I've mentioned before that I do not usually celebrate the equinoxes in the traditional sense, preferring to stay with the 4 Fire Festivals, but I've decided to try something new. I've been slowly fleshing out Midsummer and Midwinter celebrations, from an Irish perspective, and thanks to a lucky mischance recently ended up doing a great deal of unintended research into Michaelmas which has inspired me with ideas for celebrating the Autumn Equinox, Mean Fomhair. Unlike my celebration of the Fire Festivals this holiday is based on looking at much more tenuous evidence and making intuitive leaps and guesses to connect them. However I do believe my deductions are sound and form a solid basis for celebrating the Autumn Equinox from an Irish perspective.
The Equinox falls between the 20th and 23th of September (northern hemisphere) on most years, and the closest potentially related Irish folk holiday is Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael. It is not too much of a stretch to see some of the practices of Michaelmas as those originally celebrated on the equinox, but the first question to ask might be why archangel Michael and who would he have been replacing in native belief? My own opinion on this is based on deduction but is still purely opinion, and it differs from many who equate Michael to Manannan. In Catholic thought Michael is the leader of the angels, a warrior often pictured in armor and armed with a sword; he is the patron saint of police, soldiers, and healing, as well as grocers and sailors. This along with Carmichael referring to Michael as the Neptune of the Gaels has made me decide to relate him to Nuada Airgetlamh, who is also synchretized to Neptune, is associated with warriors, kingship, healing, and water, and is also a famous warrior. So I will be celebrating Mean Fomhair in honor of Nuada.
The next step is to look at the native traditions. On the eve of Michaelmas carrots are harvested; finding a forked carrot is a sign of good fortune. The women of the house, especially the oldest daughter, bake a special cake out of a blend of flours made from all the types of grain harvested that year, as a symbol of the prosperity of the land. The cake is baked on a fire of sacred woods and prepared with special chants and songs. The night before Michalemas horses are stolen, at least temporarily since they will be returned later, and the men either stay on guard to protect their horses or are out acquiring their neighbors horses. On the day of Michaelmas itself a lamb or goose is prepared as well as the cake and food is shared with the poor. The people visit the graves of their ancestors, riding horseback around the graveyard, and then return home to engage in a series of games and contests. Horse racing is popular, and is done without saddle and sometimes without bridle. After this comes a dance and the exchange of small gifts between friends. In general the day is associated with the apple harvest, cider making, and the opening of the hunting season.
For a modern Irish pagan there is plenty of room to work with this material. Before the ritual special cakes can be made to eat and to offer. A graveyard can be visited, and after walking sunwise around it, I would suggest politely entering and cleaning around the graves. As with Lughnasa races can be run and games can be played. The ritual itself, whether it is for Nuada or Manannan, should focus on gratitude for the harvest, blessing of the fertility of the land, and protection of the community. A feast of lamb or goose should follow the ritual, with portions of the food shared among the Gods and spirits; ideally this should be as part of a party or at least festive atmosphere. In a group gifts can be given or for a solitary person a random act of kindness or gift to a stranger might be considered. Because a main focus of Michaelmas is charity I believe it is appropriate for pagans on the Equinox to donate money, food, or other supplies to an organization that helps the poor, ideally within the person's own community such as a food locker.
It is difficult to say how much or how little of the Michaelmas traditions were originally pagan, but for those seeking to celebrate the Autumn Equinox from an Irish pagan perspective it does supply a solid base of folk material. I also believe the emphasis on charity is something that the modern pagan community can use more of, as we have moved far away from the days when we relied more heavily on our neighbors and people had a sense of responsibility for each other. The Autumn Equinox is a chance to celebrate the apple harvest, to visit the graves of our dead, to dance and feast, and honor the Power that protects us and our community.
Carmichael, A., (1900) Carmina Gadelica, volume 1
Danaher, K., (1972) . The Year in Ireland.
Estyn Evans, E., (1957) . Irish folk Ways.
McNeill, F., (1961) . The Silver Bough, volume 2.