The Gaelic year is broken up into four quarters, with each quarter starting at the beginning of a new season. Each festival traditionally falls on the 1st of the month, with celebrations starting the preceding evening. Historically, however, the festivals may not have been fixed, but observed according to seasonal indicators, or were perhaps marked by the first new moon of the quarter.1 With this in mind, some Gaelic Polytheists therefore observe the festivals according to local seasonal indictors that show the transition of one season to another—the first frost for Samhain, the start of the harvest for Lá Lúnasa, and so on. This may not always be applicable, depending on location, however.
The following article is intended to be a brief introduction to the festivals, with the names of each festival given in their Sengoídelc (Old Irish), Gaeilge (modern Irish), Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) and Gaelg (Manx) forms.
Lá Fhéile Bríde – February 1st
Sengoídelc: Imbolc; Imbolg; Oimelc
Gaeilge: Lá Fhéile Bríde; Imbolc
Gàidhlig: Là Fhèill Brìghde; Imbolc
Gaelg: Laa’l Breeshey
On the eve of Imbolc, Brigid walks the earth and bestows her blessings as winter turns to spring.
Historically, Lá Fhéile Bríde marked not just the start of spring, but also the start of the farming year, an in the coming quarter the fields would be ploughed, ready for sowing, and the lambing and then calving would begin. Even as the days grow noticeably longer, the coldest, darkest days may yet be to come, but the first stirrings of life—snowdrops and crocuses, the flowering gorse—all show the promise that life is stirring. With the lambing comes the return of milk, which anticipates the calving and the flow of milk and the work of the summer churning. At this time, as Brigid travels across the land and life begins to stir once again, there is hope and anticipation.
For this festival, offerings are left out for Brigid and a bed of rushes (or other material, such as straw) can be made so that she might have somewhere to rest if she wishes. A brideog is fashioned – a doll of straw (or any kind of doll, these days) – is made and she can be ritually invited in to the house so that she might bestow her blessing on the household. The house is cleaned from top to toe, and sained and warded against malicious influences in the coming season. Farmers or gardners might turn over the first sod of earth in anticipation of the work ahead, once the thaw begins, and items of clothing, ribbons, pieces of cloth, and seeds can be left out during the night, which Brigid may bless as she passes by. The ribbons and cloth can be used in healing rites throughout the year, and pregnant women can wear the blessed clothing in labour to ensure a safe delivery.
Song, poetry, and tales are all appropriate ways to honor Brigid, as well as feasts involving lots of freshly churned butter. In Ireland, it is traditional to make the cros Bríde, which offers protection from harm and natural disasters like lightning; these are traditionally hung over the threshold. In Scotland, the making and blessing of the bonnach Bride (Brigid’s bannock) is traditional.
In anticipation of her visit, food and drink should be left for her, and ashes from the hearth carefully spread so signs can be looked for to see if she has blessed the house with her presence. In the morning, if there is no sign of her having visited, juniper may be burnt to sain the house and make reparations in case any offense has been incurred that has kept her away.
Bealtaine – May 1st
Sengoídelc: Cetsamain; Beltain
Gaeilge: Lá Bealtaine
Gàidhlig: Bealltuinn; Bealltainn
Gaelg: Laa Boaldyn
Spring turns to summer, and Bealtaine ushers in a change of pace and occupation.
Historically, Bealtaine was the day when people moved from their farmsteads up onto the summer pastures, taking their herds and livestock to graze on the fresh grass the hills had to offer. The milder weather afforded the opportunity for work to be done outside in the sunshine, rather than being cooped up in the dark and smokey homestead. For many families, the women and children would head up to the summer booleys to look after the herds and concentrate on the milking and churning that would be the main focus of work, while the men might head out to sea for fishing, or stay and work in the fields and tend to the crops.
The move to the summer pastures were a time of ceremony and celebration, and thoughts turned to all the things that the summer months could offer—an abundance of milk, butter, the impending harvest, and the ripening of fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs that could be used for medicine. Rites of protection were the main focus of celebrations, with the hearths in the home being extinguished and then relit from a great communal bonfire. Livestock were driven over the burning embers to sain them, and men and women might jump over the dying flames, or run over the embers themselves, for luck and health in the coming season.
Today, the major focus of festivities is on the saining and warding of the home, particularly with charms of rowan. Bealtaine is traditionally the only time that rowan should be collected, so plenty can be cut with the year ahead in mind, and charms and offerings of thanks said over it. The first water of the day—the toradh or ‘cream of the well’—is collected, and can be used in saining and healing rites throughout the rest of the year, and the dew collected before sunrise on Bealtaine morning is considered to be especially potent in healing rites, and to encourage a youthful appearance. Only the especially brave tend to go out naked and roll around in the dew, though…
The house can be decorated with flowers of the season—particularly yellow flowers like primrose and marsh-marigolds. Butter can churned, with everyone present taking turns and charming for the lumps to come, and in this way ensure prosperity and plenty for the rest of the season. The butter can be used as part of the feasting, or mixed with freshly collected herbs for use with healing charms.
A bonfire can be lit, the feast is had, and offerings and devotions made. In Scottish tradition the bonnach Bealtaine is made, and nine pieces broken off and thrown over the left shoulder as offerings to potential predators and malicious influences, to keep them away. Today not every Gaelic Polytheist has a fireplace, and instead of extinguishing the hearth fire and then relighting it from the Bealtaine bonfire, the rite may be enacted symbolically, or by switching off the pilot light and then relighting it.
Lughnasa – August 1st
Sengoídelc: Lughnasa; Lughnasad; Lughnassadh
Gaeilge: Lá Lúnasa
Gàidhlig: Lùnasdal; Lùnastal
Gaelg: Laa Luanys
The sun is beginning to weaken, and soon the leaves will start to change into an array of autumnal colors. The fields are golden with crops ready for harvesting, the trees and bushes sigh and droop under the weight of their fruits.
Lúnasa marks the start of the harvest, and so historically heralded not just the autumn, but the season of sweat and toil in the fields. It was also the time of assemblies—óenig (óenach, singular)—which every member of the túatha was obliged to attend. Here, legal matters were discussed, and displays of loyalty were made to the king. Lúnasa was considered to be a time of sacred peace, and any fighting was considered to be a grave offence at these assemblies. Races and games—shows of strength and athleticism—were held as well, merchants sold their wares at fairs, and everyone enjoyed the festivities that setting aside enmities could bring.
Lúnasa is named after the god Lugh, who is said to have instituted the festival in honor of his foster-mother’s death. Lugh’s foster-mother, Tailtiu, died from her exertions after performing an amazing feat to clear several plains, making Lúnasa not just a harvest festival, but, at its roots, a funeral games. The many different assembly sites in Ireland and Scotland tend to be on hillsides or lochsides that are associated with certain tutelary goddesses and offer prime views of the surrounding land. The assemblies and games reinforced the social and politcal bonds of a people, as well as the ties that bound the túatha to the land, and deities, that sustained them.
This is the festival of the first fruits, and so these are the foods that are set on the table for the festive feasting. Today there may not be the opportunity to attend assemblies in the same way as there was in the old days (though there are still some surviving in Ireland today), but games and good-natured competitions can form a part of group or family celebrations at least. Offerings of the first fruits are given to Lugh—in particular, bilberries (or blueberries, or blackberries as may be available, depending on location), as was traditional to collect at the assemblies and the harvest fairs that grew out of them.
Cheese-making is particularly appropriate in preparation for the feasting, with soft cheeses like crowdie being especially apt. As with the other festivals, rites of saining and warding are performed, and offerings and devotions made. This is a time to honour Lugh and his foster-mother, the spirits of the land, and to give thanks for the harvest. It is also a good time to explore the legends of Crom Dubh.
Samhain – November 1st
Sengoídelc: Samain; Samhain
Gaeilge: Oíche Shamhna
Gàidhlig: Samhuinn; Samhainn; Samhain
Samhain ushers in the winter season, and many of the traditions and beliefs associated with the festival are to be found surviving, or only slightly changed in form, in the celebrations associated with the modern Hallowe’en.
Historically, Samhain was the time when the harvest was finished, the livestock were brought down from the summer pastures and returned to the byre and people returned to their farmsteads. The hard work of the summer was now over and now was the time to face the dark months of the long winter ahead.
Here at Samhain, life hangs in the balance and chaos reigns; the year turns from light to dark and the realms between this world and the Otherworld are blurred into one; this is a night when spirits and the dearly departed may walk the earth. Samhain is therefore a time of remembering and giving our respects to our ancestors, who might choose to visit us. According to the myths, the tide of summer turning to winter brings with it chaos and conflict, themes which can be found in tales like Echtrai Nera and Cath Maige Tuired, perhaps echoing the uncertainty that the winter season can bring.
Feasting and games, storytelling, riddles, pranks and song are all part of the celebrations for Samhain, while everyone is warmed by the fire. Rites of divination can be performed, and offerings and libations are given to the gods, spirits and ancestors. Turnip lanterns (or pumpkins) can be carved to scare away harmful spirits, and to attract guisers (as they are known in Scotland), or trick or treaters, to visit. Traditionally, guisers perform some form of entertainment for their treat—a short song, a joke or even a story or poem—and tricks are only given if the treat isn’t up to scratch.
Protective rites, including the lighting of the Samhain bonfire are performed, and once the flames have died down the ash can be spread around to ward off evil influences. Saining and protective charms such as rowan and red threads, or the Parshell cross, can be hung up as well. Offerings and devotions are made, and hospitality is offered to the gods, spirits and ancestors, and food and drink can be left out for those who might choose to visit during the night while the household sleeps.
- The Festival of Lughnasa by Maire MacNeill
- The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs by Kevin Danaher
- Cattle Lords and Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
- The Gaelic Otherworld by Ronald Black
- The Silver Bough (Volumes I-IV) by F. Marian McNeill
- Hallowe’en: It’s Origins, Rites and Ceremonies in the Scottish Tradition by F. Marian McNeill
- Irish Folk Ways by E Estyn Evans
- The Rites of Brigid by Sean Ó Dúinn
- Ortha nan Gaidheal: The Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael
- The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman by Séamas Ó Catháin
- See, for example, the argument put forward by Maire MacNeill in The Festival of Lughnasa (1962, p16).