The Autumn Equinox: it's a holiday of many names.

None of them—to be perfectly honest—quite there yet, if you know what I mean.

Equinox, of course, comes from Latin: “equal night.” It has the advantage of being readily comprehensible, at least. The down side is, of course, that it's ambiguous, since it's got a twin in the spring. And somehow it's got that clinical sound to it.

Then there's Evenday. This is a modern loan-translation from the word for “equinox” in the Scandinavian languages. (Interesting that, to describe a time when day and night are of equal length, the Southrons focus on night and the Northrons on day; make of that what you will.)

“Evenday” has a nice, colloquial sound to it, and is probably relatively transparent to anyone with light behind the eyes. Interestingly, it has already developed two pronunciations, and (curiously) I find myself using both of them: Even-day and Even-dee, just like the days of the week: the formal and less formal options, respectively.

Wishing folks a “Happy Evenday” has a good sound to it, certainly. But, of course, there's still that vernal-autumnal ambiguity.

So far as we can tell, the ancient Kelts did not observe the sunsteads and evendays as holidays (focusing instead on what we would call the “Cross-Quarters”), so there were no traditional names for them in any of the Keltic languages. To rectify this situation, Druidic Revivalists in the 19th century coined Welsh names for them; the autumn evenday is now called Alban Elfed (supposedly, “Light of [the] Waters”), and the name has gained a certain currency in Druidic circles.

Probably the most widespread name given to the autumn evenday among modern pagans is another innovation, the dreaded Mabon. (Shudder.) Mabon ap Modron (roughly, “Son, son of Mother”) is a hyper-obscure character out of Welsh mythology about whom we know virtually nothing. What we can say for sure is that in Welsh lore he has no connection whatsoever with either harvest or the equinox. Back in the '80s, folks in Northern California began to call the equinox by this name, on the supposition, I suppose, that the Harvest is son of Earth.

Whatever. I'll freely admit that, to my ear, this one sounds like Pagans Trying Too Hard; there's something strained about it, something pseudo.

Then there's the much-vexed problem of pronunciation.

  • Welsh: Mah-bon.
  • Anglicized Welsh: Mab'n.
  • Pronounce-It-As-If-It-Were-English: May-bon.

To my mind, this last pronunciation—probably the most commonly used, around here anyway—is like pronouncing Samhain, Sam Hane. Still, when thousands of people pronounce a word in a certain way, you can't meaningfully say that it's incorrect. Usage determines correctness.

But I still don't like it.

In Old Craft, there are still a few die-hards who wouldn't be caught dead using a neo-peg name like Mabon, and continue to hold out for Michaelmas. The feast of Michael the Archangel was the church's holiday closest to the autumn equinox, and (so goes the story) folks took to using the name for protective coloration. There's something endearing about retro, but still and all. Certainly I love that the traditional centerpiece of the Michaelmas feast was roast goose. Seasonal, yes, but one also has to savor the dark humor inherent in eating one winged being to honor another.

Me, I grew up calling the autumn evenday Harvest Home, and I still do. I picked up the usage from Feraferia's Fred Adams in the late 60s and have been using it ever since. It's a good, honest name, used in English for more than 1000 years, and refers to the grand feast that marks the end of the grain harvest.

To hand-harvest a year's worth of grain during a few short days was a massive undertaking. Everyone—everyone—went out to the fields to help bring in the harvest. It was a fraught time—an inopportune storm could mean a ruined harvest and starvation in the coming year—and the labor was back-breaking. The work was long, sweaty, and uncomfortable. Imagine standing in pounding sunshine swinging a heavy scythe for 12 hours a day. It's nasty work. You get the prickly awns—the “beard” of the wheat—everywhere. Everywhere. And they're itchy. Not to mention the inherent danger: a scythe that can fell a swath of wheat could all-too-easily take off a foot as well.

So when the work of harvest was finally, finally, over, and the grain safely stored away, folks, it was time to party.

In folk usage, Harvest Home was never specifically associated with the Equinox. Oh well; life is full of pain. For us, it's become Witches' Thanksgiving, decked with sheaves, garlands of marigolds, and hanging ears of variegated corn, with the massive groaning board, the intemperate drinking, and the raucous singing, of traditional Harvest Suppers everywhere.

And one thing to be thankful for is that we don't have to hand-harvest all of our own food, like the ancestors did.

A good and happy Harvest to you.

By whatever name you know it.

Come, ye thankful people,come:

raise the song of Harvest Home.

All is safely gathered in

ere the winter storms begin.

Earth our Mother doth provide

for our wants to be supplied.

Come, ye thankful people, come:

raise the song of Harvest Home.


Above: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Corn Harvest