The Wheel of the Year
In the hectic times of today it is easy to forget that our Celtic ancestors lived and worked according to the seasons and the turning wheel of the year. Nowadays, we have no real need to know the phase of the moon or exactly what is happening in nature around us. We are no longer accustomed to working with the natural tides and energies of nature, the tides of sowing, growing, reaping and resting, which would have been such an integral part of our ancestors’ lives.
This booklet takes us on a journey through the Celtic year, pausing to look at each of the eight festivals which mark so readily the changing of the seasons. There is no true beginning or end to the yearly cycle, but we will start with Imbolc, when new growth is all around. Simply observing these times allows each of us to reconnect with the seasons and the tides of energy which work with them and with us, for we are still a part of the land and the ever changing cycle of nature.
It only takes a little effort to attune to nature and to rediscover your roots. Take the first step now....
The festival of Imbolc falls at the beginning of February, half way between the winter solstice when the days are at their shortest and the spring equinox, when day and night are of equal length.
The Celtic peoples celebrated this time in recognition of the growing light following the winter solstice and new life in the year to come. Subsequently, candles play an important part in the celebration of Imbolc and this is also the time when we see the first flowers of spring appear and the days beginning to lengthen.
Also known as Bride’s Day, this became St Brigit’s Day to the Irish Celts and in Scotland she was known as Bride. St Brigit was associated with springs of water and was the guardian of farm animals.
In Celtic homes, this was the time for cleaning. Spring flowers would have been placed around the house alongside green ivy leaves, and candles lit and blessed on this day. Because of the importance of water at this time of the year, wells were often dressed and decorated with spring flowers and greenery.
Modern day Pagans light a candle at Imbolc to rededicate themselves to their personal spiritual goals and the growing light symbolises their hopes and aspirations for the year ahead. Snowdrops are the traditional flower with which to decorate the altar.
At this time, take a moment to enjoy the signs of spring around us, the return of new life and the growing light from our candles heralding the longer days to come. This is the Tide of Sowing as seeds for the future are sown and stays with us until the festival of Beltane.
Ostara – the spring equinox
The spring equinox falls around 21st March, half way between the winter solstice, when the days are at their shortest, and the summer solstice, when the days are longest. It marks the time of light and darkness being of equal length and was seen by the Celtic people as a time of balance and an opportunity to welcome the return of the lengthening days of summer.
The Christian festival of Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ, falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox and this is why Easter moves each year.
Known as Ostara to modern day Pagans, this time of the year and indeed the names it is known by, is very much connected with new life, as shown by the tradition of decorating, giving and receiving Easter eggs.
The Celtic festival of Beltane, also known as May Day, falls on 1st May, between the spring equinox, when day and night are of equal length, and the summer solstice when daylight is at its longest.
The month of May heralds the first green buds on the trees and the delicate flowers of the blackthorn, followed by the hawthorn, the traditional tree of May. The old saying, ‘ne’er cast a clout ‘til May be out’, refers to the tree rather than the month. May is indeed one of the most beautiful months of the year, when the landscape becomes vibrant with greenery and the promise of new life is all around us.
May Day, a traditional time of celebration, is also known as Beltane. Bel was known to be an ancient Sun God and Tan is Celtic for Fire. The peoples of old lit fires at this time in order to burn sacred herbs, through which they drove cattle, sheep and other livestock in order that they should be protected in their pastures during the summer months.
The tradition of the celebration of May Day still holds strong in Padstow with its ‘Obby ‘Oss and the Helston Furry Dance.
At one time, a Maypole stood on every village green, until the 17th century when, under Puritan rule, any kind of merriment was frowned upon and may-poles were deliberately cut down.
An ancient symbol of this time is the hare which has a number of Pagan associations and symbolises magic and fertility. With the progression of time, the symbol of the hare has become the Easter bunny, so well known by children today.
Yellow is the colour of Easter and Ostara, and it can be seen all around us now, in the burning yellow of the gorse and brightness of the daffodils which contrast so delicately with the greenery and new shoots appearing everywhere.
Now is the time the Celtic peoples would have been busy sowing their crops to ensure a good harvest later in the year. Mark this day by sprinkling seeds of flowers to bloom in the summer for use in midsummer celebrations.
Candles are lit at this time to welcome the growing strength of the sun which was so important to the Celtic people, who lived from the land and marked their days by the turning wheel of the year.
The binding with ribbons and circling dance steps represented the eternal tidal pattern of energy being sent down from the sun, and the unwinding showed how, through the spreading growth of plants, the power was returned to the sky in an unending pattern. The Celtic peoples circled the Maypole for fertility and jumped the Beltane fires for luck.
Today, May Day or Beltane, is seen as a time of merriment and celebration of the new growth and life around us. Join this celebration and honour the beauty of the spring greenery around us and the coming of the summer months. This is the end of the Tide of Sowing and the beginning of the Tide of Growing as everything around blossoms and blooms, and stays with us until Lammas.
Lithia – the summer solstice
The summer solstice occurs around the 21st June and marks the point of the year when the hours of daylight are at their longest. Following the summer solstice the days begin to shorten as we head towards the autumn equinox, when the hours of day and night will be equal, followed by the winter solstice, when the daylight hours are at their shortest.
Solstice means ‘standstill’ and refers to the way the sun appears to rise and set in the same place for a few days around the 21st June.
Midsummer is traditionally the time to celebrate the power of the sun at its zenith. At Midsummer, St John’s Eve or the longest day, all which fall between 21st and 24th June, Cornwall once had a tradition of lighting bonfires on the beacon hills and high points of the county. It was thought that if enough fires were lit in a network over the landscape the power of the sun would be enhanced. Fire ritually strengthened the sun to swell fruits and ripen grain and it protected both humans and livestock from insect-borne disease.
The Celts would light balefires all over their lands from sunset the night before Midsummer until sunset the next day. Around these flames the festivities would take place. In Cornwall up to the mid 18th century the number and appearance of fires seen from any given point was used as a form of divination to read the future.
Midsummer was the traditional time to cut magical plants and healing herbs, which the Celtic peoples used for magical and medicinal purposes as well as dyes, flavourings for food and drink, skin lotions, cosmetics and floor coverings. This is the peak of the Tide of Growing as nature and growth flourishes all around us.
Mark the midsummer solstice by lighting candles to reflect and honour the power of the sun and use flowers for decoration, the seeds of which may have been sown at the spring equinox.
The Celtic festival of Lammas falls on August 1st and marks the midpoint of the summer half of the year between May and November.
The Anglo-Saxons called the start of August Hlafmas or Loaf-mass, and it is also known as Lughnasad, the Feast of the Celtic Sun God, Lugh, who was seen as a God of Light whose spirit was the life of the growing corn.
There was a tradition, which still survives today in some parts, called ‘Crying the Neck’. As it was believed unlucky to be the person to cut the last sheaf of wheat, farmers would all hurl their sickles at the base of the last upright tuft of corn so that no one knew who had symbolically slain the Corn Spirit.
From the last sheaf would be woven the Corn Dolly, which would be taken indoors and kept all winter until the spring sowing, when the corn would be shaken out of the ears and added to the rest of the seed corn. This ensured that the magical fertility saved from the last strands of the previous harvest was shared among the new crop. Corn Dollies symbolised fertility and the Earth Mother. They were often tied with red ribbon, representing the life force and energy of the sun.
Traditionally a time of harvest, this was when the Celtic peoples reaped their crops and fruits and celebrated the earth’s bounty, while taking a moment to rest after their long months of toil. This is the ending of the Tide of Growing and the beginning of the Tide of Reaping as the harvest is brought in.
Mark this festival by sharing food in acknowledgement of the bounty given to us by nature over the summer months, and take a moment to acknowledge nature and enjoy the company of others.
Mabon – the autumn equinox
The autumn equinox falls around 21st September, between the festivals of Lammas and Samhain, and marks the point of the year when, as with the spring equinox, day and night are of equal length. However, following the autumn equinox the days grow steadily shorter until the time of the winter solstice.
The autumn equinox was traditionally a time of harvest for the Celtic people, and a time of well earned relaxation when the crops had finally been brought in before the onset of winter. This is a dramatic time in the wheel of the year as high summer changes to autumn, fruits appear, leaves change colour and the shortening days begin to be discernable. Along with the harvested crops there is a always wealth of berries to be found in the hedgerows at this time of year and today we can still harvest these for ourselves.
September 29th is the Feast Day of St Michael, to whom many hilltop churches are dedicated, such as those at St Michael’s Mount, Brentor and Glastonbury, as St Michael was the patron of high places. This month also sees the blooming of the Michaelmas Daisies, special to this time of the year.
Now was the time for thanks to be given for the harvest which would mean good or hard times during the long winter months to come, and perhaps at this point more than any other we see the importance of nature and the land to the Celtic people.
The Autumn Equinox is the last of the eight festivals of the Celtic Year, the next being Samhain, and the beginning of the year’s cycle all over again.
The Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) falls on 31st October, between the autumn equinox, when day and night are of equal length, and the winter solstice, the shortest day, and marks the end and beginning of the Celtic year.
This is when it is traditionally thought that the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest and hence is the time for divination and contacting those who reside in the Otherworld.
The Celtic name of this season, which probably fell at the full moon following the first real frost, was Samhain, or Summmer’s End, it being the closing of the door to the year opened at Beltane or May Day and a time of gathering in before the winter.
Today, often known as Hallowe’en, this name is derived from the Christian All Saints Day which falls on 1st November and therefore 31st October became called All Hallows Eve – Hallowe’en. Many of the old traditions concerning the spirits of the dead and divination still survive to this day although they have been changed over the years and people do not always understand their origins.
This is a time of completions and new beginnings. This is the end of the Tide of Reaping and the beginning of the Tide of Resting, Death and Renewal, soon to be reflected in the earth around us as she rests during the winter months.
At this time, light a candle in remembrance of your ancestors and those who have gone before you and see this as a time of rest and contemplation over the winter period, before the festivities of Yule and the return of the spring.
Yule – the winter solstice
Now with bright holly all your temples strow
With laurel green and sacred mistletoe
The winter solstice occurs around the 21st December, and marks the point of the year when the hours of daylight are at their shortest. Following the winter solstice the days begin to lengthen as we head towards the spring equinox, when the hours of day and night are equal, followed by the summer solstice, when the daylight hours are at their longest.
Accordingly, the ancient peoples celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the sun, the darkest days of winter being behind them and spring on the way, as the days lengthen. The lighting of candles is traditional to welcome the return of the sun and the bringing in of greenery at this time represented its survival until the spring.
In days long ago, there would have been a lengthy feast, from the winter solstice until the beginning of January, when it was seen that the days were beginning to lengthen. This was known as Yuletide, the term ‘Yul’ meaning ‘wheel’ as in the turning wheel of the year, and the decoration of the solstice wreath with greenery reflects this. The solstice wreath symbolises the wheel of the year and the completion of another cycle of the seasons.
The traditional greenery to use at this time of year is holly, ivy and mistletoe. Holly symbolises the undying life in the dark days of winter together with the warmth of blood and fire. The Druids considered holly sacred and used it for healing the sick. Whereas holly represents the fiery masculine aspect of oneself, ivy is the intuitive, feminine side and the entwining of the two was believed to bring balance and luck during the coming year.
The Druids held nothing more sacred than mistletoe, which they regarded as a universal healer and this is a traditional plant used for decoration at this time of year. The custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe originated in the Middle Ages, when it was called the Holy Bough.
At this time, celebrate the return of the sun, the turning wheel of the year and look forwards to the spring.
May peace and plenty be the first to lift
the latch on your door
and happiness be guided to your home
by the candle of Christmas
The Celtic Year
31st October – Celtic New Year, Samhain,
(preparing for winter, remembering the departed)
21st December, winter solstice, Yule, (shortest day)
1st February, Imbolc, (growing light / new life)
21st March – Ostara, spring equinox, (day and night equal)
1st May – Beltane, May Day,
(celebrating the return of summer)
21st June – Lithia, summer solstice, (longest day)
1st August – Lammas, (harvest)
21st September – Mabon, autumn equinox,
(day and night equal)
31st October – Samhain, end/beginning Celtic New Year
I hope you have found this brief journey through the year enjoyable and that you have, even if only in a small way, felt a part of the cycle of the year and reconnected with the turning of the seasons.
There are many more books available on this subject which go into much more depth than there has been space to do here – and numerous further pathways to follow for those who are interested.
May your journey be long and fruitful and the seasons kind to you along the way.