The Celtic seasonal wheel is based on eight festivals. Danu Forest leads us through this cycle of the year, aligning our awareness with the seasonal pattern of the earth.
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 46.
Nature is our greatest healer. Whether it’s the wind on our face or the sun on our skin, many of us realise that connection with nature is one of our greatest sources of spiritual nourishment and support. Our Celtic ancestors once honoured the turn of the seasons with a whole series of festivals and ritual, from the heart of winter and first stirrings of spring through to the harvests and abundance of late summer and autumn. They understood that everything was an interconnected whole, dependent on one another. Birth and death and rebirth were honoured as a continuous cycle, the many faces of life and the spirit of the land itself. The spirits of sun and earth, river, grain and livestock as well as the spirits of nature and the dead all received honour and ceremony, weaving the mortal world and the realms of spirit together in a seamless flow. These days many of us live lives divorced from this seasonal awareness, we can forget how we depend upon nature, but its power remains regardless and it is our lives and souls that suffer when we forget this connection. However, by reclaiming some of the wisdom our ancestors took for granted we can restore our relationship with the earth and its cycles, and we can rediscover an opportunity to connect with something greater than ourselves, living a life in closer balance and harmony with all creation.
Our connection with nature is all about embracing change. Engaging with the flow of life, the flow of the seasons, from birth and growth to decline and death and onwards through endless cycles, encourages us to embrace the moment, to find presence and consciousness, even stillness within this ever turning wheel, whilst paradoxically surrendering, letting go and releasing our need to resist in the face of relentless flow. Thus every moment, every facet of natures wild beauty becomes sacred, something fleeting and yet divine, mirroring the lives of our souls and inner life as well as the exterior seasons.
Many of Britain’s old gods are associated with seasonal lore, and have much to teach as overseers and embodiments of this natural rhythm, such as the fire goddess Brighid who is honoured at Imbolc in February, or the solar Lugh who rules over the first of the harvests at Lughnasadh in August. There are a whole host of seasonal festivals in our old folkloric calendars, but the most popular have been grouped together in the modern era to form a consistent whole, and are now known as the wheel of the year.
Imbolc – 1st/2nd February
The first stirrings of new life can be felt at Imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly’ referring to the birth of new lambs, and the raising of life force or kundalini in our bodies and the earth at this time. Sacred to the Celtic goddess Brighid, (later St Brigit) who oversees matters of inspiration, smithwork and the home and hearth, this is also a fierce time when life and death are still in a precarious balance and winter storms can still wreak havoc and destruction. Yet the year is pregnant with possibility. Brighid functions as a spiritual midwife at this time, tenderly supporting this process. Legend tells of how she battles with the Cailleach, the Gaelic old woman of winter at this time to bring the spring. Other tales tell of how Cailleach is transformed into Brighid with the first green shoots emerging from the soil.
Honour this time with silent meditations and blessing your home and heart with cleansing and purification rituals such as lighting all the candles in the house, to banish the darkness of winter.
Spring Equinox – 21st March (approx)
By the spring equinox the days and nights are of equal length. While there is little evidence of a spring equinox festival in the Iron Age Celtic times, many earlier Neolithic longbarrows and other structures across Britain and Ireland are aligned to the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun setting and rising at the same positions along the horizon for each of them. This suggests that this was an important time to our ancient ancestors, and by Saxon times the spring equinox was said to have been marked by the festival of Eostre, named after the Saxon and Germanic goddess of the Spring, Eostre or Ostara.
By this time of year the first blossoms are in abundance and the fertile year is truly dawning. Honour this time with a traditional spring clean, clearing the home of stuck negative energy that may have accumulated over the winter with a traditional ‘saining’, burning sacred aromatic herbs such as juniper or sage. Set your intentions for the year ahead by planting seeds, physically and metaphorically for your future and make spells of growth, prosperity and inspiration.
Beltane – 1st May
Beltane is known as a ‘fire festival’ or a ‘cross quarter day’ – one of the four festivals that intersect between the solstices and the equinoxes. Beltane means ‘The fires of Bel’ or ‘the goodly fires’ honouring the solar god Bel at this time, and his divine counterpart, the goddess Danu. Beltane honours this divine couple and their sacred union to bring fertility to the land but also cosmic harmony and balance. The divine couple have many names throughout British folklore from the old gods through to Robin Hood and Maid Marian and this ancient festival has survived throughout the centuries into modern May Day celebrations in a myriad of forms.[span3]Beltane is a spirit night, sacred to the faeries in British folklore and was the day when the Irish gods, the Tuatha de Danann arrived in Ireland.[/span3]
Beltane is a spirit night, sacred to the faeries in British folklore and was the day when the Irish gods, the Tuatha de Danann arrived in Ireland. Honour Beltane by recognising the importance of love and sensuality in your life, as well as the importance of opposites, the internal male or female within us. Light your own fire of Bel to draw this special magic into your life and reap its special blessings.
Summer Solstice – 21st June (approx)
At the time of the summer solstice the days are at their height, and the nights are the shortest. At the Solstice the sun rises at its most north easterly position and appears to standstill on that axis for around 3 or 4 days, until midsummer when its rising position begins to descend south easterly once more. This is the prime solar festival of the year and many sacred sites in Britain and Ireland are aligned to the solstice sunrise to draw on its great life force and spiritual energy, most notably Stonehenge in Wiltshire, which is also aligned to the Winter Solstice sunset.
This is a time to feel your empowerment and inner divinity. Take time outside in nature as much as possible and get the sunlight on your skin. Celebrate the summer solstice with your own parties or all night vigils, seeking faeries in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.
Lughnasadh – 1st August
Lughnasadh means ‘the feast’ or ‘the commemoration of Lugh’ and traditionally this ‘fire festival’ is a time of fairs, contests and legal contracts. Irish folklore tells us that this is to honour the sun god Lugh’s foster mother Taltiu, who prepared the plains of Ireland for cultivation; and therefore great feasts were held at this time to honour the wild earth and all its gifts. Now summer is really at its height and Lughnasadh gives us an opportunity to feel our pride and power, as the traditional games gave men and women opportunities to show off their physical prowess and skills, so we can take this time to feel pride in our own abilities in a fun and light hearted way with summer games and picnics and country fairs and fetes.
This is the first of the harvest festivals, and now is the time to take pleasure in the beauty of nature and honour our dependence upon it in all its forms. Later, this time of year was known as Lammas, or loaf mass, honouring the wheat crop.
Autumn Equinox – 21st September (approx)
Here the days and nights are of equal length once more, but from this point the nights grow longer and the touch of winter ahead can be felt on crisp mornings and colder nights. As the leaves turn from green to gold so the last of the crops are harvested, and the orchards fill the air with the scent of ripe apples and wood smoke. Berries brighten on the bough and glimmer like jewels in the mellow golden days that herald the end of summer and autumn’s approach.
Now is an especially good time to focus on gratitude, giving thanks for all the gifts we have in our lives – loved ones, shelter, all the abundance we have in every form – and also to look ahead and consider what we need to do in future to draw greater abundance into our lives, to reap a better harvest.
Samhain – 31st October
Samhain is the time of Celtic New Year, one of the great spirit days when the ancestors and the spirits of the wild, the faeries or Sidhe are loose creating chaos and havoc across the land. Samhain is a time of ancestor worship as well as honouring the close of the harvest season. Once it was the time when the cattle were slaughtered in preparation for winter, and their bones were burnt on a huge ‘bone fire’. All the fires in the house were extinguished and a new fire was brought into the house from this large communal pyre, literally creating life and light out of death and darkness. This is a time to recognise the chthonic forces in life, the chaos and unpredictable side of nature, and to honour death in all its forms as we enter the darkest part of the year.
Honour this time with an ancestral shrine, and gather for tales of your family tree while leaving out offerings of food and a lit candle in a turnip (a ‘tumpshie’) or a modern pumpkin lantern to guide those who have passed on their journey to the otherworld.
Winter Solstice – 21st December (approx)
At winter solstice we see the longest night and the shortest day, as the sun reaches its most southerly standstill. The journey through the darkness which began in earnest at Samhain draws to a close as from here on the days will lengthen as the sun is born anew and begins to ascend further north each day. The earth is experiencing the depths of winter by now, and the solstice is a time of dreaming and going within to seek the wisdom of the soul.
Many gods and ‘children of promise’ who are said to redeem the world by their very birth are said to have been born or are reborn at the winter solstice; Mithras and the Roman Sol Invictus, as well as Jesus Christ. In the Celtic tradition we have Mabon ap Modron, ‘the son of the mother’ as well as the figures of Merlin and King Arthur who in their most ancient tales also fit this description. Honour the winter solstice by considering your own child within, and rediscover your hopes and dreams as a way to reignite your passion and purpose, and as a path to healing and wholeness.
The magical wheel of the year is always turning, each festival presenting us with new opportunities to reconnect with nature and the beauty of our seasonal cycles; those within our own psyches as well as the world around us, weaving a simple, sacred life, day after day.
Meet the Author: Danu Forest has been a practicing druid witch and Celtic shaman for over twenty years, and has been teaching Celtic shamanism and witchcraft for over a decade. She has published articles in Kindred Spirit, Soul and Spirit, Sacred Hoop, Pentacle and Pagan Dawn. She is the author of Nature Spirits and Celtic Tree Magic.
The Magical Year: Seasonal Celebrations to Honour Nature’s Ever Turning Wheel
£9.99, Watkins Publishing