Of these eight times, four are solar and four are lunar – creating thereby a balanced scheme of interlocking masculine and feminine observances. The solar observances are the ones that most people associate with modern-day Druids – particularly the Summer Solstice ceremonies at Stonehenge.
At the Solstices, the Sun is revered at the point of its apparent death at midwinter – and of its maximum power at the noon of the year when the days are longest. At the Equinoxes, day and night are balanced. At the Spring Equinox, the power of the sun is on the increase, and we celebrate the time of sowing and of preparation for the gifts of Summer. At the Autumnal Equinox, although day and night are of equal duration, the power of the sun is on the wane, and we give thanks for the gifts of the harvest and prepare for the darkness of Winter.
These four festivals are astronomical observances, and we can be sure our ancestors marked them with ritual because many of the stone circles are oriented to their points of sunrise or sunset. By the time the circles were built, our ancestors had become a pastoral people, and times of sowing and reaping were vital to them.
But as well as these four astronomical, solar festivals, there exist four times in the year which were and are also considered sacred. These were the times which were more associated with the livestock cycle, rather than the farming cycle.
At Samhuinn, between October 31st and November 2nd, livestock for whom there was insufficient fodder were slaughtered and their meat salted and stored. At Imbolc, on February 1st, the lambs were born. At Beltane, on May 1st, it was the time of mating and of the passing of the livestock through the two Beltane fires for purification. Lughnasadh, on August 1st, was the time which marked the link between the agricultural and the livestock cycle – the harvest began and both human food and animal fodder were reaped and stored.
The two sets of festivals represent far more than just times which our ancestors chose to honour the plant and animal life-cycles though. They demonstrate our thorough interconnectedness with both the animal and plant realms.
As we contemplate the festivals we see how interwoven is the life of our psyche and of our body, of the planet and of the sun and moon – for each festival time marks a potent conjunction of Time and Place in a way that is quite remarkable.
Let’s look at the cycle now. The dates given are for the Northern hemisphere, where they originated, but if you are in the Southern hemisphere, you need to reverse the dates: so you would celebrate the Winter Solstice in June, the Summer Solstice in December, and so on.
October 31st – November 2nd: Samhuinn
Looking at the complete cycle, we shall begin at Samhuinn – a time which marked traditionally the ending and the beginning of the Celtic Year.
Samhuinn, from October 31st to November 2nd, was a time of no-time. Celtic society, like all early societies, was highly structured and organised – everyone knew their place. But to allow that order to be psychologically comfortable, the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished – when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival, and people did crazy things – men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.
But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The Druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the ‘other side’. The Druid rites, therefore, were concerned with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than as sources of dread. The dark moon, the time when no moon can be seen in the sky, was the phase of the moon which ruled this time, because it represents a time in which our mortal sight needs to be obscured in order for us to see into the other worlds.
The dead are honoured and feasted, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and of guardians who hold the root-wisdom of the tribe. With the coming of Christianity, this festival was turned into All Hallows [commonly referred to as Hallowe’en on October 31st], All Saints [November 1st] and All Souls [November 2nd]. Here we can see most clearly the way in which Christianity built on the pagan foundations it found rooted in these isles. Not only does the purpose of the festival match with the earlier one, but even the unusual length of the festival is the same.
21st December – Winter Solstice
Next in the cycle is the time of the Winter Solstice, called in the Druid Tradition Alban Arthan [the Light of Arthur]. This is the time of death and rebirth. The sun appears to be abandoning us completely as the longest night comes to us. Linking our own inner journey to the yearly cycle, the words of the Druid ceremony ask “Cast away, O wo/man whatever impedes the appearance of light.” In darkness we throw on to the ground the scraps of material we have been carrying that signify those things which have been holding us back, and one lamp is lit from a flint and raised up on the Druid’s crook in the East. The year is reborn and a new cycle begins, which will reach its peak at the time of the Midsummer Solstice, before returning again to the place of death-and-birth.
Although the Bible indicates that Jesus was born in the Spring, it is no accident that the early Church chose to move his official birthday to the time of the Midwinter Solstice – for it is indeed a time when the Light enters the darkness of the World, and we see again the building of Christianity on the foundations of earlier belief.
In a Christian culture we really only have one marker for the year, and that is Christmas. Easter and Harvest-time used to be significant, but can hardly be considered so now, when only a fraction of the British population attend Church regularly.
February 1st – Imbolc
Druidry has eight markers, which means that every six weeks or so, we have the opportunity to step out of the humdrum of daily life, to honour the conjunction of Place and Time.
The next Festival occurs on February 2nd, or the eve of February 1st. It is called Imbolc in the Druid tradition, or sometimes Oimelc. Although we would think of Imbolc as being in the midst of Winter, it represents in fact the first of a trio of Spring celebrations, since it is the time of the first appearance of the snowdrop, and of the melting of the snows and the clearing of the debris of Winter. It is a time when we sense the first glimmer of Spring, and when the lambs are born. In the Druid tradition it is a gentle, beautiful festival in which the Mother Goddess is honoured with eight candles rising out of the water at the centre of the ceremonial circle.
The Goddess that ruled Samhuinn was the Cailleach, the Grey Hag, the Mountain Mother, the Dark Woman of Knowledge. But by Imbolc the Goddess has become Brighid, the Goddess of poets, healers and midwives.
And so we often use Imbolc as a time for an Eisteddfod dedicated to poetry and song praising the Goddess in her many forms. The Christian development of this festival is Candlemas – the time of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. For years successive Popes had tried to stop parades of lit candles in the streets of Rome at this time, until seeing that it was impossible to put a stop to this pagan custom, they suggested that everyone enter the churches so that the priests could bless the candles.
May – Spring Equinox
Time moves on, and in a short while we come to the Spring Equinox – the time of equality of day and night, when the forces of the light are on the increase. At the centre of the trio of Spring Festas, Alban Eilir [the Light of the Earth] marks the more recognisable beginnings of Spring, when the flowers are beginning to appear and when the sowing begins in earnest.
As the point of psychological development in our lives it marks the time of late childhood to, say, 14 years – Imbolc marking the time of early childhood [say to 7yrs].
We are in the Spring of our lives – the seeds that are planted in our childhood time of Imbolc and Alban Eilir will flower from the Beltane time of adolescence onwards as capacities and powers that will help us to negotiate our lives with skill and accomplishment.
May 1st – Beltane
Beltane, on May 1st, marks the time of our adolescence and early wo/manhood. Spring is in full bloom, and twin fires would be lit at this time, through which would be passed the cattle after their long winter confinement, or over which those hoping for a child or good fortune would jump.
We see traces of the Beltane celebrations on May Day, when dancing round the maypole celebrates the fertility of the land and creates an echo of the ritual circle dances that must have been enacted in stone circles throughout the country.
June 21st – Summer Solstice
We have reached the time of the Summer Solstice, Alban Hefin, The Light of the Shore, by June 21st or 22nd [the dates for each of the solar festivals vary each year since the events are astronomical not man-made, like our calendar]. Light is at its maximum, and this is the time of the longest day. It is at this time that the Druids hold their most complex ceremony. Starting at midnight on the eve of the Solstice, a vigil is held through the night – seated around the Solstice fire. The night is over in a matter of hours, and as light breaks, the Dawn Ceremony marks the time of the sun’s rising on this his most powerful day. At noon a further ceremony is held.
August 1st – Lughnasadh
Six weeks later we come to the time of Lughnasadh on August 1st, which marks the beginning of harvest time. The hay would have been gathered in, and the time for reaping the wheat and barley was due. It was a time of gathering together, of contests and games and of marriages. The marriages contracted at this time could be annulled at the same time the following year – offering the couple a sensible ‘trial period’. In some areas a flaming wheel was sent rolling down the hillside at this time to symbolise the descent of the year towards Winter, and in the Druid ceremony a wheel is passed around the circle in symbol of the turning year. The Christian version of this festival is Lammas, which has recently been revived in some churches. The word Lammas comes from hlafmasse – ‘loaf-mass’ – since bread is offered from the newly harvested grain.
September 21st – Autumnal Equinox
The Autumnal Equinox, on September 21st or thereabouts, is called Alban Elfed or Light of the Water in the Druid tradition. It represents the second of the harvest festivals – this time marking the end of harvest-time, just as Lughnasadh marked its beginning. Again day and night are equally balanced as they were at the time of the Spring Equinox, but soon the nights will grow longer than the days and Winter will be with us. In the ceremony we give thanks for the fruits of the earth and for the goodness of the Mother Goddess.
And so the circle completes itself as we come again to the time of Samhuinn – the time of death and of rebirth.
What does it mean to celebrate these festivals? Are we simply trying to revive customs that belong to a different era, and are well forgotten? Those who follow Druidry believe strongly that this is not the case. Just as Christmas and New Year are vital to our psychic health because they give us some measure of the passage of our lives, so -if we incorporate a celebration or recognition of these times – do we find that we develop an increasing sense of peace and place in our world and in our lives.