Celtic Calendar Deconstructed
I like to stay mindful of the Celtic calendar because it heightens my awareness of the turnings of seasons and the activities of the sun and moon as they change throughout the year. Sometimes, in the busy-ness of our modern world with its artificial lighting and 24/7 scheduling, I forget. Then, I imagine the Ancient Ones. I imagine what it would be like to be so totally dependent on the natural world for our day to day existence. I romanticize what it would be like to be completely in rhythm with the energies of earth, moon, sun and galaxy.
Most people have at least seen a picture of a Celtic Calendar, perhaps like the one above. I chose this one for its simplicity so the key features could be easily identified.
The first feature I want to highlight is the fact that it is represented as a circle, a cycle, a wheel. This may seem too obvious to discuss but think about how different the message is to the configuration of our present-day calendar. We represent the year as a box, boxes within boxes; pages to be pulled off, one by one as the boxes are checked off. The power of thinking of the year, of our lives, as cyclical is more than a casual assumption. It is an organizing principle that changes one’s perspective on life.
The vertical and horizonal axes of the Celtic Calendar divide the year into quarters, a concept we have continued in our four seasons. The poles of the vertical axis represent the winter solstice (Yule) and the summer solstice (Midsummer). The horizontal axis has Autumn Equinox (Mabon) and Spring Equinox (Ostara) at its poles. These are called the four solar holidays and they, celebrate the differing length of day and night. (We recognize yule traditions in present day Christmas celebrations and Ostara traditions appear at Easter. Many European countries celebrate Midsummer and an early harvest festival as well.)
Further divisions of the wheel create four more festivals between these solar holidays. As we know, the seasons transition or transition one to another more gradually than the four solar dates would indicate. These festivals give nuance to these turnings.
Imbolc signifies the first signs of spring. Today, the US has Ground Hog’s Day, and many people and places celebrate Brigid’s Day at this same time. (see earlier blog on Brigid’s Day). Snowdrops and new born lambs are its symbols.
Beltane, the May festival day, celebrates the first of summer with bonfires, maypoles and the crowning of the Queen of the May in some Celtic traditions.
Lammas/Lughnasa is the first of the harvest holidays, named for the grain or bread that is plentiful at this point of the year and highlighting the Green Man in British tradition. In Ireland, the festival is named for Luth, the ancient Celtic sun god.
Samhain is the last of the harvest, the end of the year in many ways as the ancient Celts prepared for the winter darkness. The end cycle of life was acknowledged at this time, too. It is a time to celebrate those who have passed on and to welcome the spirits of loved ones to visit on this day “when the veil is thin”. Most of our Halloween traditions stem from Samhain.
More elaborated Celtic calendars may include the Zodiac wheel, lunar indicators, the trees of the ancient ogham system or the ogham symbols themselves. We will talk more about ogham in a later blog. There are many online examples of intricate Celtic calendats if you wish to know more. Meantime:
May you enjoy and celebrate the turning of the seasons with Celtic spirit.