Most Neopagans celebrate the “Wheel of the Year”, or the cyclical change of the seasons. Seasonal changes were very important to ancient peoples, who depended on the seasonal markers to dictate when to plow, sow, harvest, and rest. These seasonal festivals have been adopted by Neopagans and interpreted in a variety of ways. For many Neopagans, the turning of the wheel represents the continuing birth, death and rebirth of nature.
The Celts celebrated four fire festivals, or cross-quarter days, which are evenly spaced throughout the year and celebrate the transition of the sun throughout the seasons. These are outlined in the Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”), an ancient manuscript of stories set during the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. These cross-quarter festivals consist of:
- Samhain (Oct 31), when the summer goes to rest, the autumn begins, and marks the end of the harvest.
- Oimelc (Feb 1), when the ewes are milked at the beginning of spring. Also known as Imbolc or or Imbolg.
- Beltane (May 1), which marks the beginning of summer.
- Brón Trogain (Aug 1), or “earth’s sorrow”, denoting the beginning of autumn. Also known as Lughnasadh or Lammas.
Note that on the Celtic calendar, the day began at sunset, thus many of these festivals begin at sunset the day before (i.e., Samhain is celebrated Oct 31, and Walpurgis Night, which is related to Beltane, begins April 30). The Tochmarc Emire also states that the Irish saw the year as being divided into summer (from Beltane to Samhain) and winter (from Samhain to Beltane).
These cross-quarter festivals have been combined with festivals associated with the solstices and equinoxes, which come from Norse, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources. These include the festivals associated with the winter solstice (Christmas), spring equinox (Lady Day), summer solstice (Midsummer), and the autumn equinox (Michaelmas).
Authors Robert Graves and Aidan Kelly incorporated all eight festivals to form the modern Neopagan Wheel of the Year. Aidan Kelly chose Irish names for the cross-quarter festivals, including Lughnasadh and Brigid (which represents Imbolc, the festival which celebrates this Celtic goddess). He chose Anglo-Saxon names for quarter festivals, following the author Bede:
- Yule (c. Dec 21), the winter solstice
- Ostara (c. Mar 21), the spring equinox.
- Litha (c. June 21), the summer solstice
- Mabon (c. Sept 21), the autumn equinox, named after the character in Welsh mythology. However, other names have been suggested, such as ‘Herfest’ and ‘Halig’.
Neo-Druids, Heathens, and other branches of Neopaganism have their own version of the Wheel of the Year, with different names and observances, however the timing surrounding the festivals remain generally the same.
Note: these dates correspond to the Northern Hemisphere.
SAMHAIN (October 31)
Third/Last Harvest, Blood Harvest, Halloween, Old Hallowmas, All Hallows Eve, All Saint’s Eve, Feast/Day of the Dead, Ancestor Night, Feast of Spirits, Feast of Apples, Festival of Pomona, Samonios, Samana, Shadowfest (Strega), Nos Galan/Calan Gaeaf (Welsh), Vetrablot/Winternight (Norse)
Samhain (SAH-win) represents the final harvest before the long winter. It’s a time to honor our ancestors and embrace the darker half of the year. This also marks the beginning of the New Year in many Wiccan traditions.
YULE / MIDWINTER / WINTER SOLSTICE (c. December 21)
Yuletide, Mother Night, Winter Rite, Festival of Sol Invictus/Mithras, Saturnalia (Roman), Cuidle, Gŵyl Galan Gaeaf, Meán Geimhridh (Welsh), Alban Arthan/Arthuan (Druid, ‘Light of Arthur/Winter’), Jol/Yuleblot (Norse)
Yule marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. From now on, the days become longer and we celebrate the return of the sun back to the earth.
IMBOLC (February 2)
Candlemas, Brigid’s Day, Brigantia (Caledonni), Lupercalia (Roman), Feast of Nut (Egyptian), Feast of Pan, Snowdrop Festival, Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Welsh), Disablot (Norse)
Imbolc is a festival of fire and light, and in many Neopagan traditions, celebrates the Celtic hearth goddess, Brigid. It marks the midpoint between winter and spring. This is a festival of purification, light, fertility, and new beginnings.
OSTARA / SPRING EQUINOX (c. March 21)
Ēostre, Oestara, Lady Day, Festival of Trees, Bacchanalia, Earrach, Gŵyl Ganol y Gwanwyn (Welsh), Alban Eilir/Eiler (Druid, ‘Light of the Earth’), Ostarablot (Norse)
Ostara is the celebration of the spring equinox, and is a time to prepare for the beginnings of new life each year. The hours of day and night are equal, and light is overtaking darkness.
BELTANE / MAY DAY (April 30-May 1)
May Eve, Roodmas, Walpurgis Night, Gŵyl Galan/Calan Mai (Welsh)
Beltane is a spring celebration that honours the fertility of the earth. A time of lust, passion, fire, and abundance.
LITHA / MIDSUMMER / SUMMER SOLSTICE (c. June 21)
Samradh, Aerra Litha, Gathering Day, Vestalia, Feast of Epona, Gŵyl Ganol yr Haf (Welsh), Alban Hefin (Druid, ‘Light of the Shore’), Midsumarsblot (Norse)
Litha is the time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It’s a celebration of light’s triumph over darkness and that of the bountiful beauty that light brings into our lives.
LUGHNASADH / LAMMAS (August 1)
Brón Trogain/Trogaill, Festival of First Fruits, First Harvest, Feast of Bread, Bread Harvest, August Eve, Gŵyl Galan/Calan Awst (Welsh, ‘Feast of August’), Freysblot/Freysfest (Norse)
Lughnasadh (LOO-na-saa) is a celebration in honour of the Celtic god, Lugh. For others, this festival is observed as Lammas, which celebrates the early grain harvest. This is the first harvest festival, when plants drop their seeds to ensure future crops.
MABON / AUTUMN EQUINOX (c. September 21)
Herfest, Halig, Second Harvest, Harvest Home, Fruit Harvest, Wine Harvest, Festival of Dionysus, Cornucopia, Feast of Avalon, Michaelmas, Meán Fómhair, Gŵyl Ganol yr Hydref (Welsh), Alban Elfed (Druid, ‘Light of the Water’), Haustblot/Harvestfest (Norse)
Mabon, the autumn equinox, is a time of thanksgiving that celebrates the second harvest. The days and nights are once again equal, with the night continuing to grow longer.
© The New Pagan (2015)