Celtic Festivals

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 quarters were again divided by the solstices and equinoxes, which were known as the four Albans.

The Albans

Alban Arthuan

The winter solstice, observed on December 21, was the shortest day of the year. The name 'Arthuan' is interesting in relation to Arthurian legend, as King Arthur was believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice in Castle Tintagel in Cornwall.

Alban Arthuan ("The Light of Arthur"), also was referred to as Yule, Mabon, Jul, Saturnalia, or Christmas. This feast took place on December 21 and marked the longest, darkest night of the year. Alban Arthuan was a festival of peace and a celebration of waxing solar light. Many honored the forthcoming Sun child by burning an oaken Yule log, and honored the Goddess in her many Mother aspects. The Father God was also honored in various forms: as Santa Claus, the Old Sky God, Father Time, and the Holly King.

Alban Eiler

The first day of spring, or the spring (Vernal) equinox was celebrated March 21. Alban Eiler, which means, "Light of the Earth," was the day that night and day stood equal. Crops were typically sown at this time. The equinoxes and solstices were seen, to the Celts, as a time of transition. This rare balance in nature made these days a powerful time for magic to the ancient Druids.

Alban Heruin

The summer solstice, or Alban Heruin, was the longest day of the year. Observed on the 21st of June, it was the time when the Sun reached its zenith and cast three rays to light the world. Alban Heruin, or "The Light of the Shore," is also referred to as Litha or Midsummer's Day. It was traditionally celebrated out in the forest with picnics, games, and a large bonfire.

Alban Elved

Alban Elued, "The Light of the Water," the first day of Autumn, was also called Harvesthome. Observed on September 21, the Autumnal Equinox was the day when the sun again began to wane, as the dark half of the year drew near.

As with the Vernal Equinox, day and night were of equal length across the planet. This balance in nature presented a powerful time for magic.

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).

The Fire Festivals

The four fire 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.

Our modern celebration of Halloween is a descendent of the ancient Celtic festival called "Samhain;" meaning Summer's End. Samhain was the first day of winter, and the end of one pastoral year. It was the time when the night became longer than the day, the last apples were picked, and the year began again with its dark winter half. 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 was celebrated on the eve of November 1 (October 31 - technically, either date is appropriate as the Celts measured the day from sunset to sunset.) It is balanced by Beltane (or Bealtaine, Beltaine) which signals the start of summer, 6 months later. The ancient Celts probably held them exactly mid-way between an equinox (when day and night were equal) and the following solstice (when the nighttime was shortest or longest).

In ancient times all of the fires of Ireland were extinguished and relighted from the one great fire kindled by the King's chief Druid, on the hill of Tlachtga. Members of each family would light torches to carry back and rekindle their own hearth-fires, which were then kept burning the rest of the year. The assemblies of the five Irish provinces at Tara Hill, the seat of the Irish king, took place at Samhain. These gatherings were celebrated with horse races, fairs, markets, assembly rites, political discussions, and ritual mourning for the passage of summer.

Samhain is a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld (or the Sídh,) was very thin, and divine beings, the spirits of the dead, and mortals can move freely between one world and the next. In some Celtic traditions, most notably the Scottish Highlands, young men would run the boundaries of their farms after sunset with blazing torches to protect the family from the Faeries and malevolent forces that were free to walk the land at night, causing mischief. Samhain was seen as a time when the future could most easily be predicted, and was a favored time among Druids for ritual fortune-telling.

As in other major Celtic Festivals, Samhain was a gateway, a celebration of the transition from one season and another. In Celtic mythology, at the heart of every gateway is a paradox. The threshold is literally between two worlds but is, in itself, in neither and in both at the same time. Thus Samhain belonged to both Summer and Winter...and to neither. It was the gateway to the winter, and a magical time of passage between the seasons.

As in many pastoral societies, winter was regarded with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Samhain was the last gasp of summer... a time of uninhibited feasting, dancing and celebration. It was a time of release; a time to let go of all unwanted baggage, fears and attitudes, just as the trees let go of their leaves. So the lives of men parallel the sacred cycles of nature.

'Winter Solstice,' by Courtney Davis

Imbolc, which literally means "in milk", traditionally has marked the lactation period of ewes and cows. Ewes are unable to produce milk until after they bear their young, which occurs at this time. Since milk was very important to the basic survival of the tribes, this was a time of great joy. It meant that the end of a long winter was in sight, and green pastures were only a few months away.

During the Imbolc ritual it was customary to pour milk (or cream) onto the earth. This was done in thanksgiving, as an offering of nurturing, and to assist in the return of fertility and generosity of the earth to its people (the return of Spring). Imbolc was celebrated in honor of Brighid or Brid (pronounced breed), also known as Brigid, Brigit, or Bride, in her maiden aspect. Brighid is the daughter of Dagda.

Imbolc was the second of the four great fire festivals, with significance placed upon the Light of fire. At Imbolc, Brighid was pregnant with the seed of the Sun. She was ripe with the promise of new life, as the seeds of the earth deep within its soil begin to awaken at this time, ripe with the promise of Spring, new life for the planet. Thus Inbolc was a time of awakening, promise and hope for the coming spring.

Beltane, the third of the two Celtic fire festivals, was a celebration of the return of life and fertility to the world, and was celebrated on or around April 30. It is sometimes referred to as Cetsamhain which means "opposite Samhain." Beltane was the last of the three spring fertility festivals, and the second major Celtic festival. Beltane, and its counterpart Samhain, divide the year into its two primary seasons, Winter and Summer.

In ancient Celtic communities, the festival went by many names: Beltaine in Ireland, Bealtunn 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. As with Brighid, the Church transformed this goddess into St. Walpurga and attached a similar legend to her origin. Also known as May Eve, this festival marked the beginning of Summer and the pastoral 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. It has been suggested that Bel is the Brythonic Celt equivalent to the Goidelic Celt god Cernunnos.

At Beltane, the Horned One 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. Other beliefs tell of the Summer God being released from captivity, or the Summer Maiden wooed away from her Earth-giant father. The Hawthorne (Huathe) tree represents the giant and sometimes this wood is used for the Maypole.

Beltane joyfully heralded the arrival of Summer in its full glory. It was believed that if you bathed in the dew of Beltane morn, your beauty would flourish throughout the year.

On the eve of Beltane the Celts build two large fires, created from the nine sacred woods, in honor of Summer. The tribal herds were ritually driven between them, so as to purify and protect them in the upcoming year. The fires celebrate the return of life and fruitfulness to the earth. Celebration included frolicking throughout the countryside, dancing the Maypole, leaping over fires, and "going a maying". It was customary for young lovers to spend the night in the forest.

Beltane was the time of sensuality revitalized, the reawakening of the earth and all of her children. It was the time when tribal people celebrated with joy the vivid colors and vibrant scents of the season, tingling summer breezes, and the rapture of summer after a long dormant winter. It was customary that Handfastings, for a year and a day, take place at this time.

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 was to leap over the Beltane bonfire. Young people jumped the fire for luck in finding a spouse, travelers jumped the fire to ensure a safe journey, and pregnant women jumped the fire to assure an easy delivery.

In Irish mythology, the great undertakings of the Tuatha 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 White Knee, son of Mil, often reputed to be the first Druid.

Lughnasadh was the first in the trilogy of harvest festivals. It marked the beginning of the harvest season, and the decline of Summer into Winter. Traditionally called Lammas from the Saxon word Hlaf-mass, the Feast of Bread, festivities and rituals typically centered around the assurance of a bountiful harvest season and the celebration of the harvest cycle. A bountiful harvest ensured the safe passage of the tribe through the upcoming winter months. The gathering of bilberries was an ancient practice that symbolized the success of the Lughnasadh rituals. If the bilberries were bountiful, it was believed that there would also be a plentiful harvest.

Lughnasadh was celebrated to honor Lugh, the Irish God. Lugh, God of All Skills, is known as the "Bright or Shining One", He is associated with both the Sun and agricultural fertility. Lleu, Lugh's equivalent in Britain and Wales, is the son of Arianrhod, Goddess of the Stars and Reincarnation. Games of athletic prowess were played in honor of Lugh. They were said to be funeral games for Lugh or, in some traditions, his foster mother Tailtiu who died while preparing the fields for planting. Many grains, seeds, herbs and fruits were harvested and dried at this time.

Death and rebirth were part of the cycle that Lugh journeyed through in his mating with the Goddess, during the waning year. The Goddess oversaw the festival in her Triple guise as Macha. She presided in her warrior aspect, the crow who sits on the battlefields awaiting the dead. She was the Crone, Maiden and Mother, Anu, Banba, and Macha, who conveyed the dead into the realm of the deceased. In Irish myth, Macha was forced, while heavy with child, to race against the King of Ulster's horses. She won the race and gave birth to twins, and cursed the men of Ulster with the pain of labor when they most needed their strength.

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