be made this time of year. Prior to industrialization, brewing beer or making a distilled alcohol like whisky was one way to preserve grains that weren’t transformed into bread or kept to seed the following year’s crop. The custom of personifying the grain and celebrating its transformation from cereal into alcohol can be seen in the English folk song, “John Barleycorn Must Die.”
The Fall Equinox
The fall equinox is often called Mabon, after a tradition begun in America during the 1970s. Another common name is Harvest Home, or simply Harvest. This second of the harvest-themed Sabbats falls around September 21 – 23 each year, whenever the sun crosses the equator and enters the sign of Libra. It is one of only two times in an entire year when the earth sees an equal division of daytime and nighttime hours.
The falling of the leaves and the cool, crisp air signal the time to harvest apples and other pomes, grapes, nuts, and also root vegetables. Many of these foods are associated with the cornucopia that is the symbol of the North American Thanksgiving celebrations, and the fall equinox shares much the same theme of giving thanks and celebrating the bounty of Mother Earth.
Samhain, the Celtic Halloween
Samhain (pronounced SOW-en) is the Celtic festival of the dead and the ancestors. It is recognized as the time when the veil separating our world from the worlds beyond is at its thinnest. This made it the perfect time to practise divination and to welcome visits from loved ones who had gone on before. Samhain is a celebration of death and endings but it is also seen as a celebration of life and rebirth. For many Witches and Pagans today, it is seen as the holiest time of the year.
Many of the old Celtic customs associated with this Sabbat have passed into popular culture as the secular traditions of Halloween. Thus we dress up to go trick-or-treating, we see young people playing pranks, and there are stories of ghosts and fairies walking abroad in the dark of night. Customs such as the carving of pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns come from this Pagan festival – though the Celts didn’t have pumpkins, which are a New World crop. Instead, they would have carved turnips. And that is a much more difficult task!
The third and last of the Pagan harvest festivals signals the end of the year and the beginning of the new one. It is often seen as a sort of Pagan New Year’s celebration. After this Sabbat, there is a cool, dark, still time when many Pagans feel there is an emptiness in the world. This sort of dead time continues until late December when the tides turn again at the winter solstice and the light of the sun starts to grow once more.
Would you like to learn more about contemporary Pagan religion? Check out “Beyond the Bell, Book and Candle: Pagan Religion is Not What You Think it Is.”