Celtic Wheel of the Year
The Celtic calendar was lunar based, with thirteen months. Extra days as needed were added at new year's as a "time between times." The ancient Celts divided the year into a wheel of eight segments, each with a corresponding festival.
The four fire festivals, so-called because all include bonfires as part of the celebration, take place on the last evening of a month and the following day. The Celts, like the Jews, count a day from sunset to sunset. That's why we celebrate All Hallow's Eve, Midsummer's Eve, and so on.
These four fire festivals are tied to the agricultural cycle as follows:
Samhain is celebrated on October 31-November 1 (our Halloween). It is the end of the harvest, the beginning of winter and once marked the Celtic new year. At Samhain, the barrier between our world and the Otherworld thins, allowing contacts between the spirits (faeries) and humans. Normal rules of human conduct do not apply and one may "run wild". This was also a festival of the dead and the church was easily able to transform these holidays into All Saint's Day (November 1) and All Soul's Day (November 2).
Imbolc is celebrated February 1-2 (later transformed into Candlemas by the church, and popular now as Groundhog Day). Imbolc marked the beginning of Spring, the beginning of new life (in Britain the beginning of lambing season). Dedicated to the ancient mother goddess in her maiden aspect, it was later transformed into a feast day for the Irish saint of the same name (and attributes), St. Brigid.
The third festival of the agricultural year is Beltane (Bealtunn in Scots Gaelic, meaning May Day), celebrated April 30-May 1. The god, Bel (or Cernunnos, the horned god of Ireland) dies but is reborn as the goddess' son. He then impregnates her ensuring the neverending cycle of rebirth. This is very basic fertility worship. May Day traditions includes young people picking flowers in the woods (and spending the night there), and the dance around the May Pole, weaving red (for the god) and white (for the goddess) streamers round and round. A great bonfire celebrates the return of the sun.
The final celebration of the agricultural year is Lughnasadh (Lammas in England), the feast of the god Lugh and the first fruits of the harvest (generally wheat or corn). Lughnasadh is celebrated August 31-September 1. At Lammas, the Corn King dies (to be reborn at spring), ensuring plenty for the winter.
The other four holidays of the Celtic year celebrate the spring and fall equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices. Each name contains the word "Alban" meaning "Light of".
Alban Arthuan (Light of Arthur), like winter solstice celebrations all over the world, celebrates the return of the sun following the shortest day in the year. It's no wonder the church adopted these holidays as the birthdate of the Son. From ancient Celtic and Norse mythology we enjoy such holiday traditions as holly and mistletoe, the yule log, Santa Claus in his aspects of Father Christmas or the Holly King. Supposedly, King Arthur was born on the winter solstice (and he, too, will come again).
The spring (vernal) equinox is celebrated as Alban Eiler (Light of the Earth). The equinoxes were considered a time of balance, not only between dark and light, but between worlds as well and, therefore, a time of high magical potential. More mundanely, this festival signified the time for spring planting and fertility rituals.
Alban Heruin (Light of the Shore) is celebrated as Midsummer's Day with games, picnics, and all manner of light-hearted fun. The antics of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Shakespeare well capture the spirit of this festival, including the interaction between our people and those of the faery world.
Finally, Alban Elued (Light of the Water) is observed at the autumn equinox and, like the spring equinox, is a very sacred time when the line between worlds is thin and magical possibilities abound.
Much more seems to be known about the four fire festivals (which are still celebrated in many traditional ways) than the four solar festivals. Were the solar festivals mainly druidic sacred times in which lay participation was minimal (it would seem that some of the neo-druids have taken this view and make rather more of these dates than the Irish and Gaels do)? Or could the solar celebrations pre-date druidism, belonging to the Stonehenge builders, and have fallen slowly into disuse? This seems a possibility since the Celtic calendar is lunar based, rather than solar.
About the Author
Jeri Ballast is owner and sole operator of Heart o' Glory, a website for lovers of Celtic and Medieval history and fantasy.