The Wheel of the Year.
Our Celtic and Pre-Celtic pagan ancestors marked the passage of time through the seasonal wheel of the year- usually this was comprised of two seasons, the warm and the cold, and various festivals were marked within it, based on solar (Solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days) as well as lunar events. These festivals have been combined into the eight spoked wheel of the year often used today. The earliest significant festival dates appear to be the solstices and equinoxes, marking the cycle of the sun, which can be seen in the alignments of various Neolithic and Bronze Age sites found across Ireland and Britain. The later Celtic festivals marked the cross-quarter dates in between these, although evidence suggests the summer and winter solstices in particular retained their significance consistently into the modern period. While no tribes or communities originally marked all eight throughout history, we know from astro-archeaology that all eight were marked at various sacred sites across the UK at various times dating from the neolithic period.
Sometimes these were community celebrations and household festivals, at other times ceremonies and celebrations were held at stone circles and other earth works, aligned to mark these events accurately, as can be seen at Stonehenge, and the mound of Newgrange in Ireland for example.
The solar events mark the suns zenith at the summer solstice and its apogee at the winter solstice, the median points in between being the spring and autumn equinoxes.
The Lunar festivals, also called fire festivals due to the fires lit to celebrate them, divide the year into the two seasons, the warm and the cold.
Beltane and Samhain are the major festivals of the year.
Imbolc and Lughnasadh / Lammas are the the agricultural festivals which mark the medians between them.
Samhain. Usually October 31st, or nearby full moon or astrological cross quarter day Nov 7th.
An tSamhain (Irish), An t-Samhain (Scottish Gaelic) meaning 'Summers end'. In Wales it is Calan Gaeaf, in Cornwall it is Kalan Gwav and in Brittany it is Kalan Goañv. It is likely that this was considered the New Year to many Iron Age Celtic peoples although it is impossible to be certain. a traditional 'spirit night' or 'Ysbrydnos' in Welsh. It marks a time when the dead are honoured, at the end of the harvest season, and the wild spirits of the land are particularly fierce. In Welsh / Brythonic tradition it is a time when the dead are led to Annwn, (Annoon) the underworld or otherworld. The Wild Hunt begin to roam the land, led by various figures who could all be termed 'The 'wild huntsman' - the Holly king, ( English) Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd ( both Brythonic), Woden (Saxon) and Herne the hunter (English) All that is to come in the following year is meditated upon and explored by divination. The Morrigan ( Irish) and Cerridwen ( Welsh) are often honoured at this time, as well as the Cailleach- the ancestral goddess / goddesses of the land.
Winter Solstice approximately Dec 21st, marks the point when the sun has descended into the underworld, a process begun at Samhain. Here the Hunter God, the wild hunstman, the lord of the animals is at the height of his powers, providing for the tribe, while the Sun god is reborn as the child of promise, yet to emerge into the world with the spring. A time for honouring household spirits and the magic of the hearth. In Ireland this can be seen in the tale of the goddess Boann birthing her son Oenghus Og at Newgrange / Bru na Boinne at the winter solstice.
As winter draws to its end, Oimelc, or Imbolc 2nd February celebrates the lambing, and the return of the ewes milk which was often greatly needed by the old and very young to make it through to the spring. The goddess Brigid, or Bride, patroness of poetry, smithcraft and midwifery is especially honoured at this time.
Approximately March 21st. Here the hours of light and dark are in equal balance, but the sun is steadily returning to power. In English folklore the oak king is growing and will eventually defeat the holly king of the underworld at Beltane, when he will become a worthy mate to the goddess of the land. A time when all is in balance and internal stillness comes as preparation for the exuberant energy to come. The Anglo Saxon goddess Eostre, eggs and the hare are of special sanctity, reflected in the Christian Easter (Eostre) celebrations.
Beltane / Bealtaine / Bealltuinn / Calan Mai usually May 1st, or nearby full moon or astrological cross quarter day, which can vary.
In Ireland it is spelled Bealtaine pronounced Bey-al-tin-ah, which is also the name for the month of May. The day itself it called Lá Bealtaine, meaning the day of Bealtaine, or May Day. In Scotland it is called Latha Bealltainn, or the older Bealltuinn. In Wales it is known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, the first day of May / first day of summer. The spelling of Beltane is sometimes assumed to be the Anglicised form, borrowed from the Gaelic, but actually attestations to the spelling are found throughout early Ireland and Scottish literature, and its use as the name of the festival is attested in England as early as the 14th century, illustrating how widely this festival was honoured. In England it is often called May Day although Beltane is also still popular, and in English folklore it is said to mark the rise of the oak king and fall of his mirror the holly king, who rises as Samhain / all hallows eve. These two can be seen as an evolution and adaptation through the Christian period of the old gods of the forest, acting as a dual consort to the figure of sovereignty, the tutelary goddess of the land- a myth seen repeatedly in the Brythonic tradition. A time of faery revels, when the hawthorn tree is especially sacred.
June 21st. The Sun God is at the height of his power, as the oak king, strong and beneficent all-father, and mate to the goddess pregnant with the coming harvest. All is fruitful and the life force of all things is fey and passionate. Spirits of the wild celebrate in ecstasy in the fleeting nights and revel in the balmy longest day. in Ireland, the goddess Aine / Grainne is also honoured as a goddess of the sun and may have been the most significant at this time.
In Ireland the festival of Lugh, on 1st August marks the point between the hay harvest and the barley harvest, and is the cross quarter day between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. This was the time to make trial marriages, when the tribe was abundant and well fed, to compete in the racing of horses and feats of strength and prowess reflecting Lugh's gods skill and energy. An older name for the festival is 'Bron Trogain' is thought to mean the earths sorrow or birth pangs- suggesting the earths grief at birthing the harvest. In England this festival was called Lammas- loaf mass celebrated the grain harvest.
Approximately Sept 21st. Again the world returns to balance between night and day, the world above and the world below. Yet the nights are drawing in and wild huntsman gods of the underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd, Woden, the Holly King- are growing in power, to gather the souls of the dead at Samhain. A time to be grateful for the harvests, and the fruition of our plans as the earth grants one last burst of abundance in nut and berry before Autumn draws again towards Winter.