- Listen to the sun.
- Answer foxglove bells.
- Heed the wisdom of animals.
- Open a portal.
- Glimpse the waking dream.
- Grab a handful of magic.
I know, I know. All you ghost and goblin lovers feel neglected at this time of year. My horror-fixated friends begin lamenting as early as November. “Let’s plan for next Halloween!” they tell me. However, you don’t have to wait that long! There is a holiday going on right now to appease your ghastly self, and it should not be ignored.
We all know of Beltane, the fire festival celebrated on May 1st. But the night before Beltane, called May Eve, Walpurgis Night or Walpurgisnacht, is a notable time for spooky celebration in its own right.
Just as Halloween/ Samhain marks the turning of the seasons, so does Walpurgis Night/ Beltane. In the Northern hemisphere we see the changeover from winter to summer, and in the Southern hemisphere from summer to winter. The cross quarter festival of Samhain corresponds exactly with Beltane, six months later in the wheel of the year.
It is a shoulder-season, marked by the quasi-reality of one thing merging into another. Nature blooms or nature dies, depending on what side of the world you are on. During this time the veils are lifted, leaving us particularly vulnerable to the influences of all things other-worldly. This includes, of course, the dead, the faeries, the vampires, the werewolves, etc. We should therefore prepare ourselves for hauntings, divination, costuming, scary movies and general mayhem.
What are the origins of Walpurgis Night, and what exactly IS a Walpurgis?
The festival of May Day was probably first celebrated by the ancient Romans. At the beginning of summer, the goddess Flora, a deity of vegetation and fertility, was honored with a five day festival.
The celebrations ended in a blood sacrifice offered to Flora, as a way of ensuring she would make the land prosperous all summer long. The Vikings also had a version of this feast, as did the ancient Celts, Picts and Goths.
Later, in medieval Germany, May Eve was called Hexennacht or “night of the witches”. On this night the local wise-women would gather on the Brocken, the uppermost point of the Harz mountain range. There they would call upon spirits to bless the land and prepare it for summer. Hexennacht was a wild time of dancing, bonfires and fertility rituals, as well as spells and divinity.
As Christianity spread through Europe, the Church began to merge Christian and Pagan holy days. May Eve became known as Walpurga’s Night. This was a festival to honor the Saint Walpurga, an abbess who was canonized on May 1st, 870.
It seems Walpurga herself was a great health advocate who protected people from rabies, pestilence and all sorts of diseases. She was not so different from the witches at Hexennacht. The two festivals were probably a bit interchangeable and may have coexisted side by side. Some Scandinavian stories even describe Walpurga as a type of Valkyrie, and have her joining Odin in his ‘wild hunt’ through the sky.
However, in around the sixteenth century, when the Church decided to go crazy with witch hunts, they created a new legend and apparently appointed Walpurga as their guard dog against witches. The wise-women who had called for land blessings now suddenly became suspect, as the Church linked them to the devil and Satanic myths. And of course, Walpurga’s feast day “just happened” to correspond to Hexennacht. The lines between good and evil were clearly plotted. Traditional bonfires became a tool to ward off ‘demonic’ witches. People were encouraged to fear, rather than embrace, the other-world and the lifting of the veils.
In later years, Saint Walpurga’s Night became known as “Walpurgis Night”, inextricably bound to evil and chaos. Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust (1808) in which the main character sells his soul to the devil, takes place in the Harz mountains on Walpurgisnacht. Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest (1914) also begins on this fateful night:
‘The dead travel fast.
There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost mysterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!
Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone—unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright…”
You get the idea.
In modern times, Walpurgis Night is celebrated in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Finland. The festivities include bonfires, dancing, dressing up in costumes, parades, feasting and music.
If it’s scary enough for Bram Stoker, it’s scary enough for me!
And so, if you find yourself longing for a Halloween fix, despair no more! Walpurgis Night is the perfect time to watch frightening films or create some witchy rituals of your own. Go to the woods, light a bonfire, don a mask, bless the land. Whatever you do, feel free to celebrate April 30th with some good old fashioned horror, hallucinations, and of course hexes 🙂
Valentine’s Day is not all hearts and flowers and Fanny Mae. But you probably already knew that. The origins and subsequent ‘celebrations’ of St. Valentine’s Day have lent themselves to some pretty gory stuff. How did romance and sentimentality get intertwined in it? Well…
“The course of true love never did run smooth.” — William Shakespeare
Grab some chocolates and read on to discover some origins of this strange but beloved holiday.
All Roads Lead To Rome
The ancient Romans had a holy day called Lupercalia, traditionally celebrated on February 15. This was the original feast upon which St. Valentine’s Day is based. Shakespeare’s famous play ‘Julius Caesar’ actually begins on Lupercalia. Soldiers Flavius and Marullus need to set up extra security, due to masses of reveling people:
FLAVIUS: Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday?…
MARULLUS: You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
The real trouble, of course, will come a month later, at the Ides of March with the murder of Caesar. But Lupercal serves as foreshadowing. Trouble in the streets, bloodshed inevitable.
What exactly was the feast of Lupercal? There are, reportedly, a few different origins. Part of the celebration was in tribute to the goddess Juno, the patron of marriage and fertility.
Activities involved a lottery in which young girls’ names were written on slips of paper and thrown into jars to be picked out by the boys. The chooser and chosen would then be partnered for the duration of the Lupercalia festival. If you liked your partner, great. But if not, you were stuck.
The celebrations then continued in honor of Faunus or Pan, the god of shepherds. He represented fertility and the beginnings of spring. It was also a dedication to Lupa, the she-wolf. Legend has it that Lupa acted as a pseudo mom to the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, suckling them from birth. Romulus and Remus grew up to be bad asses and also were the founders of Rome. Hence, the feast day was called Lupercalia, or ‘Wolf Festival’.
Lupercalia was a wild and reckless time.
The festival rites were conducted by an organization called Luperci — the ‘brothers of the wolf’. They were the high priests of Pan. The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Next, two young priests were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. (Interestingly, sheep and milk play an important role in the feast of Imbolc.)
Next – the fun part! The Luperci guys cut throngs from the skins of the animals. Interestingly, the goat throngs were called ‘februa’ — hence our month “February”. They then ran through the streets dressed only in goat skins and chased women, trying to hit them with the februa.
It may not have been as violent as it seems. Girls and young women would willingly line up to be touched by the februa which had magical powers and was thought to ensure fertility. The practice was therefore popular among women who were trying to get pregnant.
Shakespeare’s play has a reference to this belief as well. Caesar instructs Marc Antony to touch his wife Calpurnia with the throng:
CAESAR (to Calpurnia): Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
ANTONY: Caesar, my lord?
CAESAR: Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
My Bloody Valentinus
How did the rowdy feast of Lupercalia become Saint Valentine’s Day?
The real Saint Valentine — aka Valentinus — was a conscientious 3rd century bishop.
During the reign of Claudius II, the Roman empire was on a decline due to oppression from the Gauls, Slavs, and other forces attempting to overthrow Rome. Claudius needed all the power he could get for his armies, and felt that married men could not possibly be good warriors. So he made marriage illegal. Valentinus, an advocate for human rights, would have none of this! Valentinus took it upon himself to perform secret marriages in opposition to the emperor’s laws. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to death.
But it wasn’t that simple. As fate would have it – Valentinus fell in love with the jailer’s daughter during his confinement. Before his death, Valentinus is said to have asked for a quill and paper. He wrote a farewell letter to his sweetheart from the jail and signed ‘From Your Valentine’. The expression stuck! 🙂
Linked together, the traditions all seem suspiciously similar. A lottery of valentines, the deliberate pairing of men and women, a celebration of fertility, a connection of death and love.
Valentinus was executed as a Christian martyr on February 14, 270 AD. The figure of Saint Valentine was eased in as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire. Around 500 AD, Pope Gelasius officially declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day, ending the Lupercalia celebration for good.
The Birds and the Bees
During the age of chivalry and courtly love, the St. Valentine’s tradition began to take on a more romantic meaning. In the Middle Ages, Valentine began to be celebrated as a heroic and romantic figure amongst people in England and France.
Remember Geoffrey Chaucer? We all get a dose of him in high school and he is often called the ‘Father of the English language’. But he did more than write the Canterbury Tales. UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, credits Chaucer as the one who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance.
In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14. Hence, Chaucer used the image of birds as the symbol of lovers in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are related:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”
In Chicago we have our own version of the day of love, commemorated by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On this day in 1929, famous gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone staged a shoot out against his rival and fellow bootlegger, George ‘Bugs’ Moran. It was an ingenius plan.
Slick Al Capone had his men pose as police officers, complete with uniforms and billy clubs. They then infiltrated a garage on Chicago’s north side which was a base of Moran’s operations. In the name of the law, they lined Moran’s men against the wall, pulled their tommy-guns and aimed. What resulted was the bloodiest annihilation in gangster history.
It is still a bit of a mystery as to why Capone chose Valentine’s Day to stage his greatest hit. Or perhaps it was very deliberate.
Astonishingly, the weasely Al Capone was never convicted of the murders. Later, however, he was captured and sent to the then maximum-security prison of Alcatraz. His crime? Income tax evasion!
On this Valentine’s Day, count your blessings and share the love!
The celebration of Imbolc is always a bit of a puzzle. Here in the Midwest, at the beginning of February we are still in winter’s deep freeze, with plenty more snow on the way.
And yet. There has to be some hope of spring. Enter Imbolc, the cross quarter fire festival that should help motivate us. This festival is often underplayed and really shouldn’t be. We all need a pick me up from winter doldrums. And besides, it is also a help to anyone suffering from post-Christmas depression 🙂
What It Is
The word ‘Imbolc’ (pronounced ‘immolk’ – silent b) literally means ‘Ewe’s milk’. It also can mean ‘In the belly’. Thus Imbolc traditionally marks the lambing season, the laying of seed, pregnancies (both physical and metaphysical) and new beginnings.
Imbolc is like a breath of fresh air, the very first stirrings of spring that help get us through the leftover dark days. Imbolc marks the midway point between Yule and Ostara, a cross-quarter Sabbat. It is celebrated on February 1st and 2nd.
The goddess of Imbolc is Brighde (pronounced ‘Breed’. Also called Brigid or Bride.) She is a fire goddess of spring and fertility. The goddess Brighde was apparently so well loved that the Christians adopted her as Saint Bridget. Bridget of Kildare is a patron saint of Ireland. Her feast day is (you guessed it!) Feb. 1. Bridget is, interestingly, also the patron saint of milk maids, dairy farmers and midwives.
The goddess Brighde rules in unison with the winter crone Cailleach. (Pronounced ‘Kay-lek’.) Cailleach (also called The Blue Hag) rules from Samhain till Beltane. Brighde and Cailleach are thought to be opposite representations of the same entity. February 2nd is sort of a stand off – Cailleach is still in power for winter, but Brighde is making her presence known through tiny stirrings, underground bulbs, sap inside trees and pregnant ewes.
Legend has it that on February 2nd Cailleach takes a walk through the forest at sunrise.
If Cailleach wants to prolong the winter, she will make a bright sunny day – a teaser of sorts – to remind people that, while she may allow a bit of sun, she is still in control of winter darkness. Thus we are granted one day of reprieve, but watch out – cold days will follow. Alternately, Cailleach may choose to make February 2nd gray and sunless. This (confusingly!) means she will send an early spring.
Cailleach’s method serves to remind us, nothing is as it appears to be. In fact, things are often the opposite of what they seem.
Groundhogs, Candles and Farmers
This story might sound familiar. You may recall the ground hog. Punxsutawney Phil. Yeah him!
If he sees his shadow on the morning of February 2nd, indicating a sunny day, we are in for six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring will come early.
The Christian feast of Candlemas also is celebrated on February 2nd. Candlemas commemorates the day Jesus was brought into the temple for presentation and purification, according to Jewish tradition. Some people believe this was the church’s version of Imbolc, Jesus being the Light of the world, and candles representing that light.
Interestingly, farmers seemed to have had their own ideas about the Cailleach/ ground hog prediction:
“If Candlemas day be sunny and bright, winter will have another flight; if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.”
— Farmer’s Proverb
Anyone who lives in the Midwestern United States knows that no matter WHAT happens on February 2nd, we are in for six more weeks of winter. Maybe more. Forget Cailleach and Punxsutawney Phil. Winter is long, snow-covered, devastating and cold. Period. Nonetheless, we can celebrate Imbolc to help us perk up.
What can we do to honor Imbolc?
Imbolc is a festival of light, and candles should be included in any altar. White candles are great, as they signify purity. Some other traditional symbols of Imbolc are: white feathers, the swan and snowdrop flowers.
Traditional colors are white, blue and lavender. For stone circles, use milky quartz, moonstone, lapis, turquoise and amethyst. Amethyst is the birth stone of February, great for maintaining inner strength and developing intuition.
Imbolc is also a great time to plant an indoor herb garden. Basil, dill and lavender can be started inside in bio-degradable planters. Later, after the last frost, the planters can be moved outside to begin your spring garden.
On February 2nd take a walk in nature. Notice the emerging greenery, even though most of it will be hidden. Pay homage to Cailleach and Brighde. Set intentions for personal goals and growth as the new year continues to unfold.
Oh yeah, and you can always watch ‘Groundhog Day.’ In this thought provoking movie, Bill Muray gets stuck in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over.
Not only is this movie hilariously funny, but it helps us realize – it’s never too late to change, to begin again, or even to start the day over. Until we get it right 🙂
Freed from darkness, new sun calling.
Today, December 13, marks the well known festival of Saint Lucia. But it is also a celebration for her lesser known counterpart, the witch Lussi. This is a magical time of delicious darkness as we wait for the Winter Solstice. Fairies, elves and all sorts of supernatural beings are said to be out and about on their Wild Hunt.
The Christian feast day of Saint Lucia is celebrated with songs, a procession, and a young girl being selected to play the role of Lucia. This girl wears a white robe with a red sash, and a crown of lingonberry greens with seven candles.
(A strategic balancing act! No fires reported so far.)
Originating in Sweden, these processions are now conducted in Finland, Denmark and Norway. (And sometimes the US and Canada.) In these cold and bleak nights before the Solstice, the vibrant figure of Lucia wearing a wreath of candles is a great reminder that the sun will soon be returning.
The chosen Lucia is at the center of a procession of girls, all clothed in white robes with red sashes as symbols of purity. They sing hymns and carry special cakes (called lussekatter.) However, the fairies and elves are also out on their Wild Hunt (called Oskoreia.) Traditions holds that if during the procession the girls hear the sound of the Wild Hunt behind them, they should toss one of the cakes over their shoulder to appease the elves.
Who was the real Santa Lucia? Ironically, she did not start out as a Swede. She was originally Sicilian. The story goes that Lucia was helping Christians hiding in the catacombs by bringing them food and water while they dodged persecution from the evil ruling empire. Lucia, always a resourceful girl, put candles on her head to light her way and was thus able to hold more food in her hands.
Lucia was martyred for her Christian activities in 304 CE. Legend has it they attempted to burn her on a pyre, but she remained alive. A Roman soldier then tried to kill her by slicing her throat. No luck. Stubborn Lucia did not die until she was given the Christian sacrament of Extreme Unction.
She became a very popular saint, and by the 6th century her feast day was honored in Anglo-Saxon England. Gradually she was acknowledged in Northern Europe, although the first Lucia candle processions were not recorded until the 19th century.
However, as with many legends, there is another, darker side to the story! Enter the witch Lussi.
Who is Lussi? A Nordic sorceress, close in parallel to the Germanic goddess Holle or Perchta. Not much is known about her, but she is said to be a powerful figure. She is the initiator of the Oskoreia and rides through the air with her followers – a troupe of wandering elves, fairies, nymphs and the like. They are called the Lussiferda, a band of trouble-making nuisances, out on a Wild Hunt intended to cause chaos and frighten humans.
December 13 is called Lussinatta or Lussi Night, a time to honor and fear her.
If you happen to see Lussi and her elven group, beware! Any human who encounters the Wild Hunt might be abducted to the Underworld. It is also believed that people’s spirits can be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade. (So be very conscious of your dreams tonight. You might want to skip sleep altogether… More on that later.)
During the long nights between Lussinatta and Yule, trolls, daemons and the spirits of the dead are thought to be swirling about outside, enjoying the darkness. They are particularly active on Lussi Night. Naughty children are advised to hide away. According to some traditions, Lussi herself can come down through the chimney and abduct children who have been bad.
(Seems to me Lussi might be in kahoots with Krampus and Old Saint Nick…)
But adults should beware too. Lussi is particularly sensitive to all those dull and time consuming chores that must be done before Yule. You know — gathering wood for the fire, stocking the larder, salting the meat and making jam… If you (lazy human!) have not completed your winter tasks, you just may be abducted, along with your nasty children!
Some people do not want to take that chance, even in their dreams!
In a tradition called Lussevaka folks would stay awake all night through the long Lussinatta in order too guard themselves and their households against abductions. However, in the 21st century, Lussevaka has apparently taken on a different form. It’s called partying till the break of dawn!
If you don’t make it through the entire night, it still might be fun to stay up extra late tonight, light a few candles and be on watch for Lussi and her band of fairies.
Whether you choose the reverent road of singing hymns for Saint Lucia, or the decadent road of partying all night in hopes of seeing the Wild Hunt, have a jolly and elegant season as we wait for the return of the sun.
“A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Mistress, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry.” — Soul Cake Song
Long before trick-or-treaters donned masks and Halloween became an international franchise, our Medieval ancestors had a different (and much more solemn) way of celebrating. During these festivities, poor children went door to door, begging for cakes or bread in a tradition called ‘Souling’.
The basic idea was, you give the kid a cake and he or she says a prayer for one of your dead relatives. It was a win/win situation: a charitable donation for accumulated prayers.
Although Halloween/Samhain was originally a Pagan festival, when the Roman Church grew to power in the 4th century, it (like so many other Pagan celebrations) was hijacked and morphed to fit church traditions.
Hallowtide festivities in the Middle Ages took place over a period of three days, beginning on October 31 and ending on November 2. Three different holidays were celebrated during this time.
All Hallows Eve (October 31st) was a day to honor deceased relatives. It was customary to go to the graveyard, bring offerings of ‘soul cakes’ and wine, and commune with the dead, as veils to the otherworld were lifted. Visitors would light candles or bonfires and ring bells to help attract surreal entities.
All Saints Day (November 1st) was a day to honor saints, while All Souls Day (November 2nd) paid tribute to ALL the souls of the departed. On All Souls day, children would go door to door hoping to receive soul cakes. Whenever you gave a child a cake, he or she then had an obligation to say a prayer or sing a song for one of your deceased relatives — who just might be doing time in Purgatory, waiting to enter heaven.
By giving out soul cakes, you could get extra prayers for your loved ones, thus keeping them from the clutches of Satan.
First recorded in the 5th century, the tradition of giving soul cakes continued on in some parts of England as late as the 1890’s.
So, what exactly was a soul cake?
Soul cakes took many different shapes and sizes. In some areas, they were simple shortbread, and in others they were baked as fruit-filled tarts. Some were an early form of French toast, making use of stale or day old bread to be given to the poor. Ingredients, of course, were used according to what was most available in the community.
If you’d like to try your own hand a whipping up some soul cakes for Halloween, here are a few recipes.
This one dates all the way back to 1350!
TRADITIONAL SOUL BREAD
6 large dinner rolls
2 eggs, beaten
4 tbsp. butter, melted
1/4 cup currants
1 tsp. ground ginger and cinnamon combined
1/4 tsp. salt
Pinch of saffron
Grind saffron, mix with butter and set aside. Cut centers out of rolls to make a little bowl, reserving removed breadcrumbs. Mix eggs, currants, butter mixture, ginger, cinnamon and salt. Pour over breadcrumbs (which preferably has been dried out first) and stir carefully until all bread is evenly coated. Stuff rolls with mixture. Put about an inch of water in the bottom of a large pan and bring it to boil. Then put in the rolls, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes with the pan tightly covered. Remove immediately from water with a slotted spoon and serve hot.
Source: Curye on Inglish. Middle English recipes
Oxford University Press.
If you’d like a more modern recipe, try these:
PIE CRUST SOUL CAKES
Roll out the pie crust and cut it into circles. Use the circles to line a tin of muffin cups. Mix the butter, fruit and honey together. Scoop the fruit mixture into the pastry shells, and then bake for 15 minutes at 375 degrees. Allow to cool for about ten minutes before eating.
Source: Recipes for Halloween
Your trick or treaters will no doubt be delighted!
On the other hand, parents will be suspicious of anything hand made and not wrapped… so you may want to keep your soul treats all to yourself 🙂
And finally! For your listening pleasure, here is a lovely version of the Soul Cake Song, performed in Medieval ballad style by Kristen Lawrence. Hope you enjoy it!