Many of us who were introduced to Paganism through some form of Wicca received an explanation of the generally accepted eight holidays most commonly observed by the majority of the Pagan community. Depending on your teacher, your group’s style, or the books you read, the background of these holidays may have been explained in depth or very little. Many Wiccan “how-to” books barely mention a specific deity name, and some groups I’ve done ritual with simply skim over deity invocations and the like.When I decided to explore Celtic Paganism in depth and learn more about the character of the deities and take part in the older traditions, many of these holidays developed a greater meaning for me. If you are new to all this, may it be the same for you in time…
For the ancient Celts, the year was divided into two seasons; these were gam, which meant winter -the dark half of the year, and sam, which was summer -the light half of the year.
At the beginning of the cycle is Samhain – it marks the end of the sam season and the beginning of the gam season. Taking place at the eve of November it is considered both a beginning and an end- the Celtic “New Year” and a time of remembrance of the ancestors. At the opposite of Samhain is Bealtaine at the eve of May ushering in the sam of the year.
The light and dark halves of the year, the sam and the gam, are further divided in two. These divisions are Imbolc at the beginning of February and Lughnasadh at the beginning of August.
I will talk more about these as each season approaches.
In the Celtic way of thinking, a day begins on the previous night- the eve. Everything begins in darkness. This is so true… think about the darkness of the womb, the blackness of space, the rich deep darkness of the soil.
Celtic feast days would traditionally last seven days- three days before, and three days after. Few people can take that much time to celebrate anything anymore. But if you think about it, this kind of gives some lee-way to planning a ritual. There has been at least two calendar changes since the Celtic feast days were established- after the Roman invasion, it was to the Julian calendar, then in the mid-18th century to the Gregorian calendar, which put everything 11 days before the “old reckoning”.
But originally, the holidays were not dates on a calendar, but changed from year to year in accordance with actual seasonal indicators like cycles of certain animals and plants, and subtle changes in weather patterns. (For example; Bealtaine was when the Hawthorne was in bloom.)
About the Equinoxes and Solstices
And so you may have noticed that the Celtic High Days, or Feast Days totaled four. There is less information to go on as to how the ancient Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes. Monuments like Newgrange and Stonehenge that were designed to align with the rising of the solstice sun were built before the Celts arrived on the scene, but may well have been used by them. However, it is evident that it wasn’t until later times that Celtic peoples started celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, and this seems to have been from Norse influence.