The Celts, Feasts & Celebrations

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Feasts and Celebrations

  • Samhain (pronounced "Souw-wee," or in Scots-Gaelic, "Sha- vin") After the last apples are picked the year begins again with its dark winter half when the Earth rests and fertility is renewed. Also called Samhiunn or Hallowe'en, this festival is sometimes called Trinoux Samonia or "Three Nights of the End of Summer." Originally a Druidic festival, it is celebrated on the eve of November 1 (October 31). Technically, either date is appropriate as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset.  In the Celtic tale "The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn," it is celebrated for a total of seven days ­ three days before, the day of, and three days after.
    • Samhain is a time when spirits can mix freely with humans, when the veil of the Otherworld, or the Sídh, is thin. The Sídh, also called Faerie Hills, are the special dwelling places of the Otherworld spirits, such as the mound at Brugh na Bóinne in Newgrange, Ireland. This suspension of Time extends to the laws of society, so that all kinds of boisterous behavior can be indulged in. At the end of the festival, several beasts are sacrificed who's life-energy goes to replenish the dormant soil. In origin, Samhain was a pastoral festival, held to assist the tribe's fertility, to placate the dead and evil forces, to please the gods (and later the Saints who replaced them) and as a clear distinction between the joys of Harvest and the hardships of the approaching Winter.
    • The assemblies of the five Irish provinces at Tara Hill, the seat of the Irish king, took place at Samhain, marked by horse races, fairs, markets, pastoral assembly rites, political discussions and ritual mourning for the passage of Summer. In the Christian tradition, these two dates are celebrated as All Souls' Day and All Saints Day.
    • In the Scottish Highlands, many crofts had their own bonfire, or samhnag, but one house was usually a popular gathering place. In early Celtic tradition, Samhain was closely associated with burial mounds, or cairns, which were believed to be entrances to the Otherworld.
    • In an example in Fortingall (in Perthshire), a samhnag was built on a mound known as Carn nam Marbh, "The Mound of the Dead." Local lore has it that the mound contained the bodies of plague victims and is, in fact, a Bronze Age tumulus. A stone, known as the Clach a' Phaigh, "the Plague Stone," crowned the mound. Once the bonfire was lit, the participants would join hands and dance around it, both Sun-wise and anti-Sun-wise. As the blaze waned, the younger attendants would take part in leaping games over the flame. No guisers appeared in this particular tradition, the bonfire was the sole center of attention.  In the Highlands, after Sunset many of the youth carried a blazing torch and circuited the boundaries of their farms in order to protect the family from the Faeries and malevolent forces. New fire, kindled from the sacred communal blaze, was then brought into each house. Like the Beltain fire, the Samhain bonfire was most likely made from tein-eigin, fire made from the friction of two pieces of wood.
  • The Winter Solstice, or Alban Arthuan ("The Light of Arthur"), also is referred to as Yule, Jul, Saturnalia, or even Christmas. This feast takes place on or about December 21 and marks the longest, darkest night of the year. This is a festival of peace and a celebration of waxing solar light. Many honor the new Sun child by burning an oaken Yule log, and honor the Goddess in her many Mother aspects. The Father God also can be honored as Santa Claus in his Old Sky God, Father Time, and Holly King forms. Winter symbolizes the time in the womb ­ a deep rejuvinative sleep, rather than nature's death. It also points to how the ancients looked upon human death as a necessary pathway to rebirth.
    • Because the exact date of the birth for Jesus Christ is unknown, some believe the Church assigned it to this time, a date already sacred to the Ancients. Christians celebrate His birth on December 25.
  • Imbolic Celebrated on or around February 1, Imbolc is also known as Oimelc, Brigid, Candlemas, or even in America as Groundhog Day. This mid-Winter feast day symbolizes the first stirring of the Earth from its icy sleep and was the time for caring of the sheep in ancient Britain. In the Mother- Goddess tradition, this day is the festival of the goddess Brigidm or Brigantia, patroness of poetry, healing and metalsmithing, rekindles the fire in the Earth, preparing it for new life. During this time Brigid personifies the bride, virgin or Maiden. Brigid also is the protectress of women in childbirth. In the Christian tradition, this day is celebrated, as St. Brigid's Day.
    • This stirring of new life is manifested by the first milk of the ewes, a few weeks before the lambing season. As the foundation for the American Groundhog Day, Brigid's snake comes of its mound in which it hibernates and its behavior is said to determine the length of the remaining Winter. The Brythonic Celts came to associate Brigantia with the Virgin Mary, leading to such names for the feast as Gwyl Mair Dechrau'r, "The Feast of Mary of the Beginning of Spring."
    • An ancient Irish story tells of how on the eve of this day, the Cailleach, or White Lady, drinks from the ancient Well of Youth at dawn. In that instant, she is transformed into her Maiden aspect, the young goddess called Brigid. Wells were considered to be sacred because they arose from oimbelc (literally "in the belly") or womb of Mother Earth.
  • Vernal Equinox Also called Alban Eiler, which means "Light of the Earth," the Vernal, or Spring, Equinox takes place on or about March 21. An "equinox" refers to the time of the year when the sun crosses the plane of the Earth's Equator, making night and day equal length all over the planet. Crops were typically sown at this time, a time of transition. This rare balance in nature represented a powerful time of magick to the ancients.
  • Ostara Also known as Lady Day or Eostre, Ostara takes place on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox and marks the fullness of the Earth and the triumph of the Sun over Winter. In the Celtic tradition, it signified the period when the Sun and the Earth mate to produce crops.
    • It is thought that the Church's feast of Easter, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, is named after this feast. Prior to Easter, the Church prepares with the Lenten season, a time of meditation and sacrifice.
  • Beltane (pronounced Bee-YAWL-tinnuh) Beltane, one of two Celtic fire festivals, is a celebration of the return of life and fertility to the world which takes place on April 30. It is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain which means "opposite Samhain." In the Celtic countries the festival was known by other names, such as Beltaine in Ireland (which means in Irish Gaelic "May"), Bealtunn (which means in Scots-Gaelic "May Day") in Scotland, Shenn do Boaldyn on the Isle of Man and Galan Mae in Wales. The Saxons called this day Walpurgisnacht, the night of Walpurga, goddess of May. Like Brigid, the Church changed this goddess into St. Walpurga and attached a similar legend to her origin. Also known as May Eve (likewise May 1 is referred to as May Day), this festival marks the beginning of Summer ­ the growing season.
    • The word "Beltaine" literally means "bright" or "brilliant fire," and refers to the bonfire lit by a presiding Druid in honor of the proto-Celtic god variously known as Bel, Beli, Balar, Balor or Belenus. Bel, the god of light, fire and healing, had Sun-like qualities, but was not purely a Sun god as the Celts were not specifically Sun worshippers.
    • It has been suggested that Bel is the Brythonic Celt equivalent to the Goidelic Celt god Cernunnos. Both Bel and Cernunnos represent the belief that the Great Father impregnates the Great Mother. Some also believe that the mythological king in the story of Lludd and Llefelys in The Mabinogion, Beli Mawr is a folk memory of this god.
    • At Beltane, the Horned One, the God, dies or is taken by the Goddess, only to be reborn as her son. He then reclaims his role as consort and impregnates the Goddess, sparking his own rebirth. It is important to remember the mindset of the ancients: nothing can live without death; the ancients understood and accepted the taking powers in life in order to obtain the benefit of the giving powers. Through this rite, the Goddess also is transformed from the taking Crone to the virginal Maiden or Sister, and again to Mother, a giving goddess.
    • Other beliefs tell of the Summer God being released from captivity, or the Summer Maiden wooed away from her Earth-giant father. The Hawthorne tree represents the giant and sometimes this wood is used for the Maypole (see below).
    • In Irish mythology, the great undertakings of theTuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians ­ the original supernatural inhabitants of Eiru and their human conquerors, respectively ­ began at Beltane. The Milesians were led by Amairgen, son of Mil, in folklore reputed to be the first Druid.
    • Rituals:  Two bonfires were kindled by a presiding Druid most likely from tein-eigin, fire made from the friction of two pieces of sacred wood, most likely an Oak-plank. This fire originally symbolized the sacrifice of the Oak-god. Oak is the tree of the God of the Waxing Year and Hawthorne is the tree of the White Goddess. In ancient Ireland, no one could light a Bel-fire until the Ard Ri, High King, had lit the first on Tara Hill. In 433 A.D., St. Patrick showed his deep understanding of this festival's symbolism when he lit a fire on Slane Hill, ten miles from Tara, before the High King Laoghaire lit his. He could not have made a stronger usurpation of the people's faith. St. David made a similar gesture in Wales in the following century. The Druids, the powerful Pagan Celtic priests, would drive the cattle between these two fires to protect them from disease ensuring a high milk yield, and the powers of darkness. Sometimes, a procession was made around the fields with a burning torch of wood in order to obtain a blessing on the corn. On this day, all hearth-fires were extinguished to be rekindled from this sacred fire.
    • May Eve:  a flowery fest.  From the Middle Ages through the 19th century the last day of April was celebrated as May Eve, or Beltane, a fertility festival that honored the flowering of spring.  IN England, people decorated thier homes with hawthorn blossoms and brewed a punch flavored with sweet woodruff.  In the Irish Gaelic tradition of Beltane, rowan (mountain ash) twigs were carried around a sacred bonfire and then hung over the hearth to bless the home.  In many European countries, a tree was planted or set up in the center of the village and decked with violets and daises, symbols of spring's renewal.
  • A May Pole fertility dance also took place. A pole, a phallic symbol for the God, was made usually from a Yule tree, its branches stripped and then planted into the Earth. Red and white ribbons were attached to its top. In the Goddess tradition, the white ribbons stood for the Goddess, red for the God. Men and women danced around the pole, holding onto the ribbons and interweaving them as they went round. The King & Queen of May were also elected ­ stand-ins for the God and Goddess ­ and led the festival. One telling explains that the Queen would ride in on a white horse and the King on a black one. The Goddess on a white horse has a powerful association in Celtic mythology. When Niamh of the Golden Hair came to take Oissin away to the Land of Promise, it is upon a white steed that she rode. Rhian Gabhra, or Rhiannon of the Gaels, rides a white mare in the Otherworldly realms. In both Welsh and Irish traditions the white mare is representative of the Goddess in the Otherworld. The ancients would also then go and make love on the ground ­ considered a form of magic, prompting the crops to be fertile. Another, similar rite that took place at Beltane is called the "bringing in the May." The youth would go out into the fields and collect flowers. They would often spend the night in the wood, which resulted in many "greenwood marriages," or "handfastings." In the village, they would stop at each home and exchange the flowers for food and drink. Thus, they became the harbingers of the renewal of the Earth. This rite also represented the need of the tribe to share their belongings, sustaining the entire population as a result.
  • On May Eve people would tear branches from a Hawthorn tree and decorate the outside of their homes. The Hawthorn, or Whitethorn, is the tree of hope, pleasure and protection. The strong taboo on breaking Hawthorne branches or bringing them into the home was traditionally lifted on May Eve. Another custom would be to jump over the fire. Young people jumped the fire for luck in finding a spouse, sojourners jumped the fire to ensure a safe journey, and pregnant women jumped the fire to assure an easy delivery. On May 1, the entire tribe, village or clan would lead the cattle to the Summer buailte (pronounced "booa-ltuh") or pastures until Samhain.
  • Summer Soltice Alban Heruin, or "The Light of the Shore," also is referred to as Midsummer's Day. This feast takes place on June 21 and marks the shortest, brightest night of the year. The Summer Solstice marks the Earth's full-flowering. Midsummer's Day was traditionally celebrated out in the forest and involved masquerades, picnics, games, and, at night, a bonfire to cut the chill.
  • Lammas Traditionally called Lammas from the Saxon word Hlaf-mass, the Feast of Bread, this festival is also known as Lughnasadh, Lughnasa (pronounced "Loo-nahs-ah"), or First Fruits, and is the feast of the god Lugh. Celebrated on August 1, it coincides with the beginning of the harvest and signifies the death of Bel, or the Corn King. The Corn King dies, to be later reborn, so that the tribe may go into the winter months with sustenance plenty. Another myth tells of the greedy Fomorian Earth-spirits that must be persuaded to relinquish the fruits of the soil to humans.
    • In the Scottish Highlands, this feast was sometimes referred to as the nasad, or games, of Lugh, son of Ethle. An early Irish tradition has it that Lugh established the festival in honor of his foster-mother Tailtiu, a close relationship in the Celtic custom. In Ireland, Lugh also is referred to as Lugh of the Long Hand, son of the Sun.
    • Rituals:  Farmers cut down the first stalks of corn with sickles and called these stalks John Barleycorn. This first grain is used to produce the first beer of the season, for consumption at the Autumnal Equinox six weeks later. In the British Isles, the Horned One was thought to be the consort of the Earth Goddess. (see Beltane explanation) Harvest festivals usually included a Stag Dance in which men wore antlers on their heads.
  • Autumnal Equinox Alban Elued, "The Light of the Water," also is called Harvesthome. This feast takes place on September 21 and marks the last harvest before Winter claims the Earth. As with the Vernal Equinox, day and night are of equal length across the planet. This balance in nature presents a powerful time for magick.
    • To the ancients, this was a sacred time. The Irish saw this time of year as the Waning of the Goddess. From the Summer to the Winter Solstice they would hold festivals for the God ­ who was seen as a dark, threatening being. To the Goidelic Celts, the spring was the time of joy in the rebirth of the Goddess. To Brythonic Celts, however, this was the time of the death of the God (the Sun or the Grain God).


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