Major and Minor High Days
There are four Major High Days (Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane and Lughnasadh in one set of Irish-based modern spellings) and four Minor High Days (Winter Solstice or “Midwinter,” Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice or “Midsummer,” and Fall Equinox) in the Neopagan Druid year, most of which are also celebrated by Wiccans and other Neopagans who look back to traditions of the Celtic, Germanic, or other Indo-European cultures. While the Minor High Days are easy to obtain from any good astrological ephemermis or almanac, the methods for the calculation of the Major High Days will vary from group to group and individual to individual. These same eight holidays are celebrated in most branches of Wicca, or “Neopagan Witchcraft,” where they make up the spokes of the “Wheel of the Year.”
The Major High Days have been referred to as “fire festivals” for at least the last hundred years or so, because (1) to the ancient Celts, as with all the Indo-European Paleopagans, fire was a physical symbol of divinity, holiness, truth, and beauty; and (2) fires play important roles in the traditional customs associated with these festivals; and (3) several early Celtic scholars called them that. Whether in Ireland or India, among the Germans or the Hittites, sacred fires were apparently kindled on every important religious occasion.
The most common practice for the calculation of Samhain, Oimelc, Beltane & Lughnasadh is to use the civil calendar days or their preceding eves of November 1st, February 1st, May 1st and August 1st, respectively. Another way is to use one or more of the days of the weekend closest to each of these dates (which may arguably be closer to how the Paleopagans did it — i.e., by maximum convenience). Still others choose to use the sixth day after the new or full moon closest to each of these dates. Astrologically oriented Neopagans use the days upon which the Sun enters 15 degrees of each of the “Fixed Signs” of the Zodiac, to wit: “Eagle Point” = 15 degrees of Scorpio, “Man” or “Angel Point” = 15 degrees of Aquarius, “Ox Point” =15 degrees of Taurus and “Lion Point” = 15 degrees of Leo. Still others use those days upon which the Sun hits 16 degrees and 18 minutes declination North or South of the Celestial Equator. This also makes them come halfway between the Solstices and Equinoxes, and usually gives results within a few hours of those given by the Fixed Signs method.
Samhain is pronounced “Sô-un” or “sow-” [as in female pig] “-en” — not “Sam Hain,” and is known in Modern Irish as Lá Samhna, in Welsh as Nos Galen-Gaeaf (“Night of the Winter Calends”), in Manx as Laa Houney (“Hollantide Day”), Sauin or Souney. Samhain is the original festival that became “All Saints’ Day,” or “All Hallow’s Evening,” which was contracted into “Hallow-e’en,” now usually called Halloween. Samhain is often said to have been the most important of the fire festivals, because (according to most Celtic scholars) it may have marked the Celtic New Year. At the least, Samhain was equal in importance to Beltane and shared many symbolic characteristics. Whether it was the Celtic New Year or not, Samhain was the beginning of the Winter or Dark Half of the Year (the seasons of Geimredh and Earrach) as Beltane was the beginning of the Summer or Light Half of the Year (the seasons of Samradh and Foghamhar). The day before Samhain is the last day of summer (or the old year) and the day after Samhain is the first day of winter (or of the new year). Being “between” seasons or years, Samhain was (and is) considered a very magical time, when the dead walk among the living and the veils between past, present and future may be lifted in prophecy and divination.
Samhain basically means “summer’s end” (trust the Celts to begin something with an ending) and many important mythological events are said to have occurred on that day. It was on a Samhain that the Nemedians captured the terrible Tower of Glass built by the evil Formorians; that the Tuatha De Danann later defeated the Formors once and for all; that Pwyll won his wife Rhiannon from Gwawl; and that many other events of a dramatic or prophetic nature in Celtic myth happened. Many of these events had to do with the temporary victory of the forces of darkness over those of light, signaling the beginning of the cold and dark half of the year.
The Winter Solstice is a Minor High Day, usually occuring around December 21st or so of the civil calendar. Also known as Yule and Midwinter, this is a day sacred to Sun, Thunder, and Fire Deities. Large fires were built outdoors and Yule Logs lit indoors, in order to rekindle the dying Sun and help it to return brightly to the Northern skies. Burnt logs and ashes from the Midwinter fires were kept as a talisman against lightning and house fires. It was also a custom in many parts of Paleopagan Europe to decorate live evergreen trees in honor of the Gods (cutting down a tree to bring indoors is a blasphemous desecration of the original concept). This is considered, along with Midsummer, the best day of the year to cut mistletoe. Among some Mediterranean Paleopagans, a date on or near this was celebrated as the Birthday of Mithras and/or the Feast of Saturnalia (which the Christians co-opted to use for the birth of Christ).
Oimelc (“ee-melc”), is known in Modern Irish as Imbolc (pronounced the same) and as Lá na Féile Bríde (“Festival of Saint Bridget”), in Manx as Laán Arragh (Day of Spring), and as Candlemas or Bridget’s Day in English. Brighid, Bride or Bridget is yet another Pagan deity turned by the Christians into a “saint,” in order to co-opt Her worship. This goddess was a triple-aspected deity (originally a Sun and Fire Goddess) of Poetry/Divination, Healing and Smithcraft, whose followers kept an eternal flame burning in Her honor. Note that Her three aspects are all the same age as each other, not the “Mother-Maiden-Crone” trinity promoted by Robert Graves.
By analogy with the Gaelic names of the other High Days, we may assume that the holiday was originally called La’áOimelc and was the festival of the lactation of the ewes. In Paleopagan days (and, indeed, until the recent past) the sheep was a very important animal, providing both food and clothing. The occasion of the birth of lambs (not to mention kids and calves) was a cause for rejoicing and a sign of life in the “dead” world of a Northern winter.
The name “Candlemas” (candle-mass) is a Roman Catholic term for a holiday occuring February 2nd, called the “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This is yet another theft/co-option of a Paleopagan holy day. At this festival, the priests bless candles, which are then used on February 3rd in a fire magic ritual to bless people’s throats, supposedly in honor of a “Saint Blaise.” This has no official connection with “Saint” Bridget and Her cult of fire, nor with the fact that this day was one of the four major fire festivals of Paleopagan cultures throughout Western and Northern Europe. Of course, they also neglect to mention a certain Slavic god named Vlaise, Who was the Patron of cattle, wealth and war, and Who was worshipped with fire… Oimelc begins the spring season of Earrach.
Feb. 2nd is also known as Groundhog’s Day, a holiday so-called because American groundhogs were the local counterpart to the Irish hare that was sacred to Bride. Celtic belief is that good weather on Oimelc means that winter will continue, and that bad weather means winter is on the way out — hence the importance of the presence or absence of a sacred animal’s shadow.
The Spring Equinox is best known as the feast of (the German Fertility Goddess) Eostara, called “Easter” by the Christians. It is a celebration of the returning of life to the Earth. Rabbits, eggs and children are sacred at this feast and Pagans in need of fertility talismans now color hollow eggs and pass them through the ceremonial fires (quickly) to take home and hang over their beds and in their barns. A fascinating source of almost forgotten Paleopagan symbols can be found by examining carefully the fantastically decorated eggs produced by folk artists from Europe (especially Eastern Europe and Russia), Mexico and South America.
A Minor High Day, it usually takes place around March 21st or so. Among some Paleopagan cultures in Southern Europe, the Spring Equinox was the date of the New Year (instead of Samhain).
Beltane, known in Modern Irish as Lá Bealtaine, in Welsh as Galan-Mai (Calends of May), in Scottish Gaelic as Bealtiunn, and in Manx as Shenn da Boaddyn, Laa Boaldyn, or Laán Tourey (Day of Summer); is, of course, the day we know in English as May Day. It is also called by a variety of other names, such as Roodmas, Summer Day, Walpurgistag, St. Pierre’s Day, Red Square Day, etc. It is the beginning of the “Summer Half” of the Celtic year (the seasons of Samradh & Foghamhar) and is a festival of unalloyed joy.
A very large number of important Celtic mythological events are connected with this day, which balances out Samhain on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year. It was on a Beltane that Partholan and his followers, the first inhabitants and partial creators of Ireland, landed on that isle. Three hundred years later, on the same day, they returned to the Other World. It was on a Beltane that the Tuatha De Danann and their people invaded Ireland. It was on a May Eve that Pryderi, the missing son of Rhiannon and Pwyll (Rulers of thc Welsh Otherworld), was lost by them and later (on another May Eve) found by Teirnyon Twryf Vliant (and eventually restored to Them). On every first day of May “till the day of doom,” Gwyn ap Nudd fights with Gwyrthur ap Greidawl, for the hand of Lludd’s fair daughter, Creudylad. Most of these events, again, as all over Northern and Western Europe, have to do with stories of the forces of light/safety defeating the forces of darkness/danger. Why did you think the Marxists chose May Day as their international Holy Day?
The Summer Solstice is a Minor High Day, usually occurring around June 21st or so. Also known as St. John’s Day and Midsummer, it shares mythical elements with both Beltane and Lughnasadh. It is a feast celebrating the glory of summer and the peak of the Sun Deity’s power. But in many systems of belief, it is the day of the biggest battle of the year between the Dark Sun God and the Light Sun God (the dangerous vs. the safe one), Who are usually brothers or otherwise intimately related. Midsummer is a peak from which the Sun can only fall, for it is the day on which the hours of light slowly begin to shorten.
Lughnasadh is known in Modern Irish as Lá Lúnasa, in Welsh as Gwyl Awst (August Feast), as Lla Lluanys or Laa’n Ouyr (Day of the Harvest Season) in Manx, and as Lammas, Apple Day and Harvest Home in English. Essentially a harvest festival, this signals the beginning of the harvest season and the ripening of the apples (as well as other fruits and vegetables). Applejack, hard cider, mead and other alcoholic beverages are consumed at this time (it’s almost a duty!) by many enthusiastic Neopagans.
This holiday is a day of mixed joy and woe (Irish wakes are an old tradition), for it is by now obvious that the days are getting shorter. Stories of the battles between Lugh and Balor (the light Sun/Fire God and the dark one) are retold, as the autumn quarter of Foghamhar begins.
The last big holiday of the year, the Fall Equinox (sometimes called Mabon or Michaelmas) is a Minor High Day occuring somewhere around September 21st or so. This is a Thanksgiving feast and signals the beginning of the Hunting Season (for deer and other large game) in many parts of Europe and North America. Thus, it is dedicated to the Hunting and Fishing Deities and the Deities of Plenty, in thankfulness for benefits received and hoped for. Outdoor picnics in the woods are a popular tradition in those areas where the weather is still good at this time of year. Hunting magic may be minimized by those living in areas where game is a little deer.