Delve into the ancient Irish wheel of the year and learn about the calendar of your ancestors with our rundown of the most important and sacred Celtic holidays of the year!
Ancient Irish people, living in an agricultural society, structured their year around significant seasonal and solar events. At a time when the absence of a successful harvest could mean death and devastation for entire communities, it’s not hard to imagine why.
The major Celtic holidays of the year, also known as ‘cross-quarter festivals’ were Imbolc (Feb 1), Bealtaine (May 1), Lughnasadh (August 1) and Samhain (November 1). These sacred festival days were a time to celebrate significant seasonal events and fell almost exactly between two of the four solar events.
These turning points of the year were the winter solstice (around December 21), the spring equinox (around March 21), the summer solstice (around June 21) and the autumnal equinox (around 21 September).
While less is known about how these events were celebrated by our ancestors compared to the major cross quarter festivals, there is evidence that these were also important and sacred Celtic holidays of the year.
Winter solstice (around December 21) – the tomb of Newgrange
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, when day light hours were at their fewest and spring feels like another world away. However, from this day onwards, the daylight hours will slowly increase, making way for a return of life on the land.
The mysterious Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange remains a potent reminder that this time held great significance to ancient Irish people. It is only at this time that the sun is in the correct position to enter the inner chamber, bathing the mysterious space in light.
Imbolc (February 1) – marking the beginning of spring
Before the popular Christian feast day of St. Brigid’s Day, the first of February was a day to honour the pagan goddess of spring, also named Brigid.
It seems as though the love the Celtic people had for this goddess could not be eradicated by Christianity, so their beloved deity was transformed into a Christian saint. This day marked the beginning of spring in ancient Ireland, and a time when the hope of warmer days was in the air.
Spring equinox (around March 21) – a time of perfect balance
While not as well-known as Newgrange, the ancient site of Loughcrew is similarly built to align with the sun on a solar event.
The spring equinox, usually falling sometime between the 20th and 23rd of March annually, is a time of perfect balance. Day and night are of equal length, a sacred moment for our ancestors.
Bealtaine (May 1) – a time to celebrate life
Similarly to Samhain, the Celts believed that this day marked a time when the veils between worlds were thinnest. Fairy activity at this time was believed to be particularly high.
Unlike Samhain however, which was a day to honour the dead, Bealtaine symbolised a time to celebrate life. Raucous parties, feasts and weddings were commonplace at this time to mark the height of spring and beginning of summer.
Summer solstice (around June 21) – an important and sacred Celtic holiday
While less is known about Celtic celebrations of the summer solstice, given the significance granted to its winter cousin, it seems safe to assume it would also have been considered a sacred time.
This event marks the longest day of the year and the peak of summer. The land is alive with life and greenery once again, and joy within nature abound.
Lughnasadh (August 1) – a time of thanksgiving
This important and sacred Celtic holiday was one of thanksgiving and celebration. With the joy of an abundant harvest, our ancestors would burn great bonfires on hilltops and dance the night away. This was time of gratitude and a day to honour the Celtic God Lugh.
Autumnal equinox (around September 21) – a time of balance
Similarly to the spring equinox, the mysterious site of Loughcrew was built to correspond with this time. Falling around September 21, this time was a celebration of equilibrium and balance.
The hours of day and night are the same. But from this day onwards, the dark will win out against the light, and whispers of winter become evident in nature.
Samhain (November 1) – the precursor to Halloween
It’s worth noting that Celtic people marked thus day as beginning at one sundown and ending at the next. So the cross quarter festivals such as Samhain would have been celebrated from sunset on October 31, all through the day and night until darkness fell on November 1.
This explains why Halloween night, the ancestor of this festival, is celebrated October 31. Samhain was seen as a time when spirits could cross the veil between the living and the dead, and a time when communing with them was possible.
The beliefs and customs of our ancestors remain both a source of intrigue and mystery. While little of the celebrations described above has survived the tides of time, it’s fascinating to explore a different way of viewing the year, and the passage of the seasons. And if you choose to, enjoy delving further into the forgotten world of the important and sacred Celtic holidays of the year.