I have a dirty, NeoPagan confession to make. I have never been able to get behind the idea of the idea of Fall Equinox as a “Witch’s Thanksgiving.”
When I was first exposed to the idea (in the late 1990’s, when I was a witchling — and most folks didn’t yet have a cell phone), it just didn’t strike a chord. I’ll admit that back then, I was perfectly content with my traditional American Thanksgiving (to distinguish from the Canadian holiday), and I had yet to be exposed to any dialogue or ideas that would make me uncomfortable or even reflective beyond accepting the suitable-for-Saturday-morning lore I’d learned and even roleplayed in grade school.
In fact, the first Thanksgiving I can remember was actually my first one in the United States. (Hi, I’m Laurelei, and I’m an Army brat.) I was 6 years old, and our teacher instructed us all to bring a dish to share. The class had been divided (predictably to anyone reading this in the US) into Colonizers and First Peoples — though in 1981, my Baptist church school hadn’t adopted those terms. There was a big focus on the “civilizing” role of Christianity and the bounty and mercy of God, the beginnings of what would be called “manifest destiny,” as well as the family of humanity and our duty to reach out and care for each other. The “civilizing” part didn’t make much impact on me, but the gratitude and fraternity bits did.
I’m just old enough that the Internet played absolutely no role in my childhood or teen years, and it only featured as an interesting diversion (and not a real point of research) in my last two college years. It was how I got connected to the Craft and Paganism. (Points for anyone who remembers BBS boards — bonus points if you were on Towers of Avalon!) So, I have a serious love-hate relationship with social media (ie, Internet cranked to 11) now. I love, love, love that I have been exposed to a world of ideas, opinions, and experiences that have shaken me out of my isolated, privileged naivete. I just hate the self-esteem hits I/we all take on a regular basis to interact with the social media machine. (But that’s a different exploration.)
So, somewhere along the way, I learned that Thanksgiving as a holiday may be problematic, depending on how and why you’re celebrating it. If you’re celebrating it around the notion of Gov. Bradford and the colonists at Plymouth having an alliance with a group of indigenous folk, and these groups then having a (quasi-maybe-religious) harvest feast together in 1621, there’s a lot of these “facts” that may be fake. Or not. I’m going to admit that I don’t know. I’m not a historian, and the historians disagree.
A bigger issue is that in NO POSSIBLE WAY did that three day feast atone for, or balance the scales, or even deserve to share the pages of the history books with the violence and atrocities committed upon indigenous folks in all of the 700-ish years since Europeans came to North America. And, more controversially, it is hotly debated whether the Wampanoag were actually allies of the Plymouth settlers — or targets of brutal raids. The oral traditions of the Wampanoag people, as well as some other historical evidence, points to the real possibility that not only was the legend of the “first Thanksgiving” built on a “sunny bit of fakelore,” it very well could be built on an set of outright lies that white folks have been using as propaganda to make the whole of American culture feel better about our bloody misdeeds since the earliest colonists came from Europe.
Friends, I’m not going to equivocate — with you or with myself. I say again: I’m not a historian, nor do the historians agree on what actually happened at Plymouth in 1621. When we drill down to the heart of the issue, we have to own that even if Bradford and friends really did have a lovely relationship for the span of about one generation with one neighboring group of indigenous folk with whom they shared a feast, that was the exception to the rule of European domination and colonization that swept over North and South America. The end result was the murder, displacement, disenfranchisement, and more of the First Nations of these lands.
So … yeah, no. Thanksgiving can’t ever hold the meanings they teach schoolkids for me. It means many vitally important things, but those came from separating it from the “American fakelore” that it was originally wrapped up in.
Why not make the switch to a Fall Equinox (“Harvest Homecoming” / “Witches’ Thanksgiving”) celebration?
Well, because there really isn’t a good historical, folkloric, traditional, or energetic precedent for it. I think it never felt right for me because, really, until about the 1950’s when Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today and then The Meaning of Witchcraft, people didn’t much celebrate the Fall Equinox as such. It is very much a NeoWiccan and NeoPagan religious ritual celebration. As Ronald Hutton discusses in his excellent book Triumph of the Moon, older traditional pagan cultures were far too busy during the time of the Fall Equinox bringing in the harvest to celebrate a festival or feast day. That sort of thing had to happen before or after all the serious work was going on. We have the luxury in our modern culture to choose to celebrate a festival during this time, but our ancestors really didn’t.
For me, September isn’t the time yet to acknowledge my gratitude for the harvest and the bounty of the Spirits. It isn’t time yet to share that communal feast with friends and family — maybe for the last time in the year before the weather turns impassable. It isn’t time in September to have an end-of-harvest feast at all, because the harvest hasn’t all been brought in — at least not where I live. That doesn’t happen until about the end of October, which we acknowledge and honor as the last harvest with Samhain. And sure, many of us share an ancestral meal at Samhain in the form of the Dumb Supper, and perhaps for many folks, this can be that harvest feast of gratitude, reciprocity, and community. For many, though, the mood and focus between the two meals needs to be a little different.
Ultimately, I have chosen, with full awareness, to keep the traditional American Thanksgiving date as the time of my harvest feast for the reasons already shared, and also (in smaller part) because my husband would make a turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing on the fourth Thursday in November with or without me contributing my parts to the meal or inviting guests (in non-plague years) to share the table. For me, the November harvest feast (the actual final harvest in most US NeoPagans’ harvest cycle, if we are being truthful with ourselves), is about:
- Reciprocity with the land and Land Spirits
- Acknowledging the history of the land and its peoples (including areas where I need to further educate myself)
- Sharing the bounty of our harvest with our family, friends, larger community, etc.
- Speaking and demonstrating gratitude and reaffirming my desire to be of service
- Mourning the loss and erasure of Native American life and culture by mass US culture
Facing the fakelore of this deeply American holiday gave me the opportunity to start the long, ongoing process of decolonizing my Craft practice. It was the first domino that fell for me, I think, in the chain. And it’s a long chain. I feel like I am always coming to another place in my practice where I say a phrase (or do an action) that I’ve used a hundred times in ritual and think, “Wait! Where did that originate? Has this been passed along in the Craft for the last 60 years because someone appropriated it back in the ‘60’s, and I’ve just been using it on auto-repeat for 25 years?”
The idea of “decolonizing our practice” gets really strong reactions from folks. You’re either already with me on this (and maybe even have some pointers for me), OR, you HATE the idea, and it’s a miracle you’ve read this far. (Thank you. Stick with me. I’m committed to showing you it’s not as bad as you fear.) Really, I think some people are afraid to look at their practices because they feel that something that is theirs (like a beloved or empowering ritual gesture or phrase — or maybe even a whole ritual practice) will be taken from them. But it is exactly that reason that we have to do the work. Otherwise, (and I’m saying this part to White Folx) we may be (and probably are) taking and using something that belongs to somebody else — and worse yet, using it for our own gain. We (White Folx) have done enough of that.
On its very most basic level, what this means is (and what my own journey has looked like):
- Taking Stock of Your Practices — Are you working from one cultural tradition (like reconstructionist Heathenry or Hellenismos or Voudon, for example)? Or are you more eclectic in your practices?
- Researching Their Origins — What parts of the world and time periods are these practices from? Often, you can get even more specific, down to specific regions or subgroups. Which of these practices, if any, originate with marginalized groups (socially, politically, etc.)?
- Acknowledging How You Came to Learn Them — Did you learn from a mentor/initiator? A Spirit? A book? Online?
- Evaluating Your Authentic Engagement with the Practice — Are you a member (by heritage, adoption, initiation, or other pathways) of the originating group? Did you earn/learn the practice/material in a way that traditionally-initiated (or born) members of the group/culture could honor as authentic? (This is the painful one for a lot of folks to look at. More below.) Or, does the practice itself assume ownership/entitlement over the land or a Spirit ?
- Refusing to Profit from Colonized Practices/Material — Do you teach classes based on these practices/content? Do you lead public rituals that feature them? Do you sell products — info-based or physical? Are your personal workings exploitative or collaborative? (Again, this part takes work, but you don’t lose anything as much as transform it! More below.)
It takes work and time. I know, I’ve been doing it. The last five years or so have been especially intensive for me (and account for part of why I haven’t been as visible online). It’s like realizing that you’ve allowed a garden to get choked with weeds. You know there’s still good, healthy stuff in there, but you have work to do to set things in order.
Our garden simile only goes so far. Not everything you’re “pulling” is a “weed” that needs to be discarded. For one thing, I’m an herbalist, so I rather dislike the term “weed.” Most plants are willing to offer medicinal or spiritual allyship, if we are willing to work with them. Similarly, these practices are valuable and are often cherished — maybe by you, and definitely by their originating cultures. As for discarding this treasured knowledge, what you’ve learned and what has brought value and meaning to your Craft belief/ritual system will never be unlearned. You can’t unknow something. Even if you stopped using the practice entirely, on some level, the thing you learned and practiced, to the extent that you learned and practiced it, will always be a part of you. But there’s an acknowledgement with this process that this beautiful “plant” might only be yours to know, love, and appreciate, and not something to propagate and share. You can still possibly nurture it in your own garden. And maybe now is the time to take a class from a specialist gardener who is knowledgeable on those plants you love so you can learn about them on a deep, intentional level. (Sorry. I love an extended metaphor.)
Ultimately, whether or not you decide to disengage from a certain practice will be a matter of conscience, but I think you will largely find that almost every sacred act and ritual, every tool and formula that contemporary European-descended Witches and Pagans have so trendily adopted (appropriated) from Indigenous and Afro-Diasporic traditional practices — they all have a corollary in traditional European practices/tools/formulas. Every ritual and tool and recipe is addressing a practical or spiritual need, and human needs really haven’t changed by culture or time all that much. Options exist if, when you look deeply, you find that maybe you have accepted a tool without questioning your authentic relationship to it, regurgitated a practice by rote that you learned as a newbie, or even fetishized the aesthetic of a culture’s tradition and would now like to make a change.
As a simple example, I don’t smudge with sage at all anymore. I will gratefully accept that medicine from those who carry it, though. Since there is a long global history of cleansing spaces, objects, and people with the fumes of smoldering dried plants, resins, woods, etc., I tend to blend my own loose herbal incenses from the long list of botanicals used throughout European history for that purpose. Or sometimes I use a single herb or resin directly on the charcoal or fire. My personal favorites are those that are native to both Europe and North America, as I feel this connects me better to my own ancestral practices.
Decolonizing one’s practice isn’t just about how White Folx can come into more authentic alignment with their practices, it’s also about giving BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) practitioners the opportunity to un-yoke themselves from the limiting belief systems the dominant culture forced upon them via slavery, genocide, conversion, and assimilation. It was this perspective of “Decolonizing the Craft” that I first came into contact with, in fact. Of course, it’s impossible for me to tell this part of the story or even add anything substantive to this part of the conversation. (As a writer, leaving this section slim feels embarrassing, like I haven’t done my homework. But as someone trying to do this work, I guess it’s here where I model for y’all that it’s okay not to have all the answers. I’m not the be-all-end-all expert on this subject. I can’t know every side.)
Another important piece of this step is not just confronting those appropriated practices, or the practices/beliefs that were foisted upon you by the dominant culture, but also looking at damaging “colonizer mindsets” that may be integrated into your Craft. The biggest area that I have had my own attention drawn to are practices/philosophies that view the world and all its inhabitants as resources for you to learn only for the sake of using in some way. If your first thought about an herb or stone is, “What is this used for in Witchcraft?” then this is exactly the mindset I’m talking about. The traditional practitioners of the folk religions, folk medicines, and polytheistic religions that we collectively lump together under the headings of Witchcraft and Paganism today didn’t hold this “use and abuse” relationship with the land and its Spirits. They worked collaboratively in allyship with both. That stone might only be a pretty decoration if you don’t get to know it in a meaningful way — as a partner.
In my journey, when I listened to BIPOC practitioners, what I heard again and again was that it was harmful for White Folx like me to:
- sell products from Afro-Diasporic or Indigenous traditions
- teach or publish about those traditions — maybe at all, but especially if you weren’t authentically initiated, lineage, or otherwise recognized as having the authority from within that traditional folkway (or perhaps an academic scholar working in collaboration with a person of authentic lineage)
- gain money and/or good reputation by sharing the folkways and traditional practices of cultures who are still largely underrepresented and undervalued in the Craft/Pagan community (or elsewhere)
- use language and terms belonging to a specific culture to describe a specific action, tool, or phenomena to describe something “sort of like it” from another culture
- refuse to hear a person or community of people when they say an action hurts them
This list is not exhaustive. But this is where I started, and where I am largely still working from right now. I can’t lie and say that the process has been entirely straightforward for me, friends. Some of these were easy-ish. I feel like I accepted right away that a thing I was doing was harmful (once it came into my awareness), but it might have taken me more exposures to a given concept than I’m consciously remembering to really even “become aware.” Humans can be pretty resistant to change, and I can’t pretend to be different. I do know that hearing directly from a person (even someone that I don’t know IRL) that an action hurts them is impactful for me. Hearing it through the grapevine (like some white lady writing an essay about it) is less so. Which is why I’m including some links to folks I read down below.
After I had that emotional “a-ha!,” my work was rooting out where I was doing the hurtful things — like removing all of the related listings from my Etsy shop and deleting or revising my presentation catalog so that it was reflective of this authenticity. That was only time-consuming (and embarrassing to my Inner Critic), but we shouldn’t confuse that with something hard.
The language part is hard. Language gets deeply encoded into our worldview, so words and concepts I adopted 20-25 years ago (like “Totem” are hard to replace, even if I now understand that I was using a narrow and incomplete and appropriated view of the word and its correlating idea. Our language shapes our reality, and vice versa. All that being said, I consider it an act of Love, Will, and Magic to consciously choose better language as a way to respect my Siblings.
Finally, writing an article like this is a little hard. I feel vulnerable and inadequate to the task. I offer my thoughts and my process here with the caveat that I am still doing this work, and I recognize my offering to you as imperfect and incomplete (even if it is verbose). I wonder, though, if there is such a thing, as “completion” or “perfection,” or if “confidence” is even a desired quality, when engaging in Shadow Work like this. I think not.
It’s a circuitous journey. The path of the Witch is by its nature a crooked one, and for that, I find myself grateful.
History of Thanksgiving and Harvest Feasts
History Channel — Thanksgiving — (Yes, your very basic coverage of the topic.) https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue — https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thanksgiving-myth-and-what-we-should-be-teaching-kids-180973655/
The Truth About Thanksgiving is that the Debunkers are Wrong — https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/15002
United American Indians of New England and the National Day of Mourning — http://www.uaine.org/default.htm
Triumph of the Moon, by Ronald Hutton
Harvest Festivals — https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A18107129
Decolonizing the Craft
Haus of Hoodoo / Jessyka Winston — https://www.instagram.com/hausofhoodoo
WitchDoctorPoet — https://www.instagram.com/witchdoctorpoet/
Black Magic, Black Skin: Decolonizing White Witchcraft by Shannon Barber — https://ravishly.com/black-magic-black-skin-decolonizing-white-witchcraft
SAFE Alert – Cultural Appropriation of Lucumí Religion by Non-Initiates by Santeria Church — http://santeriachurch.org/safe-alert-cultural-appropriation-of-lucumi-religion-by-non-initiates/
Calling Out an Appropriator of Culture by Santeria Church — http://santeriachurch.org/calling-out-an-appropriator-of-culture/
Black Magic: Hoodoo Witches Speak Out on the Appropriation of Their Craft by Gabby Bess — https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qkg93m/black-magic-talking-with-hoodoo-witches
White Light, Black Magic: Racism in Esoteric Thought by Brandy Williams — http://brandywilliamsauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/White-Light-Black-Magic_-Racism-in-Esoteric-Thought.pdf
Yes, This is Our Paganism: Llewellyn, Weiser, and White Supremacy by Fire Lyte — http://www.incitingariot.com/2020/06/yes-this-is-our-paganism-llewellyn.html
Cultural Appropriation in Contemporary Neopaganism and Witchcraft by Kathyrn Gottlieb — https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1303&context=honors
Decolonizing Witchcraft by Willow at Flying the Hedge — https://www.flyingthehedge.com/2020/06/decolonizing-witchcraft.html
[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author.]