Even Non-Wiccans Can Celebrate Mabon, the 'Pagan Thanksgiving'

By: Dave Roos  | 
harvest basket
A cornucopia or basket of harvest produce is a centerpiece of Mabon celebrations. ju_see/Getty Images

If you love all things autumn — "leaf peeping" the fall foliage, picking apples, decking out your front stoop with gourds and corn stalks — then you might want to add another holiday to the calendar. Mabon, also known as "Pagan Thanksgiving," is a harvest celebration that falls around the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22-23, 2022.

Since the dawn of agriculture, cultures around the world marked the harvest season with ancient rituals of feasting and thanksgiving for the abundance of the earth. In contemporary Paganism, some of those ancient harvest traditions are revived and reinterpreted by people who may identify as Neopagans, Wiccans, druids, hedonists, witches, animists, nature worshippers or plain old Pagans.

Mabon is one of eight "sabbats," contemporary Pagan festivals that mark the changing of the seasons on the Pagan calendar known as the Wheel of the Year. The best-known sabbats are Yule, which commemorates the winter solstice and Samhain, the late harvest festival associated with Halloween.

Although lesser-known, the fall equinox festival Mabon is "a really powerful time," says Selena Fox, senior minister and high priestess of Circle Sanctuary, a nature spirituality center in Wisconsin. "I think most people would recognize a lot of the ancient fall equinox customs, but didn't realize where they had their origins."


What Is the Autumnal Equinox?

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox is the date in late September when the number of daylight hours and darkness are almost exactly equal (12 hours each). If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, that same September date is your spring equinox, also known as the vernal equinox. (In 2022, the date is Sept. 22.)

druides, Stonehenge
Druid Merlin poses for a photograph as druids, Pagans and revelers gather to take part in Mabon celebrations at the ancient neolithic monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, 2017.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Modern astronomers are not the only ones who have carefully calculated and tracked the fall and spring equinoxes, as well as the summer and winter solstices when the daylight hours are longest and shortest.

"All around the world, there are ancient monuments and sacred sites that were built to attune to the equinox points and the solstice points," says Fox. Examples include the Pyramid of Kukulkán at the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Every year on the fall and spring equinoxes, the interplay of light and shadow makes it look like a large serpent is descending the temple's stone steps.


Mabon: a New Name for Old Ways

Fox has organized the Welcome Fall Festival at Circle Sanctuary since 1974, not long after Paganism was reborn as a contemporary religious movement. "The word Mabon as a term for the fall equinox is only about 55 years old," says Fox.

Mabon was a name borrowed from Welsh mythology and lore. There's a medieval Welsh text called the Mabinogion that includes some of the earliest tales of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The hero of one of the stories is a handsome young god named Mabon ap Modron ("Son of the Mother") who was held hostage in the underworld as a baby.

When contemporary Paganism was emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, an academic and poet named Aiden Kelly was trying to create a vocabulary for this new/old religion. As Kelly wrote on Patheos, he went looking for Gaelic or Germanic names for a Pagan calendar based on the solstices, equinoxes and other dates that would become the eight sabbats.

When he couldn't find a suitable Gaelic or Germanic name for the fall equinox, Kelly chose Mabon, because the Welsh god's story has some elements in common with Greek goddess Demeter, whose ancient cult was associated with the fall equinox. "It was not an arbitrary choice," Kelly wrote. "There seems to be a complex of myths associating the fall equinox with the rescue of a young person from death, datable back to about 1500 B.C.E." He referred to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac which is read at Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holiday that also happens in late September.

Whether you call it Mabon, fall equinox or Pagan Thanksgiving, Fox says that the name of the holiday isn't as important as the traditions and meaning behind it.

"I appreciate the fact that some long-standing harvest traditions are continuing to be kept alive by individuals and families and communities, by whatever name," says Fox.


Ways to Celebrate Mabon

On the Pagan calendar, Mabon is the second of three harvest festivals. The first harvest, Lughnasadh, is observed in early August. Mabon celebrates the bounty of late September, and Samhain marks the final harvest of late October.

As farmers and gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere know, late September is the height of the harvest season, when everything in the field is ripe and ready to pick: corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, apples, pears and grapes. One of Fox's favorite Mabon traditions is to fill a cornucopia with the bounty of the season.

"The Horn of Plenty, which is such an iconic fall decoration, has its roots among the ancient Greeks," says Fox.

The cornucopia could be the centerpiece for a potluck Mabon picnic with family and friends, where everyone brings a homemade dish featuring the fruits of the fall. If you want to make it more of a Pagan Thanksgiving, ask everyone to reflect on the past year and share something that they're thankful for. Fox even has a call-and-response Thanksgiving rite that you can perform as a group.

You can also set aside time to meditate on the idea of "balance," says Fox, since the fall equinox is when the light and dark are in balance. "Whether you're Pagan or not, this time of year can be a really good opportunity to take a look at what kind of balance to bring to our personal lives. Are we working too much? Are we procrastinating too much and not accomplishing enough? There's an opportunity at Mabon to evaluate and reset."

Probably the simplest way to celebrate Mabon is by bringing the colors of fall into the home. Place a basket of fresh red and yellow apples on the kitchen table. Fashion a fall wreath out of autumn leaves and dried flowers.

Or better yet, says Fox, go out into nature itself. Take an early evening walk in the brisk fall air. Get lost in a corn maze. Or on a clear night, soak in the glow of the Harvest Moon, the last full moon before the fall equinox. "Before electricity, it was really helpful to have that extra illumination when you were bringing in the crops."