In years long gone, the ancient calendar of the Celtic people worked through a cycle of eight festivals from Imbolc to Yule, with each focusing on changes in the seasons, the weather and within the natural world.
Please join us on a journey around the Wheel, covering the progress of a year and discovering the significance of each of the eight festivals or sabbats.
This is the first of the eight festivals and celebrates the initial signs of spring, the return of the lighter days and the start of new life awakening.
For humans, it is a time of renewal and rebirth. Above all else, this is a time of hope for what lies ahead for us.
Ways of celebrating this festival include lighting candles in your home at sunset, symbolically welcoming the light to enter your abode. This is also a time for spring cleaning as a way to let go of the clutter and debris accumulated during the dark times. This process of purging the old and unhelpful items from your home and, indeed, your inner self – you will be clearing the way for new growth and development.
This is also the perfect time to plant seeds that represent the potential of what is in store for the future. Even more symbolic is that each seed can represent your own hopes, ideas and dreams for the coming year.
This is also referred to as the Spring Equinox, the time when night and day are in balance. Ostara is considered to be the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
At this time, the year is waxing or growing and the light is now becoming stronger than the dark. The world is coming back to life under the sun that is gaining strength and days are getting longer and warmer.
This makes it the perfect time for planning, establishing your intentions and continuing the search for inner balance. Additionally, it is a time when the intentions set at Imbolc start transforming into positive action.
As we observe the plants and trees coming back to life, we should honour that same symbolic growth and energy within our inner selves.
One of the best ways to capture and be close to these energies, is to go on a walk out in nature and observe the changes that have started to take place – it is truly a magical time and experience.
This is one of the fire festivals and is a celebration of the sun moving closer to its full power.
This festival is focused on spring reaching its peak and preparing for the coming of summer. This is a time that the earth’s vitality and energy are at their most forceful. It is a time of vigour, flamboyancy and liveliness.
Beltane is the perfect time to bring your hopes and dreams from Imbolc and Ostara into reality.
Beltane is also referred to as May Day with revellers dancing around the May Pole that involves brightly coloured ribbons being woven around the pole to indicate the great spiral of life. The May Pole is also a phallic symbol to acknowledge fertility that is a very important part of this sabbat.
Commonly bonfires were lit in honour of the sun and to encourage the heat and light of our nearest star to care for and anticipate the coming harvest. It is also traditional for people to light candles in their homes at sunset to signify the returning light. Another practice is watching the sunrise and observing how it changes the landscape as it gets higher in the sky.
This festival encourages residents to bring blooms and greenery into their homes, in particular those of the hawthorn, rowan and birch, which all blossom at the time of Beltane.
This festival marks the midpoint of the summer, or the Summer Solstice; a time when the daylight is at its longest and the dark its shortest. In other words, light has defeated darkness. This is the time that the sun reaches the pinnacle of its life-giving energy.
The earth is now bathed in warmth and brings joy and fulfilment, this also applies to the human race and we are encouraged to celebrate the achievements we have attained thus far.
However, the Wheel is turning all the time and with this strength comes a poignant reminder that the battle between light and dark continues and, from this day onwards, the darkness will begin to regain its dominance. That said, we can still make the most of the energies abounding at Litha.
For example, it is traditional to stay awake on the preceding night and observe the rising of the sun on the day that it reaches its zenith. Again, this is a perfect time to spend outside, close to nature, to appreciate the bounty that nature has such as trees in full leaf, the vibrant colours of nature as seen in the flowers and the growing fruits and seeds that will form the foundation to sustain and perpetuate the turning of the Wheel.
This is the first of three festivals celebrating harvest and cornucopia. This festival takes place at the height of summer and acknowledges the coming together of the sun’s rays bonding with the earth to produce crops. This sabbat focuses on the start of the harvest of grains. Therefore, this festival honours gathering the crops and giving gratitude for the abundance.
Lughnasadh is also known by the ancient name of Lammas which comes from “loaf mass” and points to the importance of the first harvest and the production of the first loaf from the grains gathered in this harvest.
Activities that would be appropriate for this celebration would be baking your own bread, possibly as part of a feast for friends and family that brings together locally harvested fruits and vegetables.
The old traditions used this sabbat to prepare for the hibernation season. This is the beginning of the time to take stock of supplies and to slow down.
As the sun wanes in power, Lughnasadh marks the time for change and reflection as the dark nights lengthen.
This is the Autumn Equinox, where once again, daylight and darkness are in perfect balance, as it was at Ostara.
This is a transformative time where the battle for dominance takes centre stage when darkness begins to win over daylight, bringing with it the changes of the green leaves giving way for their autumnal display of brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.
The earth is preparing for the winter months and Mabon is a reminder for us to do the same. It is time to rest after the efforts of the harvest season. It is a time to celebrate the results of your hard work with the growing of crops, the gathering of the produce and to store and preserve that abundance.
This is also a time of reflection, to look back at the wishes you made at Imbolc and Ostara and whether they manifested what you had intended.
Ways to celebrate Mabon include making jam from the fruit harvest or going out on long walks and forage for wild berries and fruits.
Mabon is the ideal time to plant seeds to develop into trees and shrubs, again these can be representations of your hopes and dreams that will be left dormant, only emerging when the spring arrives beckoning new growth.
SAMHAIN (pronounced “sow-een”)
And now comes the reminder that death is an important part of life and the Wheel of the Year. However, it is not a time of everlasting darkness, rather it brings balance to the life cycle. Other names for this sabbat include All Souls Eve or Halloween.
Samhain is the final of three harvest festivals. This sabbat brings a magical belief of rebirth after death and although the plants and trees die back, it is just a resting period as they will be revitalised in the spring.
Samhain also marks the nearing end of the year but in the knowledge that a new year lies ahead, so bringing a renewal of hope … as they say “hope springs eternal”, meaning: “it is human nature always to find fresh cause for optimism” (Oxford Dictionary).
In addition to reflecting on the past and longing for new beginnings, it is also the time to honour our forebears and those that we have lost. The belief is that the veil between the corporeal world and spirit world is at its thinnest. Therefore, surround yourself with photographs of those people, talk about them and beckon them to come closer.
This festival closes the Wheel of the year, coinciding with the Winter Solstice that brings the longest night and shortest day. However, after this night, the daylight will begin to strengthen and regain its dominance again.
However, it is winter and the earth is laying in wait for the spring but meanwhile we can look forward with much hope to the return of the light and warmth that the sun bestows upon us.
Yule is about knowing that the seeds in the ground are safe and protected while they are waiting for the conditions to improve so that they can emerge from the ground demonstrating the continuation of the cycle.
Ways to celebrate the Yule season often includes lighting fires in your home, if that is possible. In days of old, this was generally referred to as the Yule log that filled the hearth of the manor house that hosted celebrations for the estate workers. Alternatively, lighting many candles to evoke the feeling of light returning is another way of welcoming the return of light.
Traditionally, wreaths are worked in circular form to acknowledge the Wheel of the Year and will generally be made from greenery that is still available, such as holly and ivy.
And so the cycle continues with the next festival being Imbolc and the Wheel of the Year continuing to revolve …
Look out for the next festival, Beltane, on the first of May that will cover the traditions of the time and how it can be celebrated.