Eight festivals or special times of the year are celebrated by Druids and these mark out the Druid Wheel of the year. They are celebrated at the same times of the year as many pagan paths such as Wicca and shamanism. All are inherently related to the wider concept that we are part of the universe.
There is a natural balance throughout the Druid year of light and dark, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, god and goddess. The dates given below are approximate as the specific dates will vary each year by a few days.
Solstices are celebrated when the Sun is at its maximum and minimum in the sky. Daylight hours will be the longest when the Sun is highest in the sky and when the sun is at its lowest, daylight hours are the shortest (Summer and Winter solstice respectively). Equinoxes are celebrated when day and night are balanced, i.e. equinoxes are half way between each solstice.
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The remaining four festivals of the Druid Wheel relate to the earth and the natural progression of the seasons and life throughout the year. They are typically celebrated on ‘cross quarter days’. These are days that are half way between the equinox and solstice. Thus the year is divided into eight parts.
The cross quarter days are;
- Samhain (October 31st) is the start of the dark period, winter and the underworld. Surplus cattle were culled at this time, their meat stocked for the depths of winter.
- Imbolg (February 1st) is the first awakening from the winter and is a time when sheep carry their lambs in the womb (Imbolg – ‘in the bag’ or ‘in the belly’).
- Beltane (May 1st) is a time of mating and planting.
- Lughnasadh (1st August) was when the harvest began in preparation for winter and so it returned to Samhain again.
October 31st: Samhain
Samhain (‘Summers End’) is the start of the Druid Wheel and is the Druidic New Year. It is a time when the veil between this world and the ‘otherworld’ is thin. It was historically celebrated over three days, from October 31st to November 2nd and is the first of the cross quarter days. Crops had been harvested by Samhain and were being stored for the winter. For the ancient druids and people, the stored harvest was all they had to see them through the winters. As the end of one cycle and the start of another, it was also a time of getting rid of the old to make way for the new. Historically, this would have applied to the weaker animals and bad crops but has grown to encompass the ‘new years resolutions’ that are now associated with all new years.
December 21st: Alban Arthan / Mean Geimredh
Mean Geimredh (Irish for ‘mid winter’) or Alban Arthan is the Winter Solstice. It is when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky and daylight hours are the shortest of the year. It heralds the beginning of winter proper, when the power of the sun is at its weakest. For the ancient Druids, it is a festival of marking the lowpoint of the sun – from here onwards, the strength of the Sun grows and brings with it life. Newgrange (in Ireland), a structure older than the Egyptian pyramids, is famous for its central passage. On the Winter Solstice, sunlight streams through a narrow opening above the doorway to illumine the interior (burial) chamber. It is important to remember that the winter darkness is not ‘evil’ or bad. It is simply a part of the natural cycle of which we are all a part.
February 1st: Imbolg / Imbolc
The second of the cross quarter days, Imbolg (‘in the belly’) celebrates the beginning of Spring. It is one of what can be viewed as three spring festivals. It is a time of fertility when lambs are in their mother’s womb and the first shoots of hardy spring plants protrude from the ground. Snowdrops are a common symbol of Imbolg. Brighid, the Celtic Goddess, is associated with Imbolg. It is this Goddess that has nurtured mother earth during the winter and now brings forth her bounty.
March 21st: Ostara / Alban Elir
The Spring Equinox (or Vernal Equinox) marks a further progression in Spring (the second of the Spring festivals). Day and night are again in balance. It was a time for blessing the seeds, fields and water. Sowing of the crops began. Green is a strong color of this festival, representative of the tender green appearing in nature. Ostara is a celebration of the return of growth to the earth, the awakening of nature and the growing bounty of the earth.
May 1st: Bealtane
Bealtane is the third of our cross quarter days in the Druid Wheel and the last of the three spring festivals. It also marks the start of summer. Traditionally, two fires were lit and cattle driven through them to purify them. It is a time of strong fertility with the earth abundant in crops and new life. Beltane also marks the midpoint of the Druidic calender, being half way to Samhain. Thus Bealtane can be seen as the beginning of the ‘light’ side of the year in contrast to Samhain marking the beginning of the ‘dark’ half.
June 21st: Alban Hefin
The Summer Solstice, when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky and the daylight hours are the longest. Alban Hefin ‘Light of the Shore’ celebrates the power of the Sun God. It also marks the point at which the power of the sun begins its decline towards the winter solstice (Yule). In Celtic mythology, the Holly King is born at this point and will take his crown at Yule. The Summer solstice can be a magical time to gather herbs for rituals and to just enjoy the bounty that nature has provided.
August 1st: Lughnasadh
Lughnasadh is the festival of the beginning of the harvest and is the fourth and final of the cross quarter days. The Summer has moved into Autumn and it is a time of reaping what we have sowed. The power of the Sun is waning and the days are getting shorter, the green is falling to the ground and the earth is moving towards hibernation for the dark months looming. Golden hues of the harvest dot the landscape. Lughnasadh is one of two harvest festivals, the second being the Autumn equinox.
September 21st: Alban Elfed
The Autumn Equinox once again sees day and night in balance. Fruit is a strong feature of the Autumn equinox, having stayed late on the trees than the crops in the ground. Alban Elfed (‘Light of the Water’) marks the end of the harvest just as Lughnasadh marked it’s beginning. It is a time of thanksgiving for all the harvest we have received from mother earth.
Thus the Druid Wheel has turned fully and we arrive back at Samhain to celebrate the beginning of a new cycle of life.