In the Celtic tradition, which I now follow with joy, there are three harvest/thanksgiving rituals which are observed. The first is Lughnasa/Lammas, which honors the God Lugh, and occurs on August 1st, the second Mabon, honoring the God Mabon, occurring at the Autumnal Equinox, and the third, Samhain, which is celebrated on November 1st, which is historically the Celtic New Years Day. The Corn Dolly, a representation of the Goddess, was (and still is) crafted from the husks of corn. It was hung from the rafters of the corn crib to protect the harvest of grain, which was being stored, from blight or pest. In fact, some of the seed from the past harvest was saved for the following season in order to assure another bountiful crop. In other words, the rituals/feasts represented the desire for survival along with gratefulness for having come through yet another cycle/season with sustenance for the year ahead, both for the people and their animals. I do not feel that my tradition is better than others. However, I do know that it is the one for me, and that the harvest/thanksgiving rituals I observe have the sense of fulfillment which my own psyche needs.
Down through the ages, most traditions have observed and celebrated thanksgiving/harvest rituals. From the earliest agrarian societies to present day, the custom of displaying gratitude has been a vital part of the psyche of the human and the continuance of life. In Sumer, Inanna (goddess of the abundant harvest) , an ancient representation of Mother Goddess, was venerated in a harvest festival occurring just before the Sumerian new year, which began in August/September. The ancient Romans celebrated a harvest festival called Cerelia, (the word cereal is derived from this name) in honor of the Goddess Ceres, patroness of corn. The blood sacrifice of a pig, porca praecidanea, was also offered to Ceres prior to the actual ritual of Cerelia. The ancient Greeks observed Thesmosphoria, at which time Demeter was honored. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the festival of Min, who was their God of vegetation and fertility. The early Teutonic peoples identified the Goddess Hertha with the soil, which they considered sacred . The word “earth” is derived from her name. These feast days were discouraged by the early Christian church, and “Thanksgiving”, as it is known today, was not celebrated until the 1600’s.
Present day harvest rituals have become more frequently observed throughout the globe. In the United States, most people continue to observe the Pilgrims’ “Thanksgiving Day”, the fourth Thursday in November, as their yearly ritual of gratefulness. Do you observe this day? If so what does this day mean to you? Is it a time of remembrance, a gathering of the clan, a feast of the season? Or does it conjure up thoughts of a time when an entire nation of people were compromised and stripped of their rights and lives?
I was raised in an Irish-American (Catholic) family, who, like most of the families we knew, celebrated Thanksgiving every year. It was a time to get together with the extended family members and catch up on each others life happenings. There was always a huge amount of food, no one went hungry, and nearly everyone was ready for a nap after the feast was consumed. For my brothers and myself, there was no thought of gratitude to any deity, outside of our father’s half hour long prayer. As school children in the 1960’s, we were taught that the colonists and indigenous peoples of America sat down together peacefully to give thanks for the bountiful harvest of the past year. They smoked the peace pipe, so to speak. My own class room was filled with cut-outs of cornucopias and turkeys, along with pictures of the festival and participants. Smiling faces adorned the pictures, all gazing upon tables filled with the abundance of the year’s labor. Each student was given papers to color, and we were quizzed on the history of Thanksgiving, (which was named a legal holiday by President Abraham Lincoln over two hundred years later on October 3, 1863), at least based upon what we had been taught. As I grew older, the reality of what really occurred was driven home. Let’s take a brief look at some of the history leading up to the first “Thanksgiving Day” as celebrated by the colonists.
On November 11, 1620, one hundred and two Protestant dissenters from the Church of England who were passengers on the ship Mayflower set anchor in the waters off of the east coast of the North American continent in Provincetown Harbor, in the approximate area of present day Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony on December 21st, 1620. The population of the indigenous peoples had already been decimated years before by the 1614 British expedition, which had left behind smallpox, syphilis and gonorrhea. These plagues swept away a large part of the tribes of New England, leaving ghost villages behind.
The newly arrived “Pilgrims” built their colony, known as the Plymouth Plantation, on the ruins of an abandoned village of the Sononoce Pawtuxet peoples, who were part of the Wampanoag confederation of tribes. The former inhabitants had died or been scattered by a European disease years before. The colonists ate corn from the overgrown and abandoned fields left behind by these native peoples.
One of their first Amer-Indian visitors was a man by the name of Samoset who was from Maine. He spoke their language, and introduced them to one who would become a close support in the few years to follow. This man was known by the name of Squanto/Tisquantum. He also spoke their language, having been a slave for many years to the English and Spanish in Europe, and was a great ally to the colonists. He helped them to plant crops, teaching them methods to realize bountiful harvest. Squanto/Tisquantum taught them how to manure their corn, where to catch eel and fish, and acted as their interpreter and guide. He was able to negotiate a peace treaty between them and the Wampanoag tribe which was led by chief Massasoit (Ousamequin/Yellow Feather) . Without Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims probably would have experienced severe famine over the next year.
Thanks to the peace treaty, the colonists survived their first year in the New World. The colony’s governor, William Bradford, proclaimed a three day celebration after the first harvest, in early October 1621. The celebration wasn’t a joyful get together of the natives and the colonists. The natives were considered an intrusion. The only Amer-Indian who was invited to join was Chief Massasoit, and he, without consent from the colonists, invited ninety or so of his tribe to join the celebration, much to the annoyance of his hosts. It is not known if they had wild turkey to eat, nor if even a prayer was offered. Needless to say, the celebration of thanks was not held again for several years.
Again, I walk the path I walk because there is joy associated with it. I sense the continuity of thought which is threaded down through the tapestry of the ages. I am able to give thanks on a daily basis to my Deities, and observe the ritual days knowing that my soul has fulfilled not only an obligation to the past, but has known the present, living in that with dignity.
Susan Isabella Sheehan-Repasky
“Art Is The Perception Of An Altered Reality©”
Copyright 2007 Flicker Light Studio™
Samhain/All Hallows Eve/Halloween – The meaning of harvest celebrations and rituals.