Drop your assumptions and join in on the original Thanksgiving.
Just outside of the cultural spotlight, modern pagans celebrate the Autumn Equinox in observance of Mabon, a holiday creation that echoes as far back as bell bottoms and disco. But while the appropriation of a Welsh god’s name for a festival that started in the 1970s seems a bit cringy, the equinox celebration’s roots are as deep as humanity’s history and globally reaching. And yes, while modern paganism is often written off at best as Emos playing with mythology and at worst stirs up the deep, Puritan fear of witchcraft, the actual life-cycle lesson of celebrating gains and preparing for loss is never outdated. And, during our bizarre time, this lesson of temporary hardship is just the medicine we need.
Not Your Mother’s Paganism
Today’s paganism is a tangled web of lore, practice, and fractured groups that loosely, and even contentiously, come together. The term paganism started at the end of the Roman Empire, a nasty little word for the peasantry and rural dwellers at the ends of the empire who still worshipped multiple gods. The condescension and suspicion of pagan practices have continued over the centuries, and today we’re primed to think of witchcraft and animal sacrifices. But the world of modern pagans is far more complex–and benign. Held together only by shared beliefs in multiple deities, Neopagans, Druids, Wiccans, Asatruars, and others debate every point in their varied religions as they seek safety in recognition.
Not surprisingly, the celebration of Mabon itself is a bit of a puzzle. Unlike other Neopagan observances, there’s little evidence that a festival called Mabon was celebrated anywhere in the ancient Celtic nations of modern Britain, Ireland, and France. The name didn’t solidly connect with the harvest celebration until the 1970s, a part of the reconstructed paganism movement.
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What is only slightly clearer is that Mabon was a mysterious figure of Celtic Welsh mythology and later King Arthurian legends. Son of the Earth Mother Goddess, God of Sun and Light and Youth, this Mabon has a lot of titles with no heavy back story, and he is quite the controversy. Some pagans and academics believe that his attributes fit the season and others claim that he was rewritten to fit the festival.
Fall is the last blast before we hunker down.
With all this confusion, it would be easy to dismiss the celebration in its entirety, but that would be a mistake. Regardless of the name, they’re right. Long before Abraham Lincoln chose a Thursday in November to heal the United States’ wounds of war with gratitude, this was the world’s original Thanksgiving season.
Sorry Pumpkin Spice, This Is Really What Fall Is All About
Since the earliest people first banded together, we have celebrated the autumn harvest gifts and their promise of survival through tough times. From the East Asian celebration of the Moon Harvest to the Jewish Sukkot to Iran’s Mehregan to the modern hedonism of Oktoberfest, we will party while we can. Fall is the last blast before we hunker down.
We don’t like to think about falls in the modern world, either the literal or figurative tumbling down from a higher, safer position. But ancient cultures consistently recognized what the natural world lays out: we cannot always be in a stage of growth and gain. The ancient Greeks and Romans had the tragic tale of Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, who was kidnapped and held captive in the underworld. Through a classically convoluted negotiation fitting for Greek mythology, Zeus determined Persephone would split her year with her mother, Demeter, and her captor-turned-husband, Hades. For the Greeks, Fall signaled the beginning of Demeter’s yearly grief for her lost daughter and the six barren months that lay ahead until she returned.
Mabon also includes grateful reflection on what gets us through hard times, and rejection of what is no longer healthy or working.
Persephone’s story is one of the most known seasonal myths, but others follow the same plotline. Sumerian legends tell the tale of Inanna, goddess of abundance, and her autumn death at the hands of a jealous underworld sister followed by her miraculous spring rebirth. Now famous Loki, the mischievous Norse god, cut off the hair of Thor’s beloved wife Sif, causing the crops to stop growing until her hair returned. Over and over, we’re asked to remember that death and loss are a part of life, as inescapable as the seasons. Whether it’s ancient mythology, the Bible’s Ecclesiastes, or The Byrds’ hit song from the 1960s, we know there is a time for every purpose.
Get Your Mab-on
But Fall is not all doom and gloom, which is precisely the point of Mabon and harvest celebrations. The equinox is one of only two points of perfect balance in the year–the exact equal time of day and night. Indigenous cultures saw this as a particularly holy time and built ancient marvels such as Stonehenge and Chichen Itza to capture the light and its blessings.
For many modern people, including pagans, there is still a beautiful harmony in this balance of light and dark, of growth and rest. Celebrating Mabon does not require pilgrimaging to Stonehenge to drum and dance. It’s as simple as gathering together and feasting over good food and drink with loved ones. It’s about sharing the bounties we have with those less fortunate. And while you may not be counting your crops and examining your livestock, Mabon also includes grateful reflection on what gets us through hard times, and rejection of what is no longer healthy or working.
As we’re bombarded with stressors outside of our control, it’s the perfect time to reconnect with ancient wisdom around the circle of life. So whether picking apples, drinking wine, planting seeds, or drumming primal beats, you are joining people across the world in celebration as we have for millennia.