14: Calendar Feasts and Customs: The Insular Celtic Cycle of Seasons

by Francine Nicholson

Surveying the Evidence

The evidence for pre-Christian Celtic calendars outside of Ireland and Britain is sketchy, confined to some references in classical materials and a collection of brass plates found at Coligny (France) that are believed to represent a Gaulish calendar. However, the calendar dates from the period following Roman conquest, and shows considerable influence from non-Celtic cultures. It is rather obscure, and scholars are not sure what much of the calendar represents beyond the names of months. It seems to indicate that some days were considered auspicious and others not, but it is not known for what they were auspicious.

Most of our evidence for insular Celtic calendar customs and feasts comes from folklore. While many of the ancient rituals were doubtless lost when Christianity became the dominant religion, a good many customs survived in the folk traditions of Celtic countries into the modern period. Our main sources of evidence of these customs are the archives and writings of folklorists based on notes taken during the last two hundred years, and cross-cultural studies of similar customs in Scandinavia.

However, the evidence of recorded folklore, especially from the nineteenth century, should be used with caution. In recent decades, scholars have studied the early folklorists, their methods, and their biases, as well as the folklore they collected. An antiquarian of the past may have wanted to preserve the folklore, but he or she may have wanted to convey a certain image of the people being studied. Some folklorists wanted to promote specific racial theories or political causes. For example, Lady Augusta Gregory, though a fine collector in many ways, exorcised the "rude" bits of Irish stories, changing their tone. Alexander Carmichael, who spent so much time and energy recording folklore in the Scottish Highlands, was not always as objective as one might wish. Alfred Nutt saw folklore as a means of promoting nationalist agendas and edited material to suit that purpose. So early folklore should be weighed carefully. In the last few decades, folklorists have continued to study and collect, but their methods are more standardized and rigorous. Still, they tend to focus on specific regions or single customs. Other that Máire Mac Neill's exceptional study of the Festival of Lughnasa, few exhaustive studies of the data collected about calendar customs have been completed.

The following sections describe some of the activities associated with each festival.

Winter/New Year: Beginning in the Dark

Carna, cuirm, cnoimes, cadla,

Flesh, beer, nuts, pork rinds

it e ada na samna,

These are the dues of Samhain;

tendar ar cnuc co n-grinde,

A bonfire for merriment at the top of a hill,

blathach, brechtan urimme

Buttermilk, and fresh butter for offering.

The calendar year was a circle, so that the end of one cycle or season began the next. Every seasonal feast was thought to be a powerful time because of its liminal position in time, but the beginning of the new year was the most powerful, with the greatest potential for cosmic chaos and crossing between the worlds. The new year began with the end of harvest and the year's bright and warm half.

Beginning in the Dark: By beginning their calendar year at the start of winter, the Celts expressed a definite view about life They recognized that every cycle of growth begins with a time in darkness: the seed lying dormant in the ground, the poet seeking inspiration in a windowless room. In this darkness, the fiery, creative light of the Otherworld burned bright.

Samhain Customs: The rituals at Samhain emphasized its role as both end and beginning. Harvest had ended and with it, the warmth and freedom of summer. Although the storehouses were full with the harvest produce, dark, cold days were ahead. The separation of the family group by the booley had ended, but Samhain acknowledged that some members were gone into the next world, and families welcomed their spirits for a short visit.

Crossing the Border: Samhain was a time when the entries to the Otherworld opened easily. Those traveling at night might confront beings from the Otherworld or find that they had crossed the border without intending to. The dead took advantage of this easy passage and returned to visit their homes and kin. Unfriendly beings could also be found abroad, so disguising one's face might be a preventive measure if one had to travel.

Talismans: The talismans of Samhain were the fruits and nuts and candles used in divination games.

Omens: Many types of divination games were popular at the new year, especially those that predicted one's future prospects for marriage, career, or prosperity. One Irish custom involved a woman laying out her nightdress on a chair in the middle of the kitchen, then lying down on a nearby bed to watch. It was believed that the image of the man she would marry would enter the kitchen and turn the garment. Sad visions might also ensue, such as the tale of the young woman who saw a coffin float into the room.

Many divination games involved the food of the harvest. Peeling an apple in one long stream and then dropping the skin on the floor might outline the first letter of the name of one's future spouse. Naming two nuts for oneself and one's beloved, then placing them at the back of the hearth and watching their behavior was a way to predict the future course of a current relationship.

Time Off: The oldest known name for the Celtic new year festival is Trinouxtion Samonii, "three nights at end of summer," which appears on the Coligny calendar. This suggests that, for the ancient Gauls, the celebration extended over three nights. Irish myths speak of week-long celebrations but, in modern Ulster, several weeks prior to the feast are designated as the time of preparation, when materials are collected for the bonfires which, along with fireworks, are the main focus of community celebrations there.

Prosperity Magic: Bonfires were thought to regenerate the earth.

Feasting: Abundant feasting on all types of foods was a hallmark of Samhain in every Celtic area. The household stores were at their peak, full of the harvest blessings, as described in the verse at the beginning of this section. Fresh meat and the remains of smoking sausages and bacon would both be available. The cows would still be milking so both buttermilk and butter could be enjoyed with bread made from the new grain. New beer and nuts would also be in plenty store. Those nuts, apples, and other food played a prominent part in the divination customs of Samhain. In the 1940s, Edward McBride of County Monaghan told the Irish folklore commission that the Celtic new year, "is called the Feast of the autumn for then all the fruits are ripe and nuts too and the crops are safely gathered in. It is the season of Thanksgiving for the blessings of harvest and man rests secure that sufficient food for both man and beast is vouchsafed for another winter."

Protective Magic: In some cases, it was customary to set a place at the dinner table for the beloved dead so that they could partake of the feast. In other places, an offering of food and a comfortable chair would be left by the heart to refresh the spirit visitors. who were thought to arrive after the family had gone to bed. The new year's beginning was a time when hostile forces were also likely to be abroad. Dressing in disguise when one traveled or avoiding traveling at nights were two protective measures likely to be taken at this time. It was also considered wise to avoid places where supernatural activity was likely to occur, lest one be "taken." Any unharvested fruit was abandoned as blighted or as the due of the fairies. This tradition probably is a remnant of a time when a portion of the harvest was offered to deities as their due for bringing forth the abundance.

Mythic Acts: In Irish myth, a large celebration was held at Samhain at Tara, a site with strong connections to ritual sovereignty. Bonfires were lit as part of the Samhain proceedings. Fionn mac Cumhail, early in his legendary career, was said to have killed a fire-breathing being who brought destruction to Tara each Samhain. Fire emphasized the continuing power deep in the cosmos, even when it appeared dormant.

Agricultural Cycle Events: Samhain was the time to make way for the new. The season of growth was coming to an end, the harvest had been completed, and only dying stalks and vines remained. The kin-group had re-assembled after the time of booley, except for those who had died. But at Samhain they were remembered and invited to return so that, briefly, the entire kin group was reunited, before the dead moved on to make room for those to be born. The herds also made room for those who were waiting to be born. At one time, Samhain was when the herds were culled; at least some animals were slaughtered and their meat processed for later use. If the rent was to be paid in terms of cows, pigs, or sheep, these were often delivered to the landlord in time for the Samhain feasting.


Community and Social Events: Samhain was a time to re-inforce the connections of the kin-group. Any of the kin-group who had been staying at the hilltop booleys returned. The rent was paid to ensure the homestead for the next six months. Even the dead returned to mingle with the living.

Spring: Waking the Land

Fromad cach bíd iar n-urd,

Tasting each food in its order,

issed dlegair i n-Imbulc,

this is what's proper at Imbolc

diúnnach laime is coissi is cinn,

washing the hand and foot and head,

is amlaid sin atberim.

That's how it is, I tell

Traditionally, the Celtic feast associated with 1 February marked the beginning of spring. Often this coincided with the lambing season and the first ploughing in many areas. The success of all these events was of great importance to economies that relied on herding and farming. Thus, the basic theme was the waking of the land from its wintry, death-like sleep into new life. Once the land was wakened with blessing and ploughing, new crops could be planted. Also, many animals were also giving birth or preparing to do so. The beginning of lambing season brought fresh milk at the time of year when cow's milk was often unavailable. Fresh meat and milk were a welcome change after months of salted or smoked meat. Also, the winter stores of root vegetables, grain, and preserved meat might be getting low.

Many of the customs at spring and summer were aimed at ensuring that crops grew and herds flourished. Asking for blessings on the animals was also essential for several reasons. Milk production was relied on for a steady supply of milk products until the harvest began six months later. In Ireland, milk products---cheese, butter---were called "white meat." Also, spring rituals were designed to promote human fertility and health necessary for families and households to grow and maintain their position on the land and in the tribe.

The Etymology of Imbolc: Scholars have suggested several possible meanings for the word Imbolc, including "milking," and also washing and ritual purification from the Celtic word folcaim, "I wash." This might also relate to the house cleaning, house blessing, and well devotions associated with Imbolc in recent folk practices. The lines of the medieval poem quoted above support this association of spring and washing.

Another possible explanation is "in the belly" which may relate to the processions held around the fields, often seen as the body of goddesses in which the grain and other crops would grow. This would also reflect the general association with rebirth of nature that was beginning at the time of Imbolc. The Irish verb imbolgaid means to "blow a bellows," and, since smithing was another aspect of Bridget, the goddess and saint often associated with Imbolc, one could visualize a ritual image of blowing the bellows to increase the fire that would warm the cold earth. Today, Imbolc is generally called St. Bridget's Day or it may be conflated with the Christian feast of Candlemas (the Purification of Mary) on February 2.

Spring and Bridget: Since the medieval period, Imbolc in Ireland has been closely associated with the figure of St. Bridget, the reputed founder and abbess of the double monastery at Kildare. Most Imbolc customs collected by folklorists are specifically associated with her. Modern popular writers have followed the lead of scholars such as Mac Cána and Sjoestedt in suggesting that all these customs were originally associated with a single pre-Christian Celtic goddess named Br/ig or Br/id. St. Bridget was a dominant figure in the ritual life of the late medieval Irish church. This popularity has led many modern writers and scholars to assume that a pre-Christian goddess named Bríg enjoyed similar prominence in pre-Christian Ireland. This assumption has been challenged in recent years by evidence suggesting that the saint's popularity may have owed more to the public relations efforts of monastic scribes and leaders than to any pre-Christian precedent.

It is also likely that many of the ritual sites and customs now associated with St. Bridget were originally focused on various, locally popular goddess figures. Cognates of the goddess, such as the British figure called Brigantia, were venerated throughout the ancient Celtic world. From Austria to Britain, Celts applied names containing the root bríg, meaning high or exalted, to rivers, tribes, and cities.

It is unclear whether the feast originally depicted the associated goddess as being reborn herself or whether she was the agent for regenerating the land. However, the aura of fertility hangs about most of the Imbolc rituals collected by folklorists. For example, butter is churned and the churn itself or the dash are dressed as a Bríd figure in some places. In others, a Bridget figure is ceremonially bedded close to the fire. In yet others, the figure was carried through the townland to bless the farms, or food and a candle were set out to welcome her as her spirit passed by.

Crossing the Border: An Irish saying noted that, with the lengthening day that marked St. Bridget's day "the candlestick and half the candle" could be put away. Many of the folk customs focused on the increasing warmth and light, the rebirth of the cold earth, and the birth process itself. It is likely that myths and stories underlay these customs, but at this point it is difficult to say exactly what those stories were. However, the rituals probably were, in some cases, re-enactment of the myths.

Omens: Imbolc was a time when farmers and fishermen depended on steady improvement in the weather. They also believed that the kind of weather occurring on Imbolc gave them some idea of how the coming months would go. Better than average weather was good but a truly fine day was a bad sign. The prevailing wind on Imbolc would continue for the rest of the year. The appearance of a hedgehog up and about was a sign that weather would continue to improve but wintry conditions would persist for several more weeks if the hedgehog returned to its winter sleep. A rainy February was thought to predict a good summer.

Talismans: Many of the folk customs associated with Imbolc and St. Bridget's day in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands centered on the preparation of talismans to be used for protection and healing throughout the year. It was thought that such talismans were blessed by Bridget herself as she traveled from one household to another on the evening before her feast. Their effectiveness resulted from her blessing. Here are some of the talismans associated with Imbolc:

Dishes of water or salt were sometimes left out overnight for Bridget to bless. These would be put aside for use in healing illness.

Bridget's Cross was a symbol derived from ancient solar symbols known from early times in Europe. There were several regional forms but none resemble the classic Christian cross. The crosses were made from straw, sheaves of grain, rushes, or grass, depending on the region of origin. They were hung in the house and farm buildings as protection against illness and other misfortune. In the Scottish Highlands, women also made Bridget Crosses before a wedding and placed one in the mattress of the marriage bed to ensure fertility. Mak-ing the crosses themselves was a ritual. The exact procedure varied and in some places the crosses were made ahead of time to be distributed as part of the brídeóg procession (see below). But in most places in Ireland, the weaving material was ceremonially brought into the house and laid under the table where the feasting would occur. After the meal, the household created the crosses. A farmer might also make circlets to hang round the necks of lambs as they were born. Any leftover materials were used to create a bed for Bridget or sprinkled in the byre for good luck. The crosses were hung the next day.

Brat Bríde, the brat or cloak of Bridget was a ribbon, piece of cloth, or an article of clothing left outside on the evening before the feast of Imbolc to receive the blessing of Bridget as she passed through the household. Afterwards, the cloths and ribbons were used as talismans of protection and healing, particularly aiding birth in women and cows.

The crios or girdle of Bridget was a rope of plaited straw or rope three or four meters long formed into a circle. It was held vertically aloft while those gathered passed through ritually, reciting a charm. The ceremony appears to have symbolized regeneration.

Sun, Moon, and Stars were a collage of straw created by the residents of some counties of the north of Ire-land, an alternative to the Bridget's cross. They fashion the symbols from straw and, with a symbolic ladder, pasted them all onto a piece of paper or cloth. Later they were hung in home and farm. While this collage was probably some sort of fertility symbol to ensure the rebirth of the earth, its exact meaning is unknown.

Time Off: In some places in Ireland, all work ceased on the feast, and devotions at holy wells took place instead. In others, the ban on work was confined to activities such as ploughing, smithwork, and anything that involved turning wheels (spinning, carting, milling, and sewing machines), activities associated with the saint.


Prosperity Magic: In Scotland, a charm was chanted that referred to a snake coming from a hole. Doubtless, this referred to some divinatory or fertility ritual whose origins and details have been lost. In the Highlands, the married women of the house created a Bridget figure from a sheaf of grain and decorated it with ribbons, flowers, or other objects. Then they made a sort of bed with rushes and grain next to the hearth. After ritually inviting Bridget to fill this bed, the women placed the figurine into it. Before carefully smoothing the ashes of the hearth, they put a straight, peeled stick of birch or similar wood beside the figure to serve as "Bridget's wand," a symbol of sovereignty or perhaps a phallic symbol. The next morning, the women examined the hearth for signs of Bridget's favor, such as the imprint of a foot or mark of the wand in the ashes. If there were no such marks, the family assumed that Bridget had been offended. Steps to appease her---such as burying a cockerel or pullet at the junction of three streams---were then taken.

Protective Magic: For seacoast dwellers, the spring tide closest to the feast was devoted to gathering seaweed for use as fertilizer. Around Galway Bay, a live limpet or periwinkle was placed at each of the four corners of the house to ensure good fishing and shellfish gathering in the coming months. Devotions performed at the holy wells of Liscannor (Co. Clare) and Faughart (Co. Louth) include ritually washing in the water. Also, a Highland Gaelic verse associated with Imbolc mentions ritual washing by Bridget as a means of ending the winter cold. This notion must reflect an earlier, pre-Christian myth in which a goddess took some action to end the winter. The talismans created as part of Imbolc rituals were used as protective and curative magic throughout the year.

Mythic Acts: In ancient and early medieval times, a particular type of pagan ceremony was held in areas throughout Europe, especially those with Teutonic and Celtic heritage. It consisted of a procession in which an image of a goddess was placed in a cart or wagon which was then drawn through the community, especially the fields, accompanied by dancing and singing devotees, priests, and designated attendants. Animals to be sacrificed and possibly designated human victims also formed part of the procession. After being drawn or carried through the fields, the goddess figure was bathed in a lake or spring. The procession is thought to have occurred in late winter or early spring, the time of Imbolc. Celtic remains that may illustrate such a procession include a bronze cart unearthed from a grave in Strettweg and a panel of the Gundestrup cauldron.

Nineteenth-century folk practices at Imbolc in Ireland and Scotland included processions that visited homes throughout the community, remeniscent of the processions described above. In some places, the central figure was a woman chosen to represent St. Bridget as An Bhrídeog. Beforehand, talismans of woven straw or grass were distributed at each home and farm, to be nailed up as protection for all within. Surrounded by an accompanying group, An Bhrídeog processed to each home and farm where she engaged in a ritual dialog with the residents and distributed a set of talismans: the Cros (cross), Sgiath (shield), and Crothán (veil) of Bridget. In other places in Ireland, the brídeog was a figurine made by dressing a doll or encasing a churn dash or other pole with straw and adding a carved turnip for a head. The figurine was carried by a group of young men called bríde óga or Biddy boys, dressed in white shirts, masks, women's skirts, and straw hats. These ambiguously dressed people carried the brídeog from one farm to another, singing, dancing, or playing music, and receiving gifts of food, especially cakes, butter, and eggs. More recently, such groups weare masks and brightly colored clothing to which ribbons, patches, and fringes are added, and the offerings they receive may be sweets or coins.

A Highland variation on the parade of the brídeog holds specific reference to human fertility. The young women of the community created a figurine from a churn dash and carried it about to the various households, collecting offerings of bread, butter, and other food. Later the young women feasted on these in company with the young men of the community, followed by singing and dancing throughout the night.

In some areas, visits to holy wells and streams have replaced the ritual bathing of the goddess statue. However, the devotions performed by pilgrims at those sites include ritual use of water from the well. Frequently the home, family, and talismans are blessed with water taken from such sites at Imbolc.

The ritual of stepping through the crios or girdle of Bríg may be a symbolic re-enactment of birth. At this point, it is unclear exactly what well rituals of rebirth were once associated with Imbolc to ensure the fertility of the awakening land. However, at a time when the natural world was coming out of its wintry sleep, one would expect rituals to dramatically re-enact this fact. It is probably not accidental that the holy well at Liscannor, Co. Clare, is situated underground; perhaps devotees once descended into the well chamber and re-emerged ritually. Mac Neill notes that Liscannor was primarily a site of pilgrimage at Lughnasa, but two of her sources attest that it was also a site used at Imbolc.

Summer: Time of Warmth and Growth

Atberim frib, lith saine,

I declare to you of an outstanding occasion,

ada buada belltaine:

The entitlements of Bealtaine;

coirm, mecoin, suabais serig,

Beer, roots, sweet whey,

ocus urgruth do tenid.

And fresh curds for the fire.

The Gaelic name Bealtaine was applied to the ancient Celtic feast most obviously associated with the sun. Bealtaine marked the beginning of summer, the quarter of warmth when crops and animals would do their growing. The rituals focused on the energy of the sun, especially as transmitted through water and fire. The sun provided the warmth that enabled crops to grow and young animals to increase in strength and size. Warmth was good for humans too, healing ills associated with cold and damp, and making it easier to feel wonderful about life, whether or not there was enough to eat. For, although the sun grew brightest at the time of year just before the harvest, it was a time the medieval Celts called the "hungry" months because food reserves were almost depleted. Their diet was based on the milk of sheep and cows made into soft cheese and butter, supplemented by tender young herbs and roots and early fruits and berries.

The Names of Bealtaine: Literally, Bealtaine means "bright fire," although medieval Irish glossators associated it with a god named Bel. There was indeed a Gaulish god named Belenos associated with fire and light, but there is no evidence of an Irish deity with a similar name. A nineteenth-century Manx writer said the Manx name for the feast, Boaldyn, meant "wall of fire" but he, too, associated it, incorrectly in this case, with a sun god, Baal, mentioned in the Bible. In Ireland, Bealtaine was also known as Cétsamon, "beginning of summer." Later, the English phrase, "May Day" was widely adopted. The Welsh names for the feast-Calan Mai and Calan Haf-mean May Day and Beginning of Summer, respectively. The Breton Kala Hañv (summer convocation) suggests that large gatherings once marked the feast.

Summer in Ritual and Custom: Bealtaine rituals were intended to:

· Ensure the health and growth of humans, animals, and crops

· Protect all from any attempts, natural and supernatural, to injure one's prosperity in the coming quarter

· Celebrate together before those in the community or kin group separated for the summer

Activities and customs associated with all these concerns survived into the Christian period in Celtic countries, although the name "Bealtaine" became "May Day" or its equivalent in many areas and English customs like the May Pole intruded in the more Anglo-influenced areas of southern Wales, the Lowlands of Scotland, and southeastern Ireland. Some customs were dispersed to saints' days that were celebrated at the beginning of May. Others-especially the lighting of bonfires-became more identified with Midsummer's Eve or St. John's Day. The chief customs are summarized below.

Crossing the Border: Like the other feasts, Bealtaine was a border in the fabric of time, a place where the edges gave way, allowing powerful forces seep through. This made Bealtaine a time to be careful about assault by Otherworldly powers or by a human attempting to wield them, as well as a good time to seek knowledge from the Otherworld.

Talismans: The evidence from Ireland, the Highlands and Islands, and the Isle of Man suggest that fire, water, and symbols related to them played leading roles in the rites used to celebrate the feast. Fire came from the sun and, if the hearth was the center of the home from which all the rest of the local world was measured, then the hearth in relation to the home represented in microcosm the role of Uisneach in relation to Ireland. Both the home hearth and the Bealtaine fire atop the Hill of Uisneach symbolized the ultimate source, the sun at the center of the known cosmos. When the sun shone on water, the power transferred to the water and could be accessed by humans who washed in the water or drank it or sprinkled it on animals, places, and special things. Celebrations of the new growth were marked by decking the outside of homes with flowers or newly-leafed branches. The type of branch or flower varied from place to place. While some regions of Ireland preferred to use tree branches, others focused on gathering yellow flowers. Indeed, the color yellow-the color of the sun-was especially associated with Bealtaine.

Omens: In general, it was thought that what happened on May Eve and May Day was a good indicator for the whole quarter, and taking omens for the coming quarter was an important Bealtaine custom. Herbal tonics and other, more magical, remedies were administered with high hopes of success.

Time Off: Bealtaine was a time when the hearth fire was allowed to go dark, to be relit after sunset from the community fire. Avoidance of strangers and refusal of requests to share with neighbors were a hallmark of Bealtaine. Although the Celtic community ethic was usually one of generosity and hospitality, to share at Bealtaine was to risk having one's share of prosperity stolen by an unscrupulous neighbor or Otherworld being. Since this practice was so well-known, anyone seeking such help on Bealtaine was regarded with suspicion.

Prosperity Magic: May was a time to use sympathetic magic to encourage the forces of nature to expand their power and cause crops, animals, and people to grow and reproduce abundantly. Couplings among unmarried partners, often outdoors or in wooded areas, was one way to encourage this result, but it was considered unlucky to marry at this time of disorder.

The first water to be taken from the well or spring on Bealtaine morning after sunrise was thought to have healing and protecting properties. But if someone else stole some water from your well before you did, they might have the power to steal your good fortune. Local wells would lose their power after the first use on Bealtaine morn, but holy wells whose power was thought greatest at Bealtaine would serve many devotees.

The dew on the grass at Bealtaine was also thought to be particularly powerful. Washing the face in the dew of Bealtaine morn was thought to be effective against aging. Often dew was collected in the first weeks of May, bottled, and kept for the rest of the year for use in healing. One could gather it with the hands, drag a linen cloth, a rope or cord through the grass to soak up the dew. The malicious collected dew from the fields of those they planned to target.

Maypoles were an English custom occasionally imported to traditionally Celtic areas, but the custom did not take hold in Ireland where the May Bush reigned.

Feasting at Bealtaine: Eating well on the festival day was also a method of sympathetic magic, designed to ensure prosperity during the season. Today, with our modern ideas of what constitutes proper foods for a feast, we would probably be disappointed by what was traditionally served for Bealtaine: oatmeal porridge or soup, bread, curds and soft cheeses, new greens and roots. Bealtaine came when crops were still only sprouting, and the stored results of the previous harvest were dwindling. Except for soft cheese and butter made from the milk of cows and sheep, shoots of new herbs and salad greens such as wood sorrel, and roots such as silverweed, food would not be plentiful until harvest time. Kevin Danaher wrote that it was a sign of good household management if a woman still had enough meal to make porridge or grain soup for the feast. So, it was a point of pride to serve such dishes at Bealtaine-even if one had to put aside some meal and save it for some time ahead. Alexander Carmichael recorded that in communities where the flocks and herds were being taken to summer pastures, the community or kin-group first celebrated by feasting on a male lamb. He suggested that the lamb was probably sacrificed to the deities in earlier times.

Some Celtic areas retain traditions of processions which, doubtless, were originally held in honor of the festival's leading deity. Consistent characteristics include at least one man dressed in women's clothes or in a mixture of men and women's clothes. Sometimes, there were two men, both fantastically dressed, but one was designated a man and the other his wife. In some places, a butter church dash and a pitchfork would be wrapped in straw and dressed to resemble a man and woman. In earlier times, thousands of people dressed in their best and decorated with ribbons would gather to escort the couple through the streets. On the Isle of Man, carts of mugwort were driven about to "sain" the fields while people rang the church bells and banged hoopskin drums to frighten away evil influences. Then two "armies," one defending the Queen of Summer and the other the King of winter, would contest each other until the Winter forces were driven down a road leading west. At that point, the sun was judged to have set and the battle ended. A feast was held, attended by people from miles around. One account speaks of a procession being followed by a "rustic comedy" in which the principal figures played a man and his wife who is being tempted to leave him and elope with another man. These folk remains make us wonder whether the myths associated with Bealtaine - the elopements and kidnappings - were once enacted dramatically as part of the feast celebrations.

Traditionally, Ireland had two ritual centers, although it is impossible to be sure how widely their supremacy was acknowledged. Tara was associated with kingship and the feast of Samhain, the beginning of winter. At Uisneach, not far from Tara, there was some sort of ceremonial gathering at Bealtaine from ancient times. Keating recorded that an assembly with a large fire and sacrifices was held there each year. Archaeological excavation at the summit of Uisneach unearthed a large area of scorched earth containing many charred animal bones. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, Mide, the chief druid of the Nemedians who invaded Ireland on Bealtaine, immediately went to Uisneach and built a fire that blazed for seven years. When the druids already there protested, Mide cut out their tongues and buried them under the hill at Uisneach.

Confrontations with monsters-the dark powers seeking to overcome the light-also occurred at Bealtaine in the myths. In the Mabinogi, a fearsome claw stole a marvelous foal each Bealtaine. When Teyrnon hacked off the claw, the missing newborn baby Pryderi suddenly appeared, almost as if this sun-related figure had been rescued from the dark. Eventually, the baby was restored to his parents. Reminiscent of this is a short story called "Lludd and Llefelys" in which a terrifying scream was heard each May Eve. The scream, which turned the land and its inhabitants barren, was uttered by one of two dragons that engaged in annual battle.

Agricultural Cycle Events: Bealtaine was the time when the herds and flocks were taken to the upper pastures. Usually, a special communal meal and gathering for blessing preceded the kin group's traveling together to the upper pastures. Once the children and younger women had been settled in the houses, the older women and men returned to the lower pastures to run the household and farm the crops. Throughout the summer, young men might take the opportunity to court their favorites up on the hills, in preparation for the wintertime marriage season. Also at midsummer, the ewes were separated from the lambs to encourage them to breed again.

Community and Social Events: Bealtaine was a time to pay rents or change dwelling, and to find new employment for the summer. Temporary marriages ended at Bealtaine, too, enabling the partners to forge new relationships. Beating the boundaries was also an important custom. A farmer would gather everyone and walk the borders of the farm, pausing at least once to face each direction and leave posies or sprinkle water as protection and blessing. Hunting seasons re-opened around Bealtaine. In medieval times, Bealtaine coincided with the part of the year when military activity-riding and hosting-resumed after winter. Once the crops were sowed, chieftains felt freer to call on their clients for the military service they owed him.

Lughnasa: the Land Gives Birth

Lugnassad, luaid a hada

Lughnasa, its dues for telling:

cecha bliadna ceinmara,

In every distant year,

fromad cech toraid co m-blaid,

a taste of every fruit with flame,

biad lusraid la Lugnasaid.

a meal of vegetables on Lughnasa.

Lughnasa marked the beginning of harvest, a time when the first fruits were offered. The name refers to the figure of Lugh, the multi-skilled divine hero who in myth won the harvest from the natural forces who wanted to keep it for themselves. Heavy thunderstorms are not uncommon at the beginning of August in the northern hemisphere, and Lugh had the magical power, personal strength and acquired knowledge to control the floods and winds that often threatened the harvest before it could be gathered safely.

The Names of Lughnasa: A number of folk etymologies have been associated with the term but it comes from Lugh-nasad, the games of Lugh. Two Irish medieval scribes asserted that Lugh ordained the games to commemorate his late wives, while another stated that the Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu, requested the games as she lay dying after clearing the land around Tailtenn for farming. Another account says the games originated when the Tuatha Dé Danann celebrated Lugh's inauguration as king. A later scribe attempted to reconcile the traditions by saying that Lugh was Tailtiu's foster-son, a statement without further substantiation. A different, possibly earlier, name for Lughnasa was Brón Trogain, meaning "sorrow of the earth's travail," as in childbirth. This name echoes the story of Tailtiu, dying after working so hard to prepare the land for cultivation. It also suggests an image of the harvest as the offspring of the earth. The Manx equivalent is Láa Luanys. Scottish Lùnasdal has largely given way to the English Lammas (Loaf-Mass). Other names reflect adaptation to European calendars: Welsh Calan Awst (beginning of August) and Breton Gouel an Eost. Over and above these more generic names, Lughnasa has acquired many more English names ranging from Garland Sunday to Well Sunday to Jam Day. These names reflect the range of activities that make up the celebrations.

The Dating of Lughnasa: Other feasts of the Celtic year have essentially settled on a specific, unvarying calendar date. Lughnasa, however, although technically associated with 1 August, in practice has moved to various dates in a period from roughly mid-July to the middle of August. Some of the changes resulted from the confusion of changing from Julian to Gregorian calendars, when 1 August became 11/12 August.

Lughnasa is unique in that its reason for being depends on the beginning of harvest, an activity whose date varies from one area to another. Different crops predominate in different places, and crops do not ripen at the same time everywhere. The beginning of August was when grain first ripened in ancient and medieval Ireland. Coincidentally, when potatoes first became the dominant crop in Ireland, they, too, were first dug at the beginning of August. Although many modern crop varieties are ready for harvesting long before August, wild berries continue to ripen at the same time as always, which may help to explain why berry-picking persisted as a Lughnasa-time activity long after other customs had died out.

When the original purpose of the date-to offer the first cuttings from the harvest-ceased to be significant, the celebration moved to a more convenient time or one with meaning for people of the time. The general tendency to celebrate on Sunday reflected the need to confine the celebrations to a day already freed from work. Other changes resulted when local clergy attempted to replace Lughnasa activities with Christianized versions or with patterns to regional or local holy wells on the Sunday closest to the beginning of August. Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick in Ireland and La Grange Troménie in Brittany are but two examples. In Wales, harvest was once a communal activity, with the farmers from an area gathering at each farm in turn. While a symbolic first sheaf theoretically could be cut on each farm on the same day, harvest was actually a communal gathering and its end a time for celebration. In Scotland, grain was harvested long after August began. There, most Lughnasa customs were transferred to Michaelmas (29 September). In Brittany, the celebrations generally moved to a day significant in the life of a parish, such as the feast of St. Ronan at Locronan. Even in Ireland, most of the surviving celebrations no longer coincide with the beginning of harvest.

Harvest Customs

Crossing the Border: Until recently, the month before harvest was a time of hunger for many people in Celtic countries. Even one hundred years ago, July was known as "hungry July" or the time of cabbage because many people subsisted only on old cabbage or wild nettles until the new harvest began. Herding communities that relied on sheep's milk for their summer diet had to cut off that supply by separating ewes from lambs so that the ewes would be ready to breed and start the cycle again. With Lughnasa came fresh, sweet berries of many sorts, new grain for bread, and new potatoes with their delicate skins.

Talismans: In many places, processions to high places formed the heart of the Lughnasa celebrations. Offerings of clooties, coins, or small items such as buttons, beads, and pins, were left at designated points. Water would be drunk and bathed in at holy wells. Sitting in a prehistoric stone seat might be done to cure or prevent various ills. Garlands of flowers might be carried to a site and buried there to signify the end of summer and the return of its energy to the earth. Spancels used to tie horses or cows might be hung near holy wells to gain protection for the animals.

Omens: As with the other quarter-days, Lughnasa was a time to take omens for the coming quarter.

Time Off: Lughnasa-type celebrations typically took place on weekends or coincided with regional fairs when life veered from the norm. Kerry fishermen did not go to sea during the week before and after Lughnasa. In parts of Scotland, a two-week period of celebration was observed.

Feasting: At Lughnasa, feasting was based on newly-harvested crops. In Ireland, this would be boxty or colcannon made from new potatoes or pies made from berries. Scottish celebrations typically included oat cakes anad new carrots. In Brittany, customs featured cider and crepes.

Protective Magic: Horses and cattle were swum in holy wells, rivers, lakes, and the ocean as part of Lughnasa celebrations.

Mythic Acts: The most important and persistent myth associated with Lughnasa is that described in Cath Maigh Tuired, the Battle of Moytura, when the Tuatha Dé Danann, led by Lugh, defeated the Fomoire who had tried to keep the harvest for themselves. Although the manuscripts place the battle at Samhain, the underlying mythology pervaded the customs of Lughnasa. An incident within the battle, when Lugh defeats his destructive grandfather, has persisted in somewhat altered form in the folk tradition. Several customs suggest the underlying myths. Mock battles between different groups often took place at Lughnasa regional fairs, although the "mock" battles often developed into real meleés in more recent times. Folk tradition also spoke of battles between groups of fairies for the best of the harvest. Other tales related a battle between a hero, usually a saint, and a demon or idol who demanded tribute. Often, the processions to mountain-tops commemorated elements of the battle story at stops along the route. Máire Mac Neill also detected traces of a myth about the kidnapping of a woman, another involving a female figure at a lake, and yet another concerning the death and revivification of a bull. The traces are too incomplete, however, to be sure what the context, details, and meaning of the original story was.

Community and Social Events: Many of the events associated with Lughnasa fairs reinforced community connections, whether by negotiating contracts, arranging temporary marriages, inaugurating government positions, athletic contests, or through the fun of dancing and music.

Ending the Harvest: The customs that ended the harvest created a connection with the crops of the following year, closing the cycle. Known as "snagging the cailliagh" in Ulster, the ceremony ritualized the last cut of the grain harvest. The last swathe or sward of corn, known variously as the cailleach, hare, hag, or old woman, was plaited with the roots still in the ground. The style of plaiting varied significantly from place to place. One by one, workers threw their hooks or scythes at the plait until it fell free. Once cut, the cailliagh was carried into the house and laid firstly around the neck of the master, follwoed by that of the mistress. Finally it was placed in the center of the table while a feast took place around it. In some places, the plait was hung in the house until the next harvest, while in others it was taken down at Christmas and fed to animals or, in the spring, broken up and mixed with the seed. While the details varied, this ritual ending of harvest took place throughout the Celtic areas.

The Flow of the Celtic Festivals


Underlying the traditional Celtic workflow was an assumption that we moderns are only beginning to acknowledge: the realization that the ability of this world to sustain life is limited. Because their daily lives were more directly and obviously affected by natural cycles, the ancient and medieval Celts were more aware of the basic fact that resources must be sustained and recycled so the world can continue to support life; death and rebirth were an essential component of this concept. Consequently, Samhain was the time to evaluate one's life, to remember those who had blessed one's life and gone on, and to treasure those still among the living. Imbolc was a time for blessing the home and celebrating the nurturing forces of life. Bealtaine focused on what was new, fresh, energetic, growing, and pleasurable. Lughnasa was the time to give thanks for blessings by offering back the first fruits of the harvest.

Honey under ground

Silverweed of spring.

Honey and condiment

Whisked whey of summer.

Honey and fruitage

Carrot and autumn.

Honey and crunching

Nuts of winter.

- Carmina Gadelica #398

Each season has its trials, its duties, and its entitlements. The ancient Celts and their descendants traditionally knew how to celebrate the sweetnesses that came with each turn in the endless cycle.