This is another item from my ADF Dedicant studies; short essays on each of the eight ADF High Days including a discussion of the meaning of each feast.
Essays on the Eight High Days
Winter Solstice / Yule
Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year. It occurs sometime between December 20th to 22nd each year. The Norse- originated holiday associated with the Winter Solstice is Yule. However, Yule is considered a season; hence the phrase “Yuletide Season”. Ásatrúar and Fyrnsidu folks celebrate Yule for twelve nights, beginning on Modranecht (Solstice night). Modranecht is a celebration of the family’s female Ancestors; Idesa for the Anglo-Saxons, Dísir for the Norse. A lot of customs that were thought to have originated in Pagan times are actually quite new. For example, the Yule (Christmas) tree is less that three hundred years old, originating in early modern Germany. Yet one must wonder if it was a lingering Pagan mindset that created such a tradition, for the tree veneration symbolism is obvious. The Yule tree is the World Tree, the Yggdrasil or Irminsul. One Anglo-Saxon tradition that is truly ancient is Wassailing, which was originally a ceremony of singing and drinking to the health of apple trees. The Wassail is a drink of hot mulled cider. Also, the traditions of bringing greenery in the home, burning a Yule log, and caroling, all have ancient Norse origins.
Many Neopagans celebrate this holiday as the re-birth of the sun. Heathens celebrate Yule starting on Modranecht by lighting candles on a Yule log, having a ritual honoring the Dísir/Idesa, and feasting and celebrating the Twelve Nights of Yule. On the Twelve Nights, each of the months of the year are reflected upon, and on the first nine nights, each of the Nine Noble Virtues are meditated upon. On the Twelfth Night, oaths are sworn.
Imbolc / Ewemeolc / Disting
On February 2nd falls a holiday that commemorates the first signs of Spring. Imbolc is a Gaelic word that refers to lactation of ewes. The Anglo-Saxon name for this holiday is Ewemeolc and also celebrates the lactation of ewes. It is also the commemoration of the agricultural year, reflected in the ceremony known as the blessing of the plough, in which farming implements are blessed and cakes offered to the Earth Mother. For Ásatrú folk, the holiday celebrated at this time of the year is Disting, in honor of the Dísir, or female guardian spirits.
In Gaelic culture, Imbolc is also a High Day which is dedicated to a specific deity: Bríd (or Brigit), the goddess of poetry, healing, and smith-craft. Many Neopagans follow the Irish traditions of weaving new Bríd’s crosses/triskelles to put up over doorways and windows, and making a Bríd doll. The Scottish custom of stepping through “Bríd’s Girdle” (a rope hoop) to symbolize rebirth/renewal is a lesser- known custom. Since this is a holiday of purification and renewal, it is the time to do a thorough physical house cleaning, and a spiritual house cleaning ritual using juniper smoke and water. Many Neopagans see this holiday as a time of celebrating early spring and they celebrate by lighting candles and honoring fire goddesses and/or maiden goddesses.
Spring Equinox / Ēostre
The Spring (or vernal) equinox is one of the two times each year in which the tilt of the Earth’s axis in in a position in which the equator is lined up with the center of the sun. It occurs sometime between March 20th to 23rd. (The other time of the year this happens is the autumnal equinox in September.) It is commonly thought that the equinoxes are times of equal day and equal night, but this is not strictly so, for on most places on earth, day and night only come close to being equal.
The Neopagan holiday associated with the Spring Equinox is most commonly called Ôstarâ (Old High German) or Ēostre (Anglo-Saxon). These were names for a goddess that we actually know very little about. The only mention of her is from an eighth century Christian cleric known as the Venerable Bede. He refers to her as the heathen goddess after whom a spring month was named, and that during that month a holiday was celebrated in her honor. Her name may mean “to shine”, and linguists think she may be the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn known as Hausos. Some Norse Pagans equate her with Idunn, keeper of the apples of youth. Most Neopagans associate the unexplained (but seemingly Pagan) symbols of “Easter” (rabbits, colored eggs) with the goddess Ēostre.
This High Day marks the end of Winter and the beginning of the season of rebirth. Most Neopagans mark this High Day by honoring maiden goddesses and celebrating the rebirth of nature. Many (especially those with children) reclaim the traditions of “Easter” by coloring eggs, having egg hunts, and sharing a special dinner.
Beltane / May Day
Beltane (or Irish Bealtaine), May 1st, is the Celtic beginning of Summer. The name probably means bright fire or new fire. Historically, it was the day that the Tuatha Dé Danann first arrived in Ireland. At Beltane, the herds were brought out to summer grazing lands. All fires were put out and rekindled from the Beltane fires. People jumped over the Beltane fire for luck. The livestock were driven between two fires for purification from disease and as a way for the deities to bless the herds and insure fertility. Other customs that survive in varying degrees include hilltop gatherings, rising at dawn to bathe your face in May dew (for beauty and youthfulness), and gathering flowers. These flowers are used to make flower crowns and fill May baskets (little paper cones filled with flowers given to friends and neighbors). It is traditionally a time that the fairies are out, about, and mischievous, for it is considered one of the three “spirit nights” when the veil is thin between this world and the Otherworld. (The other two spirit nights are Samhain and Midsummer.)
The Maypole is a tradition of German origin at dates back to the 16th century- and the kind with ribbons that are woven around is an even more recent variation. The tradition really caught on with the Anglo-Saxons. Morris Dancing is also an Anglo-Saxon tradition of May Day. The Celtic tradition is/was to decorate a May bush- a branch of piece of a tree (sometimes a living tree) decorated with flowers and blown eggs. Some of these decorate the inside of homes, some are set outside- the ones outside were danced around in the evening of Beltane.
Neopagans celebrate as many of these customs as is possible for the group’s or individual’s circumstances. I’d like to note, according to Vance Randolph in “Ozark Superstitions”, there are many Ozarks May Day customs including; packing away winter clothes in Sassafras leaves, and going barefoot outside for the first time in the year.
Summer Solstice / Midsummer
The Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year. Astronomically (and on our calendars), it marks the beginning of summer, but seasonally, and in the Celtic way of reckoning, it is in fact Midsummer. However, across Europe, Midsummer is not celebrated on the actual solstice, it is celebrated on June 24th. The reason for this is because the 24th was the date of the solstice when the Julian calendar was created.
Traditions surrounding Midsummer mostly involve fire; lighting fires on hilltops, and in Wales, rolling a flaming wheel down a hill (it symbolizes the journey of the sun). It is also traditional to gather healing herbs on Midsummer. In Ireland, Midsummer was known as one of the three ‘spirit nights’ of the year (the others being Bealtaine and Samhain). All sorts of rituals and magic were enacted for protection against fairies. In western Ireland, especially around Cnoc Aine, Midsummer is closely associated with the fairy queen Aine.
Neopagans celebrate Midsummer by honoring sun deities and fire, and by burning sun symbols in honor of the sun. In Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, the sun deities are goddesses.
Lughnasadh / Lammas
The traditional date of this High Day was August 1st, though Lughnasadh themed fairs take place throughout the month of August in Ireland. Lughnasadh means ‘the gathering of Lugh’. Despite the name, Lughnasadh was not so much a holiday in honor of Lugh, but rather, it was called by him to honor his foster-mother Tailtiu (pronounced tal-chuh). Her name meant “Great One of the Earth”. Legend has it she died in the effort of clearing land for agriculture. The Lughnasadh games were her funeral games. Her burial place was Teltown. An older name for this High Day is Bron Trogain, which means “the earth’s sorrowing in Autumn”.
Although it is widely believed in the Pagan community that Lugh was/is a sun and harvest god, many scholars believe this simply wasn’t so. What we do know about him is that he was/is a lord of every skill, patron of the arts, traveling, influence and commerce. He was called Lamfhada or ‘of the long arm’ in Gaelic because of his great spear and sling. He was called “the shining one”, but so were many other Celtic deities and this may have been simply a general term they used to refer to their gods, just as ADF Druids do today. The epithet “shining one” could mean something other than the sun as well. Many wonder if he was a lightning god, for in County Mayo thunderstorms were referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor.
In early Ireland Lughnasadh was a time of inter-tribal gathering, a time for races, competitive games, trading (especially of sheep and horses), reunions, marriage/handfasting (also called “Teltown marriages”), and of fairs. Lughnasadh was also a traditional time for gathering on hilltops, and for picking fraughans (wild blueberries).
Many Neopagans use the terms Lughnasadh and Lammas interchangeably. However, Lughnasadh’s traditional emphasis seems to have been on fairs and competitions. Lammas (the holiday’s English Christian name) is a feast of first grains harvested. Baking bread is an especially important part of this day. Many Heathens honor the god Thunor/Thor and the goddess Sif (Thor’s wife) at this time. The reason for this is that Thor brings thunder the thunderstorms that nourish the grains and Sif is popularly thought to be a grain goddess. Most Neopagans celebrate this holiday with a meal of breads and first fruits, and honoring deities of grain, sun or thunder, and earth.
Autumn Equinox / Harvest Home
The Autumn equinox (as stated above for the Spring Equinox) is one of the two times each year in which the tilt of the Earth’s axis in in a position in which the equator is lined up with the center of the sun. It occurs in September sometime between the 20th to 23rd.
Another name for this holiday is “Harvest Home”. Although Harvest Home is actually the name of a Christian harvest festival started in the mid-1800s in England (celebrated the first Sunday after the full moon, “Harvest Moon”, closest to the equinox), the holiday clearly has an older-than-Christianity origin. Ásatrú folk celebrate Haustblót (“fall sacrifice”) or Winter Finding at the time of Autumn Equinox, and honor the Álfar (Elves).
Celebrating the harvest and feasting are big themes for the Autumn Equinox, but many Neopagans also celebrate the theme of balance, because of the (approximate) equal night, equal day theme.
Samhain / Hallows
Samhain, October 31st to November 1st, marks the Celtic end of Summer and the end of the harvest season. It is the origin of Halloween (appropriated in to Christianity as “All Hallows Eve”), and a time especially for honoring the Ancestors. Some Fyrnsidu call this day “Hallows”, in Ásatrú it is called “Winternights”, and is commemorated in mid-October. It’s the time of the Wild Hunt, in which a group of spirit huntsmen on horses and with hunting dogs go in wild pursuit across the skies, sweeping up those in their path, to bring to the land of the dead. The Wild Hunt is a widespread legend common to many Indo-European cultures, and the leader of the hunt varies according to the culture. In Norse culture the Wild Hunt would take place at Yule instead, or in addition to Winternights. At Samhain the boundary between our world and the worlds of the dead are closer, thinner, easier to traverse, and so spirits may pass between the worlds; the dead to the land of the living and also the living to the land of the dead. Neopagans prepare the favorite meals of departed loved ones and Ancestors, set a place at the table for them, and prepare a special shrine to them. Often this meal is eaten in silence, called the “Dumb Supper”. This is also a favored time for divination of all kinds.