Most Pagan religions follow the Wheel of the Year for celebrations (names and exact dates may vary).
Almost all Pagans celebrate a cycle of eight festivals, which are spaced every six or seven weeks through the year and divide the wheel into eight segments.
Four of the festivals have Celtic origins and are known by their Celtic names. The rites practiced at these festivals help followers attune themselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the moon and the seasonal quarters.
The other four festivals are points in the solar calendar. These are, Spring Equinox, Autumn Equinox, Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice. Some Pagan traditions only celebrate the solstices and equinoxes. Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge act as gigantic solar calendars which marked the solstices and equinoxes and show that solar festivals have been significant dates for hundreds of thousands of years.
· Samhain or Winter Night 31st October/1st November
Samhain (pronounced ‘sow’inn’) is the most important date in the Pagan calendar as it marks the death of one year and the birth of another for most Pagans (although some Pagans use Imbolc for their new year).
This time of year has been celebrated in Britain for centuries and was the most important festival of the year for the Celts of iron age Ireland who saw it as a time when gods of the Otherworld mingled with men. They celebrated with feasting and boasted about their conquests in battle, proving their stories by showing the tongues of their opponents on sticks.
When the Romans invaded Britain they added on elements of their harvest celebrations in which they honoured the goddess of the fruits of trees, Pomona. Later when Christians tried to supplant pagan festivals, they concealed Samhain in the guise of All Saints Day (or All Hallows Eve), when the all Christian saints were remembered (in place of the pagan gods).
The modern Hallowe’en is perhaps all that is left of the festival for most people. However, Pagans retain elements from all these historical celebrations. While death is still the central theme of the festival this does not mean it is a morbid event. For Pagans, death is not a thing to be feared. Old age is valued for its wisdom and dying is accepted as a part of life as necessary and welcome as birth. At Samhain loved ones who have died are remembered and their spirits are often invited to join the living for feasts.
Death also symbolises endings, so the passing of relationships, jobs and periods of life are reflected upon. These things can now be sanctified and life can move on. Samhain heralds in a time of darkness and disorder. Like the Celts, modern Pagans see it as a time when the boundary between the spirit world and the earthly world is at its thinnest.
Practising Pagans use personal rituals to make contact with people who have died and to make contact with the divine. Feasting is part of most celebrations. While some Pagans recall the debaucherous Celtic festivities and indulge in excesses of alcohol and food, others choose to celebrate frugally, without the use of any intoxicants. Many are vegetarians, while others support organic/free range farming, as an expression of Pagan respect for nature.
· Beltane or May Eve 30th April/1st May
Beltane is a Celtic word which means ‘fires of Bel’ (Bel was a Celtic deity). It is a fire festival that celebrates of the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year. Celtic festivals often tied in with the needs of the community. In springtime, at the beginning of the farming calendar, everybody would be hoping for a fruitful year for their families and fields.
Festivities generally involved fire which was thought to cleanse, purify and increase fertility. Cattle were often passed between two fires and the properties of the flame and the smoke were seen to ensure the fertility of the herd. Fire is still the most important element of most Beltane celebrations and there are many traditions associated with it. It is seen to have purifying qualities which cleanse and revitalise. People, leap over the Beltane fire to bring good fortune, fertility (of mind, body and spirit) and happiness through the coming year. The largest Beltane celebrations in the UK are held in Edinburgh. Fires are lit at night and wild festivities carry on until dawn. But all around the UK fires are lit and private celebrations are held amongst covens and groves (groups of Pagans) to mark the start of the summer.
Beltane rituals would often include courting, for example, young men and women collecting blossoms in the woods and lighting fires in the evening. These rituals would often lead to matches and marriages, either immediately in the coming summer or autumn. Today’s Pagans believe that at Beltane the God Bel achieves the strength and maturity to court and become lover to the Goddess.
Although what happens in the fields has lost its significance for most Pagans today, the creation of fertility is still an important issue. Because of its sexual imagery, the tradition of dancing round the maypole is still very popular with modern Pagans. Others see fertility as referring to the need for active and creative lives. We need fertile minds for our work, our families and our interests.
· Lughnasadh, or Freysfest, Lammas 2nd/4th August
Lughnasadh (pronounced ‘loo’nass’ah’) comes at the beginning of August. Celts held the festival of the Irish god Lugh at about this time. The festival is known as Freysfest or Lammas by some Pagan traditions, remembering the Anglo-Saxon festival of hlaefmass (loaf mass) also held at this time.
For agricultural communities this was the first day of the harvest, when the fields would be glowing with corn and reaping would begin. The harvest period would continue until Samhain when the last stores for the winter months would be put away.
Although farming is not an important part of modern life, Lughnasadh is still very much seen as a harvest festival by Pagans and symbols connected with the reaping of corn predominate in its rites.
· Imbolc, or Oimelc, Disfest, Candlemas 1st/2nd February
Associated with the coming again of light and life, Imbolc (pronounced ‘im’olk’) was important to the Celts. For them the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores of food were getting low Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later.
Like many Celtic festivals, the Imbolc celebrations centred around the lighting of fires to celebrate the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. Originally, the fires were then used to burn the Yule decorations and other discarded items (from this we get our tradition of spring cleaning). We now remove our Christmas decorations after twelve days but in earlier times, celebrations lasted from Yule until Candlemas. Torches and candles were lit from the Yule Log and carried in procession around the community. It was also the holy day of Brigid (also known as Brigit, Bride, Brid), the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. Christianity changed this to St Bridget’s Day, and Candlemas became the Purification of the Virgin Mary, when worshippers offer lighted candles in her honour, blessed and sprinkled with holy water and carried in procession.
Imbolc is still a special time for Pagans. As people who are deeply aware of what is going on in the natural world they recognise that there is strength in cold as well as heat, death as well as life. Many feel that human actions are best when they reflect the actions of nature, so as the world slowly springs back into action it is time to carry out the small tasks that are neglected through the busy times of the year. Rituals and activities might include the making of candles, planting spring flowers, reading poetry and telling stories.
· The Spring or Vernal Equinox 20th/21st March
Spring Equinox celebrates the renewed life of the Earth that comes with the Spring. It is a solar festival, celebrated when the length of the day and the night are equal (this happens twice a year, at Spring and Autumn equinox). The turn in the seasons was celebrated by the Celts with various festivities. The festival is known as Ostara by some Pagans, after the Teutonic goddess Eostre or Ostra. The word Easter also derives from this goddess’s name, the Christian celebration of the life of Jesus Christ.
Today, Pagans continue to celebrate the coming of Spring. They attribute the changes that are going on in the world to an increase in the powers of their God and Goddess (the personifications of the great force that is at work in the world). At the time of Spring Equinox the God and the Goddess are often portrayed as The Green Man and Mother Earth. The Green Man is said to be born of Mother Earth in the depths of winter and to live through the rest of the year until he dies at Samhain.
To celebrate Spring Equinox some Pagans carry out particular rituals. For instance a woman and a man are chosen to act out the roles of Spring God and Goddess, playing out courtship and symbolically planting seeds. Egg races, egg hunts, egg eating and egg painting are also traditional activities at this time of year. These type of activities were in existence long before they became associated with the Christian Easter.
· Summer Solstice, or Midsummer, Litha 21st June (sometimes 24th)
Solstice means a stopping or standing still of the sun. It is the longest day of the year and the time when the sun is at its maximum elevation. The Celts celebrated with bonfires that would add to the sun’s energy, Christians placed the feast of St John the Baptist towards the end of June and it is also the festival of Li, the Chinese Goddess of light.
Like other religious groups, Pagans are in awe of the incredible strength of the sun and the divine powers that create life. For Pagans this spoke in the Wheel of the Year is a significant point. The Goddess took over the earth at the beginning of spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility. For some Pagans the Summer Solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess and see their union as the force that creates the harvest’s fruits. This is a time to celebrate growth and life but for Pagans, who see balance in the world and are deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons. When celebrating midsummer Pagans draw on diverse traditions. In England thousands of Pagans and non-Pagans go to places of ancient religious sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury to see the sun rising on the first morning of summer.
· Autumn Equinox, or Mabon, Fallfest, Harvest Home 20th/21st September
The Autumn Equinox is celebrated when day and night are of equal duration before the descent into increasing darkness. In nature, the activity of the summer months slows down to the hibernation for the winter. It was the time of the fruit harvest. For many Pagans, now is time to reflect on the past season. It is also a time to recognise that the balance of the year has changed, the wheel has turned and summer is now over. Astrologers will recognise this as the date the sun enters the sign of Libra – the Scales of Balance. This is one of the least celebrated of the Pagan festivals although a harvest festival may be held to thank the Goddess for giving enough food to last the winter.
· Winter Solstice, or Yule or Midwinter 20th/21st December
Celebrates the imminent return of light, i.e. the point where the sun starts to grow in strength. The turn from darkness to light was a matter for rejoicing and the victory of light over darkness gave the assurance that Spring, warmth and growth would come again. The Winter Solstice was the time of year when the Queen of Heaven, the Great Mother, gave birth to the Son of Light. Another occasion for lighting fires, to encourage the power of the sun and to mark the triumph of summer over winter and light over darkness.
NB: Not everyone uses these exact festivals/names- we are, as Pagans, a very diverse group!