The more we learn to live with the seasons, the more old holidays make new sense. Halloween is the midpoint between the equinox and the winter solstice, or Christmas; it marked New Year's Eve in traditional Ireland, when the nights grow truly long and dark, when the skies grow dim, and when we first feel the bite of winter. It is the day when it seems most appropriate to remember loved ones that have died, as we do in our house, a bit of gravitas to go with the trick-or-treating of children and the blithe gore of the media.
Six weeks after Christmas, the midpoint between the Christmas and the spring equinox, is Bridget’s Day here, Groundhog Day or Candlemas elsewhere. Six weeks later is the equinox, and the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox is Easter. Six weeks after the equinox, halfway to the summer solstice, comes May Day, once widely celebrated in the USA.
My more devout friends back in the USA resent hearing the astronomy behind, say, Christmas or Easter, believing it distracts us from “the reason for the season.” I understand – they are flooded by a culture that exploits holy days to sell people more things they don’t need, and they want to protect their children’s innocence and preserve the day's meaning. I get it.
In purging their lives of the shopping-mall culture, though, they inadvertently throw out some of their oldest traditions. The holidays celebrate the cycle of creation, and the religious commemorations were placed there because of the season, not the other way around – the birth at the turn of the year, the Resurrection at the season of new life. The seasonal markers do not supercede the holy days, but precede them, forming the architecture of our years.
In the same way, I know many sects who worship in bare rooms and plain churches, and I’m glad it works for them. But the best religious service I have ever seen took place in an old forest near us, by candlelight. A crowd gathered under the canopy of trees whose lives stretch far beyond their own, in a tiny patch of what was once first and greatest of cathedrals, one that covered much of the world.
I’m not the most pious person in the world, but when my Girl and I walk through those woods, every visit feels like a Sabbath.