Religion 101

At sunset yesterday (April 30, 2013), a significant holiday on the religious calendars of Wiccans and other Neopagans began. However, which particular Wiccan holiday it happens to be will vary, depending upon which particular hemisphere of the world — the northern, or the southern — you happen to reside in.

In the Northern Hemisphere, it is Beltane. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is Samhain (pronounced “Sow-en”).

Since the season prevailing in one hemisphere is always the opposite of the season prevailing in the other hemisphere, seasonal holidays between the two hemispheres are staggered or out of sync from each other by some six months. So, by way of example, when the spring equinox occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumn equinox occurs in the Southern Hemisphere — and vice versa.

As I write, Wiccans and other Neopagans in the Northern Hemisphere are today (on May 1, 2013) celebrating Beltane, while their fellows in the Southern Hemisphere are simultaneously observing Samhain. These holidays (or “holy days”) began, as mentioned, at sunset yesterday, and run until sunset today (May 1, 2013).

The natural cycle of the seasons is referred to among contemporary Pagans as “the Wheel of the Year,” and Wicca’s eight Sabbat festivals are spaced evenly around the perimeter of that wheel.

Of these eight annual Sabbats, four are classed as “lesser,” and four as “greater.” The two equinox festivals of Mabon (fall or autumnal) and Ostara (spring or vernal), together with the two solstice festivals of Yule (midwinter) and Litha (midsummer), comprise the lesser Sabbats. The Wheel of the Year is completed by the four greater Sabbat festivals of Samhain (Summer’s End), Imbolc or Candlemas (Brigid’s Day), Beltane (May Day), and Lammas or Lughnasadh (First Harvest).

As two of Wicca’s four greater Sabbats (or “fire festivals,” or four “cross quarter days”) — all four of which are distributed midway between the annual equinoxes and solstices (the four seasonal “quarter days”) on the Wiccan religious holiday calendar — Beltane and Samhain fall directly opposite each other on the Wheel of the Year. So, whenever one festival is being celebrated in one hemisphere (e.g., Beltane in the north), its polar-opposite counterpart (e.g., Samhain in the south) is being simultaneously celebrated in the other hemisphere.

Beltane, halfway between the vernal or spring equinox and the summer solstice (and which, in the Northern Hemisphere, began at sunset yesterday), is Samhain’s polar opposite, marking the return of summer. In northern latitudes, Beltane is historically a “first day of May” festival, and is essentially an optimistic celebration of light and fertility, traditionally observed with such festivities as music, bonfires, and maypole dancing. It is said that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grows thin at this time of year (as it also does at Samhain).

Samhain, halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice (and which, in the Southern Hemisphere, began at sunset yesterday), is essentially a festival commemorating the conclusion of summer, the end of harvest time — and, with that, the subsequent increasing dimming of the sun. As such, Samhain is a festival of approaching darkness, of deepening and lengthening shadows; it is traditionally a time for reflection, and for paying respects to the spirits of one’s ancestors.

So, to my Wiccan friends and readers in the Northern Hemisphere: “Blessed Beltane!”

And to my Wiccan friends and readers in the Southern Hemisphere: “Blessed Samhain!”