September Power Days
by Eran Sabra Spitz and Maria Barron
There are, in life, some crossings we cant refuse to make. We are here today and there tomorrow, no matter what we do. The equinox at 4:55 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on September 23 is such a crossing. The influence of daylight and darkness upon the land, for a brief time, is shared in equal reflection, and across the planet the seasons begin to change.
The power of the spring and fall equinoxes to call earthlings to stop and observe - and to get outside and celebrate in the moderating weather - was stronger when more of humanity was directly connected to the land. But the festivals that have lasted into modern times, holidays that people around the world will be celebrating in the week of the autumnal equinox, can reconnect us with the awe and wisdom that long-ago people felt in contemplating their existence in space and time. Peoples connection to the earth and the spiritual, and the bridging balance between those realms, are highlighted in the festivals of Sukkot, Mabon and Higan - festivals derived from the ancient Israelites, Celts and Japanese Buddhists.
Higan is a weeklong celebration observed at both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, set so that the celestial event falls mid-week. It is seen as a time when Earth and Nirvana reach into each other. Mabon, celebrating maturation and balance on the wheel of life, is traditionally September 21, approximating the date of the autumnal equinox each year. Sukkot is set according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, not directly referencing the equinox, but in tune with the same seasonal energy, and this year its timing overlaps with Mabon and Higan.
Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, sometimes referred to as the Season of our Rejoicing, is a major festival in the Jewish calendar. It follows five days after the most important of High Holy Days of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays of the year to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is a seven-day festival that usually falls in late September or in October. The first day is a full holiday. The next six days are considered half-holidays.
The Hebrew word Sukkot means booths or huts and refers to the temporary dwellings the people are commanded to live in during this holiday. The name of the holiday is frequently translated The Feast of Tabernacles. The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot is Sue COAT, but it is often pronounced as in Yiddish, to rhyme with BOOK us. Sukkot is the plural form of sukkah.
While Sukkot has some connections to the High Holy Days period preceding it, it is more intrinsically a part of the other major festival cycle of the Jewish culture. It continues the story of the Israelites, which began with the Exodus from Egypt (celebrated at Passover), and continued with the giving of the Torah, or law, at Mt. Sinai (celebrated as Shavuot). The cycle now ends with Sukkot, which commemorates the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters, after the flight from slavery in Egypt. You shall live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, it is written in Leviticus 23:42-43.
But the holiday also embraces a marvelous paradox, merging the wanderings in the infertile desert with the abundance of a harvest festival. The Torah also says, After the harvest from your threshing floor and your vineyards, you shall celebrate the Feast of Booths for seven days. (Deuteronomy 16:13)
Before Sukkot became associated with the sojourn in the desert, the holidays roots were in the fertile earth. Exodus 23:16 refers to Sukkot as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering, a time to gather the yield of the field and give thanks for the bounty of the earth. Historically, this was the time of the fall harvest, a time of abundance, when the hunger and careful rationing of food that marked the rest of the year gave way to feasting and drinking in accordance with the success of the harvest.
The primary symbol of Sukkot is the sukkah - the hut that simulates the hastily constructed quarters of the Jews as they crossed the desert. In modern times, the custom of building a sukkah was re-established in the early 1900s. Observant families eat, and sometimes even sleep, in their temporary dwellings. The roof of the sukkah is made of leaves and branches. Openings must be left in it so that the light of the sun, moon, and stars can be seen. In celebration of the harvest, the sukkah is decorated with fruits and vegetables hung from the roof and the walls.
The other major holiday symbols are the four species: the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the arava (willow), and the hadas (myrtle). Just as the farmer gathers his crops, the people are also instructed to gather four kinds of growing things and use them to praise and rejoice with God. There are many layers of symbolic meanings attached to these. One interpretation links each species to important ancestors in the lineage. In another, the species represent different types of people and their ability to metaphorically bear fruit by keeping the Torah or to emit a pleasing scent of spiritual goodness through their deeds.
Another famous interpretation of the four species likens each to a body part: The palm fronds are the spine; the citron is the heart; the willow is the mouth; the myrtle is the eyes. Just as one waves all four species before God on Sukkot, so too one uses all the parts of ones body to worship and serve God: spine, heart, mouth, and eyes.
The branches and fruit are arranged together in a special way and the arrangement is waved together after the blessing, three times up, three times down, in all directions - east, south, west, north. This is symbolic of Gods total presence and dominion over the entire universe. The blessing over the four species is recited on every day of the holiday except the Sabbath.
Hospitality is a basic element of the holiday. An essential ingredient of Sukkot is sharing meals with others, so there must be room for a table and chairs in the sukkah since families eat and visit with friends in it. Abundance and the enjoyment of Gods bountiful blessings provide us with opportunities for thanksgiving and appreciation but also challenge us to find spirituality in the sensual, hedonistic milieu of our harvest times.
Spending time in a sukkah intensifies our awareness of just how fragile life is and that our lives are inextricably interwoven with the rest of nature. Without a solid edifice to protect us from the elements, and exposed to the immensity of the universe, we are sensitive to our mortality and our connection to the universe. Sitting in our self-contained homes, we can often forget the rest of the world and certainly ignore the natural world for long periods of time. In the sukkah, we feel part of that world. We are not sheltered from rain, wind, the sounds of the animals about us; we cannot compensate for temperature, light (except with a lantern on the table) or noise. For many people, being outside is a deeply spiritual experience and for them, Sukkot is an ideal festival because among all the Jewish festivals, it goes the furthest to emphasize our connection to nature.
Mabon is the ancient solar festival that marks the transition from the light to the dark half of the year, at about the time the Sun enters Libra. This holiday is observed by many people who follow the old ways that are variously referred to as pagan, Wiccan, or pantheist. These traditions all share in common a profound respect for Nature and connection to its cycles.
Mabon (pronounced mah-bun, mah-bon, or may-bon) is both a literal and metaphoric harvest festival, a time when the fruits of the years labor may be enjoyed, and a time to take stock of accomplishments. There are many legends associated with Mabon. In Celtic mythology, Mabon was the Young God, abducted and imprisoned, only to return at a later date. Similarly, the long days of summer are overtaken at the autumnal equinox, but promise to return at the vernal equinox, with the celebration of Oestara. This holiday marks the beginning of fall - winter is not so far away anymore. Maturity has been reached.
While in folklore, Mabon is associated with the harvesting of herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables, those of us who do not make our livings in agriculture can set aside this day as a wonderful time to conduct a sort of inner, personal harvest festival. Take the time to acknowledge all of the hard work you have done in your lifetime, and to give thanks for the hard work of others. Take this time to be grateful for the labor and sweat, love and perseverance that keep society, your community, your family and friends, alive. Take time to recognize the roles you have played as well, and give yourself credit for what youve done. Thanksgiving holidays, although celebrated on different dates in different countries, share in the roots and spirit of Mabon.
This is also a day to consider the importance of balance in our lives. On this day, as on the spring equinox, day and night last the same amount of time. The feminine/lunar night forces and the masculine/solar day forces are perfectly balanced. This is a good day to meditate on the marriage of the material and spiritual aspects of our lives. Libra, after all, is a sign concerned with balancing, harmonizing and uniting. If any aspects of our lives are out of balance, Mabon is the perfect day to perform a small ritual, or make a promise to yourself to restore balance and harmony to your life.
Mabon can be observed in many ways, such as tending a garden or gathering together for a special meal with friends. Expressions of appreciation to ones elders and remembrances of ancestors are also appropriate on this powerful day when the fertility of summer begins to give way to the temporary death of winter. Recognizing this as a powerfully charged point on the wheel of the year enables one to tap into Natures cycles, and to ponder how ones life connects to the cycles the entire planet shares.
Among the holidays of early autumn, Higan is perhaps the most direct in its message that all things must pass, as the seasons do. One of the oldest of Japanese holidays, Higan is a weeklong tribute to ancestors and loved ones who have died. And yet it is not a time of mourning, but of joy.
Its name means the other shore, and it celebrates the Buddhist belief that there is a river dividing the world of earthly cares and concerns from Nirvana, the world of enlightenment. The river is full of illusions, passions, pain and sorrow. Only when one crosses the river, fighting strong currents of temptation to reach the other shore, does one attain enlightenment.
Celebrated at both the spring and fall equinoxes, Higan makes its presence felt year-round in the Japanese saying, Heat and cold last only until Higan. In a broader sense, the saying implies that everything, in the world of time, has its limits. When Higan arrives, it bridges not only the seasons, but also the rivers two shores. It is believed that when night and day are equally divided, Buddha appears on the earth for a week to retrieve stray souls and lead them to Nirvana.
During this transitional time, the spirits of loved ones who have died also may return to visit, just as they are believed to do during certain other Buddhist festivals. Families prepare special foods to offer their ancestral spirits during Higan. It is said that they like round food, such as rice balls, best. Sushi and sake are also welcome, and many households make sure to have enough of these specially prepared treats on hand to share some with their living neighbors and friends as well.
On the middle day of Higan, the day of the equinox, many Japanese people visit family graves, cleaning and weeding around the tombs, bringing flowers and offering incense and prayers, but also making the excursion a merry social event like an extended family reunion.
If you need more reasons to celebrate in September, heres a list of special days around the world this month:
September 7 & 8, Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew Year 5763: Literally, Head of the Year, the Jewish New Year includes elements of joy and celebration, but is a deeply religious occasion.
September 8, Grandparents Day: A North American reminder to appreciate them while youve got them!
September 8, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christian holiday in honor of the birth of the mother of Jesus.
September 10, Ganesh Chathurthi: Festival in honor of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom and success.
September 11, Coptic Orthodox Christian New Year: The Dog Star, Sirius, appears in the Egyptian sky, signaling the flooding of the Nile and a new year for Egypts native Christians.
September 11, Enkutatash: Ethiopian New Year.
September 12, Birthday of the Monkey God: Chinese Taoists celebrate the birth of Tai Seng Yeh, the monkey god who sneaked into heaven and acquired miraculous powers to cure the sick and redeem the hopeless.
September 15, Keiro-no-Hi: Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday in Japan.
September 16, Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and is observed by fasting, prayer and repentence.
September 17, International Day of Peace: The third Tuesday of September has been dedicated to promoting peace since the holiday was established in 1982 by proclamation of the United Nations.
September 20-26, Higan: Described above.
September 21-28, Sukkot: Described above. Begins at sundown September 21.
September 21, Mabon: Described above.
September 22-23, Autumnal Equinox: Described above. The date depends on your time zone.
September 26, Birthday of Johnny Appleseed: Born in 1774, John Chapman planted apple trees throughout the American Midwest and was considered a saint by some white settlers and a medicine man by many Native American tribes.
September 28, Confuciuss Birthday: Kung-fu-tzu, born in 551 B.C., was one of the most influential teachers in the history of China.
September 29, Feast of the Archangel Michael (Michaelmas): The leader of the heavenly host, together with fellow archangels Gabriel and Raphael, is honored on this day by Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Christians in the West. Churches of the Eastern Rite celebrate Michaelmas November 8.