The Celtic Ritual Year - Observances

 

1. SAMHAIN/ CALAN GAEAF (November 1st)

 


This is the greatest of the festivals, marking the beginning of a complete new yearly cycle as the Year enters its "dark" half. As the passage between one year and the next it is a "liminal" period, neither on one side nor on the other, so that the sharp separations between different orders of reality that are in force during the rest of the year cease to operate, and the Otherworld can become perceptible to us in this world. As a result one can renew one's ties with the dead, who are normally cut off from us but during this ritual period return to visit their original communities. Providing hospitality for the dead is one of the dominant ritual themes of the feast: food is shared with them, either by setting some food items aside for their exclusive use or by designating certain members of the community (usually the poorest) as "ambassadors of the dead" who then receive food in the name of the community's departed ancestors. Various games are also indulged in as a way of entertaining the dead and rekindling their interest in the world of their living kin. As members of the human community who have returned to the mysterious realm of the natural processes within the Land (by which humans are physically sustained), the dead provide a bridge between the human world and the natural world, ensuring that a concern for human welfare -- the welfare of their human kin -- will subsist within the otherwise inhuman context of the seasonal cycle.

 


During this period of temporary return to chaos all boundaries and rules are suspended, and those related to gender, age and social status are especially ignored. The rituals of the season aim at restoring an auspicious order that will sustain the activities of the new cycle, as well as protecting households from the intrusion of dangerous Otherworld entities that may have followed the dead into our world.

 


Because during this season the surface of the Land turns harsh and barren, the Land-goddess is portrayed as the Cailleach, the monstrous hag who causes bad weather and makes things difficult for humans. Sometimes she is also given an animal shape, underlining her separation from the concerns of the human community.

2. IMBOLC [Oimealg/La Fhaile Bride]/ GWYL MAIR DECHRAU'R GWANWYN (February 1st)

 


Although it is still cold and there probably is snow on the ground, this festival marks the first secret stirrings of the spring season. One of its alternative names, _Oimelc_ (modern _Oimealg_), means "ewes' milk" and refers to the udders of ewes swelling with milk at this time in preparation for lambing: one of the subtle, easily overlooked signs of the coming of spring. The Land-goddess now becomes the Virgin Mother, the giver of boundless energy, the nurturer of re-awakening and growing life. In the Gaelic countries she is called Brigit (modern _Brid_) and has been identified with the 5th-century saint who bore her name, without changing anything of her ancient attributes and functions; in the Brythonic countries she is more often equated with the Virgin Mary, since the Marian feast of Candlemas (February 2nd) also falls around this time. Some seasonal myths have the Cailleach transform into this new manifestation of the Land-goddess, others state that she has been suppressed by the Cailleach and is freed on this date because the Cailleach has been defeated.

 


The rituals of the feast are most concerned with the beginning of a new agricultural cycle, a new attempt to coax food out of the Land and keep the human community alive and well. Many of them are centered on the hearth-fire, the source of domestic comfort and safety.

 


The restraining powers of the winter season are washed away with water (the old name _Imbolc_ means "lustration, washing"), and symbols of the increasing light of the sun are used magically in conjunction with foodstuffs to ensure that the household's ability to feed itself will increase as well. A great variety of community customs have the goddess actually visit houses and confer her personal blessing on the inhabitants, as well as giving people the opportunity to partake of her gifts of energy and healing.

3. BEALTAINE/ CALAN MAI (May 1st)

 


This is the second most important festival in the Celtic year, the passage into the year's "bright" half, the true _samos_ (summer) season. In many respects its rituals are an exact reversal of those associated with Samhain, focusing on dawn and sunlight instead of sunset and darkness. The mood of the season turns to sexuality and reproduction, and the Land-goddess takes on the form of the Flower Maiden, who is destined to become a bride. The myths told about her often stress how difficult it is to win her away from the stingy and unfriendly powers of inhuman Nature [portrayed as her giant father], and wooing her becomes an adventure undertaken by an attractive young god or hero. The courtship ends with their fertile marriage, which is often represented ritually. The blooming hawthorn symbolizes the events of this season.

 


Since the growing crops are now visible above the surface of the Land, many of the rituals are aimed at protecting them from the attacks of the hostile Land-spirits. Offerings are made to natural pests and predators, enjoining them to cooperate with the human community and limit their depredations. Great fires are lit to cleanse and protect the herds that will be sent out to summer pastures, away from the safety of human settlements. This is also the season when many medicinal herbs are gathered with magical intent by ritual specialists.

4. LUGHNASADH [Lunasa]/ GWYL AWST (August 1st)

 

 

 

This festival marks the culmination of the growth cycle, the point at which the process of expansion ends and the process of turning-in begins: with the Harvest, the crops are taken from the Land and gathered in. It is the fulfillment of the agricultural work which was begun on Imbolc. The Harvest is made possible and presided over by the great god Lugus/Lugh/Lleu, the Many-Gifted Lord who is an expert at every activity, can cross over any barrier and can, through his heritage, bridge the gulf between the deities of the Tribe and the deities of the Land. The myths of the festival tend to dramatize the occasion as a battle between the two groups of deities (sometimes portrayed as a battle between birds and creeping things), in which the Many-Gifted Lord is victorious and obtains the submission of the Land-powers, as well as permission for humans to remove the crops from the Land. The Land-goddess takes on the form of the Harvest Queen, who in Gaelic lands can be equated with Eithne, Lugh's mother.

 


The rituals of the season are held on a high place, associated with the Many-Gifted Lord as the god of lightning and summer storms (which are welcomed as a respite from the extreme heat). The first fruits of the Harvest (as well as wild foods like berries) are offered to the Harvest Queen, who blesses them and authorizes humans to make use of them. The Many-Gifted Lord's contest with the powers of the Land is commemorated through storytelling or pageantry. This is also a season for communities to come together as political and economic entities, with great fairs at which goods are exchanged, artistic works are exhibited, sporting events are held and new laws are enacted.

 


Water -- the cooling element -- plays a major role in the symbolism of the festival, as the year begins to wind down towards its renewal in the darkness of winter.


Further Reading:
FREEMAN, Mara. _Kindling the Celtic Spirit_.
KING, Ohn. _The Druid Year_.
KONDRATIEV, Alexei. _The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual_.

QUESTIONS
For each one of the Quarterly Feasts, choose three images that you feel, at this stage in your studies, best symbolize what that particular feast is about. Discuss the reasons for your choices.

For each one of the Quarterly Feasts, choose three traditional ritual actions that you feel, at this stage in your studies, best represent what the rituals of that particular feast are intended to accomplish. Discuss the reasons for your choices.

Which one of the Quarterly Feasts is coming up as you are writing this? How are you planning to celebrate it? Discuss the sources for your rituals and the rationale behind them.