The Quarterly Feasts
written by Alexei Kondratiev

From the 2003 Celtic Calendar, an historical and mythological calendar now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

Samhain (1st of November)

The Coligny Calendar calls this the Trinouxtion Samonii, meaning, “Three Nights of the End of Summer.” After the last apples are picked, agricultural work ceases, and the year begins again with its dark winter half, in which the earth rests and fertility is renewed.

During the Festival all household lights are extinguished and then relit from the ceremonial bonfire. Because the period of the New Year is considered to be a gap in time, barriers between our world and the otherworld are removed, and one can cross from one world into the other. Providing hospitality to one’s dead ancestors is an important part of the feast, since the dead return to visit the homes where they lived.

The suspension of the laws of space and time extend to the laws of society, so that all kinds of role-switching and boisterous behavior can be indulged in. At the end of the festival, cattle that have been selected as food beasts are sacrificed and their life-energy goes to replenish the dormant soil.

The Brythonic names of the feast (Welsh: Calan Gaeaf, Cornish: Calan Gwaf, Breton: Kala-Goañv) mean “First Day of Winter.”

Alexei Kondratiev wrote a longer article on Samhain for the Imbas web site.

Imbolc (Oimealg) (1st of February)

This is the first day of spring, mid-way through the dark half of the year. Brigantia (Brigit), goddess of all creative activity, rekindles the fire in the earth, preparing it for the re-emergence of green things. This stirring of new life is manifested by the first flowing of milk in the udders of ewes, a few weeks before the lambing season.

Agricultural tools are re-consecrated for use, household fires and the fire of the smith’s forge are blessed by the goddess (often by a woman who plays the role of Brigit), and talismans of rushes, “Brigit’s crosses,” are made for the protection of homes. Brigit’s snake comes out of the mound in which it hibernates, and its behavior is thought to determine the length of the remaining period of frost (Americans will recognize this as the origin of “Ground Hog’s Day”).

In the Brythonic-speaking lands, Brigantia has come to be assimilated into the Virgin Mary, leading to such names for the feast as Welsh Gwyl Mair Dechrau’r Gwanwyn (“Feast of Mary of the Beginning of Spring”); and Breton Gouel Varia ar Gouloù (“Feast of the Mary of the Light”) — although Welsh also uses the term Gwyl Ffraed (“Brigit’s Feast”). In modern Gaelic the name Lá Fheile Bride, meaning Brigit’s Feast Day (Manx: Laa’l Breeshey) is more commonly used than Oimealg.

Bealtaine (1st of May)

On this day the year begins its bright summer half. The event is associated with the myth of a young Summer God released from captivity, or with that of a young Summer Maiden wooed away from her retentive earth-giant father. In some areas a hawthorn tree (representing the giant) is cut down and used as a maypole.

The festival has come to focus primarily on the figure of Belenos, a god of light and healing with a special affinity for cattle. Cattle are driven between sacred bonfires to protect them from disease — hence the name of the feast, Bel-tine, “fire of Bel(ennos).”

The Brythonic names of the feast (Welsh: Calan Mai, Cornish: Kala’ Me, Breton: Kala-Mae) mean “First Day of May.”

Steve Devillo wrote a longer article on Bealtaine for This Month in Celtic History.

Lúghnasadh (Lúnasa) (1st of August)

Before the harvest can begin, the greedy Fomorian earth-spirits must be persuaded to relinquish the fruits of the soil to human use. It is the great god Lúgh (or Lleu) who accomplishes this, since he is kin to both the gods of the tribe and the giants of the earth. He dies, is resurrected, and gains the victory over the Fomorians.

This long festival season is marked by rituals to ensure a successful harvest, pageants to commemorate the victory of Lúgh, and various communal pastimes — horse races, sporting events, fairs — that bring together the scattered households and reinforce the identity of the tribe.