The Eight Traditional European Celebrations of the Seasons
by Frank Jamger
INDIGENOUS EUROPEANS traditionally celebrate eight holidays whose dates are set by significant positions of the Earth as it revolves around the Sun. These positions are the two Solstices, the two Equinoxes, and the four cross-quarter points in between them. These positions of the Earth signify points in the cycle of the seasons, which in turn were linked with the agricultural lives of our ancestors. Before they created modern technology, the lives of our ancestors literally hung in the balance each year according to the fortunes of the weather and their crops. When your food stores have dwindled down to the corner of your cellar and there are no grocery stores, the rising of the Sun and blossoming of life in the Spring is truly a cause for celebration.
Our European ancestors lived closely in touch with the Earth up until fairly recent times. While Mediterranean and Asian civilizations had long practiced floodplain agriculture that supported large cities, mainland Europeans remained a rural, woodland people running small farms until the Industrial Age. Northern Europe had abundant primary resources, but its cold climate, thick forests and heavily vegetated soils made successful farming a challenge. With the weather changing radically throughout the year, preparation for the future, disciplined work habits and creative innovation were essential. Households tended to be independent, in charge of their own fortunes, and it was sometimes necessary to seek the help and cooperation of neighbors. The seasonal holidays were ideal occasions for such concourse.
Several themes, reflecting European values, are interwoven throughout these celebrations. The need to promote cooperation and unity in the community. The need for careful reflection, assessment, and planning. The need to periodically clean up our refuse and bring order to our lives. The need for frugality, to “save up for a rainy day”. And the need to occasionally let go and have fun, to explore, to enjoy the beauty of the Earth, the pleasures of life, and pride in our work and accomplishment. Lost in the madness of the modern world, we would do well to consider the lessons garnered by our forebears.
Imbolc, occurring at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, on February 2, commemorates the first signs of the coming Spring. The rising Sun begins to turn the tide against the darkness and cold of Winter. Imbolc is the holiday of Brigid, the Goddess of Home and Hearth, of poetry and smithcraft, who brings us fortune for the coming year. The name Imbolc derives from Old Irish words meaning ‘the time the sheep’s milk comes’. The lactation of ewes in anticipation of birthing is a sign of Spring’s awakening. Ewe’s milk provided the first fresh nourishment for our ancestors since the onset of Winter. Other signs are buds on trees, early flowers such as primroses and dandelions peeking through the snow, and the emergence of a few hibernating animals to check on the weather, such as the famous groundhog.
A tradition of Imbolc is to make a straw dolly representing Brigid, called a Brideog, to use for various rituals. The dolly is dressed in white cloth and adorned with ribbons, early flowers, stones, or shells, with an especially lovely ornament in place of the heart. Young girls of the village, dressed in white, carry it from house to house to offer blessings and receive gifts. Brideogs are placed in a special bed overnight with white candles lit nearby, blessing the house with health and protection for the coming year. Candles may be lit in each room of the house, to commemorate the growing light of the Sun.
Imbolc is a time of hope and preparation, to dedicate oneself to the coming challenges of the growing season. Time to get one’s life in order, to bless the seeds, to ready the tools. Time to clean up and prepare a new start. Winter grows long, life begins to stir.
Ostara is a celebration of the Vernal Equinox and the arrival of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, on about March 21. The Northern and Southern Hemispheres are equidistant from the Sun and share the light equally. The length of the day, which began growing longer on Yule (the Winter Solstice), equals and will exceed the length of the night. The light and warmth of the day, embodied by the Goddess Eostre, has overtaken the night. She heralds the long-awaited return of Nature’s life-giving growing season.
Eostre is the Germanic Goddess of the Spring and Dawn, who returns to Earth on the Vernal Equinox with a bunny companion and magical eggs that regenerate life. The Easter Bunny has the same German origin. A primary festivity is decorating eggs, symbols of fertility and reawakened life, which will be exchanged to bring blessings of abundance. New clothing is worn, and pastel colors are the fashion.
Ostara is also associated with balance and harmony, a time for cleaning up and getting back in touch with the Earth. Balance is symbolized by the Equilateral Cross. A custom originating with the Saxons is to eat hot buns marked with a cross, to honor Eostre. It is time to plant the seeds, to start a garden, to prepare the season’s crop.
Beltane, of May 1, also known as May Day, is a celebration of fertility, sensuality and the coming of Summer. For the Celts, Beltane represents the midpoint of the year, the beginning of the Light half. Beltane is an ‘in between’ time when the veil separating the spirit world is thin, and magic can be found in bonfires, sacred waters, and visiting faeries. A central event of Beltane is the Maypole dance, wherein brightly colored, interwoven ribbons symbolize the fecundity of early Summer, adding energy to it.
A variety of merry traditions are practiced on Beltane. Great ceremonial fires are lit on the eve, while all domestic fires are extinguised and will be restarted from its embers. Young couples in love jump over the fires to bring good fortune, and herds of livestock are passed between them before being taken to Summer grazing grounds, to be blessed with health and protection. Ceremonial bathing in natural waters or sprinkling in dew collected before dawn, can bring health, beauty and happiness for the year.
A May Queen and consort are chosen to lead marches and announce the games. Wishes made to the faeries at a Hawthorn tree may be granted, and offerings of sweet bread and drinks are left for them on doorsteps and roadways. Flowers are gathered in May baskets to be presented to loved ones, or used to decorate the Maypole and revelers’ clothing for the dances. It is a time to set aside one’s inhibitions, to run wild and play joyfully amidst the Earth’s flourishing beauty.
Litha, on about June 21, is a celebration of the Summer Solstice. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted closest to the Sun, the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and we have our longest day of the year. The Sun’s arc then begins to fall, as the slow journey toward Yule begins. In Celtic tradition, the Holly King of the waning Sun, associated with the harvest and the wisdom of preparing for the future, now defeats and replaces the Oak King of the waxing Sun who has ruled since Yule.
Litha traditions include holding a fire festival, enjoying the first fruits of the growing season, and consummating love matches through marriage. Balefires made of hay are lit across the country. Set against the sky on hilltops, they are kept burning throughout the day, giving protection against evil spirits associated with the downturn of the Sun. As at Beltane, jumping campfires will bring you good fortune.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly strawberries, are gathered for a feast, along with wild herbs and plants having ritual or medicinal purposes. Honey from beehives is harvested and made into honey wine, Mead. The Full Moon closest to Litha is traditionally called the Mead Moon, from whence we get the term Honeymoon. Litha is a propitious time to have a wedding. It’s an occasion to enjoy the outdoors with family, to have a picnic and barbecue.
Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, is an August 1 celebration of the first harvest of the season, particularly the golden bounty of wheat and bread. Lugh is the Celtic God of the Sun and Rain, and of crafts and agriculture. His blessing will bring you a bountiful Autumn crop. The first grain produce of the year is eaten on Lughnasadh; it’s bad luck to eat it before now.
A tradition of Lughnasadh is to shape the first bread as a dolly and ritually sacrifice it, as death is an essential part of the cycle of rebirth. Another tradition is to gather bilberries; if the bilberries are bountiful then the crop will be also. Lughnasadh is an auspicious time for handfasting, trial marriages that last for a year and a day. Handfasts give young couples an opportunity to get to know one another before fully committing to marriage.
Great craft fairs were held on Lughnasad, gaily decorated with bright ribbons. They included sporting contests similar to the Olympic games. The festivities were considered funeral games to honor Lugh’s foster-mother Tailte, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Medieval guilds created elaborate displays of their wares, musicians played lively, and artists performed plays and dances. The Lughnasad festival is an opportunity to make merry before beginning in earnest the grueling work of the harvest.
Mabon commemorates the Autumn Equinox and culmination of the harvest, on about September 23. A fabulous feast will be held, similar to Thanksgiving. The Earth has reached the point in its revolution at which each hemisphere is equidistant from the Sun, and everyone’s day and night is the same length. Our days will now become shorter than the nights, as Winter approaches. The majority of the year’s crops have been gathered, and it’s time to celebrate, take stock, and give thanks for the year’s blessings.
Hospitality is in the air on Mabon. Members of family and community, including those less fortunate, are invited to share in the season’s bounty. The featured desserts are fruits and gourds, such as apples, grapes, and the wine made from it. A Mabon tradition is to honor the deceased by visiting burial sites, placing upon them an apple or other natural item. It is taboo to pass by a gravesite and not do so. At dinner time, fond stories are told of those who passed away during the year, and of more distant ancestors.
Samhain, of October 31, commemorates the transition from Summer to Winter, and the start of the Celtic New Year. The transition between the Light and Dark halves of the year is a magical time, and so celebrations peak on the night of the last day in October. During this period, the worlds of the living and the dead are in contact and can be traversed. We among the living can be visited by departed loved ones and ancestors, but also by mischievous or downright evil spirits.
Bright sign posts are set outside the home in the form of white candles and jack-o-lanterns, to guide home loved ones and to ward off mischievous spirits. People do not roam outdoors on this night except in disguise, and treats are offered to placate any un-welcomed wanderers from the other world. Inside, a meal and an open place at the dinner table are prepared for family members who have departed.
A central feature of Samhain is a great bonfire tended by Druids. Hearth fires are extinguished from each home and then re-lit from this central fire, as a symbol of village unity. The bonfires serve several other purposes, as well. They are a source of light in the night and a defence against malevolent spirits and the cold of Winter. They are a place to cast tokens such as bones, stones or chestnuts, to divine the future based on how these are rendered by the fire. Finally, the ashes of the bonfire are spread over the fields to bless them for the next season.
Yule, on December 21, is the great occasion, the Winter Solstice, on which the Sun ceases its decline and gladly begins to rise again! It’s the shortest day of the year, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the Sun and the Sun’s arc has reached its nadir, appearing very low in Northern lands. But its rising heralds a new year of life and sustenance on Earth. Most Yule traditions have origins where the decline of the Sun is felt most keenly, in Scandinavia.
Scandinavian Yule traditions include its name, the Yule log, the decorated tree, the wreath, caroling, and Santa Claus. The Yule log, originally a full-sized log set in a long house, is set to burn and smolder for twelve days to add energy to the growing Sun. A hardy evergreen tree is brought indoors and decorated with candles, nuts, berries and other objects that symbolize light and life. Wreaths of evergreen, holly, and ivy are hung, shaped as circles representing the renewed cycle of life and the seasons. Caroling originated as wassailing, in which singers went from house to house addressing their music to the dormant fruit trees, to promote a good crop for the next season. The modern Santa Claus originated from the Norse gods Odin or Thor, who flew across the Northern skies in a chariot pulled by goats and visited homes through the chimney, bearing gifts.
In Celtic tradition, the god of the waning Sun who ascended at Midsummer, the Holly King, is vanquished and replaced on Yule by the god of the waxing Sun, the Oak King. The outgoing Holly King is represented by a wreath of Holly set at the door, while the incoming Oak King is represented by an Oak Yule log brought indoors. The struggle between them is ritually reenacted. This interchanging of their lives represents the necessary cycle of decay and renewal.
Yule is a time to celebrate the blessings we’ve received, our good fortune to enjoy another year of life. It’s a time to strengthen the bonds of family and community through feasting, singing, and exchanging gifts. A time to reflect on how we can improve our lives and relationships, to enjoy the blessings of life in the coming year.
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Source: Frank Jamger