Celtic Holidays

The winter and summer solstice, and the spring and fall vernal equinox were celebrated by the Celts and in between are the four major holidays. In the Celtic world, days began at sundown, so all holidays commenced at sundown and continued the following day. The sun and the moon (and to some extent the planets) determined the dates of all eight Celtic holidays.

The winter solstice or Yule coincides with Christmas. This was the Celts time to celebrate the darkest day of the year and look toward the everlasting -- hence the evergreen as the best known symbol of Christmas. Good food and drink was had by all, according to Mike Nichols (Micromuse Press) writing about Celtic festivals, and all partook in a drink from the "waeshael" (to be whole) cup. Nearly all the traditions of Christmas, from caroling to standing under the mistletoe, have Celtic origins, Nichols notes.

The spring equinox coincides with Easter. Easter egg hunts and visits by the Easter bunny were both symbolic of cosmic fertility.

The summer solstice, or midsummer's celebration was traditionally celebrated on June 24th. A custom was for all the young folk to stay up for the whole night, keeping watch over a fire. Musical bands and dancers would wander from one fire to the next. A courageous soul might spend the night alone keeping watch in the center of a circle or standing stones -- the result being madness or hopefully the acquisition of the gifts to become a great bard or poet.

The fall equinox or harvest home represents the fading of summer light and the spirit of fields (as the fields go fallow, the spirit of the sun becomes trapped in the corn). An effigy made of the last sheaf of the harvest is carried from the field and burned at sundown. Harvest home was a time to rest and rejuvenate the spirit from a season of hard work. The fall traditions of drinking cider and harvest ale, enjoying caramel apples and marveling at the harvest moon, are all in line with the Celtic fall tradition.


The four major holidays:

IMBOLC (pronounced em-bolc) - February 1 -- This holiday, which coincides with Groundhog Day, Candlemas and to some extent Valentines Day, venerates the Celtic Goddess Brigid. She became St. Brigit after her "death" and was supposedly converted and baptized by St. Patrick. She was associated with miracles and fertility. Into the 18th century a women's only shrine was kept to her in Kildare. There, nineteen nuns tended Her continually burning sacred flame. An ancient song was sung to Her: "Brigid, excellent woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom."!!

Imbolc Customs:

- Blessing rushes/straw and making Brigid wheels

- Putting out food and drink for Brigid on Her eve (such as buttered bread, milk, grains, seeds)

- Chair by hearth decorated by women; young woman carries in first flowers & greens, candle.

- Opening the door and welcoming Her into the home. "Bride! Come in, the bed is made!

- Preserve the House for the Triple Goddess!" Scottish Gaelic Invocation: "May Brigit give blessing to the house that is here; Brigit, the fair and tender, Her hue like the cotton-grass, Rich-tressed maiden of ringlets of gold."

- Removing Yuletide greens from home & burning them

- Cleaning up fields and home

- Burning old Brigid's wheels and making new ones

- Placing Brigid's wheel above/on door to bless home


BELTAINE (pronounced Biel-ten-eh) May 1 -- (May Day) This was the most sacred of Celtic ritual days. It is the harbinger of the blossoming flowers and fruit. Beltaine, celebrated in May, was also related to the fertility of cattle and crops. Beltaine is commonly associated with fire rites. The most well known of the Beltaine fire rites had to do with driving the herds between bonfires, through their smoke, for purification and protection against evil spirits. The Maypole, where colorful cloth ribbons are draped from a pole and boys circle in one direction and girls in the other to wind the cloth, is a fun Beltaine ritual which represents the union of life.


LUGHNASA (pronounced Loo-ness-a) August 1 -- (the celebration of the God "Lugh" representing sun and plenitude) This was the summer festival where marriages were consummated and communities celebrated with song and dance. Lughnasa, celebrated from mid July to mid August, was the harvest festival. A great feast would be held on August 1st to celebrate the richness of the harvest and to honor the gods. Unlike other fire festivals, which were essentially family and homestead affairs, Lughnasa was celebrated in the community as a whole. Major assemblies took place, often on the top of high points in the landscape. Dancing and feasting were high on the agenda. Until the 12th century, the Tailltinn games were held on August 1st.These were the equivalent of the Olympic Games of classical Greece, and were named after Tailtu, Lugh's foster mother. Afterwards, a bonfire would be lit and there would be dancing and singing around it.


SAMHAIN (pronounced Sow-en) November 1 -- (Halloween and All Souls Day) This was the holiday to honor ancestors and the dead. Masks were worn so that the spirits might not recognize you and would pass you by for another year. Samhain heralded the start of the Celtic new year. It was celebrated on October 31 and commemorated the creation of order out of chaos and the beginning of the world. During this celebration the division between this world and the other world dissolved and the spirits roamed the earth. Nearly all of the Halloween rituals have their roots in Samhain.