Samhain, the Celtic ‘New Year,’ falls on the night of October 31st (also known as Halloween!) and the day of November first, and “was a time when the Celts acknowledged the beginning and ending of all things” (Hutton 360). This festival marks the completion of the harvest, the transition from the light half of the year into the dark half of the year, and honors the spirits of the deceased. Like Beltane, the festival opposite Samhain on the Wheel of the Year, this fire festival marks a time when the veil is thin and spirits, malevolent or otherwise, may cross the boundaries. Because of its liminal nature, “Samhain marked a time of immense spiritual energy, when the gods of the Otherworld had to be accorded special rituals to control them, and when strange happens occurred” (Green 186).
Celebrations naturally involved protective fire, “an island of light within the oncoming tide of winter darkness, keeping away cold, discomfort, and evil spirits” (Freeman 301), and the ashes of Samhain bonfires which were often used for divination (Hutton 367) or future protection of the fields (Freeman 301). For the ancient Celts, Samhain was the time for “the great assemblies of the five Irish provinces at Tara,” celebrated with “horses, fairs, markets, pastoral assembly rites, and political discussions” as well as “ritual mourning…at the death of the summer” (Green 185).
Many honor the Morrígan at Samhain, in both her guise as bringer of death and as a “sovereignty goddess.” Samhain marks the occasion when the Morrígan “ritually mated” with the Daghda (Green 186) and advised him how to win the upcoming battle against the Fomorians. This encounter reflects “the renewal of kingship and the kingdom itself,” and the subsequent triumph over chaos enacted by the gathering at Tara (Freeman 299), as well as the ritual intercourse of a potential king with the goddess Sovereignty (303). Like the fire in the darkness the night of Samhain, the Morrígan’s role in this myth illustrates the triumph of order/light over chaos/darkness.
Like many Neopagans, our grove honors the Morrígan and erects an ancestor altar at Samhain. We honor our dead by telling stories and making offerings. Samhain is a treasured High Day for me, but a difficult one. I find it poignant to honor my dead, but, because I lost my brother so young and so tragically, I find this holiday painful.
That magical midwinter day when the night is longer than the day, the Winter Solstice, also known as Yule, celebrates the rebirth of the sun and the promise of light and warmth in the future. Although the ancient Celts probably did not celebrate the winter solstice (Ellison 155), many other cultures celebrated the days surrounding midwinter: for the Romans it was Saturnalia, for the Norse it was Yule, and the Christians eventually re-purposed the rebirth of the Sun as the birth date of the Son (Freeman 352).
With its mixed history, the Solstice has honored a variety of sun and resurrection gods, including the Irish Lugh, the Welsh Mabon, the Roman Mithras (Ellison 156), and, through his promised rebirth, the Norse Baldur—at least for my grove! Although she’s not a “typical” Yule deity for most Neopagans, I honor on this the crone-side of Sovereignty (Ellison 157), the Cailleach, who “become[s] dominant [after Samhain] and rides through the land on her wolf, striking down signs of growth with her magic wand, spreading snow and winter across the land” (d’Este and Rankine 58). According to Ellison, “this is her moment for giving birth to the Child of Promise, the Son-lover who will re-fertilize her and bring back light and warmth” (157-158).
While the stone monuments scattered around Britain and Ireland that align with the sun on Solstice indicate that “it is clear that at particular times and places in British and Irish prehistory the cardinal points of the sun, and particularly the winter solstice, had considerable ritual importance” (Hutton 5), we have no way of knowing how the Celts might have celebrated this day of the year. Yule traditions today seem to come primarily from the Norse, who celebrated with a Yule log, mistletoe, and lots of merriment (Ellison 158).
This is my favorite time of year. I love the red and green, the lights, and the feeling of goodwill in the air. I’m still learning to integrate my past traditions into my new path, but, happily, there are a lot of familiar traditions: I decorate with evergreen plants, such as holly and ivy, to celebrate the persistence of life even when all seems dead, and I light candles to stave off the cold and dark. I also honor the beauty and wisdom of the Earth Mother as crone, knowing that she shall become young and fertile again soon.
Imbolc, the cross-quarter Fire Festival celebrated on the first or second day of February, honors the goddess Brighid and the first tender shoots of spring. The word Imbolc, one of several names for the festival, translates to “in the belly,” a reference to the sheep, goats, and cattle giving birth in the early spring, and the holiday is accordingly associated with newborn lambs and the life-giving milk of the ewes (Bonewits 184), the first signs of new growth and regeneration in a land frozen by winter. Although many parts of the Northern Hemisphere may not see any signs of spring this early in the year, Imbolc reminds us that Brigid’s fire will yet warm the land.
The holiday is associated with Brigid, Goddess of Ireland and Catholic saint, who has a mixed history and a blended combination of traditions. The Irish goddess Brighid, daughter of the Dagda, was a triple-goddess associated with poetry, healing, and smith-work (Rees 30) and a patroness of farm animals, “dyeing, weaving, and brewing” (Freeman 46). With all these aspects, she was celebrated as a goddess of transformational magic and a patroness of Ireland (47).
Traditional celebrations of Imbolc literally centered on the hearth and focused on the fire, fertility, and protective aspects of the goddess. In Scotland, girls made brìdeag dolls, representations of the goddess, and carried her through the town for residents to honor (Freeman 55), while the older women made another doll and placed her in a specially made bed, welcoming her into the home (56). In Ireland, people put out bits of cloth (and an offering!) on a bush outside for Brigit to bless as she travelled the land on Saint Brigit’s Eve, blessing both people and farm animals. The cloth, called a brat Bríde (Brigit’s mantle), was then used for healing and easing human and animal birth (63).
Today, Neo-Pagans celebrate in some of the traditional manners, by placing an offering and a piece of cloth outside for the goddess on the eve of Imbolc, and making Brigit’s crosses to hang in the house or barn and bring blessings on its residents. I personally celebrate with some household cleaning and purification, the dedication of a brat Bríde, a ritual to honor Brigid, and a good vegetarian Irish feast with fresh butter and bread!
The spring equinox usually falls on March 20 or 21 and celebrates the true dawning of spring. Although, like the other quarter days, there is no evidence that the Celts celebrated this day, it has entered the Neopagan consciousness as Ostara and the celebration of renewed life in nature.
For many Neopagans, the equinox celebrates Eostre, “the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring whose name was used for that of the spring festival we call Easter” (Ellison 169), a piece of lore that seems to have originated with Bede (Hutton 180). According to Hutton, “the Anglo-Saxon [word] eastre, signifying both the festival and the season of spring, is associated with a set of words in various Indo-European languages, signifying dawn and also goddesses who personified that event,” so “it is therefore quite possible to argue that Bede’s Eostre was a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately, at this season of opening and new beginnings.”
The symbols associated with this festive season—eggs and rabbits, in particular—come from Baltic and British Mesopagan religions (Jones and Pennick 122) respectively, though “they played a part in the springtime festivals of ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Persia long before the early Christians saw them as emblems of the resurrection” (Freeman 105). The “easter bunny” likely descended in folklore from Eostre, who was associated with the hare in Old English literature (Ellison 169).
Though we can only speculate how the Celts might have celebrated this time, we can imagine that the planting of seeds for the year’s crops and the birthing of new animals were accompanied by fertility rites, celebrations of the warmer weather, and offerings to the gods for a prosperous growing season (Freeman 104). “Easter” is one holiday I’ve had no trouble “converting”—it’s simple to see eggs as symbols of new life and the rabbits that suddenly appear everywhere as heralds of a new season. Though I practice a Celtic hearth culture and cannot easily take my quarter-day practices from Celtic lore, I honor the renewed earth at this time, as well as the return to the light of the Greek Persephone, whom I regard as a sort of peripheral patronness.
It’s May! It’s May!
The month of, “Yes you may,”
The time for ev’ry frivolous whim,
Proper or “im.”
It’s wild! It’s gay!
A blot in ev’ry way.
The birds and bees with all of their vast
Gaze at the human race aghast,
The lusty month of May.
– “The Lusty Month of May,” from Camelot, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Beltane, the third cross quarter day of the Celtic year, typically falls on the first of May and is a fire festival in the true sense of the description. Although scholars remain uncertain about the origin of the name (Hutton 218), many believe it honors the Gaulish god Belenos or refers to an old Celtic word for fire and translates to “brilliant fire” or “lucky fire” (Freeman 135).
On a mundane level, the start of May marked the joyous beginning of summer and the time when cattle would be released from byres and barns into pastures, and “rituals were conducted at that moment to protect them against the powers of evil, natural, and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be particularly active at this turning-point of the year” (Hutton 225). To protect the cattle, farmers would drive them between two fires, while some people leaped over the flames for personal blessing (218). According to other traditions, Beltane Eve was also the night when household fires were extinguished, a “need-fire” was lit by virtuous men, and locals made offerings to the fire and the gods. Each family then took the flame home and rekindled their household fires (Freeman 138).
To my surprise as a new Pagan, Beltane had, for the ancient Celts in particular, an element of darkness reflective of Samhain, its counterpoint on the Wheel of the Year. At these two points in the year, the veils between the worlds are said to be thinnest, and it is easier to cross between realms: hence the many associated Irish myths of crossings-over and the triumph of light over dark, including the myth of the Tuatha De Danann’s conquest of Ireland (Bonewits 186).
For many, though, Beltane was likely a simple celebration of “the greening time” (Ellison 129), celebrated with maypole dances, the collection of flowers and greenery by Mayers (148-149), and other fertility or courtship rituals (Ellison 130). The sex-related traditions remain popular in contemporary times (the Maypole is a phallic symbol if ever there was one!), and many Neopagans have strong sexual associations with this High Day. Although I enjoy the sexy connotations, I love the celebration of springtime magic, of the greenery and the flowers, and the general merriment that comes from a return to the light half of the year.
The Summer Solstice, falling on June 20 or 21, is the longest day of the year and, paradoxically, the day when the sun begins to lose its strength. In the summer of 2012, as I write this, the residents of southern Indiana are clinging very hard to the notion that the days are waning and there may be an end in sight to the blistering heat and drought. Known as Litha to many Neopagans, this day celebrates the height of summer and the rising height of the year’s crops.
Many cultures, historical and Neopagan, celebrate a Sun God at this time, such as the Irish Lugh or the Greek/Roman Apollo, or a Sun Goddess such as the Gaulish Sulis or the Norse Sól. Again, we have little evidence that the ancient Celts celebrated this day in particular (Ellison 177), but there are numerous traditions associated with midsummer. According to Freeman, the solstice was “celebrated very much like an extension of Beltaine into the summer months.” This association likely comes from the use of bonfires on midsummer night to reflect and strengthen the height and power of the sun and protect “both humans and livestock from insect-borne disease” (170). We can likely extrapolate that bonfires might also strengthen the powers of the deities listed above, and ritual performed on this night does them honor.
Midsummer is also associated with fairies and the supernatural. Irish folklore said the fairies came out of their hills bearing torches lighted in honor of the fairy queen and possible sun goddess Aine, who emerged from a bonfire lit by humans and fairies in her honor (Freeman 171). This night was also said to be a time for divination and sorcery, likely because of the perceived magic of the sun appearing to rise and set in the same place for several days around the solstice (Hutton 312).
Despite its (relatively) minor place in the Celtic calendar, this solstice holds a special place in my heart because of the Manx traditions honoring my patron, Manannán mac Lir (Ellison 179), and I like to make offerings of wildflowers and grasses to a body of water on this night. In the future, I would like to follow additional lore that says Midsummer is ideal for gathering herbs (Freeman 174).
Lughnasadh, last of the Celtic cross quarter days and first harvest festival of the year (Bonewits 186), celebrates both the Irish craft-deity Lugh and the end of “Hungry July” with the first fruits of the year (Freeman 255).
The feast of Lughnasadh typically falls on August first and (arguably) honors the sacrifice of Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, “whose heart broke under the strain of clearing the plain that bears her name” (Rees 167): she died after giving the gift of agriculture to the Irish. Lugh promised Tailtiu that he would hold her funeral games every August, and Tailtiu prophesied that abundance would reign in Ireland as long as the games were upheld (Freeman 237). Although the games and feasting honor Tailtiu, Lughnasadh takes its name from Lugh himself, and the games honor him by creating a venue where warriors, athletes, and poets may demonstrate their skills.
The festival surrounding the games typically included cooking, berrying, vending, and friendly competition (Freeman 241) and was the “kick-off for the hard work of the harvest season to come (Ellison 149). Unlike the other fire-festivals, which honor the natural rhythms of animal life through the protection of livestock or the celebration of new lambs, Lughnasadh celebrates human crafts, including the fruition of agriculture and craftsmanship (Jones & Pennick 91). This distinction seems fitting, given that Lugh is the one deity at Tara who could perform any task, and it was his skill that won for the Tuatha dé Danann the battle against the Fomorians: as we honor him, it is right to honor the “‘ripened’ talents of human society” (Freeman 237).
Nowadays, we Neopagans continue to honor Lugh and Tailtiu with feasting and games! My grove holds annual “Way Old Games of Lugh,” which include the traditional throwing of heavy things (caber tossing), spearing of Fomorians (literally throwing a spear at paper giants), and slinging rocks at the eye of Balor. Although this is not my personal favorite holiday, I hope to begin developing some traditional Lughnasadh practices for my family, perhaps including a trip to the farmer’s market and a feast made from local products.
The autumn equinox, observed around September 21, is a harvest festival and celebration of equal day and night. Another quarter day not celebrated by the early Celts, Mabon, as this equinox is known to many Neopagans, celebrates the completed harvest and “a time of thanksgiving” (Ellison 187). This is a time for honoring deities of the harvest, deities of hunting and fishing, and “deities of plenty, in thankfulness for benefits received and hoped for” (Bonewits 187).
For “agrarian” Neopagans, this High Day is celebrated much like ancient peoples might have celebrated it: with wine-making, harvesting the cereals, feasting, and enjoying a time of plenty with friends and family” (Ellison 188). Historical customs for the equinox include the parading of the final cartload of the harvest home (Hutton 333), a variety of methods for honoring the final sheaf (337), and a celebratory harvest feast (343). One popular method of honoring the ‘last sheaf’ that has come down to Neopagans is the construction of a corn dolly to represent either the Maiden or the Cailleach, according to the success of the harvest (Ellison 188). Historically, the doll was honored at feasts and kept until the next harvest (Freeman 260).
Like at Ostara, the day and night are in balance at the equinox, making this a time of transition. The dual-faced corn dolly, likewise, represents change through the myth of the Cailleach and the Maiden, who transforms as the year turns. In my grove, we typically construct the dolls in early October and keep them for Samhain, as representatives of our ancestors. Although this isn’t completely “accurate,” it seems also to represent the passing of life into ancient knowledge, another fitting transformation for this equinox.
I love the autumn season, the smell of dry leaves on the air, the flavor of pumpkin, the crisp taste of apple cider: this is one of my favorite times of the year. Although I’m still developing traditions, I would like to incorporate a grateful harvest feast into my home practice, as well as the construction of a corn dolly.