Centuries before the birth of Christ, earth-based pagan religions claimed the loyalties of the known world. These pagan religions, worshipping many gods and goddesses, had their own myths and legends to explain the turning of the seasons. The Christian Church has, since it’s arrival in pagan England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, campaigned against the popularity of magic and magicians. The clergy forbade soothsaying, charming, love philtres, as well as worshipping wells and trees. Attempts to heal the sick, foretell the future by purely natural means, and the use of medicine were not objected to, however. Any claims to have achieved some effect greater than that which could be shown to have come from natural phenomena was immediately suspect (Thomas 253).
Saint Patrick engrafted Christianity onto the pagan religion with such skill that he won many of the people over to the Christian religion before they understood the exact differences between the two systems of beliefs (Spence 67). In fact, Christian leaders were notoriously ready to assimilate elements of paganism into their own religious practices. This was to avoid posing to direct a conflict of loyalties in the minds of new converts (Thomas 47). The ancient worship of wells, trees, and stones was not abolished, but rather modified to associate the sacred sites with a saint instead of a heathen divinity. The hundreds of magical springs became “holy wells,” associated with a saint, but still employed for healing and for divining the future. Their water was even used in baptisms (Thomas 48). Pagan festivals were similarly incorporated into the church year (Thomas 47).
Like all cultures, the pagans had myths and legends to explain the whys of the world. Their faith explained the changing of the seasons, and also gave them reasons to celebrate those changes. These celebrations are divided into Greater and Lesser Sabbats. As the Goddess is honoured with the phases of the moon, so is the God at certain of the phases of the sun. These are the Lesser Sabbats that occur at the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. The four Greater Sabbats are more in the nature of seasonal, rather than specifically solar, festivals and are therefore times for general celebration with both the God and Goddess duly honoured (Buckland 67).
The Pagan year begins with Samhain, the first of the Greater Sabbats (Buckland 68). Samhain, meaning “end of summer,” was celebrated on October 31. It is the festival during which the Thin Veil between the worlds was lifted, and the spirits of the dead were able to roam freely in the world of the living. Samhain, pronounced Sow-En, is celebrated by leaving offerings of food on altars and doorsteps for the wandering dead to eat (Akasha). From the ancient practice of hollowing out turnips and placing a candle within came the modern Jack-o-lantern. The church took Samhain and transformed it to All Hallow’s Day, when all the souls of the dead were honoured (Spence 54). Bonfires were lit to frighten the spirits of the dead from coming near, and Samhain was a time for great divination, and harvest (Cunningham 27).
Following Samhain is the Winter Solstice celebration of Yule, the first of the Lesser Sabbats. Celebrated on December 21, Yule is the longest night of the year. This is the time of the rebirth of the Sun God. Holly, mistletoe, and ivy decorated the insides and outsides of homes. The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the festival (Akasha). Many of the symbols associated with Yule were later integrated into the practices of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, the giving of gifts, decorating with mistletoe, holly, and ivy, the star on the Christmas tree, and the birth of Christ. The church chose to observe the birth of Christ, typically a moveable holiday, around the same time as Yule. This was an attempt to counter the pagan holidays celebrated around the winter solstice (Henderson 83).
Imbolc, on February 2, is one of the Greater Sabbats of the pagan year, which celebrates the coming of spring. According to the pagans, this is the time of the recovery of the Goddess after giving birth to the God at Yule (Henderson 63). Also on February 2, Candlemas is the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. This is the feast celebrating the blessing of Jesus at the temple. The similarity is obvious in the focus on the female figures, the Goddess and the Virgin Mary, who have both given birth just forty days before (Henderson 46). It is the time of blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21; it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. Brighid’s snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather, (the origin of Ground Hog Day), and in many places the first Crocus flowers began to spring forth from the frozen earth (Akasha).
On the Vernal, spring, Equinox, is the Lesser Sabbat of Ostara, around March 21. This is the time when the young God enters into the sacred marriage with the young Maiden Goddess, who concieves. A time of great fertility, new growth, and new animals, the first full moon after Ostara is sacred to Eostre, the Goddess of fertility. Eostre’s two symbols are the egg and the rabbit. Easter, strikingly close to Eostre, is celebrated around the same time (Herne). The Christian religion adopted the emblems of the egg and the rabbit. The theme of the conception of the Goddess was adapted as the Feast of the Annunciation (Henderson 99).
In ancient Celtic days, Beltane was a festival of unabashed sexuality, a practice that is rarely observed today. Celebrated April 30 or May 1, Beltane is the feast of the coronation of the God. Festivities included couples going maying and dancing around the Maypole. The Christian calendar substituted the life-affirming Maypole with the death-affirming cross. The festival of Beltane was christened Roodmas (Akasha). This period has been associated in the Christian church with Saint John, who describes May as having the longest days; light has triumphed over darkness. People were encouraged not to be tempted by the sun, to letting the sun draw them from their work. They should keep pleasure at bay, another indication that love and courting is a distraction, despite its natural associations with fertility (Henderson 41). Roodmas was the shift from the phallic Maypole, the pagan symbol of life, to the Holy Rood, the Cross, the Roman instrument of death (Thomas 126).
As the God reaches the pinnacle of his strength, so does the sun itself. Midsummer, Litha, is the celebration of the God reaching his maximum power (Herne). During Litha, on June 21, all natural waters were believed to have magical properties. Bathing in the streams and rivers was thought to cure illnesses. Christian leaders reinterpreted the pagan bonfires as a tribute to saint John, who was described as the “burning and shining light” (Henderson 245). Also, the early Christians did not overlook the association between bathing in the streams and St. John the Baptizer.
Lughnasadh means the funeral games of Lugh (pronounced Loo), referring to Lugh, the Irish sun God. However, the funeral is not his own, but the funeral games he hosts in honor of his foster-mother Tailte. For that reason, the traditional Tailtean craft fairs and Tailtean marriages (which last for a year and a day) are celebrated at this time (Herne). This day originally coincided with the first reaping of the harvest. It was known as the time when the plants of spring wither and drop their fruits or seeds for our use as well as to ensure future crops. As autumn begins, the Sun God enters his old age, but is not yet dead. The God symbolically loses some of his strength as the Sun rises farther in the South each day and the nights grow longer. The Christian religion adopted this theme and called it ‘Lammas ‘, meaning ‘loaf-mass’, a time when newly baked loaves of bread are placed on the altar (Spence 102).
Through the years, holidays have lost their meaning, such as Roodmas, or have become blended so that the pagan and the Christian have become one, as Halloween. Traditions of the ancient festivals have been skillfully grafted upon the newer Christian holidays, so that the original meanings are buried or distorted. Consider the burning of the Yule log, traditionally a Pagan ritual to welcome in the start of spring, is now a practice with a meaning that has become lost to most. One thing that hasn’t changed is the basic need to celebrate something, whether a pagan tradition or a Christian holiday.
Akasha, Herne, and the Celtic Connection. Home Page. 1997-1999.
Buckland, Raymond. The Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1997.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca for the Solitary Practictioner. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1997.
Henderson, Helene and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations
Of the World Dictionary. Second Edition. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc, 1997.
Spence, Lewis. The History and Origins of Druidism. New York: Rider and Company,
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner’s