Friday, January 18, 2008

Guide to Pagan Holidays

Samhain, pronounced sow-en and called Halloween today, is the ending of the Celtic year. The Celtic new year actually begins at sunset on October 31. This ritual is known as Ancestor Night or Feast of the Dead. Because the veil between the worlds is thinnest on this night, it was and is considered an excellent time for divinations. Feasts are made in remembrance of dead ancestors and as an affirmation of continuing life. A time for settling problems, throwing out old ideas and influences. This is either celebrated October 31, or the first Full Moon in Scorpio.
Also known as: Halloween, Ancestor Night, Feast of the Dead, All Hallows Eve, Hallowmass, Samana, Samhuinn, Samonios, The Feast of Sam-fuim, Geimhreadh, Shadowfest (Strega), Martinmas or Old Hallowmas (Scottish/Celtic)

Date: Generally October 31, but some traditions hold it on November 7, or on the first Full Moon in Scorpio
Symbols: Cauldron, Jack o'Lantern, Mask, Cauldron, Balefire, Besom
Deities: Crone Goddesses, Dying/Aging Gods, Sacrificial Gods, Death and Otherworld Deities
Colors: Orange and Black
Herbs: heather, mullein, patchouli, and sage my be burned; acorns, apples, pumpkins, oak leaves, straw, broom, dittany, ferns, and flax may be decorations.

Samhain (SOW-in or SAV-ayn) marked the beginning of the old Celtic new year, and many Celtic Pagans still observe Samhain as the renewal of the Wheel of the Year.
This was the night that the old God died, returning to the Land of the Dead to await rebirth at Yule, and a time when the Crone Goddess would go into mourning for her lost son/consort, leaving her people in temporary darkness.
As in days long past, Celtic Pagans believe that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead is at its thinnest on this night, and that the spirits of our departed loved ones walk the earth, visit family and friends, and join in the ritual celebrations. This makes Samhain a prime night for any type of spirit contact rituals.
The feeding of the dead is a widespread practice, even in modern Celtic lands. In Brittany and Ireland food is always left out for these spirit travelers, and candles are placed in windows to guide them along their way, and these were the origins of the modern Halloween customs of the jack o'lantern and trick-or-treat.


Winter Solstice or Yule, occurs about December 21. This is the time of death and rebirth of the Sun God. The days are shortest, the Sun at its lowest point. The Full Moon after Yule is considered the most powerful of the whole year. This ritual is a light festival, with as many candles as possible on or near the altar in welcome of the Sun Child.

Also known as: Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan, Feill Fionnain, Yuletide, Midwinter, Sun Return, and Fionn's Day
Date: Winter Solstice, usually December 21st
Symbols: Evergreens, Wreath, Yule Log, Holly, Spinning Wheel
Colors: Red, Green, and White
Deities: Newborn Gods; Triple Goddess; Virgin Goddesses
Herbs: Holly, mistletoe, ivy, cedar, bay, juniper, rosemary, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood, and pine. Offerings can be apples, oranges, nutmegs, lemons, pinecones, oak leaves, and/or whole cinnamon sticks.
Ancient Meaning: Yule is a time of the greatest darkness and is the shortest day of the year. Earlier peoples noticed such phenomena and supplicated the forces of nature to lengthen the days and shorten the nights. Wiccans sometimes celebrate Yule just before dawn, then watch the Sun rise as a fitting finale to their efforts.
space How Ancient Pagans Celebrated: After the Norse brought Yule into prominence it nearly replaced Samhain as the date of the New Year, and many modern Celtic covens still honor Yule this way. The Nordic-influenced Celts celebrated Yule with many of the trappings we associate with modern Christmas observances; decorated evergreen trees, wreaths, holly, mistletoe, feasting, and dancing.
They also believed that on this night the Holly King, as the God of the waning year, would battle the Oak King, the God of the waxing year, and lose. Often Yule coven rituals have members reenact this fight."
Modern Meaning: Yule is the remnant of early rituals celebrated to hurry the end of winter and the bounty of spring, when food was once again readily available. To cotemporary Wiccans it is a reminder that the ultimate product of death is rebirth.
How Modern Pagans Celebrate: Since the God is also the Sun, this marks the point of the year when the Sun is reborn as well, Thus, the Wicca light fires or candles to welcome the Sun's returning light. The Goddess, slumbering through the winter of Her labor, rests after Her delivery.



Imbolc, February 1st or the first Full Moon in Aquarius, is a time of cleansing and newborn lambs. The name, Imbolc, comes from the word 'oimelc' or sheep's milk. It is a festival of the Maiden in preparation for growing and renewal.

Also known as: Candlemass, Imbolg, Bride's Day, Oimelc, and Brid's Day
Date: February 1st or 2nd
Symbols: Candles, Brides, Grain Dolly, Burrowing Animals, Ewes
Colors: White, Silver, and Pale Yellow
Deities: Virgin or Child Goddesses, Gods as Young Men or Boys
Herbs: Basil, Bay, Benzoin, and celandine may be burned; Angelica, myrrh, yellow and white flowers may be used as altar decorations.
Imbolc is THE Sabbat which honors the Goddess as the waiting bride of the returning sun God. Before the Nordic influence, it was also the Sabbat in which the Celts saw the sun as being born anew. In Ireland it was, and still is, a special day to honor the Goddess Brid in her guise of bride. The modern Irish know this as St. Briget's Day, St. Briget being a vaguely disguise and Christianized version of the Pagan Goddess.

Celts would often dress grain dollies, representations made from dried sheaves from the previous harvest, as brides, and set them in a place of honor within their homes. They were usually placed in cradles called Bride's Beds, and nuts, symbols of male fertility, were tossed in with them.
This is also a Sabbat where candles are lit in profusion, often within a wreath, another symbol of the Wheel of the Year. These are symbolic of the heat and light of the returning sun.
At Imbolc the deities are still youthful and not yet joined as one through sacred marriage. They are innocent and fun-loving, and are waiting just as anxiously for spring as we are.


Spring Equinox or Ostara, around March 21, is when light and darkness are in balance but the light is growing stronger. Ostara was not originally a part of the Celtic year, and all of its associations were given to Beltaine until recent times. Because it was named for the Teutonic Goddess of Spring and New Life, Eostre, it is assumed that it was brought to prominence in the Celtic world by the Saxons.

Date: Spring Equinox, usually March 20 or 21

Symbols: Egg, Rabbit, Equilateral Cross, Butterfly
Deities: Youthful Deities, Warriour Gods, Deities awakening to sexuality
Colors: Pastels
Herbs: celandine, cinquefoil, jasmine, rue, tansy, and violets may be burned; acorn, crocus, daffodil, dogwood, honesuckle, iris, lily, and strawberry may be decorations.
Modern Celtic Pagan practice has adopted Ostara whole-heartedly, and different Celtic traditions have different ways of observing this Sabbat. Primarily it is a night of balance in which night and day are equal, with the forces of light gaining power over the darknes. One tradition honors the God in his guise as a warrior on this date, while another views it as a time of the courtship between the God and Goddess, a relationship to be consummated at Beltaine.

Another Ostara custom of uncertain origin which has gained popularity in Celtic circles is that of awakening Mother Earth. The youngest person present is often asked to take a stick or wand and walk to the far northern point of the circle, the coldest compass point in the northen hemisphere, the place where the sun never travels, and tap on the ground three times. The youngest then entreats Mother Earth to "wake up". In keeping with the Celtic beiefs about the sacredness of three times three, this gesture is repeated twice more. After this is done you may wish to evoke or invoke the Earth Mother and make her the center of your Ostara festivities, celebrating her presence as the embodiment of Spring.

Beltaine, is May 1, or the first Full Moon in Taurus. Other names for it are May Day or Lady Day. It is primarily a fertility festival with nature enchantments and offerings to wildlings and Elementals. The powers of elves and faeries are growing and will reach their height at Summer Solstice. A time of great magic, it is good for all divinations and for establishing a woodland or garden shrine. The house guardians should be honored at this time.
Also known as: May Day, Bealtaine, Beltane, Bhealtainn, Bealtinne, Festival of Tana (Strega), Giamonios, Rudemass, and Walburga (Teutonic).

Date: May 1
Symbols: May Pole, Egg, Baskets, Flowers, Butterchurn
Deities: Flower Goddesses, Divine Couples, Deities of the Hunt
Colors: Red and White
Herbs: almond, ash, cinquefoil, frankincense, marigold, meadowsweet, and woodruff may be burned; angelica, bluebells, daisy, hawthorn, ivy, lilac, primrose, and rose may be decorations.
The first of May has been celebrated in song and verse for longer than human history has recorded the date. It is a time to celebrate new life in all its forms, and the time when the Goddess and the God are united in sacred marriage, their relationship consummated, an act which symbolically fertilizes the animals and crops for the coming year.
The most common ritual act which celebrates this union is known as the Great Rite. It is the symbolic union of the male and female principles of creation, the union of the two halves of the All-Power which unite to bring all things into being. The Great Rite is usually performed by ritually placing a male ritual tool, usually the athame, into a female ritual tool representing the cosmic womb. A chalice or small caudron is usually chosen for this purpose. Couples working together will often invoke the deities into themselves and perform the Great Rite de facto, which is also acceptable.
The dancing of the May Pole is another May Day Celtic custom practiced both within and outside of Paganism. The weaving of the red and wite ribbons around the pole, like the Great Rite, symbolized the union of Goddess and God.

Summer Solstice or Litha, about June 21, is when the hours of daylight are longest. The Sun is at the highest before beginning its slide into darkness. Traditionally, herbs gathered on this day are said to be extrememly powerful. On this night elves and fairies abound in great numbers.
Also known as: Alban Heruin (Druid), Alban Hefin (Caledonii), Summer Solstice, Midsummer, Midsummer Night, Midsummer Night's Eve, Gathering Day, and Feil-Sheathain (Pecti-Wita ~ July 5)

Date: Summer Solstice, usually around June 21
Symbols: Solar Disk, Mistletoe, Feathers, Blades
Colors: Green, Gold, Yellow
Herbs: chamomile, cinquefoil, elder flower, fennel, lavender, mugwort, thyme, and vervain may be burned; hemp, larkspur, pine, rose, St John's Wort, and wisteria may be decorations.
Midsummer is the time when the sun reaches the peak of its power, the earth is green and holds the promise of a bountiful harvest. The Mother Goddess is viewed as heavily pregnant, and the God is at the apex of his manhood and is honored in his guise as the supreme sun.
But don't overlook the Celtic Sun Goddesses in your celebration. The Celts are one of several cultures known to also have female deities to reperesent the power of the sun. The Celtic languages are some of the very few in which the names for the "sun" are feminine nouns, which attests to the one-time prominence of these Goddesses. A number of the myths surrounding these ladies of light have been preserved. Among the most well-known are Sul (Anglo-Celtic), Dia Griene (Scottish), the Princess of the Sun (Breton), and Grian and Brid (Irish).
Just as the Holly and Oak Kings battles for supremacy at Yule, this ever-repeating fight is reenacted at Midsummer, this time with the Holly King, as king of the waning year, victorious.


Lughnassadh is August 1 or the first Full Moon in Leo. This is a preharvest festival, the turning point in Mother Earth's year. The last herbs are gathered. It is a celebration in honor of the god Lugh's wedding to Mother Earth.
Also known as: Lammas, August Eve, The Festival of Bread, Elembiuos, Lunasa, Cornucopia (Strega), Thingtide (Teutonic)

Date: August 1 or 2, or the first Full Moon of Leo
Symbols: All Grains, Breads, Threshing Tools, Berries (especially Blackberries)
Deities: Harvest and Grain Deities, New Mother Goddesses
Colors: Gray, Yellow, Gold, Green
Herbs: cornstalks, heather, frankincense, and wheat may be burned; acacia flowers, corn ears, hollyhock, myrtle, oak leaves, and wheat may be decorations.
Lughnassadh (Loo-NAHS-ah) is named for the Irish sun God, Lugh, and is usually looked upon as the first of the three Pagan harvest festivals.

Lughnasadh is primarily a grain harvest, one in which corn, wheat, barley and grain products such as bread are prominently featured. Fruits and vegetables which ripen in late summer are also a part of the traditional feast. The Goddess, in her guise as the Queen of Abundance, is honored as the new mother who has given birth to the bounty, and the God is honored as the Father of Prosperity.

The threshing of precious grain was once seen as a sacred act, and threshing houses had small wooden panels under the door so that no loose grain could escape. This is the original meaning of our modern word "threshold".

Autumn Equinox or Mabon, about September 21, was a time of rest after labor, completion of the harvest. Again the hours of day and night are in balance, with the darkness increasing. All preparations for the dark of the year and the year's ending were made, thus bringing us back to Samhain.
Also known as: Fall or Autumn Equinox, Wine Harvest, Feast of Avalon, Alban Elved (Druid), Alban Elfed (Caledonii), Winter Finding (Teutonic)

Date: Fall Equinox, usually about September 21-23
Symbols: Apples, Wine, Vines, Garlands, Gourd, Cornucopia, Burial Cairns
Deities: Wine Gods, Harvest Deities, Aging Deities
Colors: Brown, Orange, Russet, Maroon, Fall Colors
Herbs: benzoin, marigold, myrrh, sage, and thistles may be burned; acorns, astors, ferns, honeysuckle, milkweed, mums, oak leaves, pine, and roses may be used as decorations.
Mabon (MAY-bone or MAH-bawn) is named for the Welsh God and it is seen as the second of the three harvests, and particularly as a celebration o fthe vine harvests and of wine. It is also associated with apples as symbols os life renewed.

Celebrating new-made wine, harvesting apples and vine products, and visiting burial cairns to place an apple upon them, were all ways in which the Celts honored this Sabbat. (Avalon, one of the many Celtic names for the Land of the Dead, literally means the "land of apples".) These acts symbolized both thankfulness for the life-giving harvest, and the wish of the living to be reunited with their dead.

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