In the days beyond remembering, and certainly before the advent of electric lights and artificial time, our ancestors marked the turning of the seasons through their observation of the natural world. They built megalithic structures, like Stonehenge or Chaco Canyon, that marked the solstices and equinoxes. They created artwork like the Great Goddess of Laussel that expressed their understanding of the connection between the lunar round and a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Both the solar and the lunar cycles taught them that all of life moves in a circle.
We can imagine that the solar year was first divided by the earliest peoples into two main sections, winter and summer, which resonates with the qualities of dark and light, cold and hot, rest and work. Then it was divided into quarters, or the four seasons so familiar to everyone today. Across from each other on the circle are Winter Solstice (longest night, shortest day) and Summer Solstice (shortest night, longest day).* On the other sides of the circle are the equinoxes, Spring and Fall, when days and nights are of equal length.
Our Celtic ancestors went a step further, dividing each quarter in two, so that we have an eight-fold Wheel of the Year. The four holy-days (holidays) in between the main four are known as the cross-quarter days. They are: February 1st, Imbolc or Candlemas; May 1st, Beltane or May Day; August 1st, Lughnasa or Lammas; and November 1st, Samhain or Halloween.
Each of the eight holy-days ushers in a new “tide,”
. . . which marks changes in the natural world. Each holy-day and tide has certain myths, traditions and ceremonies associated with it. Many Pagan, pre-Christian practices were incorporated into the liturgical calendar after the spread of Christianity. Once-sacred holy-days became secular holidays. For example, the Celtic feast of Imbolc became Candlemas in the church calendar, and has come down to us as Groundhog Day.
The holy-days are:
Winter Solstice (Yule, Midwinter), December 20-22
We celebrate the Return of the Sun on the shortest day, longest night of the year.
Imbolc (Candlemas, Brigid’s Day), February 1-2
We mark the lengthening of days as Winter turns to Spring. Early shoots and blossoms appear, new lambs are born. A time of dedication and initiation.
Spring Equinox (Ostara), March 20-22
Days and nights are of equal length, with the days growing longer. We celebrate fertility and the resurrection of the earth.
Beltane (May Day, Floralia), May 1st
We celebrate sacred sexuality as Spring turns to Summer, with Maypoles and garlands of flowers and greenery.
Summer Solstice (Litha, Midsummer), June 20-22
We celebrate the power and peak of the Sun on the longest day, shortest night of the year.
Lammas (Lughnasa, Loafmass), August 1-2
We offer the first fruits of the harvest as Summer turns to Autumn. A time of sacrifice.
Autumn Equinox (Mabon), September 20-22
Days and nights are of equal length, with the nights growing longer. We gather in the harvest and prepare for winter.
Samhain (Halloween, All Soul’s), November 1st
We honor our Beloved Dead as Autumn turns to Winter, at the end of the harvest.
In my series of “30 Day” seasonal e-courses, we follow the Wheel of the Year as a meditation on the circle of life.
Each one of the courses starts a week before the holy-day. This is because the tide begins to shift about that time, in preparation for the new tide that’s coming in. Each holy day is a gateway, a threshold, a liminal time when it is said that there is a crack that opens between the worlds. Mara Freeman, in her lovely book Kindling the Celtic Spirit, says that the energy of the tide is strongest for three days before and three days after the feast day itself. I have found this to be true.
These thresholds give us the opportunity to slip between the worlds, to open ourselves up to divine guidance, and to seek the deep wisdom of the seasonal tide.
May our practices be blessed!
*This wheel refers to the Northern Hemisphere; our Australian and Brazilian friends experience Winter Solstice as the longest day, shortest night.