A Fall Holiday Procession in South-Central Appalachia

I’d have loved to celebrate Lùnastal last week, but the corn harvest doesn’t start until September down here. Right now, it’s still high summer and the idea of a “first harvest” totally conflicts with the character of the season. The better first harvest holiday date for me would be on Labor Day weekend: corn is actually starting to be harvested; school is back in session; it’s still warm but you feel the weather turning just a little. The summer geese are still here, but you can sense them beginning to gaze southward and ready themselves for the long journey.

Maybe I’m stubborn, but I just can’t seem to bring myself to celebrate holidays at times that feel disconnected from my environment. Things don’t have to match up perfectly, but I do seek out unity among the earth, sky, and human community in which I belong. I want the web of existence to tremble and reverberate in harmony when I honor sacred times. I want sacred times to mean something not just historically or philosophically but materially, here and now. So I’m willing to be nontraditional at times, to slide holidays back or forth across the calendar as needed, while still holding to their original purpose and significance.

Fall festivals start at the end of September, right around the equinox, as the harvest is well under way, and so my local seasonal calendar intersects briefly with the more northerly calendar of my ancestors. The geese and other migratory birds begin their flight south. Birders flock to the peaks of ridges along the Blue Ridge Parkway to spot falcons, hawks, and eagles passing through the range on their way to warmer climes. The Fall Equinox is a time for goodbye-for-nows and receding warmth. It’s a time to begin turning inward, and for preparation for the challenges of the winter ahead.

It took me time to study the land and its seasons and how they give shape to the annual cycle of my culture’s holidays. I started with: What do we celebrate? Why do we celebrate it? When do seasons change, and what are they like? How do we experience them? What do they mean to us? How does the land shape us? Slowly, as I began piecing together the answers to these questions, themes began to emerge and narratives developed.

For example, I perceive a group of spirits I call the goose women. They are the daughters of Thunor, God of storms and fertility, and Sulis, Goddess of both the sun and the Otherworld, which is a place of warmth, moisture, and fertility. They dwell at their mother’s home in the Otherworld in the winter. When they come to us, they bring some of the warmth and fertility from the Otherworld, and spring and summer are made. They’re a little like the rusalki in this way, and also like the valkyrja. Over the course of the summer, they ride with their father, showering us with rain and cloaking us in mist, battling the spirits of blight, drought, and wildfire. Plants grow and all living things are nourished. But they can’t stay forever; their home isn’t here, and their power begins to wane. Autumn begins, and they return to the Underworld home of their mother to refresh themselves.

Here, Halloween isn’t the beginning of winter. It’s roughly the center of the harvest season. Mid to late October brings the bright fall colors that draw people to my region from all across the country. We begin adding layers of clothing and drinking warm drinks on increasingly chilly evenings. It’s not the last harvest, but it is part of the procession of harvest holidays, and most harvest festivals end at this time. Halloween is still a night of ghosts and ancestors, elves and fairies and monsters. It feels like a holiday for ancestral and chthonic spirits, a night when they run amok, and a chance for us to celebrate the fruits of the earth in communion with them. It’s a night of play, rather than of danger.

The first night of winter comes in the last week of November. This is the start of the Wild Hunt. The goose women are fully gone and have taken with them the warmth and greenery. The autumn foliage has dulled to drab brown and gray. In mythic time, the spirits of the wild, who were well-sustained in the summer, grow hungry and more daring, emerging from the unpassable crevices and knobs of the mountains to tramp into the valleys in search of food. Their mood – more benign in the easy summer months – is soured by empty stomachs and harsh weather, and quick to anger, quick to thieve health and warmth and luck, quick to defend against trespassers. They troop and battle and wreak havoc all winter long, and are only pacified with gifts of food left out on doorsteps or windowsills. It’s a dangerous time, and it’s important to foster and feed our household spirits – our sacred hearth fires and ancestors – to keep them strong so they can defend us against the raging wild ones.

The more I watch and listen to the land, the more stories like this emerge, and the more I find ways through them to sync myself with its rhythms. They give structure to my months and years, and so they’re true, for me anyway. But they’re not the only true stories. The land has thousands more to tell, to anyone willing to sit quietly and listen. What stories does the land you live on tell? Do you hear the voices of the spirits around you, whispering their natures and desires? Let yourself dream them, write them down, infuse them into your holidays. Let them breathe life into your religion.

By thecunningwif

An ageless forest spirit. A whole ass Virginian mountain witch. You can also call me Heidi. Animism, polytheism, folklore, spirit work, & witchcraft. She/her.

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