Apple cake for Mabon (Pagan equinox festival)

apples in basketWe may not be ready to say goodbye to summer, but Wednesday, Sept. 23,  marks the autumn equinox, one of two days a year when the hours of daylight equal the hours of darkness. After that, it’s downhill all the way, at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, until the equinox next spring.

In Pagan tradition, the autumn equinox is known as Mabon, and it’s a celebration of the fall harvest. As we rejoice in the bounty of the fields, orchards and gardens, it’s a good time to invite friends to gather and share.

Mabon is part of the Wheel of the Year, an annual cycle of seasonal festivals that include the solstices (the longest and shortest days) and equinoxes and the midpoints between them.

Mabon celebration at Stonehenge

Mabon celebration at Stonehenge

One of the sabbats

Wiccans refer to the festivals as sabbats – sources of the expression “witches’ Sabbath.”

Mabon is a time of rest after the labor of the fall harvest, a time to complete projects, let go of that which is no longer needed or wanted, and prepare to use the winter as a time for reflection and peace. Followers plant the seeds of new ideas and hopes, which will be nourished spiritually over the next months until the return of spring.

Many Pagans create a Mabon food altar with foods from the harvest. These may include fruits, nuts, grains (or fresh bread made from grain), vegetables, and squashes, especially pumpkins.

A cornucopia displays the fall harvest (photo by Carmen via Flickr Creative Commons).

A cornucopia displays the fall harvest (photo by Carmen via Flickr Creative Commons).

The wealth of the harvest

The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is another symbol for Mabon, representing the wealth of the harvest; it is a balanced figure, including both male (phallic) and female (hollow and receptive) images.

Many Pagan groups use Mabon as a time for food drives, followed by a ritual for the blessing of donations.

Some Pagans have an apple harvest rite at Mabon. I find this interesting because we Jews just finished celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, which includes eating apples with honey to signify wishes for a sweet year to come.

Here is a recipe for one of my favorite apple cakes. It’s very moist and full of nuts. I very rarely add the frosting, because it’s plenty sweet without it.


An apple cake from the heartland

The Garfield,Kansas city hall and post office.

The Garfield,Kansas city hall and post office.


Bryce and Mary Hooper Nelson

Bryce and Mary Hooper Nelson

I met Mary Hooper Nelson many moons ago when I went to Cleveland for my first co-op job as a student at Antioch College. Along with a dozen or so other young adults, we were copyboys at the late, lamented Cleveland Press (yes, the girls were called copyboys–when an editor bellowed “Boy!” we had to jump!) Mary, a Cleveland-born journalist, now lives in Kinsley, Kansas, not far from Garfield, where folks consider themselves lucky to have a grocery store.

Garfield, Kansas, is a sleepy, drive-by hamlet in Pawnee County on the U.S. 56 highway, built on part of the legendary Santa Fe Trail. Passing through, a few tourists may stop and rest for a bit in the city park and perhaps peek into the Wayside Chapel, but there is not much in the town to detain a visitor.

Garfield was never a metropolis, but in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, it was a robust agricultural community with a thriving small-town economy. It was typical of the many towns that sprang up throughout the Great Plains as settlers poured in to break up the hard prairie sod and plant wheat.

Supplying the railroad builders

Garfield started out in 1872 as Camp Criley, a supply station for workers building the Santa Fe Railroad.

 A quiet street in Garfield

A quiet street in Garfield

In 1873 the “first” settlers arrived (the actual first inhabitants were, of course, the Pawnee and Kiowa peoples) and turned the rough sutler’s post into a recognizable town. They were from Lake County in Northeast Ohio and must have thought a great deal of their congressman, for they named the town after him. He was James A. Garfield, later elected U.S. president.

In appreciation, Garfield pledged a bell to the first church to be built in his namesake town. That was the Congregational church, built in 1875. Soon to follow were a Methodist church in 1878, and, as the town’s population swelled with Swedish immigrants, a Lutheran church in 1879.

My husband, Bryce Nelson, grew up in Garfield in the 1950s. He had numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in and around Garfield; his Nelson grandparents had eight children.

There were plenty of kids to play with and lots of old-timers to spin yarns. They’d tell of seeing covered wagons – also called prairie schooners – lumbering along the Santa Fe Trail, and recall examples of frontier justice. One townsman told of seeing a horse thief hanged in the now-vanished settlement of Nettleton in the early 20th century.

Still thriving in the ’50s

In the 1950s Garfield was still a pretty lively place. Although the population was only 300, it provided goods and services not just to the townspeople but also to ranchers and farmers throughout the county. It had two grocery stores, a bank, a lumberyard, two grain cooperatives, a large brick school for grades 1 through 12, a hotel and a restaurant.

Bryce’s great-uncle on his mother’s side, Sherman “Pete” Rains and his wife, Velma, operated one of the grocery stores. It was an old-fashioned place, Bryce recalls, where you could buy groceries on credit.

The old Swedish farmers would sit around in the morning in their bib overalls and feed caps and quaff cup after cup of strong black coffee. Velma would have slices of her raw apple cake on hand. “Coffee and apple cake draws Swedes,” says Bryce – and other folks too!

Bryce’s mother, Dorothy Nelson, collected family recipes, including Velma’s recipe for raw apple cake. It’s delicious, kind of crunchy on top and moist and dense inside.

Wayside Chapel at Downy Park in Garfield

Wayside Chapel at Downy Park in Garfield

Nearly a ghost town

Today, Garfield’s population is about 190. The businesses are gone, all of them. The last place in town to buy anything was a convenience store at the co-op, but that closed years ago. The Congregational church was torn down in the late ‘50s, although the Lutheran and Methodist churches remain and hold regular services.

James Garfield’s bell today hangs in the Wayside Chapel in the town park. The school was torn down a few years ago. School children now are bused to Larned, 10 miles away.

It was the automobile that did in Garfield’s business district, and those of innumerable towns throughout America. Once people in those villages could afford cars, they started driving to the cities where there were more stores and a greater variety of goods.

At least Garfield still has a post office.

For now.