Looking at the festivals that celebrate the changing seasons in the Wheel of the Year. The meaning of these feast days and how to celebrate them.
Did you know that some of the UK's best loved holidays have their roots in Paganism? Many famous feast days demonstrate a continuance of spirituality down through the centuries. For instance, it's likely that you celebrate Christmas, Easter and Halloween even if you don't go to church, and in doing so you are keeping the connection with your ancient past and the cycles of nature that these, originally Pagan, festivals marked.
Most of the many different strands of modern Paganism recognise the Wheel of the Year as the cyclical calendar representing the changing stages of nature, human life and farming. The Wheel marks the two solstices (when the sun reaches the highest or lowest point in the sky), two equinoxes (when the earth is tilted so day and night are almost equal lengths) and the four points between each, making eight main festivals of the year.
YULE Winter Solstice December 21 (Christmas) What does it mean? The term 'Yule' might reference a Norse fire festival or it could be derived from the Anglo Saxon word for 'wheel'. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year but it is also the turning point when the hours of daylight begin to increase and the hours of night shorten, bringing the earth out of darkness into light. So the festival celebrates the rebirth of the sun. A Roman feast called Saturnalia was celebrated at winter solstice, where it was custom to decorate the home with greenery, exchange presents and break from work. Followers of Mithras (a Persian cult contemporaneous to Christianity) had December 25 as the birthday of their sun god. A time for: Taking stock of the year that has passed; regenerating yourself and gathering you strength and purpose for the year ahead.
IMBOLC February 2 (Candlemass) What does it mean? As winter melts, the earth wakes up. This festival celebrates the first signs of spring and the beginning of the agricultural calendar. Plants begin to sprout and the lambing season gets underway. The newborn sun is in his infancy but growing stronger everyday. This is the season of the Celtic deity Brigid, patron of crafts and goddess of fertility. A time for: Planning new beginnings; thinking of fresh ways to achieve your goals in the future, laying down the foundations of a new life. Imbolc is the time to perform small but important tasks that are sometimes neglected in the rush of the year, such as crafts, rituals, health checks, or de-cluttering your home.
OSTARA or Eostre Spring Equinox March 21 (Easter) What does it mean? The Germanic fertility goddess, Eostre, gives her name to this feast day. At Ostara light conquers dark as the days become longer and brighter. The celebration is about renewal and rebirth - the endlessly renewing cycle of life, death and resurrection. The Easter bunny is the hare, which is the sacred animal of many Moon goddesses. The Easter egg symbolises new life but also the balance of male and female (Sun and Moon) with the golden yolk encased in luminescent white. A time for: Action. Start the new projects you planned at Imbolc. Forge ahead with creative ideas. This is the moment to put plans into action.
Beltane May 1 May Day What does it mean? A fire festival when the heat and passion of the summer months are reaching their height. The term 'Beltane' comes from the name of the Celtic god 'Bel', meaning 'the bright one' and the Gaelic word 'teine' meaning fire. The union of the sky and the earth (resulting in crops to feed the population) is re-enacted in the May Queen celebrations. Beltane is a prayer for fertility - of the land and of the people. A time for: Cleansing and purifying yourself and your home. Gathering family together. It is considered auspicious to get married at Beltane.
Litha June 21 - 25 Summer Solstice Midsummer What does it mean? This marks the longest day light hours and shortest night of the year. The season of light has reached its peak and the Wheel of the Year begins to turn back to darkness. Fires are lit to symbolise the glowing heat of the sun. A time for: Celebrating your achievements so far this year. Think about how you can develop and increase upon your successes of the year. Revel in the beauty of the natural world. Picnic with family and friends or go camping in the countryside.
Lammas August 1 Lughnasadh What does it mean? This feast day marks the first harvest of grain, and the word is probably derived from 'loaf mass'. It is also the festival of Lugh, a Celtic Sun deity. But while the Sun god celebrates, growth is slowing and the Sun moves past its peak. A time for: Honouring family connections, especially your female relatives: mother, grandmother and daughters. Lammas reminds us that the seeds of the future harvests are present even through the darkness of winter. Also a time for identifying and making changes in your life.
Mabon Autumn Equinox September 21 Night and day are once more equal, a solar event that our ancestors used to symbolise the equilibrium between male and female and the balance of each person's physical and spiritual strength. Mabon is the Welsh god of light; Eostre's counterpart. Autumn Equinox marks the second harvest of fruit and is celebrated with harvest festivals showing the abundance of the year. A time for: Gathering your strength for the months ahead. Ensuring that you are in balance and at the peak of your health physically, mentally and spiritually to prepare for the tougher times ahead.
Samhain Halloween October 31 What does it mean? One of the main festivals of the Wheel of the Year. Now all harvests are complete. The cycle of growth has ended. Seeds have fallen back into the earth and all is seemingly without life. But light always follows dark and the promise of a new year is just around the corner. Buried seeds will germinate and life will resurrect. This is a magical time of year when anything is possible. A time for: Contemplation - letting your thoughts run towards seemingly impossible dreams. Remember your loved ones: think about people and animals who have departed this world and offer a prayer for them.