Despite competition from twentieth century "life in the fast lane",
the awesome spectacle repeated in the pattern of the changing seasons
still touches our lives. 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.
One result of this process is our image of the "Wheel of the Year"
with its eight spokes -- the four major agricultural and pastoral
festivals and the four minor solar festivals of the solstices and
equinoxes. In common with many ancient people, many Witches consider
the day as beginning at sundown and ending at sundown the following
day. So, for example, Samhain starts at dusk on the 31st, ending
the evening of the 1st.
October 31 -- November Eve -- Samhain
The night lengthens and we work with the positive aspects of
darkness in the increasing star- and moonlight. Many Craft
traditions, following the ancient Celts, consider this the eve
of the New Year (as day begins with sundown, so the year begins
with the first day of Winter). It is one night when the barriers
between the worlds of life and death are uncertain, allowing the
ancestors to walk among the living, welcomed and feasted by their
kin, bestowing the Otherworld's blessings. We may focus within
ourselves to look "through the glass darkly", developing our
divination and psychic skills.
December 21 -- Winter Solstice -- Yule
The sun is at its nadir, the year's longest night. We internalize
and synthesize the outward-directed activities of the previous
summer months. Some covens hold a Festival of Light to commemorate
the Goddess as Mother giving birth to the Sun God. Others celebrate
the victory of the Lord of Light over the Lord of Darkness as the
turning point from which the days will lengthen. The name "Yule"
derives from the Norse word for "wheel", and many of our customs
(like those of the Christian holiday) derive from Norse and Celtic
Pagan practices (the Yule log, the tree, the custom of Wassailing,
January 31 -- February Eve -- Imbolc (Oimelc) or Brigid
As the days' lengthening becomes perceptible, many candles are lit
to hasten the warming of the earth and emphasize the reviving of life.
"Imbolc" is from Old Irish, and may mean "in the belly", and Oimelc,
"ewe's milk", as this is the lambing time. It is the holiday of the
Celtic Fire Goddess Brigid, whose threefold nature rules smithcraft,
poetry/inspiration, and healing. Brigid's fire is a symbolic
transformation offering healing, visions, and tempering. Februum
is a Latin word meaning purification -- naming the month of cleansing.
The thaw releases waters (Brigid is also a goddess of holy wells) --
all that was hindered is let flow at this season.
March 21 -- Vernal Equinox -- Ostara
Day and night are equal as Spring begins to enliven the environment
with new growth and more newborn animals. Many people feel "reborn"
after the long nights and coldness of winter. The Germanic Goddess
Ostara or Eostre (Goddess of the Dawn), after whom Easter is named,
is the tutelary deity of this holiday. It is she, as herald of the
sun, who announces the triumphal return of life to the earth.
Witches in the Greek tradition celebrate the return from Hades of
Demeter's daughter Persephone; Witches in the Celtic tradition see
in the blossoms the passing of Olwen, in whose footprints flowers
bloom. The enigmatic egg, laid by the regenerating snake or the
heavenly bird, is a powerful symbol of the emergence of life out of
apparent death or absence of life.
April 30 -- May Eve -- Beltaine
As the weather heats up and the plant world burgeons, an exuberant
mood prevails. Folk dance around the Maypole, emblem of fertility
(the name "May" comes from a Norse word meaning "to shoot out new
growth"). May 1st was the midpoint of a five-day Roman festival
to Flora, Goddess of Flowers. The name "Beltaine" means "Bel's Fires";
in Celtic lands, cattle were driven between bonfires to bless them,
and people leaped the fires for luck. The association in Germany of
May Eve with Witches' gatherings is a memory of pre-Christian
tradition. "Wild" water (dew, flowing streams or ocean water) is
collected as a basis for healing drinks and potions for the year
June 21 -- Summer Solstice -- Litha or Midsummer
On this day, the noon of the year and the longest day, light and
life are abundant. We focus outward, experiencing the joys of
plenty, tasting the first fruits of the season. In some traditions
the sacred marriage of the Goddess and God is celebrated (in others,
this is attributed to the springtime holidays). Rhea, the Mountain
Mother of Crete, has breathed out all creation. It is also the
festival of the Chinese Goddess of Light, Li.
July 31 -- August Eve -- Lughnasadh or Lammas
This festival has two aspects. First, it is one of the Celtic fire
festivals, honoring the Celtic culture-bringer and Solar God Lugh
(Lleu to the Welsh, Lugus to the Gauls). In Ireland, races and
games were held in his name and that of his mother, Tailtiu
(these may have been funeral games). The second aspect is Lammas,
the Saxon Feast of Bread, at which the first of the grain harvest
is consumed in riutal loaves. These aspects are not too dissimilar,
as the shamanic death and transformation of Lleu can be compared to
that of the Barley God, known from the folksong "John Barleycorn".
This time is also sacred to the Greek Goddess of the Moon and the
September 21 -- Autumnal Equinox -- Mabon or Harvest Home
This day sees light and dark in balance again, before the descent
to the dark times. A harvest festival is held, thanking the Goddess
for giving us enough sustenance to feed us through the winter.
Harvest festivals of many types still occur today in farming country,
and Thanksgiving is an echo of these.
In this way the Wheel turns, bringing us back to Samhain where we
began our cycle. 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.
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