Festivals & the Celtic Year

Much of our understanding of the early Celtic ritual year originates from Irish sources. In early Ireland, a cyclical pattern of work was intertwined with the seasons, particularly focused on the movement and tending of livestock. This annual cycle gave rise to cultural practices tied to various social activities such as courtship, marriage, raiding, and seasonal celebrations. Evidence suggests that the year was divided into a “male” half and a “female” half, with corresponding gender roles and possibly the veneration of male or female deities according to the season.

Originally, the year was split into two main periods: a warm summer phase (sam) and a cold winter phase (gam), reflecting the movements of livestock. Summer commenced on May 1 when herds were led to summer pastures, while winter began on November 1 upon their return. Subsequently, the year was further divided into four seasonal festivals: Beltene on May 1, Samain on November 1, Imbolc on February 1, and Lugnasad on August 1. It’s also conceivable that an earlier arrangement included only three festivals, given the limited evidence concerning Imbolc prior to recent folklore traditions.

Imbolc, associated with the birth of animals and the return of milk, marked the beginning of spring in the folk tradition. Lugnasad, signaling the onset of autumn, served as a harvest festival and an occasion for honoring ancestors. Each festival held significance in social customs, gender roles, and the reverence of divine beings, forming integral parts of Celtic cultural and religious practices.

Celtic Festival of Imbolc

This is the first day of Spring. It is celebrated on 1 Feb. This later became Christianized as St. Brigid’s Day. Imbolc has been compared by the French scholar Joseph Vendryes to the Roman lustrations and apparently was a feast of purification for the farmers. It was sometimes called oímelc (“sheep milk”) with reference to the lambing season.

This period was significant as many animals gave birth during this time, heralding the return of fresh milk which was crucial for sustenance. With cow’s milk having depleted and food stores dwindling after the guesting and feasting season, the arrival of new life and replenished food supplies brought immense joy. While the etymology of Imbolc remains uncertain, it may be linked to ewe’s milk, highlighting its association with female-centric activities like birth and milk renewal.

During Imbolc, women assumed the responsibility of managing remaining food reserves for household and social use, overseeing the birthing of lambs and calves, and ensuring the restocking of food stores. For men, this season typically entailed relative inactivity, as it was not yet time for agricultural activities like plowing or sowing. Weather divination rituals were common during Imbolc to prepare for upcoming tasks related to land cultivation and animal husbandry, which would resume in the following months.

Spring also signalled the beginning of the raiding season, although raids during this time were deemed less profitable due to the weakened condition of cattle. As a result, spring was often regarded as a period more suitable for planning and negotiation rather than active warfare. The seasonal activities associated with the yearly cycle suggested a division of labor and energies, with the summer half of the year associated with male-oriented pursuits and the winter half with female-centric concerns.

In contemporary Ireland, Imbolc is commonly regarded as the first day of spring. The behavior of hedgehogs on this day, particularly their emergence from hibernation, was traditionally viewed as a predictor of weather, a belief that possibly influenced the American tradition of Groundhog Day. Additionally, certain labor, especially that involving the use of wheels, was traditionally avoided on St. Brigit’s Day in specific regions.

A notable custom associated with Imbolc involves crafting a cross known as ‘cros Bríde’ or ‘bogha Bríde’. These crosses, often diamond-shaped, are made from straw, rushes, or wood. An 18th-century poem credits these crosses with the power to protect homes from fire, a belief that persists to this day. Imbolc is also a time when various other traditions and beliefs related to St. Brigit are observed and celebrated.

Celtic Festival of Beltaine

Beltine (“Fire of Bel”) was the summer festival, and there is a tradition that on that day the druids drove cattle between two fires as a protection against disease. This marks the end of the dark part of the year and the welcoming of summer. It was celebrated on 1 May (Bealtaine is the Gaelic word for the month of May). It is the day associated with moving cattle to higher pastures and beginning new projects. Beltine is also called Cetṡamain (“First Samhain”).

In the Brythonic languages, which include Welsh and Breton, the festival of Beltane is indeed referred to differently than in the Goidelic languages like Irish and Scots Gaelic. In Welsh, it’s called “Calan Mai,” and in Breton, it’s known as “Kalan Mae.” These names translate to the “Calends of May,” marking the first day of May and the beginning of the summer season.

At Beltine the community engaged in the crucial task of moving herds away from settled areas to fresh summer pastures, ensuring they had access to new vegetation while preventing damage to growing crops. To accomplish this, the population divided into two groups: women and children departed with the herds, equipped with necessary tools for cooking, dairy work, and spinning. Simultaneous departure was essential to avoid any cattle remaining near crops. Consequently, May 1 marked the conclusion of the marriage season, considered inauspicious for weddings due to the cyclical separation of genders.

Throughout the summer, men remained behind to tend to crops, defend fields, and sometimes prepare for conflicts or raids. Summer was deemed optimal for raiding activities, although August saw reduced warfare due to harvest demands.

Celtic Festival of Lughnasa (or Lughnasad)

Lughnasad, observed on August 1st, marks the commencement of the harvest season. While grain harvesting was predominantly men’s work, some women descended from the hills to assist with flax harvesting, as dairy tasks diminished during this period. Lugnasad gatherings also featured eligible women, as temporary unions often occurred during this time. These marriages allowed for dissolution by mutual agreement if deemed unsatisfactory.

The term itself, which appears as ‘Lughnasa’ in Modern Irish and ‘Laa Luanys’ or ‘Laa Lunys’ in Manx, unmistakably incorporates the name of Lug, a significant figure in Irish mythology. This connection likely traces back to the Common Celtic era. It’s theorized that the Roman celebration held in Lugudunum (now Lyon, France) on this date, initially dedicated to Emperor Augustus, originally honoured the Celtic deity Lugus.

Cormac ua Cuilennáin, an ancient scholar, described Lugnasad as ‘Lug mac Ethlenn’s nasad,’ or festival, a fair conducted annually at the onset of the harvest at Lugnasad. This might refer to a specific local festival or the prominent Oenach Tailten (fair of Tailtiu) in present-day Telltown, County Meath. Historically, this festival, essential in ancient Ireland, was hosted by the would-be king of Ireland, typically on Lugnasad, except under unusual conditions. Post-9th century, its observance became sporadic.

Celtic Festival of Samhain

It takes place on 1 November (again the Gaelic for November is Samhain) and it marks the end of one year and the birth of another. In Celtic religion, it was considered a time when the gods were hostile and dangerous and had to be pleased by making sacrifices.

Samain marked the onset of winter and the beginning of the new year in Celtic tradition. It signaled the end of the raiding and hunting seasons, activities primarily pursued by men. By this time, all domestic animals had returned to settlements, and winter food stores had been gathered and stored. Additionally, all women would have rejoined the community by or before Samain. While some outdoor tasks persisted post-Samain, the focus shifted towards indoor or domestic activities. The abundance of food available during this season initiated the guesting and feasting period, where nobles and clients convened for rounds of feasts to nurture relationships, arrange marriages, and strengthen bonds. Women played a crucial role in managing food stores and extending hospitality during these gatherings.

The onset of winter brought about a period of impending darkness and challenges, often accompanied by concerns about illness, misfortune, or death. It’s understandable how this time of year became associated with themes of death and the supernatural, marking a liminal phase where interactions between the visible and invisible worlds were believed to occur. Samain likely involved rituals of propitiation, thanksgiving, and divination, reminiscent of New Year’s festivities observed in many cultures. Cosmogonic legends recounting the end of cycles, darkness, rebirth, creation, and the dawn of new cycles may have been ceremonially recited or enacted during these gatherings.

While commonly thought to signal the start of the Celtic year, there is ambiguity regarding the actual beginning of the year, as practices varied across different regions and Celtic countries. Samain, or “the calends of winter” as referred to in the Brythonic tradition (Welsh Calan Gaeaf, Breton Kalan Goañv), holds considerable significance, potentially marking the new year’s beginning. However, Beltaine, six months apart from Samain, is also speculated to have marked the year’s start, suggesting varied interpretations of the Celtic calendar.

The eve of Samain is recognized in medieval literature and modern folklore as a liminal time when the barrier between the ordinary world and the Otherworld weakens. It’s a period rife with supernatural occurrences, including encounters with fairies, witches, and the dead. In Welsh tradition, the saying “pwca ar bob camfa” (a hobgoblin on every stile) is linked to Calan Gaeaf. Protective measures against supernatural beings were common, including placing open Bibles and birch brooms over doorways.

In Brittany, people would spend the night of November 1st in church, ringing bells and engaging in fires, drinking, and games, despite official condemnation. In this region, it was also considered unlucky to sweep the house after dark on October 31st to avoid disturbing the Anaon (souls of the dead).

Samain was a time ripe for divination practices across Celtic regions. In Wales, counting ladybug spots predicted the time till marriage, while in Ireland, molten lead shapes foretold the future. Other rituals involved seeing apparitions of the dead or future spouses.

The festival also involved social activities like bonfires, turnip and rutabaga carvings (now replaced with pumpkins), and games like apple bobbing. The tradition of ‘guising’ in Dublin involved masked individuals seeking treats and threatening mischief, contributing to the contemporary Halloween celebration.

Samain had practical significance in Old Irish law, marking a change in the valuation of livestock. For example, the value of a calf born in May increased on Samain. Irish sagas often set important events or tales during Samain, linking it to transformative and Otherworldly themes, as seen in stories like ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn’ and ‘The Wooing of Étaín.’ Samain’s profound role is evident in narratives where it marks significant transitions, battles, and journeys between worlds.