Whatever names we give to them now many of our modern day festivals owe their existence to hallowed festivals long before Christianity. Long ago they marked the dates of key Celtic festivals in the rural year, for example days when planting occured or when harvesting happened. The early Christian church fully aware of the hold these festivals had on the community, wisely adopted these dates into its own calender. Thus we still celebrate Easter with the same awerness of sacrifice and rebirth that our pagan ancestors brought to the apparent yearly miracle of returning spring and the wonder of new green life.
In the ages when people worked more closely with nature just to survive, the numinous power of this pattern had supreme recognition. Rituals and festivals evolved to channel these transformations for the good of the community toward a good sowing and harvest and bountiful herds and hunting.
The Celtic year was divided into two halves, the dark and the light. Samhain was the beginning of the dark half, with its counterpart, Beltane beginning the light half. Between these two ‘doors’ or portals fell Imbolc, on February 1, and Lughnasadh or Lammas, celebrated on August 1, quartering the Celtic year.
These four festivals marked the turning of the seasons. Two of the fire festivals, Samhain and Beltane, were considered to be male, and Imbolc and
Lughnasadh were female. Each was celebrated for three days – before, during and after the official day of observance. These quarters were again divided by the the two solstices, and the two equinoxes, which were known as the four Albans. In folklore, these are referred to as the four ‘quarter-days’ of the year, and modern Witches call them the four ‘Lesser Sabbats’, or the four ‘Low Holidays’. The Summer Solstice is one of them.
Imbolc (February 1)
– Alban Eiler (Vernal / Spring Equinox, Ostara, – Around March 21)
Beltaine (May Day, Roodmas – the beginning of summer)
– Alban Hefin (The Summer Solstice , Midsummer – Around June 21)
Lughnassadh (August 2nd/Lammas)
– Alban Elfed (Autumn Equinox, Mabon – Around September 21)
Samhain (Halloween, November 1- the beginning of winter)
– Alban Arthan (Winter Solstice, Yule – Around Dec. 21)
The First Monday of the Quarter is dedicated to the moon, and is also considered very lucky. A system of divination used in the Highlands, known as The Frith, was carried out on this day, just before sunrise. The seer would go barefoot to stand in the doorway of the house, and the divination would be made from what is seen, particularly of birds and animals.
The Equinoxes and Solstices may vary by as much as a day from year to year, but aside from these four solar events, movable feasts are generally derived from the Phases of the Moon. Many Witches and Pagans observe these movable days, and the Church with it’s Easter cycle. Easter is one of the most important lunar-derived festivals of the Witches year, being the lunar Spring celebration of the Goddess Eostre or Ostara. Veritably, Easter should be observed on the first Sunday occurring after the first Full Moon following the Vernal Equinox, providing this Moon doesn’t occur on March 21! This idiosyncratic system was instituted by the Catholic Church so that their Easter would never coincide with the Jewish Passover, which is reckoned on a cognate basis.
Many of the festival days coincide with holidays of the Jewish and Christian calendars. This is no accident; these points in the year were important community celebrations, and were kept largely intact although they were rededicated to the Christian God or a saint. The names may have changed, but the old Pagan practices still show through.
The Solar Cycle
The “Wheel of the Year” uses eight spokes ; the four major agricultural and pastoral festivals and the four minor solar festivals of the solstices and equinoxes. In the Wheel of the Year, the four solar Sabbats (Spring and Fall Equinox, Summer and Winter Solstice) are placed at the cardinal points of East, South, West, and North. The remaining four Celtic festivals are placed between them: Imbolc at the north-east; Beltane at the south-east; Lammas at the south-west; and Samhain at the north-west.