Heathen Holidays: Æcerbot

Heathen Holidays: Æcerbot

by Trey Wentworth

This is the second blog post in a series on the topic of Heathen Holidays.

Chase Hill Æcerbot ritual

In February, we really begin to notice the lengthening daylight hours. Posting the seconds and minutes on Facebook no longer matters, because we can actually see it each day – and we, along with the plants and animals around us, begin to think about the coming of spring.

In Old English, the word for this time of year was lencten, which was then applied to the Christian observance now called Lent. But its etymological origin is in the “lengthening” of the day, and simply meant spring. Different traditions within Heathenry celebrate this time differently – but whether it is marked as Disting, Charming of the Plough, or Æcerbot, observing the shifting light is a sign of hope for those who live in cold, northerly climes.

On Chase Hill, we perform our Æcerbot ritual at this time of year. Named for an Old English charm to encourage field fertility, it is a time for us to honor all the beings that feed us – plant and animal – and wish them growth in the coming season. Despite the heavy snow and coldest temperatures of the year, this observance heralds the beginning of the growing season. In only a matter of weeks, the tree sap will begin to flow and the first harvest of New England will begin – maple syrup.

Reflecting on Food

Honoring the spirits of the land is core to the practice of Heathenry. In our modern culture, we are divorced from our food sources and it is easy to forget that we owe our lives not just abstractly to the land we live on, but literally to those beings that die so that we may eat.

In preparation for the Æcerbot, many of us spend a week thanking (out loud!) the animals and plants that make up our food each time we sit down to eat. That might be as simple as turkey, tomato, lettuce, and wheat before taking a bite of a sandwich – or you may find yourself researching the actual source of the preservatives or flavorings in your favorite bag of chips. No matter what, taking time to recognize all the things that make up our diet – a breadth of variation heretofore unimaginable in all of human history – brings awareness to how connected we are to the earth and so many other species.

During our community’s Æcerbot ritual, one of the offerings we give is to all the beings we eat. We pass a pitcher around the circle, naming beings that give us food and pouring water for each.

Offering of Cakes

This is also the time that Heathens shared cakes with their gods. The Venerable Bede tells us that February was called Solmonath (Cake month) in Old English because of the offerings given at this time of year. Recorded in Swedish and Norwegian folklore is the practice of gathering around the hearth, each member of the family taking a bite of cake in turn, and the remainder going into the fire. The Æcerbot charm, too, involves baking a special cake and laying it in the first furrow ploughed.

You can give your own offerings of cakes to the earth as she awakens from her sleep. There are many recipes already associated with this time of year – for many years I made fastnachts (Pennsylvania Dutch doughnuts) for Æcerbot from a family recipe. In Heathen practice, we always share our offerings with the gods and spirits – be sure to give a portion to the land, and a portion to each person in your house or at your ritual.

Blessing the Tools of Work

Blessing the plough for the coming year’s work is another important undertaking at this time of year, as shown in the Æcerbot charm and the surviving English folk customs on Plough Monday. But since most of us will not be taking a plough to the north forty when the ground thaws, how do we honor the tools that will sustain us through the summer?

If your work is at the computer, perhaps it is time to bless it. Or if you crochet or knit, those needles or hooks are tools you will be working with throughout the year. Pens, pencils, planners, or bullet journals can also be blessed. Nothing is too mundane – in fact, the idea of blessing these common objects is to ensure that the things you use every day are honored as sacred.

In Heathen ritual, we often pour our offerings into a bowl, allowing us to sprinkle the offerings on the space and the attendees as a blessing before returning it all to the earth. Be sure to sprinkle the tools of your trade before you pour out your offerings (ensuring any electronics are covered by something water-proof first!).

Or if you choose to focus your observance on the hearth instead, you can bless your tools with flame, another traditional Heathen blessing practice. Light your hearth – a simple candle on top of the stove will do – and pass your tools over the flame (carefully, so as not to burn or melt anything, including yourself!) before extinguishing it.

However you choose to welcome the returning light at this time of year, make sure to find time to give gratitude to all the plants and animals that have kept you alive over the last year and send your blessings out to the land that the coming year be one of plenty.

Single-handled ox-drawn ard; Bronze Age rock carving, Bohuslän, Sweden
By Lidingo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3726026

Let’s Do Lunch

by Jennifer Bennett

When you think of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, lunch is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. The thousands of people from all over the world; the hundreds of workshops; the spiritual and religious presentations; and, the many, many speakers and booths full of information—these probably are.  Yes, those are all important parts of the tapestry of this amazing gathering that happens once every three or so years somewhere on planet Earth. But, I’m here to tell you about the magic that is lunch at the Toronto Parliament.

The Sikh community, both local and partnering with communities from all over the world, offered langar every day of the 2018 Toronto Parliament. Langar–a free,


Isobel Arthen, Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, and Sam Long attending langar (photo by Moira Ashleigh)

communal lunch–is cooked, served and cleaned up after all by the Sikh community. Thousands of people are fed, every day. Langar is offered in a space specifically created for it–you are requested to take your shoes off, cover your head, and wash your hands. There are spaces for shoes, stations where they will tie temporary head coverings for you—if you don’t already have your own—and sinks are set up for handwashing. The Sikh community members sincerely welcome you all along the way and have informational kiosks about the Sikh community and their religion’s requirement of service set up around the area.

As you stand in the initial food line, lunch is ladled in to Styrofoam trays (which are recycled). Every person who serves food or water or hands you utensils, looks you in the eye and welcomes you personally. The food is some of the best vegetarian, Indian-style food you’ve ever tasted. Chapattis, nan, rice, dahls, lentils—different combinations, every day–are ladled into your tray. You then make your way to sit on the floor—thus illustrating that everyone (regardless of caste, or any other “category”) is equal.  (A small number of tables with chairs are set up for those who require them.)  As you sit and eat, more volunteers are wandering up and down the aisles of floor seating, with stainless steel buckets and ladles, constantly offering you more of everything on your tray. But wait, there’s even more! After you bring your trays etc. to the recycling table, it’s time to visit the dessert and chai table on your way out.

As if all this was not the Divine in action in and of itself–all this generosity, true service and abundance–there are also the relationships that spring up with those you randomly end up sitting next to. This is where real holiness blossoms.

Throughout the week of the Parliament, I shared langar encounters with a member of the The Troth’s Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry; a woman from Aumism–Universal Religion, who was from France (and spoke just about as much English as I did French—but we managed a bit of conversation anyway); a well-known Canadian grass roots organizer (who was asked by Prime Minister Trudeau to attend the G7 Advisory Council on Gender Equity) who ended up going to a crone-ing workshop because I mentioned it to her; the husband of one of the Parliament organizers; a family (whose faces lit up once they found out I was Pagan) who asked me if I knew a particular person from S. Carolina…and I did!; a lovely young couple—one of whom was running for office in his very conservative state district (as an out gay man) because no one else from his party was running; and another young man who was living in an intentionally-multi-faith household in New York City (Christian, Jewish, Muslim). When he found out I was Pagan, he actually apologized that they had no Pagans in their community…yet!

Talk about feeding your spirit! All these are folks I just randomly sat down next to, or they next to me, to enjoy our meals, became a huge part of the Parliament experience. The Divine works in many ways and through many voices. We should all, always, have such opportunities to “do lunch” and in such a Pagan-friendly, accepting and supportive atmosphere!

A Year of Drops: Locate Local Food

by Katie LaFond

Step 6: Locate Local Food Options

  • Local farmers will often let you use your own containers, reducing the amount of plastic you take home
  • Eating locally can allow you to develop a relationship with the land, animals, plants, and farmers that feed you and your family. Feeling a connection to that which nourishes us is something that my family cherishes. We take a moment to give thanks before eating, often saying our farmers’ names aloud.
  • Farmers’ Markets can be found in many communities during the summer and even the

    photo by Sarah Rosehill; used with permission

    photo by Sarah Rosehill; used with permission

    winter. I have even found Farmers’ Markets on the Mass Turnpike!

  • Helpful resources: CISA, Local Harvest.
  • Eat food that is in season. It is often available more locally, and connect you to the cycles of the land where you live. For example, where I live, I eat asparagus and fiddleheads in the early spring, broccoli in the spring, peas in the early summer, zucchini in the summer, tomatoes in late summer, squash and apples in the fall, and root vegetables (onions, potatoes, beets, carrots) over the winter.
  • Join a CSA or two. Veggies, meat, milk and cheese shares are widely available in both the city and rural areas.
  • If you have the space, start a garden.  Nothing is more local than your back yard!  There are lots of great resources for beginning gardeners available for free online.  Start by growing just one or two of your favorites.
  • Be brave! Take a new food home each week and learn how to cook it. If you don’t like it at first, try one bite each day for a week. Taste can be acquired.
  • It may be more expensive to eat locally, but remember that it doesn’t need to be shipped long distance and buying local food stimulates the local economy. “Cost” is so much more than a price tag.
  • Cook big batches, and package meals in reusable containers (repurposed spaghetti sauce jars) to freeze for nights that you’re tempted to get take out. Remember to leave a little space at the top of glass jars before freezing!
  • Processed foods come in a lot of packaging. Eating less processed food will significantly reduce your waste stream (and improve your health).

This is part seven of Katie’s thirteen-part series on walking lightly on the Earth.  Read more: introduction, step 1 (recycle), step 2 (reuse), step 3 (reduce), step 4 (compost), step 5 (drive less).

Practical Magic: The How of Eating Locally

In my last post, I wrote about why I eat locally: the deep connections it fosters between me and the land where I live.  In this one, I want to talk about how you can bring more local food — and through it, local magic — into your life.

Produce is usually the easiest thing to find locally.  If you live in a more rural area, you may already know about roadside produce stands or local farms.  In more urban areas, you can often access local produce and more through a farmer’s market.  Picking your own fruits and vegetables can be a fun afternoon and save you a few bucks in the process.  And in many areas, you can participate in farm shares, also called community-supported agriculture (CSA).  In this model, you pay for a season up front, and then receive a box of produce every week.  You may go to the farm to pick it up, or you may be able to get it at a drop-off location.  You’ll get a variety of produce that’s fresh and in season, and the farmer will get a measure of income security.  If you’re afraid this would be too much, consider finding a friend to split a share with you.  Local Harvest is a great resource for locating farmer’s markets, CSAs, and farms near you.  (Best part: it will find not only CSA farms near you, but also far-away farms that have drop-off points in your neighborhood!)

You may also be able to find some other products that are made near where you live: meat, milk, eggs, and honey are all becoming more common.  If you can locate a farmer’s market near you, see if you can visit or check out their vendor list, which will give you good ideas of where to find these things.  The Eat Local Challenge asks people to try to eat only local food for one month a year; if you can locate a participant in your area, their blog is likely to be a goldmine of resources.

Because most of the local food you’ll find is fresh and unprocessed, you may need to brush up on your kitchen skills to make the most of it.  When a vegetable I don’t usually cook appears in my CSA box, I usually go first to a standard reference cookbook (I like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything).  I also use online resources — which come handily equipped with a search function for when I really need to know what to do with four bunches of kale — a great deal.  I like food blogs because their authors tend to have distinctive food styles: once I find one that I really like, I often want to make most of the recipes they offer. Two of my favorite blogs are 101 Cookbooks (featuring simple and tasty vegetarian recipes heavy on the produce and whole grains) and Smitten Kitchen (which mixes up delicious seasonal dishes with mouthwatering baked goods).  Finally, my fallback when-all-else-fails recipe site is Epicurious, which sports an amazing array of recipes as well as user reviews to help you know which ones are worth trying. 

A last word: don’t let things like the Eat Local Challenge scare you.  You don’t have to do it all!  If the ritual that helps you feel connected ot the land and seasons where you live is to pick strawberries every summer, start there.  If you want to grow basil in your kitchen window, do it.  Conversely, if the idea of getting ten random vegetables a week gives you shivers, don’t buy a CSA: go to the market and pick things you know you or your family will enjoy.  Build your connections one bite at a time.

You are what you eat: eating locally as a magical act

pumpkins in fall

By now, you’ve probably heard the schtick about local food dozens of times: it’s good for you! It’s good for local farmers! It’s healthier, safer, and better for the earth! I believe each and every one of those things, but they don’t include one important reason that I try to choose local foods: magic.

For me, being a witch is largely about relationship. Understanding that everything is alive and connected in ecstatically beautiful and complex ways is at the core of my spirituality. Engaging consciously, deliberately, and joyfully with those connections and relationships is my most fundamental act of magic.

When I choose to eat food grown in the ground near here, watered with the same water I drink, cooled by the same breezes I feel on my skin, I deepen my relationship with the spirits of this land. I allow the land, in a physical way, to enter into my body, to fuel my endeavors, and to literally become part of me. I also give my energy – in the form of my money – over to a farmer near me, who surely is cultivating in her own way an intimate relationship with the dirt and plants and bugs of her land.

When I eat local food, I don’t need charts to tell me what’s in season. I anticipate the first asparagus in the spring, the sweetness of June’s strawberries, the crunch of the first green beans, and then the amazing pop of sun warmed tomatoes. I’m attuned to how much it rains, and whether it’s unseasonably cool out. I think about the state of the soil and what might be running off into it.

So yes, it is good for you and for local businesses and for the earth. But eating local food is also a way of weaving yourself ever more tightly into the detailed, physical life of the place where you live, and honoring the sacredness of the many ways in which that particular piece of earth holds you.

[Also see Sarah’s ‘A Season To Taste’ blog.]