May and November

By Allan J. Stover

In former times the country folk of Europe, who lived in closer harmony with nature than they do today, gave expression to the seasonal moods of the "Great Mother" in festival and dance. Many of these nature festivals have long been forgotten. Those we still retain — Christmas and Easter — have been adopted by the Church and have brightened Christendom for centuries. Two other holidays, May Day and Halloween, are remembered chiefly as occasions for merriment and mischief-making by children. These two holidays are more closely related than is usually supposed, for their traditional observance comes to us from a time when people divided the year into two halves, summer and winter. According to this custom, May Day was the first day of summer and Halloween the beginning of winter.

This division of the year into two parts does not conflict with our system of the four seasons based upon the equinoxes and solstices, but rather presents certain phases of the yearly cycle in a more easily understood form. We might similarly divide the day into a period of daylight and a period of darkness, and hold appropriate ceremonies at the rising and setting of the sun.

In the time of Homer, the Greeks likewise divided the lunar month into a period in which the moon was waxing and one in which it was waning. The Chinese were accustomed to count twelve hours of day from sunrise to sunset, and twelve hours of night until the following sunrise, regardless of the changing length of daylight in the course of the year.

The May Day and Halloween celebrations were in many ways comparable to the Greek Eleusinian mystery dramas of the spring and autumn equinox, in which the abduction of Persephone into the underworld and her return are represented. Like the Celtic May Day god, Beltane, Persephone was both giver and taker of life and, as commonly understood, represented the coming of vegetation in the spring and its departure in the autumn. In a deeper sense, imbodiment in physical form was formerly looked upon as entrance into a prison and the departure as a release of the soul to its true home.

In both north and south, the opening of summer on the first of May symbolized the surge of life as hosts upon hosts of souls imbody in plant and animal forms. Six months later the Halloween or harvest festivals celebrated their departure as a great life-wave into invisible realms.

Long ago in classic Greece the young people rose early on the first of May (Maia, goddess of growth) and went from house to house singing the swallow song and receiving at each home a gift of food. Centuries later the young people of Rome wreathed themselves with flowers and went into the green fields dancing and singing in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers. And in the autumn, at the time of Halloween, they held their harvest festival in honor of Pomona, goddess of fruits.

Far to the north great crowds assembled on May Day, and white-haired bards related already ancient legends of how, on that date, the fairy hosts of the beautiful Tuatha De Danaan once descended, hidden in a magic cloud, to war against the dark forces of the Fomorians, and brought summer to the land. On May Day eve great fires were lighted on the hilltops, and all felt the significance and inner challenge of the occasion.

It is only by searching the writings of an older age that the original significance of many modern festivals can be understood, for the source of the folk customs of today lies rooted deep in those of the past. Without the inner understanding of man's place in nature, the outer observance is meaningless.

Halloween, the night of October 31st, and the following first of November were once sacred and impressive occasions. On Halloween all fires were extinguished and great bonfires lighted upon the hilltops, from which embers were carried by runners to relight the hearth fires of nearby villages. That night the hosts of fairyland were thought to mingle with mankind and might play all kinds of pranks, for of the entire year this night alone belonged to them. With the Druid mood of the night, the veneration paid to the departed, the flickering light on the hilltops, and the half-felt, half-imagined presence of fairy beings, the occasion must have been deeply significant for those who understood, and for all an unforgettable experience.

When the Roman conquerors entered the northern lands they brought customs from the harvest festival of Pomona, goddess of fruits, and still later other peoples added games, songs, fortune-telling, and mischief-making, until today the original intent of the autumn celebration of Halloween is almost forgotten, and with it the understanding of the inner significance of the seasons of the year.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)


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Autumn is the crown jewel of the seasons, a blending and culmination of them all. The very essence of it is fulfillment and sacrifice: leaves sacrifice the last of their vitality to the buds at the base of the leaf stem that will rest through winter and burst into life in spring. Finally the old leaves in a blaze of color fall to the ground and, in dying, provide mulch to nourish the tree and new seeds. Fruit ripens and its rich harvest is shared by many creatures, including ourselves. Then the tree is quiescent until springtime comes again. But autumn's harvest extends beyond golden grain and ripened fruit, to all ranges of consciousness. Seedtime and harvest are a universal process.
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