Celebrating the Celtic Year

by Ian Mowll

Build your celebrations on the traditional ideas associated with each festival, equinox or solstice. Caitlin Matthew’s book Celtic Devotional is one of many sources of information.

Celtic Year Wheel

Some groups find that celebrating some or all of these festivals help the group to connect with the earth through the seasonal cycles of the year. These festivals are rich in mythology and are connected with our ancestral past. Many of these festivals started in Pagan times and have been overlaid with Christian festivals. For instance; Samhain – All Soul’s Day. Winter Solstice – Christmas. Imbolc – Candlemass. Spring Equinox – Easter. Lughnasadh – Lammas. Autumn Equinox – harvest festival. Both of these traditions have something to add.
In each section, there are some ideas for rituals. These are ideas to prompt your thinking, you may wish to add further readings, meditations, circle dances or chants.

Samhain – 1st November
Background:
Samhain is a fire festival which marks the beginning of winter and the start of the Celtic year. At this time, pairs of hilltop bonfires were lit as divine “eyes” though which the goddess could see and communicate with her people. It was between these fires, in the sight of their deity, that our ancestors walked and drove their cattle, hoping to obtain fertility and fortune to survive another winter season. In the flickering light, the boundaries which divide the worlds, human and spirit, dissipate in the thickening atmosphere. It is said that at Samhain, the veil between the worlds becomes thin and so some use this time to communicate with, or pay respect to, their ancestors.

Ideas for a Ritual
Make a bonfire and, whilst standing around, talk about your ancestors, remember them and what they meant to you. In turn, offer your ancestors a meditation or a prayer.
Remember people in history who have influenced society in a positive way. Give a short reading or talk about a person you particularly respect or identify with. Explain why you value this person’s contribution.
Build two bonfires and each walk between the two bonfires, accept the ending of something in your life.

Winter Solstice Р21st December 
Background:
The solstice (from old English meaning “sun-standing-still”) is the time of turning, when the days change from shortening to lengthening. Many cultures around the world perform solstice ceremonies. At their root was an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration.
Once it could be seen that the days were lengthening, there would be much celebration; the light is coming back, spring would soon be on its way. Christmas, on the 25th December, was originally a pagan festival which was the first day that our ancestors could be sure that the days were indeed getting longer and that the wheel had turned. It is no co-incidence that, at this time, Pagans celebrate the re-birth of the sun and Christians celebrate the re-birth of the son of God, bringing spiritual light into the world.
Around the Solstice cluster symbols which give physical presence to the powerful energies which visit this time each year. The Yule log is a pagan bonfire brought indoors. A Christmas tree is a contemporary symbol of the World Tree and is often decorated with an angel, a symbol of the Goddess.
Idea for a Ritual
Start the room in darkness and have a reading or poem about the darkness. Pass round a bowl of water and, in turn speak of something that you wish to leave behind. Imagine that this is passed into the bowl of water.
Go out into a garden and ask the earth to accept what each member of the group wishes to leave behind and ask that the Earth will support the group. Then, pour the water into the earth.
Read a poem about the coming of light into the world or universe. Light a central candle and then each lights a candle from the central candle. Welcome in something new as you light your candle.
At the end, blow out candles and thank each other for participating in the ritual

 

Imbolc Р1st February 
Background:
The Celtic spring begins on 1st February. It is a season of seeds and of great beginnings deep in the underground.
Imbolg means “in the belly” it is the time of first milk, of the birthing of spring lambs and the provision of milk and meat which meant survival to our forebears. To greet Imbolg was to notice the lengthening of days and the first visible signs that light and life were again returning to the land.
Contemplate the Sun in early February. The days are growing slightly longer. The Sun is waxing and the new warmth is beginning to melt the snow in the mountains. The rivers and streams are filling with the Water of Life. The dormant seeds are warmed by the Sun and nourished by Mother Earth, even though they may still be hidden under a blanket of snow. They begin to germinate and grow.
This is a time of hope and expectation. It represents new life, purification and new beginnings. Today, Imbolc is often seen as a time for Dedications and Initiations, rituals of new beginning. Many groups celebrate Imbolc as a Festival of Lights, white or pale blue candles may be lit during the ritual and taken home to burn later, when a magical new beginning is needed. This is a good time to make a personal rededication, reaffirming vows or making new ones.
This is also a time to involve the Maiden by all Her Many Names. All of the Maidens have in common the aspects of youth and virginity. They represent the freshness of the new season .
Candlemas, another name for the festival, was originated by the Christian Church but came from a Pagan source. Roman Pagans held candlelight processions in honour of Juno and this festival has been used and adapted by the Christian Church.
Ideas for a Ritual
Plant a seed in the ground or each light a candle and as you do so, ask the Universe for a growth in some aspect or quality in your life. Share with each other the new aspect that you wish to welcome into your life.
Celebrate the creativity of the Universe through the creation of the planets. Each choose a planet and reflect on its meaning to you both as a physical body and as a god of mythology.

 

Spring Equinox – 21st March
Background:
The Spring Equinox is the mid-point of the waxing year. The spark of light that was born at the Winter Solstice has reached maturity and from this day forward, the days grow longer than the nights. This is the time of full Dawn, and was the time of the festivals of the Grecian Goddess, Eostre, and the Germanic Ostara, both Goddesses of Dawn – this is where we get the word “Easter”.
Spring is the time for a celebration and of the greening the Earth. We have survived another Winter and are once more surrounded by the delights of Spring. Many traditions associated with Spring Equinox still exist today; people arise early on Easter morning to attend “Sunrise Service” and decorated eggs have always been symbols of fertility. Many cultures see the eggs as a symbol of Life, or the actual home of the soul.
If you want to go to a little more trouble, and be more authentic, gather various leaves, roots and flowers and tie them tightly to the eggs before boiling. The vegetable dyes released in the water will create lovely patterns on the eggs. The following day, the eggs can be used as alter decorations and given as gifts. Eggs and sunrise circles continue to represent the coming of Spring as they did for our ancestors. As this time, think about the Continuity of Life and having a Bright and Blessed Spring.
Ideas for a Ritual
Find out about, and explain the scientific account of life forming on Earth about 4 billion years ago. Use this to create a sense of awe and wonder about life on the planet.
Put a small tree (this is called “the tree of life”) or a shrub in the centre of the room. In turn, tie a ribbon or coloured piece of paper onto the tree. As you do so, make an intention or a prayer. You may speak this out loud if you wish. For instance, wishing for more serenity, offering a prayer for a loved one, offer support for a local campaign.
Boil some eggs and paint them with colourful colours. Maybe drawing something symbolic on the egg that represents some aspect of new life. You could explain what this symbol means to you in your life. Put all the eggs in a basket and then each draw one of the eggs from the basket. This represents the group sharing its energies and talents.

 

Beltane – 1st May
Background:
Beltane marks the beginning of summer and is the fertility festival par excellence! Beltane is an extravagant holiday; at this time of year the roses are in full bloom and the berries are ripe. In Britain, the countryside is filled with the delicate may-blossoms of the Hawthorn tree. This is the Love Dance of the Gods, the Wedding of Heaven and Earth, the Bridal feast of the Goddess!
Since Beltane was primarily a Fire Festival, fires are prominent among the early customs. The Sun is the prime promoter of life of Earth, so at this life-oriented celebration, fires were lit in recognition of its vital radiation and to enhance its waxing powers. Bonfires were kindled on hilltops and the revellers danced around them until dawn.
As this was also the time of the annual migration from the Winter home to the Summer home for some Celts, the fires were divided into two parts and the herds driven between them for purification and fertility. People ran between them, too, especially new brides and childless women.
In some places, the festivities began on May Eve, when the young people of the villages would go off into the woods or Forrest in search of the perfect Maypole. Throughout the night, they would sing, dance and make love, to hasten the arrival of Summer. At Dawn, they would return to the village, bearing with them a living tree.
Like Samhain, the veil between the worlds at this time is thin. May Day is about life, about falling in love, and frolicking in the woods. The Goddess who manifests herself at May Day calls you out of yourself and you may never return, at least to the same world that you knew.
Ideas for a Ritual
Stand a small pole in the centre of the room as a maypole. Each hold a coloured thread tied to the maypole and walk around the pole. As you walk, be aware of one of your own aspects of humanity such as an emotion or a skill.
Notice that the maypole becomes a swathe of colours, each person’s contribution is needed to make up the colourful pole. This helps us to understand how much we need groups and communities to make new things happen.

 

Summer Solstice – 21st June
Background:
Midsummer is the moment when the warmth and beauty of the year are at their height as the sun reaches the highest point of its arc in the sky. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and a time in which the humming fullness of summer seems endless. The rippling transition into the warmth of the year has passed and the cooling winds of autumn are yet to be.
In these days of sunshine and deep blue skies it is difficult to accept the darkness which must befall the light half of the year at midsummer. The wish for warm moonlit nights and soft sunny breezes, of days from such seasons passed, is met by the fading bloom of summer’s flower – time and tide wait for no one
Pause and listen to the song of the birds of summer, breathe the fragrance of a beautiful flower or take a moonlit walk. Soon the shadows of the coming season will turn inward once more.
Ideas for a Ritual
Drum, chant, dance and sing to celebrate the height of summer. A bonfire can be a good focus for a group celebrating in this way. If possible, this celebration can go on late into the night.

 

Lughnasadh – 1st August
Background:
The Celtic festival Lughnasadh (Loo-nah-sah) or Lammas heralds summer’s end. August 1st marks the first day of the Celtic autumn and the beginning of the harvest and so this is a harvest festival.
Two ancient festivals with similar purposes are celebrated on August 1st. Lughnasadh is associated with the Irish god Lugh which means “he of many gifts”. As the harvest came to its conclusion, before the corn was stored, the druid worshippers of Lugh had to take thought for the following year’s harvest and reserve a supply of seed corn, which itself became part of an offering to the gods of the harvest. In later years this offering was symbolised in many places by the elaborate corn dollies formed out of the last sheaf to be cut.
Lammas is one of the four major pagan festivals originally celebrated in Britain. During medieval times, loaves were baked from the first grains of the harvest and blessed in a church ceremony known as the “loaf mass”. Many believe that “Lammas” is a shortened form of “loaf mass”. Others attribute “Lammas” to a combined form of “lamb” and “mass” which reflects a time when lambs were offered as a tribute to feudal lords.
Both festivals celebrate the fruits of the harvest with games and contests and a magnificent feast.
Ideas for a Ritual
Bring a loaf of bread and share it between the group representing the first loaf of harvest.
Share a meal, each bringing some food to the table. As you eat the food, share readings, sayings and quotations that help you to connect with the abundance and generosity of nature.

 

Autumn Equinox – 21st September
Background:
At the equinox we are not yet at Samhain and no longer at Lughnasadh. The harvest and our summer activities are winding down, but not yet completed. We have bid farewell to summer, but the sun’s light has not yet faded.
Mabon, (pronounced May-bun, May-bone, Mah-boon, or Mah-bawn) is the Autumn Equinox. The Autumn Equinox divides the day and night equally, and we all take a moment to pay our respects to the impending dark. We also give thanks to the waning sunlight, as we store our harvest of this year’s crops. The Druids call this celebration, Mea’n Fo’mhair, and honour the Green Man, the God of the Forest, by offering drinks to the trees. Offerings of ciders, wines, herbs and fertiliser are appropriate at this time.
At this festival it is appropriate to wear all of your finery and dine and celebrate in a lavish setting. It is a time to draw together as we prepare for the winding down of the year at Samhain. It is a time to finish old business as we become ready for a period of rest, relaxation and reflection.
Mabon is considered a time of the Mysteries. It is a time to honour Ageing Deities and the Spirit World. Considered a time of balance, it is when we stop and relax and enjoy the fruits of our personal harvests, whether they be from toiling in our gardens, working at our jobs, raising our families, or just coping with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. May your Mabon be memorable, and your hearts and spirits be filled to overflowing!
Ideas for a Ritual
Find a tree and stand in a circle around it. Reflect on the qualities that you feel the tree embodies. Meditate on how that can give you strength.
Spend some time reflecting on the past year, the good things that have happened and the things that were challenging. Each place a piece of fruit into a central bowl and reflect on something good that has happened. Then, each person can take a different piece of fruit from the bowl. This can represent the sharing and giving of the group.