Festivals and Celebrations
One thing that unites many contemporary Pagans (excepting reconstructionist traditions) is celebrating the Wheel of the Year, eight festivals that mark the changing seasons. Although some of the individual festivals are ancient Celtic/Irish in origin, the current combination of four Celtic festivals with the two solstices and two equinoxes (these events celebrated in many pagan and other religions worldwide) into a pattern of eight equally important festivals does not seem to be traceable back earlier than the 1950s, when put together by Gardner and adopted by Nichols in 1964 (Hutton, 1999). Wiccans, Druids and Goddess devotees all celebrate the Wheel of the Year.
The year begins with the Celtic New Year of Samhain, ‘summer’s end’, (31st Oct/1st November), a time when the veil between the human world and the other world of the spirits is said to be thin. It is a time to remember the dead. It may have been adopted for the Christian celebrations of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November). It has also mutated into contemporary celebrations of Halloween (which means the night before All Saints Day) and Pagan, Christian and secular/commercial elements are now very hard to disentangle, as they are in many of the seasonal festivals. Bonfires (perhaps Bonfire night is older than Guy Fawkes) are lit to remind the sun to return, and apple-bobbing may symbolise death and rebirth or may be just a fun folk custom.
Yule, or the winter solstice (21st December) marks the rebirth of the sun. Candles, lights, round sun-shaped decorations and evergreen plants remind people in mid-winter that warmth and life will return. It seems a highly appropriate time of year for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus, with similar symbolism.
Imbolc, 1st February, marks the very beginning of spring, when snowdrops and early lambs appear. Candles are lit to strengthen the lengthening days. The Christian festival of Candlemas on the same day celebrates the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple. The goddess Brighid, or Christian St. Bridget is also celebrated at this time.
The Spring Equinox or Ostara (c.21st March), when day and night are equal, celebrates the new life of spring, symbolised by spring flowers like daffodils, eggs and rabbits or hares. This is close in time to the Christian celebration of Easter, the new life of the resurrection of Jesus. Some Pagans believe that Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, and that her name preserved in the English name for the Christian festival. However, there is some debate about the accuracy of that claim within the Pagan community.
Beltane (30th April/1st May) celebrates the beginning of summer and fertility. The choosing of May Queens in folk tradition may symbolise the goddess, and in Roman Catholic tradition Mary is celebrated a ‘Queen of the May’.
The Summer Solstice or Litha (c. 21st June) marks the longest day, and is celebrated notably at Stonehenge. This festival is celebrated either on the actual longest day (usually 21st or 22nd June) or on 24th June which was the date of midsummer in earlier times and is favoured by the British Druid Order (see, e.g., http://greywolf.druidry.co.uk/2015/06/merry-midsummer/). In Christian tradition 24th June is St. John’s Day (John the Baptist), not so much noticed in England, but very important in Scandinavian countries where midsummer bonfires are lit.
Lughnasadh (31st July/1st August), named after the Irish god Lugh, is the beginning of the harvest, with a theme of the death and rebirth of crops. The equivalent Christian festival is Lammas. The Autumn Equinox marks the turn to the dark half of the year.
Many of the Pagan festivals coincide with Christian ones as noted above, and this seems in part due to deliberate policy on the part of Christian authorities to ‘baptise’ existing celebrations and make use of the seasonal symbolism. However, the story is a complex one and influences may have worked both ways, remembering that the pattern of eight festivals is recent rather than ancient. Some customs may be Pagan adaptations of Christian ones, rather than the other way round.
Many seasonal folk traditions around the country are based on (or possibly more likely, given their often relatively recent origins) have gained a Pagan element in contemporary practice, examples being the ‘Jack in the Green’ celebrations for May day in Hastings, Rochester Sweeps, and wassailing the cider apple trees in Somerset.