Mabon, of all the Sabbats, does not directly correlate to any known Celtic or Anglo-Saxon holiday. Instead, the harvest that it celebrates honored an entire season of sacred, survival-ensuring work. Mabon's predecessor, Michaelmas, came about as a recognized holy day during harvest season as a means of subverting the Pagan harvest traditions by entrenching them in church doctrine. In 1011 the Christian church established September 29th as the feast of Saint Michael, to honor the protecting archangel as the leader of God’s heavenly host of angels, and to honor his triumph over Lucifer. Michaelmas evolved from a feast day into a day of conducting serious end-season business. In the 20th century, as Protestantism became dominant, Michaelmas then became England's Harvest Festival. On this day farmers bring in baskets of their bounty to local parishes, where vicars bless the crop, and the baskets are then delivered to local food shelves and families in need. Harvest Festival remained a Pagan tradition, and Michaelmas often served as a Christian mask for the preservation of ancient practices.
While Michaelmas is not observed in the way it once was, it leaves behind rich Pagan-influenced lore and traditions that modern counterparts might enjoy reviving.
- Settling business
Agreements concerning rent, debts, and wages all concluded around Michaelmas/harvest season. Harvest workers even had rituals and parties that revolved around wage negotiations. Since people often traded for their goods and services or paid rent in food and livestock, the season often determined what a family could expect to afford in the coming colder months. In some areas of Britain, Michaelmas earned the nickname "Pack-Rag Day" because so many people packed up and moved to new homes or on to new jobs on this day.
In the United Kingdom, elections—especially local elections—happened on September 29th. This is part of the old business/new business tradition, and actually traces to the practice of selecting leaders among the harvesters that worked the fields. These leaders negotiated the wages and determined the hierarchy of labor as they move from farm to farm to help with the ingathering. The early negotiations of Mabon eventually became part of the history of unions in the United Kingdom.
- Weather predictions
Farmers of the time believed that phenomena present on Michaelmas day predicted coming weather conditions, especially the nature of coming winter. If, for instance, a goose cooked on that day had a lot of fat, a cold winter lay ahead. If it rained on Michaelmas, farmers expected a dry winter. These weather predictions held deep importance; Michaelmas was the time that farmers figured out what they must slaughter or store until the more abundant seasons returned. Keeping too much risked rot, waste, or inability to feed the animals. Getting rid of too much risked starvation later. Since Medieval Europe actually saw periods of vast warming and the resulting crop abundance (the "Medieval Warm Period") as well as the converse of severe cooling and resulting crop detrioration (the "Little Ice Age"), weather predictions held very deep importance.
- Horse racing
In central Britain, Michaelmas was the day of an annual horse race. In this race, women would bring horses and sit behind the men on horseback; it was considered good luck of the women fell off (it is not clear why, and clearly it was not good luck for the women!). Traditionally, women paid for this horse race, and at the end they brought oatmeal to share. (Roman Catholics of Scotland also called Michaelmas "Riding Day" because of this tradition.)
- Sharing with the Poor
The 16th and 17th centuries were a different time—and sacrifices were not simply left to rot. In Ireland, every family that could afford to killed a sheep. Irish law dictated that part of the animal slaughtered go to the poor in honor of Saint Patrick and Saint Michael. The modern version of this involves less sharing of livestock and more bringing food donations to local churches to honor Harvest Festival, the modern replacement of Michaelmas that also parallels Mabon tradition.
British people of the 9th century considered it bad luck to gather blackberries on or after Michaelmas. In some tales, the Pookah, a shape-shifting and violent fairy, lay within the bushes, waiting to kidnap children. In other tales, when Satan fell from heaven he landed in a blackberry patch and so the berries bore his curse from the feast of St. Michael onward. The decay evident in late-season blackberries often got blamed on the faeries, rather than on natural fermentation.
The tradition of eating roast goose at Christmas actually originated as a Michaelmas tradition. Since Michaelmas was a time when farmers settled arrears with their landlords, they often paid in livestock; initially this consisted of a goose. It became tradition to present landlords with a goose on Michaelmas, and for the family to also eat a goose. In Great Britain, eating the bird ensured good financial fortunes in the coming year. In Germany, people of the time believed that the breastbone of the goose predicted the weather of the season. Eventually goose became the traditional main course of Christmas dinner, and eating the bird at Michaelmas stopped.
In France, people dyed eggs on Michaelmas as well as Easter. These eggs were also decorated, but much more conservatively than Easter eggs; they were wrapped in sheets of ivy and plunged into water, and then painted with tacit references to Saint Michael. At one point in this process the painter had to throw the egg in the air and catch it. If the egg broke, it foretold bad luck for the coming winter. On Michaelmas, the youngest member of the household sat at the fireplace and ate the egg.
Nuts figured heavily in Michaelmas season. On September 14th, called Holy Rood Day or "Devil's Nutting Day," unmarried men and women went out collecting nuts. Often this time involved some social and sexual activity—as one saying went, a good year for nuts meant a good year for babies to follow. September 28th, Michaelmas Eve was one of two days referred to as Cracknut-Day (distinct from Nutcrack Night in October), when people cracked the nuts in church.
Both as a celebration and as an after-celebration, harvest workers participated in parties known as scotales. Featuring drunken revelry, drinking games, and debauchery, the church disapproved of and even banned these parties, though they seemed to continue undeterred into the middle of the 20th century. Usually a collection happened during a community harvest dinner, and then all the harvest workers went out drinking after the party.
- More to the Corn than a Dolly
Most readers here likely already know about the corn dolly at Mabon, and how it represents the spirit of the harvest. Fewer may know that a host of rituals and superstition surrounded the treatment of the corn dolly, or that "corn" is really a generic British word for any grain crop. Different areas of Europe actually kept different traditions for that corn dolly, though the use of the doll itself appeared close to universal. The corn dolly always came from a special sheaf in some way: either the first sheaf cut, the last sheaf cut, or the sheaf declared to be the last one by a crew foreman. On the Isle of Man, the corn dolly came from the last sheaves of corn harvested; the youngest girl among the harvest workers carried the doll to the highest point in the field, while people watching cheered. After the harvest celebration completed, the doll presided over the hearth of the farmer's home until the next harvest. Some farmers chose to keep the corn dolly over the inside of a barn door until the next year. In other areas of the British Isles, people might throw buckets of water on the doll or fill it with stones to ensure sufficient rainfall and a prosperous harvest the next year. Some places began new harvest seasons or planting seasons by conducting a "funeral" for the corn dolly of the previous season.
- The Last Sheaf
In some parts of Europe, the last sheaf standing of a plant during harvest season also held significant spiritual importance to farmers and farm laborers. In some areas of Europe, the "prettiest girl of the village" cut the last sheaf of grain. In other areas, the most senior of the harvest laborers did the honors. In parts of continental Europe, the harvesters made a game of attempting to knock down the last sheaf with their scythes. Depending on the area, hitting that last sheaf might predict anything from death to good fortune. Based on the animal names sometimes given the last sheaf, it may have even come to replace the sacrifice of livestock
- Love Divinations
Harvest festivals also offered a time of intense socializing and matchmaking among the young people of a village. Often the social rituals of the season—group dinners, processions, and dances—also led to marriage proposals, many of which had a degree of business arrangement between families in mind. This meant that love divination had equal importance to weather divination, and young girls often tried more than one method to see if they might marry, or if presented with multiple offers, which suitors might make a good match. Here are a few of many popular autumn divination methods of the Middle Ages:
- Crab apples
On Michaelmas day, single women with multiple suitors gathered crab apples. They then took the apples to a barn loft, and used them to spell out the initials of their prospective lovers. If the initials remained undisturbed when they checked again on October 10th, the love of that person was true.
In Ireland, someone baked a coin into a pie that the family ate on Michaelmas day. If a young woman found the coin, it meant her marriage within the year.
- Michaelmas Daisies: He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
Some readers may have plucked the petals off of hapless flowers in spring, while intoning "S/he loves me, s/he loves me not!" This haphazard divination tradition actually began with a specific flower that bloomed towards the middle of fall: the Michaelmas daisy, a species of aster plant. Perhaps finding an aster and attempting this ritual might render more accurate results than those offered after tearing apart a black-eyed Susan.
The name Mabon itself came about because Aidan Kelley wanted to fill a hole in the nomenclature of the Sabbat wheel, and Mabon seemed to connect spiritually with the Celtic spirit of the cross-quarter Sabbats. Before this, most Pagans that followed an eight Sabbat cycle simply referred to it as Autumn Equinox, and honored the day as a Pagan version of the old harvest celebrations. Like much of the Pagan wheel, the autumn cycle anchored in Pagan traditions that included any ancient culture with a harvest tradition—so really, any ancient culture. While the traditions here focus mainly on Celtic practices, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and many, many others also had rich and deep spiritual practices to honor the nexus between life and death met amidst the business of the harvest. Every step of autumn harvest festivals honors both life and death—all in preparation for the dying-down of winter, and the rest period to follow. There are likely hidden traditions and divination practices surrounding the harvest in all of the ancient cultures; some may even be worth resurrecting.