An Overview of Our Holidays
And How We Celebrate Them
We celebrate the 8 Holidays of Neopagan tradition, usually within a week of the following dates:
Calendar Date Welsh Holiday Translation Traditional Pagan Name Significance November 1 Calan Gaeaf "First Day of Winter" Samhain The Winter Half Begins December 21 Alban Arthan "Solstice of the Bear" Yule The Rebirth of the Sun February 1 Canol Gaeaf "Middle of Winter" Imbolc Thaw Begins; Feast of Bri March 21 Alban Eilir "Equinox of the Butterfly" Eostre/Ostara Spring Begins May 1 Calan Mai "First Day of May" Beltaine The Summer Half Begins June 21 Alban Hefin "Summer Solstice" Midsummer/Litha The Height of the Sun August 1 Calan Awst "First of August" Lughnasadh, Lammas The Feast of Lleu September 21 Alban Elfed Autumn Equinox Mabon Harvest
December 20 - Alban Arthan (Solstice of the Bear) - Yule
Fri - Sun -- This special weekend, held in a heated Lodge, features many seasonal activities, like caroling, holiday decorations and tasty treats. The Ritual activity runs from Sundown Saturday to Sunrise Sunday. During this time we experience increasing darkness each hour until Midnight as we start with 8 candles and snuff one each hour, until the main Ritual at Midnight when we call to Math ap Mathonwy. Then we relight one candle each hour to celebrate the return of the Sun. We play and Feast all night long as we exchange gifts and have lots of time to talk and connect with one another.
What Is Alban Arthan?
Alban Arthan--"the solstice of the bear"--is one of the four solar holidays that reminds us of the rhythm of the earth. Alban Arthan--or Yule--is the time of the longest night of the year; it is the midpoint between Calan Gaeaf and Canol Gaeaf, thus why some call it "Midwinter". It is the yearly rebirth of the sun, and the start of the long journey of returning light; in a paradox, as the days grow colder for a time, they also grow lighter, until at Canol Gaeaf, they begin to grow warm again, and the change in light is more readily noticeable.
It's no surprise that the secular year begins not long after Alban Arthan; it seems like a natural response to solar events. The return of the light can also serve to remind ourselves that while all things come to an end, something new begins -- everything from projects, to relationships, to our own lives. As Lucan quotes one druid, "Death is but the middle of a long life."
It's questionable whether the Celts celebrated the Winter Solstice; however, Alexi Kondratiev's book The Apple Branch supposes a possible meaning to a feast mentioned on the Coligny Calendar of the Gauls -- a day called Deuoriuos Riuri, possibly meaning 'great divine feast of frost', which is thought to fall during sometime in our December; if this is so, then it would point to a Celtic celebration of the event; even if not, we know that the Paleolithic culture of Ireland likely celebrated, as evidenced by the architecture of Newgrange. Now, Newgrange was the home of Oengus mac ind-Og, a figure who is often tied -- particularly linguistically -- to the Gallic Apollo Maponos, the Divine Son. If Oengus's home was associated with the rebirth of the sun at winter, it isn't too much of a stretch to connect Oengus and Maponos with the Child of Light. But this is all conjecture. At any rate, other things associated with Alban Arthan include the hunting of the wren (which Kondratiev ties to Lleu/Lugh), and the mistletoe (already well-associated with the Druids).
Also, in the figure of the Mari Llwyd, the Welsh hobbyhorse brought around by mummers, he makes a connection with the Horse Goddess, such as Epona and Rhiannon -- whose son was stolen from her. This connection with Mari Llwyd wandering the town and Rhiannon losing her son also occurred to me, and it seems a fair enough connection, though I'm not sure if it can be a definite one.
February 2 - Canol Gaeaf (Middle of Winter) - Imbolc
Sat or Sun (only a one-day event) The Ritual is held in the home of a Grove Member, usually mid-morning. This is a time to prepare tools for the coming year so we scrub the Grove Hearth together. We honor Brigedd by making her crosses and asking her to bless pieces of cloth that we take to use for healing. After the Ritual we have a pot-luck lunch with an abundance of ice cream, eggs and other dairy products, eggs, beef stew and pies.
What Is Canol Gaeaf?
Canol Gaeaf--the midpoint of the winter half of the year--is the celebration of the beginning of spring -- the days are getting longer, the deep freeze of January is beginning to break, and the snowstorms are slowly turning to rain. We can tell there is a thaw coming. It is a feast of anticipation. Today, we have the secular holiday of Groundhog's Day, which looks forward to predicting spring.
It's also the feast of the goddess Brigit, patron of poets, smiths, and healers -- one of the triple goddesses of Irish mythology, and a goddess of sovereignty who, in her marriage to Bres, stood as a bond between the Fomorians and the Tuatha D'Danann, her own people. She is also one of the pan-Celtic goddesses of the ancient world, appearing also as Brigantia in Roman Britain, and in place names in Europe and the Isles.
In the Christian era, the time was associated with the feasts of Candlemas and St. Blaise's Day -- both of which involved the use of candles and their flames as blessings. In the Catholic Church, February 3rd means a special Mass that involved being blessed around the throat by crossed candles; in former times, these candles were lit. Meanwhile, Candlemas is associated with the purification of the Virgin Mary after giving birth to Jesus. The connection of Mary and Brigit can also be tied to the idea of Brigit as Jesus - wet nurse - and so it's not surprising that Brigit would eventually share her holiday with Mary.
Going further with the idea of purification, there's been research in the journal 'riu that the word Irish word for the holiday--Imbolc, from Oimlec--may originally refer to purification, possibly through bathing through milk. The idea of purification in early February can be tied to other IE cultures, particularly the Roman februum - the time of purification, which gave its name to February. To have a goddess of healing associated with this holiday is not surprising -- Imbolc is a time of healing, of purifying, of preparations for spring. It is the time to plan what must be planted, but at the same time, you have the time to take care of yourself.
March 20 - Alban Eilir (Festival of the Butterflies) - Ostara
Sat - Sun -- The afternoon before the Ritual we meet at a hotel on Long Beach Island where we have reserved rooms and have ourselves a Grove party! At Dawn the next morning we do our Ritual on the beach, which is an abbreviated and simpleceremony honoring Brigedd. Afterwards, we share a big breakfast together at a local diner.
What Is Alban Eilir?
Alban Eilir--"equinox of the butterfly"--is a time of new growth. The promise of Canol Gaeaf can now be seen unfurling, the trees have buds on them, the crocuses and daffodils are blooming, and the thaw is in full swing. Day and night have reached parity, and life is returning from its long winter sleep. The soil has to be tilled so that we can later plant, the days are getting warmer, and snow is becoming a much less likely phenomenon.
We associate several things with this time of year; the Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, and the abundance of flowers. There is also the tradition of the King Under the Mountain -- the Sleeping Lord, like Arthur, Charlemagne, men prophesied to come again and usher in a new Golden Age. The most famous of such figures is, of course, Jesus - who, historically or not, also shares in this myth. I can only tie this to any sort of belief for the Spring Equinox in the idea that the Sleeping Lord represents the once and future ideal leader, a figure that all 'tribes' should strive to 'resurrect' -- that is, find in each of us. Moreover, the idea of a future life, of reincarnation, also comes to mind in this -- the idea of rebirth, thought to be a doctrine of the original druids.
The animals are starting to give birth, and the earth is finally catching up with the sun�s rebirth back in Yule. All of the planning done over winter must now be put into action�whether that is planting a garden or crops, or starting a new project, or heck, just losing weight for summer. Our hibernation is now over. The earth and our energies are renewed.
May 1 - Calan Mai (Beginning of Summer) - Beltane
Fri - Sun -- Our first camping trip of the year! Usually held at a site in Wharton State Forest, we welcome many Pagans of all denominations that are ready to get back in the outdoors! This Ritual is usually held mid-afternoon. We again honor Bridgedd as she leads us in the May Pole Dance. There is a great deal of fertility symbolism.
What Is Calan Mai?
The summer half of the year begins at Calan Mai ("First of May"), lasting until Calan Gaeaf. While it is the beginning of the warmest part of the year, it is ultimately leading up to the irony of the summer solstice; but for now, the season is one of beauty and growth. The flowers are in full bloom; apple orchards are white with blossoms, waiting to be fertilized; and the crops are in and beginning to grow.
Calan Mai is the time of the May Pole, the ultimate phallic symbol, celebrating the fertility of both the earth and of mankind. It is a time of sexual liberation, of love and growth. It is the youth of the year, and like any youth, it is fertile and sex is on the brain.
The mythology of this time of the year is nearly as heavy as at Calan Gaeaf; on this day the Tuatha D'Danann landed in Ireland, as did the Milesians; Pryderi was found at Teyrnon's stables; Gwyn and Gwythyr battle over Creiddylad; and in some versions of the story, Taliesin is retrieved from Gwyddno's weir. In the first case, it is the coming of the gods to the land; in two cases, it is the finding of the hero after he has been lost; in another, it is the battle of the flower maiden. The final is probably a seasonal myth, while the other two seem to relate to a theophany. The flower maiden goes with the hero, leaving her father or elderly husband, thus ushering in the summer. Beltane is a time of growth, and in two of these cases, there is a type of growth with the coming of the gods.
In Ireland, the Beltane fires were lit on the hill of Uisnech; according to the text The Fitness of Names, the practice was begun during the age of the Nemedians, by the druid Mide; it, like the Samhain fire, became the source for all the fires of the year.
June 20 - Alban Hefin (Summer Solstice) - Litha
Fri - Sun -- Usually held at a site in Wharton State Forest, we celebrate the Birthday of Red Oak Grove, which was officially dedicated to our Deities on Summer Solstice, 1997. In 2002 we began the custom of celebrating the occasion like a birthday party, with everyone bringing presents for the Grove. We have light-hearted games, a water gun fight, cake & ice cream. Our Ritual honors Lleu and we have the first of our Kitchen Kompetitions with an awesome Chili Cook-off!
What Is Alban Hefin?
Alban Hefin--"summer solstice"--is when the sun is at its greatest strength, the longest day of the year, opposite to Yule. However, the irony is that while we�ve entered the hottest time of the year, it is also the time of shrinking light�the sun is slowly losing its power, even as it heats the earth and causes the crops�and thus ourselves�to grow.
The longest day of the year is the time to celebrate life at its most intense�noon at the summer solstice is when the sun is the farthest north, casting the shortest shadows. Darkness has been vanquished�only to return again as noon passes and the latest sunset of the year comes. From then on, the power of the sun will diminish until Yule, when it is born again. The sun at midsummer is every person at her greatest height�but it is important to recognize that this height, like life, is transient. But then, so is our weakness and our death.
There is no direct evidence that the ancient Celts celebrated the summer solstice. We know that the Neolithic peoples of Britian built Stonehenge with special attention to the rising of the sun (the same can be said for the winter solstice). In medieval Welsh folklore, it was one of the tair ysbrydnos�the three spirit nights (along with Calan Mai and Calan Gaeaf)�but this could be a Germanic interpolation of traditions.
The summer solstice is also closely followed by St. John�s Eve, the feast of John the Baptist�also associated with St. John�s Wort (an herb celebrated by medieval�and modern�herbalists) and bonfires. There�s an interesting possible connection between John the Baptist and Ogma Sun-face, the Irish god credited with inventing the Ogham. In at least the Welsh Llyfr Taliesin, Hercules is called �Hercules the Baptist� (ercwlff pen bedyd); in classical texts, Ogmios (the Gaulish Ogma) is explicitly associated with Hercules. As the summer solstice is a celebration of the height of the sun�s power, and we have a figure specifically linked to the sun, there may have been some association with Ogma/Ogmios and the day. This may be a stretch (and I'm probably pulling in too much Romanticism), but it's not entirely without merit.
The Summer Solstice is a day for celebration of the sun--our source for life--at its height. It's an important thing to focus on, I find, for it keeps us in touch with our place in the universe.
August 1 - Calan Awst (First Harvest) - Lughnasadh
Fri - Sun -- Usually held at a site in Wharton State Forest, we hold a series of games and contests to determine the Grove Champion for the year. We honor Lleu through our athletic excellence, and a medallion is presented to the Grove Champion. For our Lammas Kitchen Kompetition we judge our guest's yummy homemade breads!
What Is CalanAwst?
Calan Awst--"the First of August"--is also the feast of Lugh and the first harvest; it should be remembered that Lugh wrestled the secrets of agriculture from Bres when the Tuatha De Danann won the Second Battle of Magh Turedh. Lugh--we use his Welsh name Lleu--is the multi-talented hero of the gods, and winner of the war in heaven. He is the supporter of sovereignty (but not sovereignty itself). It is through his efforts that man can survive, can plant. He is the �renaissance man� of the gods, thus being the only one who can take on the powers of chaos.
In Christian practice, the day is Lammas��loaf mass.� The beginning of the harvest starts now; summer squash and corn ripens, and we can take part in the first fruits of our labor. It�s only proper that we give thanks to Lugh. By now you can tell that the sunlight is weakening from its height at Midsummer; the shadows are growing longer, and the days are growing shorter.
There is a certain quality to the light of August, especially around six o�clock. There is a type of mellowness, the golden color, which seems to hang in the air independent of everything. It�s the signal that a change is coming, a slowing down of the year. It�s also the time of summer games; a time to take a break from work and enjoy the summer. Myth says Lugh instituted it in honor of his foster-mother Tailtiu, upon whose hill the festival was held; it�s also a good time of year to enjoy outdoor sports in the sun.
It perhaps isn't a bad day to remember the warriors in our culture, to give thanks to those who protect us in this life, such as police, firemen, and soldiers.
September 20 - Alban Elfed (Autumn Equinox) - Mabon
Thur - Sun -- Usually held at a site in Wharton State Forest, we host the local ADF Fall Festival, celebrating the harvest and our accomplishments. We have a Grand Bardic Competition, Mead Tasting and Competition, and many workshops. The Ritual is held at Sundown on Saturday and we honor Rhiannon. Our third Kitchen Kompetition is one for our brewmasters, where we judge their incredible homemade ales and meads!
What Is Alban Elfed?
The sun is lower in the sky now, and shadows are growing longer. Death is in the air, and the earth is in its old age. The second harvest has come, and autumn�s coldness is beginning its slide towards Samhain and the winter half of the year. Apples are ripening, pumpkins are everywhere, and the day is equal with night. From now until Samhain, we can see the final fullness of the crops, and can take stock in the fullness of our lives, contemplating what we have accomplished over the past year�what tasks have been completed, what projects have come to fruition. It is a time of reflection and celebration of the harvesting of all aspects of life. The final flowering of life before the winter comes. It is a time for settling up for the year, harvesting, and celebrating with a large communal feast�we still see this in the (admittedly later) American feast of Thanksgiving. Lugh�s wrestling of the secrets of growth from the forces of chaos has now come to its purpose.
October 31 - Calan Gaeaf (Beginning of Winter) - Samhain
Fri - Sun -- Usually held at a site in Wharton State Forest. Workshops relate to death and rebirth. The Ritual begins around 9:30pm and we process into the Nyfed (Ritual Area) following a special Torch of Red Oak, which is used to light the Ritual Fire and then is completely consumed by the Fire. We call the names of many notable people who died over the previous year. We honor our own Ancestors and ask Them for blessings in return.
What Is Calan Gaeaf?
Calan Gaeaf is many things: it is the beginning of the year; the day of the ancestors; the start of winter; the day most associated with magical doings; and it is associated with many events in Irish myth (and Welsh to a lesser extent).
The cycle of the year begins again at Samhain -- it is a time of reflection, and a time of renewal. A time to plan what you want to accomplish in the coming year, to get ready and gear up over the winter months so that you can harvest in the fall. It is the time to recognize our ancestors -- those who've gone before us into the next world, who can offer guidance, and who can still be felt in our daily lives.
It's also a day of major change in the mythological cycles; according to Irish myth, Oengus mac ind-Og was born on Samhain; An Dagda mated with the Morrigan on Samhain, just before the Second Battle of Magh Turedh, which may have also been on Samhain; it is mentioned as an important feast day in both the Ulster and Fionn cycles; and in some versions of the Hanes Taliesin, the bard is found by Elphin on this day. What one can then see is that this holy day is one of great change -- it is the day of rebirth, and the day when order is battled over and restored.