Pagan Holidays 101
There are eight holidays on the cyclic pagan calendar that make up the Wheel of the Year. They are also known as Celtic Sabbats, Seasonal Festivals or Asatru Blots, and versions of them are celebrated all throughout the world.
They and their dates (for the northern hemisphere) are:
The Four Solar Festivals
Two festivals are solstices and two are equinoxes. In druidry, they are referred to as the Albans. These four in combination are known as The Solar Festivals because they mark a change in the sun and the change of season.
Winter Solstice – Yule – Alban Arthan – Dec 21st/22nd
Spring Equinox – Ostara – Alban Eiler – Mar 21st/22nd
Summer Solstice – Litha – Alban Hefin – June 21st/22nd
Autumn Equinox – Mabon – Alban Elfed – Sept 21st/22nd
The following info on solstices and equinoxes was taken from directly from here.
A solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice each year when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North or South Pole. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
The day of the solstice is either the “longest day of the year” (in summer) or the “shortest day of the year” (in winter) for any place on Earth, because the length of time between sunrise and sunset on that day is the yearly maximum or minimum for that place.
An equinox occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth’s equator.
The name “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because around the equinox, the night and day have approximately equal length.
The Fire Festivals
These festivals are usually celebrated as significant agricultural festivals, but have developed much more meaning and symbology than that. They are on the cross quarter days, or, the middle day between the solar events.
Imbolc – Feb 2nd – Disablot/Imbolc/Candlemas.
Beltane – May 1 April 30th/May 1st – May Eve/Valpurgis/Cetsamhain/Roodmas/Shenn do Boaldyn/May Day
Lughnasadh – August 2, July 31st/Aug 1st – Frey Fest/Lughnasa/Lugnasad/Lammas
Samhain – October 31 – Winter Nights/Samhain/Feile Moingfinne/Halloween
Why Celebrate These Days?
Good question. Many cultures and religions throughout the world have some sort of celebration on or around these times. Many Catholic holidays and traditions actually stem from pagan holidays and traditions, but that’s a different discussion.
For our ancestors, food was a very big problem and concern (let’s be honest, it still is). It was vital for them to understand how the seasons operated and how to work in flow with them so as to best survive. When to plant what, and when to harvest what. By celebrating the turning of the seasons, they were marking important days and periods for their survival, showing gratitude, showing pride in their accomplishments, prepping for the next cycle, and connecting with their environment physically, mentally and spiritually.
Deities were given domain over seasons and natural events, and their nature reflects that of their designated season/event. In giving the seasons/events ruling humanoid deities, our ancestors were attempting to better understand the natural occurrences around them, and how they are ALL necessary and vital to the cycle of life. They knew that they could not survive the winter without preparation during the spring, summer and autumn, but they also knew that if plants and the earth didn’t get a break, as well as them from all the work of hunting, planting and harvesting, they weren’t very likely to produce well the following year.
So why should we celebrate it today? Well some of us still do hunt, plant and harvest, and in order to do that well you have to be familiar with the seasons so you know you can’t harvest leeks in autumn and strawberries in winter. We have also been celebrating versions of these days for so long that they have also grown into our collective customs and psyche. The idea is to add a little more meaning to it, and to, like our ancestors, show gratitude, show pride in our accomplishments, prep for the next cycle, and connect with our environment physically, mentally and spiritually. 😉
Samhain (New Year)
Samhain goes by a few other names these days, most notably Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve. It’s known as that time of year where the veil between the worlds (generally the living and the dead) is thinnest and communication and visiting is easiest.
When: October 31st. November 1st runs into it as the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) and All Saint’s Day.
What: New Year’s Eve; third and final harvest; communicate with deceased; final preparations for winter; divine the year to come
Who: Badb, The Crone, The Morrigan, Hecate, Gwyn Ap Nudd
Why: As New Year’s Eve, it brings the cycle of the year to a close and prepares for the silent, dark time before the year starts again. Symbolically, you can see this as the womb time – that quiet period of rest and inner growth. The Sun is “put to bed” during the autumn equinox and will be born again at the Winter Solstice. So, as the sun is gone, the earth, most plants and many animals are taking a quite break, so should we humans. We’ve worked (and partied) hard during the months of sun (if anything to prepare to survive the winter in terms of food). Now our outdoor activities are “limited” and you tend to want to stay indoors anyway, this holiday welcomes this time for inner growth, reflection and planning the next cycle. Use this celebration to give thanks for the harvest of the year and honor the past, your influences, guides and honor the dead.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. Putting up pictures of deceased loved ones and maybe preparing a favorite dish (Day of the Dead style), or to do something in honor of them, like watching a favorite movie or listening to a favorite artist. You can take a walk in a local cemetery and light candles on graves that look or seem a bit sad and ask for some attention. You can perform a divination ritual to get a glimpse into the future year. You can decorate your alter or a space with seasonal fruit and veggies, colors, bits of leaves/acorns and deities that rule over this bit of the cycle.
Winter Solstice or Yule or Alban Arthan
This is a very happy holiday. As of this day, the sun starts to come back and stay a little longer each day until the Summer Solstice, when its time with us shortens again. You can see how this time, which is paganly known as “the birth of the sun”, was a great way for the Catholics/Christians to make this Jesus’ birthday and draw attention away from the “heathen pagans”. That aside, there is generally lots of merrymaking around this time.
When: Yule – Dec 21st/22nd. Kind of merges into Christmas on the 24th/25th
What: Rebirth of the sun, longest night of the year, celebrate coming out of the dark, planning for the year ahead
Who: Brighid, Gaea, The Great Mother, Odin, Lugh, The Horned One, The Green Man, The Divine Child, Mabon, Jesus
Why: As aforementioned, the sun is making its debut again. Not that it was entirely gone during the last months, nor will the cold go away until spring, but in the middle of winter the sun starts to come out again as if to give you hope and say that, “Yes, even though it’s still cold, just remember that I am here and getting bigger and stronger every day!” This is an international time to get together with friends and family and have a lovely, social time, giving thanks for what you have, sharing the bounty, celebrating the hearth, family and friends.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. You can go into the yule log traditions; caroling; wassailing; hosting a party; decorating spaces with evergreens such as pine, vine and holly; gift-giving; mulled/spiced wine (gluhwein in German); hosting a feast; lighting candles
It’s as if they knew that for those of us who really have a winter, February is the hardest month. It’s almost spring, and you’ve had a few months of grey and cold, and that winter depression is really starting to hit you. It’s a day of reminding you to keep your chin up and to keep at your warm-weather preparations because spring really is around the corner now.
When: Feb 2nd
What: Also known as Candlemas. Making way for spring.
Who: Brighid, Maiden, Aine
Why: This is also the time where some animals have their first offspring or show signs of pregnancy, as if Mother Nature is showing you that life is lying just underneath and will come forth at any moment. We’ve welcomed the sun and celebrated it’s return, now it’s time to welcome it in to your heart and home.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. Light some candles and put them all around your house or in your windows; take a walk in the snow and look for signs of spring; cook a warm, spicy dish and/or something with lots of dairy and/or seeds
Spring Equinox or Ostara or Alban Eiler
Day and Night are in equal balance, with the darkness fading a little more each day. It’s time to celebrate the making of life as much as the rearing of it.
When: Mar 21st/22nd
What: Spring is finally here!
Who: Mabon, The Sun God, The Maiden
Why: Spring is in full swing, and it’s time to get ready to plant if you haven’t started already. The Sun God mates with the Maiden who will conceive and give birth again in December at Yule. There are lots of babies either born or conceived around this time from all walks of life, and children in particular are very happy to be outside again and to explore the new growth and life. This is a particularly good time for fairies, as any child will tell you. 😉 Because day and night are in balance, it’s a good time to figure out how to bring balance to your own life (enter the term: spring cleaning). Out with the old to make way for the new!
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. Spring cleaning in your home, wardrobe and work space; a feast with spring delights; decorating with flowers and budding greenery; starting to ease off of the heavy winter meals and eat more leafy greens; go for a walk and enjoy the fresh air and sense of new beginnings
Also known as May Day or May Day Eve, this tends to be known as the “party of the year”. It marks the return of vitality and passion, maturing and deep love, initiation into manhood/womanhood and sex.
When: April 30th/May 1st
What: Celebrating life, love and fertility at its peak and prime; the union of male and female
Who: The Lovers, earth goddesses and sun gods, deities of cattle and livestock (ex. Macha)
Why: If they haven’t been already, cattle has been released back to pasture. The cattle would be led through a gateway of large Beltane bonfires for luck and protection. These fires were usually blessed and lit by the leading druid, witch or priest.
On Beltane, the Earth Goddess chose her male champion, and this is symbolized in the selection of the May Queen and King. The maypole (usually a birch tree) was decorated and danced around. The maypole was the phallic symbol and the ring around it the vulvic symbol. The maypole is usually decorated in white (semen, male) and the ring in red (blood, female). The merging of the two, is of course, divine and sacred, because life can’t be made without the union of the two.
As it’s a special day of union between male and female, lots of handfastings (marriages) are done on this day. If you were married a year and a day, starting with this one, then you would have the option of ending the marriage if it wasn’t working out.
It was also a day and night of free passion, so if you were married you could take off your ring (and your vows) for the night and those who weren’t married were encouraged to explore. Any children conceived from this day and night were considered sacred and blessed.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. You and light some big bonfires (outside!) and pass through them for luck and blessings; hold a great feast/gathering outdoors and pick a May King and Queen; engage in passionate intercourse (if you’re of age!!); put up a maypole and decorate it; go out dancing; Just go and celebrate life in full swing and prime
Summer Solstice or Litha or Alban Hefin
Also known as Midsummer’s Eve and Midsummer. It is the longest day of the year and the Sun God has reached his peak and is most powerful.
When: June 21st/22nd
What: Celebrating the sun at its zenith, preparing for the coming dark half of the year
Who: The Sun God, Mabon, The Green Man
Why: The sun is enjoying its longest day of the year. It’s only natural then, that there is lots of fire on this day. Giant bonfires outside, candles on the inside – celebrate the sun in all it’s power and glory. It’s also a special day for fairies to come out and play and/or cause mischief.
While honoring the sun and life, it’s also a turning point to start preparing for the second, darker half of the year. In terms of agriculture, some crops have been reaped by now or are in the process of being harvested. Plans are underway for autumn crops and harvesting. Villagers are honoring this last burst of light before it starts to fade, and there were lots of parades and processions with torches up and down hills to honor this most sacred of lights. This tradition, though the original meaning is watered-down and a bit lost, is still found in some places, like along the Danube River in Austria.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. Hold a light procession of your own; light candles in your home; enjoy some of your harvest up until now and start preparing some for winter (like making jams and preserves of sorts);
Giving thanks for the harvest and sacrifice of the sun
When: July 31st/Aug 1st
What: A calm, low-key celebration giving thanks for the harvests of the year, noticing the seasonal changes and continuing preparation for the next change in the cycle
Who: Lugh (pronounced Loo), deities of the Hearth, Home and Harvest
Why: The story goes that the Stag King, Sun God, or Son of the Sun God (Lugh) lays down his life in sacrifice for his land and people. He transfers his power to grain, therefore giving up his life when the grain is harvested. This harvest provides grain for the first loaves of bread of the year (called lammas), and some of the seeds are kept to bring about a harvest for the next year, resurrecting the Sun God and keeping the cycle going.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. You can bake some bread (or whatever); have a family-style dinner with a heartier menu; go for a walk and take note of the seasonal changes
Autumn Equinox or Mabon or Alban Elfed
Day and night are equal in measure again.
When: Sept 21st/22nd
What: Mabon, the son of the Sun God, is being “put to bed”. Honor is being paid to the sun and it’s work, and honor is being paid in welcoming the dark half of the year.
Who: Mabon, The Morrigan, Morgan le Fey, The Green Man
Why: Think of it as you’ve had a great energetic visitor that you’ve seen off, and now you’re welcoming their counterpart and their visit. The proverbial yin to the yang. You send the sun and light off with love and gratitude, and turn around and welcome the dark with the same love and gratitude.
Suggestions on How to Celebrate: As with all things ritual, it’s up to you. Offer ciders and wines to the earth around you in thanks and praise; have a fine dinner; do a “fall cleaning” where you swap out your warm weather clothes for your cold weather clothes and prepare your home for the cold part of the cycle; give thanks for your year and successes and lessons you might have learned, opportunities that came your way; mourn for Mabon by enjoying the last of fresh summer produce by candlelight; welcome the Crone with an offering
Favorite sites to go a little more in depth with are: