Unexpected Festivals

It is always a challenge, living as a Pagan in a Christian country, to decide how to celebrate festivals. It is even more of a challenge to explain to M why we are celebrating on different days to everyone else in the country. Normally I try and think through what my approach will be to each festival before it arrives. And then one catches me completely by surprise.

Today is apparently Mother’s Day. Originally known as Mothering Sunday, it was the day when young girls in service would return home to go to their mother church and has been celebrated in England since at least the sixteenth century. They would pick flowers along the way to give as an offering, either to the church or to their mothers. The day was also known as Pudding Pie Sunday, Simnel Sunday, Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday, being a short break from the general austerity on week four of Lent so that the underfed daughters could have a good meal and possible something to take back with them.

Mothering Sunday has morphed into Mother’s day over recent years, maybe because fewer people go to church or feel strongly allied to a particular church, or maybe because of influences from the American Mother’s Day – which has an entirely different history. Ann Reeves Jarvis began organising mother’s groups, along with various other women, in the 1850s to promote peace and tackle issues such as infant mortality and milk contamination. They tended to both sides during the civil war in the 1860s, and in 1868 a Mother’s Friendship Day was held for mothers of fallen soldiers to mourn together, whether they were union or confederate. Her daughter Anna Jarvis then created Mother’s Day in May 1908 to honour her mother (who died in 1905), as a local event in their home state of Virginia and after much lobbying, nationally from 1914. She later tried to have the holiday stopped after it became too commercial.

I have never celebrated Mother’s day before, nor wanted to. It hasn’t felt right to me to annex a Christian festival to gain recognition – something which is either there anyway, or won’t come because of one day. Neither have I ever felt comfortable with the commercialisation of the American Mother’s Day. Other mothers may feel differently about this, and that is fine, but that is how I have felt. So it was very disconcerting to say the least to find my daughter presenting me with flowers and card she had made at nursery this week!

As it would have been churlish of me to refuse the gift offered, it has made me re-examine my feelings towards Mother’s Day. Most likely I became biased against the day over many years of not being able to have children – there is nothing like a yearly reminder of something I haven’t got to make me reinterpret the situation into something non-threatening. And then reading about the history, I discovered that, like so many other Christian festivals, it may have a Pagan root.

The Ancient Greeks celebrated the Earth Goddess Rhea, the Mother of the Gods and Goddesses, every Spring with festivals of worship. The Romans celebrated her better known counterpart, the Phrygian Goddess Cybele in March with offerings of flowers, reeds, pine and oak. Unfortunately at this point the ‘may’ of pagan history comes into play. Every online source I found states as fact that the March Hilaria is a precursor to Mother’s Day, and at least three of the twelve or fourteen days are celebrating Cybele and motherhood; but a key focus of the festival is the death and resurrection of her lover Attis, which to me is an Easter story. However, since Cybele was known as The Great Mother, and this was her festival in March, the connection to Mother’s day appears to have stuck. Two thousand years on it is difficult to know which aspect, motherhood or resurrection, was more important.

So I have now come to see Mother’s Day as a way to celebrate all mothers, from the Earth mother down through dynasties of Goddesses and humans, to myself as a mother on this Earth. It is a festival of Spring, of fullness, of flowers and trees, and of joining families together through the power of the mother. I will go and enjoy the sunshine with my own family.

I now wait and see if there will be a similar offering for Father’s day…

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Tree Stories 10 – Scots Pine

Scots Pine story is now posted on its own page, under tree stories. Please click here or follow the links above.

Probably my nearest Pine Trees...

Probably my nearest Pine Trees…

This is a tree I have been familiar with all my life, and yet never really known; it has always felt rather remote. In its wild state, it stands high on the hillside on dry soils, often in small groups pointing the way. The Six Pine Trees of Pooh Bear’s world are a landmark and indicated on the map although little featured in the stories. Arthur Ransome had a pine tree to hold a lantern marking the way through the rocks into harbour in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, then in ‘Swallowdale‘ a row of four pine trees pointed the way on an otherwise bare hillside. Alfred Watkins wrote in ‘The Old Straight Track’ that Scots Pines had been marking ancient sites on Leylines for millennia, despite the fact that he admitted to never having seen an old tree. He was most likely wrong in the timing, since many Scots Pines were planted in England by Landscape gardeners and artist landowners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seeking to romanticise the countryside, tumuli being particularly prone to new plantings of Pines or Beeches, but right in them as a landmark. Single trees were often left when others were cut down in order to mark drovers’ paths, some of which may themselves have followed leylines. Single trees were also planted in the Highlands of Scotland to mark the burial sites of warriors, allowing their spirits to climb the tree into other worlds.

Scots Pine is one of our three native confer trees (the others being juniper and yew), with the Caledonian forest dating back to the last ice age. It is a fast-growing, short-lived tree compared to many, but will grow from seed in its own shadow and thus regenerate without the need for a natural disaster. It will also grow happily with other trees such as birch or larch, sheltering them as they grow without casting too much shade. Many animals rely on pine forest, or the blaeberries and cowberries that frequently grow in its shade. Notable species include red squirrels, pine martens and Scottish wildcats, as well as birds such as Scottish Crossbills, Black Grouse and Capercaillies. Roe and Red deer like eating pine so much they prevent the natural regeneration of the forest. Wolves, Bears, Elk, Beavers and Lynx all used to live in the pine forests, the latter two may do again as there are many who wish to see their reintroduction. Sadly it is often treated as a monocrop in plantations to produce construction and joinery timbers, or telegraph poles, forests which have no understory and support very little wildlife.

Pine is very high in vitamin C, and the needles can be used to brew a healing tea for bronchitis and other chest complaints. The smell of fresh pine is good for clearing congestion, clearing the blocks in what we can see and uplifting us. Pine trees reach for the sky. This is particularly relevant in the middle of winter when many of us need a boost, and gives us a good reason to have a pine tree in the home for a few weeks! In fact it was the huge pine bonfires lit at Yule in various parts of Northern Europe which gave rise to the tradition of the Yule Log, and later the Yule or Christmas tree.

In Roman times it was not Yule that celebrated the pine tree however, but the Spring Equinox. The Earth Goddess Cybele turned Attis, her lover, into a pine tree after an incident in which he was unfaithful to her and then castrated himself in remorse. In some versions online he appears to have been tied to the tree and gored by a bull or a wild boar. I have read two endings to this sorry tale, that the tree was burned after three days and Attis was reborn from the ashes, and that Zeus later made him evergreen so that Cybele could have him as a companion all year. The Spring rites paralleled those often enacted in late summer with the corn spirit: in a three day ceremony, March 22nd-25th each year, an effigy of a man was made and attached to a pine trunk and bedecked with flowers. The second day trumpets were blown, and on the third a sacrifice, usually of blood from the Priest, was made to appease the Earth Goddess in order that Attis may be resurrected and the fertility of the Goddess restored.

The pine cones were often seen as phallic, continuing the male fertility theme from Attis and Cybele – despite actually being the female flowers. The double spiral formed by the seeds was also a symbol of life and fertility. This may be where the idea of pine being an aphrodisiac came from… Pinecones are sometimes fixed to the end of a staff or wand and used in fertility magic, while pine needles are sometimes used to purify a space and remove any negativity.

Finally from an art and crafting point of view, pine is used to make paper, the sap is used to make turpentine for painting and varnishing, and rosin used for giving friction to violin bows. And when a break is needed, it formed brewer’s pitch to line beer casks, and its close relative sabina pine flavoured retsina wines.