The Celtic Ritual Year

Before embarking on a thorough exploration of the characteristics of the Celtic religious/spiritual tradition and the evidence for it in the records of history and folklore, it will be useful, for those who are intending to engage with this tradition in a living manner, to get a head start in the process by becoming familiar with the basic ritual calendar that is a part of the heritage of all living Celtic communities. By making yourself aware of this guiding framework for ritual activity through the yearly cycle, as well as getting a feeling for the imagery and symbolism associated with each important festival, you will get an intimate grounding in the tradition even before you begin to investigate it from an intellectual point of view.

 


The Celtic Ritual Year is divided into two primary seasons, a "dark" or "winter" one and a "bright" or "summer" one. In Old Celtic (the language of the earliest Celtic communities) these seasons were called _giamos_ and _samos_ : we still see these names reflected in the names of the months _Giamonios_ and _Samonios_ on the Coligny Calendar (a Druid lunar calendar from early Roman Gaul) and in modern Celtic vocabulary like Scots Gaelic _geamhradh_ "winter" and _samhradh_ "summer". In extant tradition these two halves of the year run from Nov. 1st to May 1st and from May 1st to November 1st. The "dark" half represents the Year's dormancy and is metaphorically linked to gestation, as the process of creating new life goes on hidden beneath the surface (much like a child develops unseen inside the womb), although above the surface the Land looks lifeless and harsh. The "bright" half, by contrast, is the period when the Land is awake and the growth of new life becomes visible. By extension, _giamos_ is the time for turning inward, for reflecting on what has occurred in the previous year; while _samos_ is the time for turning outward, for concrete activity. These two long seasons are in turn each divided into two, so that the second half of the "dark" season is seen as a transition to the "bright" half, while the second half of the "bright" season is a transition back into the "dark". Each of these shifts is marked by a festival with distinctive rituals, so that we have a cycle of four great holidays that divide the Year into quarters, and are thus referred to as the "Quarterly Feasts" (_cethardae_ in Old Irish). Originally the dates of these festivals were probably determined by a lunar calendar similar to the one still used by Hindus, but early in the Middle Ages they were assigned fixed dates based in part on the Church calendar.


The cycle of light and dark primarily reflects the yearly transformations of the Land and the consequent changes in human activities that relate to the Land. In Celtic tradition the Land is not seen as an inert, passive, purely material phenomenon, but is personified as a goddess, so that people see their relationship with her as a personal one requiring that she be treated with respect. Thus the Quarterly Feasts mark changes in the character and appearance of the Land-goddess and ritualize the necessary shifts in human behavior appropriate to her at those times. Since we are completely dependent on the Land for our physical sustenance (whether we realize it or not), a positive relationship with the Land-goddess is a way of ensuring our survival, while also sharpening our awareness of how much the Land we live on shapes not only our material existence but our spirituality. The rituals of the Quarterly Feasts are the means by which a Celtic community maintains this positive relationship.
Here are concise descriptions of each of the Feasts, focusing on the ritual elements and meanings that are common to the entire Celtic world [the Feasts are best known by their mediaeval Irish names, but to give this lore a more pan-Celtic scope we here give, together with the mediaeval Irish name (and its modern form if it is substantially different), the corresponding Welsh name to represent the Brythonic traditions]: