Death is Smiling

We were walking in Carrollton Cemetery yesterday. This is one of the very few cemeteries in New Orleans that has an in-ground portion of the cemetery. This was lying casually on top of a grave.

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There’s more than one reason that we use the raised tombs found here in our famous cities of the dead. Our water table is so high that remains often come back up. It’s hard to keep the dead down in this watery place.

Of course we left it alone, but it was a very visceral reminder of what time of year it is. Blessed Samhain and remember, when death smiles at you today and tomorrow, it’s probably not a good idea to smile back.

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once…

If you want to help the cemeteries here in New Orleans, you can donate or volunteer for Save Our Cemeteries, an organization “dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education, and advocacy.”

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Beltane Traditions

Beltane, Beltain, May Day, Whitsun, White Sunday, Whitsuntide, Walpurgis, Floralia: whichever you want to call it, May Day has a long history of folkloric and Pagan traditions.

Traditionally celebrated when the first white flowering trees are blooming (in England this is the Hawthorne, in Ireland the Rowan and here in the US, either the Dogwood or the Magnolia), it is the springtime celebration of fertility, love, passion, fire and creativity. This is the sabbat that really embodies all of the sexuality that Paganism is known for.A day of joy and celebration, May Day celebrates the fertility of the fields and the union of the goddess and the god.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Marry in May, rue the day”? It comes from this holiday. Young lovers traditionally danced the bonfire and then went off to the fields to celebrate in the most traditional way possible. If you wound up pregnant from your May Day celebrations, you would get married in June since you could see that your union would be fruitful. If you married in May, before you knew whether or not you were pregnant, it was considered to be bad luck. There were women would end up pregnant after Beltane, but would choose to not get married, and the children that came from these unions would be given last names like Robinson, Hobson or Robson. These babies were thought to be sired by the gods and you will find many people in the UK with these types of last names today.

Robin Goodfellow, Puck, Hob, the Greenman, whatever you want to call him, was considered to be out and about on Beltane Eve, causing mischief for everybody.  Of course, the Bard of Avon has one of my favorite lines about Puck and his mischief on May Day.

FAIRY:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
PUCK:
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
But, room, fairy! here comes Oberon.

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is supposed to take place on Midsummer or Litha, but it certainly follows the rules of May Day.

The confused lovers lost in the woods, the fairy King and Queen fighting. Titania and Bottom’s transformation and love. Puck’s mischief…

In it, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, England’s most famous woodland characters are brought to life.

The Maypole is probably one of the most famous traditions, though many don’t know the full cycle of the pole itself. At Yule, you choose a tree to bring inside and decorate (and of course this is where the Christmas tree comes from). When Yule is over, you cut off the branches to use for your Imbolc fires. Then the trunk is what is used for the Maypole at Beltane. Set in the ground, long ribbons are tied to the top. These ribbons were traditionally made from the skirts or slips of girls who had begun menstruating for the first time that year, as a symbol of new, feminine fertility. Dyed (and cleaned), these ribbons are then danced around the Maypole by the young men of the village to represent the weaving of male and female energies and to encourage fertility for the fields and for the people. At the next Yule, when a new tree is brought in, the trunk of the old is burned as the Yule log to finish out the full cycle of the year.

Maypoles are beautiful, intricate creations.

On May Day morning, young women are supposed to wash their faces in the morning dew. This is said to keep you young and beautiful

Morris dancing is done on May Day. Morris dancing is one of the oldest folkloric practice done in the British Isles that continues to this day. Men dance with bells on their feet while striking sticks together to awaken the crops. Women dance with garlands and ribbons to welcome in the May.

After World War I, so many men died that the Morris Dance traditions were almost lost. Thanks to the women though, they were not. Since the men were not home to do it, women started dancing the Morris to make sure the tradition continued. Austin John Marshall wrote a tribute to these women dancers and said:

Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris:

Come you young men come along
With your music, dance and song
Bring your lasses in your hands
For ’tis that which love commands
Then to the Maypole haste away
For ’tis now a holiday.

It’s fifty-one springtimes since she was a bride,
But still you may see her at each Whitsuntide
In a dress of white linen and ribbons of green,
As green as her memories of loving.

The feet that were nimble tread carefully now,
As gentle a measure as age do allow,
Through groves of white blossom, by fields of young corn,
Where once she was pledged to her true love.

The fields they are empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to tend them, or pastures go see.
They’ve gone where the forests of oak trees before
Had gone to be wasted in battle.

Down from their green farmlands and from their loved ones
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There’s a fine roll of honour where the Maypole once was,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

There’s a row of straight houses in these latter days
Are covering the Downs where the sheep used to graze.
There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen.
But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

And of course, the most traditional of all celebrations is the act of sex itself. One of my favorite songs, Wild Mountain Thyme, is about making love in the fields. Many modern adaptations of the song get it all wrong and change the words. But traditionally, this song  celebrates going out into the fields with a lover, and if your lover won’t go with you, you will find another with whom to sleep in a bower (shelter) made from newly blooming flowers of the field. I’ve also heard that Wild Mountain Thyme is used as both a type of birth control and an abortificant, depending on the amounts, so the song takes on even more meaning for women and their fertility than we might expect at first glance.

This was traditionally an orgiastic tradition; note the lyrics tell “if my true love will not go, I will surely find another.” While this lyric is often changed to reflect a more modern romanticism, the early celebrations of Beltane held that young people would wander the fields in the dark of night, entering each others’ bowers while enjoying the presence of the Gods of fertility and spring.

So tonight, drink some May Wine (my recipe found here), find a lover and celebrate in true traditional fashion.

Stuffed Pumpkins for Mabon and Samhain

We celebrated Mabon late this year. I stumbled across a recipe for stuffed pumpkins that was an absolute hit. This would also be a great Samhain recipe.

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Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

Ingredients

  • 1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds (I tripled this recipe, as you can see from the picture above. This fed seven people with big appetites!)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I used a round of sourdough)
  • 1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyère, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I used shredded Velveeta. One of the complaints I heard about the original recipe is that the chunks of cheese didn’t melt all the way. The shredded Velveeta was perfect).
  • 2-4 garlic cloves (to taste), split, germ removed, and coarsely chopped
  • 4 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped (my addition) (I used a lot more bacon than 4 slices…)
  • About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
  • About 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (I put my pumpkins on a cookie sheet and stuck them in the oven first to make sure that they would fit and that I wouldn’t have to move my racks around after I had already heated my oven).

Line a cookie sheet with foil and set aside.

Take your pumpkin and remove the cap, just like you would do when you are carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns. Make sure you cut a big enough cap that you can work in the pumpkin. Clean out the seeds and strings from both the cap and the pumpkin. (You can get rid of the guts, but I set mine aside to roast pumpkin seeds for later).

Liberally coat the inside of your pumpkin with salt and pepper and then set the pumpkin with cap on your cookie sheet for later.

Take the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs and toss them all together in a big bowl.The original recipe called for the cream to be poured over the mix after the pumpkins are stuffed, but I went ahead and poured the cream in with the stuffing before stuffing the pumpkins and this worked really well for me. Season with more salt and pepper. When everything was mixed together, I took a taste and adjusted my spices as needed. It was good even before cooking!

Spoon the stuffing into your pumpkins. I packed mine pretty full, but make sure you can put the pumpkin cap back on when you’re done. I had a little stuffing left over, I set it aside to bake in something later.

Cook your pumpkins at 350 for 2 hours. The original recipe suggested checking after 90 minutes. I cooked mine in total for about an hour and forty five minutes and they turned out perfectly. The pumpkins will overflow, so make sure your baking sheet is covered.

Be careful when you pull your cookie sheet out of the oven. The pumpkins will be very full and very wobbly. You can cook them in a casserole dish, but I liked how pretty they looked standing free on the table later.

You can either serve it by scooping the pumpkins out, or do what I did and slice them into quarters and serve the quarters.

Enjoy!

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Mabon is Upon Us

Mabon, or the Fall Equinox is today. While I always remind my students that the eight sabbats that Wiccans celebrate in the modern world are estimated and agreed upon dates for the agricultural and hunting cycle of the year, I usually try to pay attention to true solstice and equinox moments.

The last few days I have been wired and restless. For the first time in over a week, I fell asleep and slept deeply all night. Waking up this morning, I realized that the equinox had finally hit and some of that shifting energy had finally settled down upon us.

I’ve had a hard time with Mabon this year. While its a time of bounty and rejoicing, it is also a time of sacrifice. This Mabon feels like the end of an important cycle in my own life and I have been hoping that all of my hard work is about to come to fruition. I have been struggling with what to say, but luckily enough a fellow priestess of the tradition I work in, Blue Star, said it beautifully so that I don’t have to. I thought I would share her words and wisdom here, because it touched me deeply and I think it is the type of thing to pass on and carry with you throughout the rest of the dark time of the year.

The Gods have been generous to me in myriad ways, not all of which feel particularly comfortable in the moment. The weeks between the Harvest and New Year are a time of celebrating bounty, but that bounty also requires a reaping. And with a reaping can come a mourning, of sorts, for the things that once were, or could have been but never really bloomed, or are revealed to have grown into something other than what one thought, or intended, or held out hope for, no longer to be consumed in good health or consciousness.

So I meet this holiday in appreciation for the experiences that have nourished me throughout the past year, some anticipated and some pleasantly unexpected. And I tip a nod of farewell to those which have not. Some with sadness, because truth, and some with relief, because honesty.

Regardless, I lay myself before the foot of the Gods in my supplication that l continue to grow to achieve my greatest and most nourished potential with the people and places and experiences that support and contribute to this ultimate end. Which will, in turn, mean that I am divinely positioned to contribute to the greatest and most nourished potential of those people and places and experiences where I am most meant to serve.

You reap the grain. Some makes your bread. Some is released to the wind to grow wherever and feed whomever it’s best meant for.

Blessed Mabon

-the ever beautiful and effervescent Tegan Ashton Cohan