What are the Pagan festivals, and where did they originate? How do contemporary practitioners celebrate their Paganism holidays today?
Through the ages, Pagans have celebrated our holidays (holy days) through rituals and ceremonies. These celebrations included feasts, music, dance, art, poetry, storytelling, and other forms of entertainment. Some of these festivities were religious in nature, while others were secular.
Here, we will look at Pagan festivals in general, both historic and modern, and then Irish Pagan Festivals in particular, with respect to the native traditions that we work with at the Irish Pagan School.
Wheel of the Year – the Pagan Year
The ‘Wheel of the Year’ is a Pagan calendar based on the movement of the sun around the earth, and our agricultural cycles. These Pagan festivals are often observed by Wiccans, Druids, Heathens, Celtic Pagans, and others who practice polytheism.
What’s more, the Wheel of the Year can be adapted for use by anyone interested in learning about the natural world around them.
Though different traditions view the cycles in their own way, in the Northern Hemisphere the Wheel may begin on the Winter Solstice, marking the start of winter. This day marks the beginning of the light half of the year, though it doesn’t feel like it at the time. The days begin getting longer and daylight hours increase.
Then during the Summer Solstice at the other half of the year, the days are longest and lightest but begin to shorten and turn again towards the darkness. Crossing these two halves, the Spring Equinox and the Autumn Equinox are when night and day are equal.
Almost all paths of Modern Paganism celebrate a cyclical pattern of eight Paganism holidays spread out over the course of a year. These are known collectively as the Wheel of the Year, because each festival marks a different season of the year.
The Origins of Pagan Festivals
Ancient Polytheist people observed different festivals at various times throughout the year. Some of these events were specific to each culture, while others were common among several cultures.
These celebrations certainly included observing astronomical phenomena such as the Solstices and Equinoxes, and celebrating the seasons with community fire festivals.
For example, in Ireland, we have many megalithic monuments which are specifically aligned to allow sunlight or moonlight to interact with the stones, passages and chambers only at certain times of the year. The most famous of these is Brú Na Bóinne, or Newgrange, where the rising sun of the Winter Solstice enters a carefully positioned window box and penetrates a long passage to light up the chamber in the heart of the tomb. That particular time of day and time of year must have been sacred to our ancestors, for them to go to such trouble to mark it, over 5000 years ago.
There was an annual celebration in ancient Greece called the Dionysia. This was a large festival in honour to the god Dionysus, with the main feature being the performance of tragic dramas and comedies. It was the second most important holiday, after the Panathenaea – an multi-day celebration held annually in Athens to honour the goddess Athena.
These festivals were a chance for the city-states’ citizens to come together and share their culture, food, music, and art. Some Pagan festivals involved athletic competitions, drama, or even gladiatorial combat (although these days they’re usually just for fun).
These events were not just limited to the Greeks, however. Many other cultures had similar celebrations. For instance, the Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a pastoral festival observed annually on February 15 to purify the city, promoting health and fertility.
They also celebrated Saturnalia in ancient Rome, between the 17th and 23rd of December, a Pagan festival held in honour of the agricultural god Saturn. This was the most popular holiday on their calendar, and was derived from older farming-related rituals of Midwinter and the Winter Solstice.
There is a poem in Old Irish providing information on foods that are ‘proper’ for Bealtaine, Lúnasa, Samhain & Imbolc – the Irish Fire Festivals – while a Munster king in the tenth century (Cormac Mac Cárthaigh) wrote about “four great fires…lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids…in February, May, August, and November.”
Today, many still observe similar Pagan celebration at festivals as they did thousands of years ago, bringing ancient Paganism holidays into a new era.
The Contemporary Pagan Year
Pagan festivals today are loosely based on folk traditions from different cultures, with a varying degree of accuracy and – let’s be honest here – cultural appropriation in the mix. Much of what we think we know in Modern Paganism was created by people who loved romanticising ancient Celtic culture… but mostly had no idea what they were doing with regard to the actual cultures and traditions of those nations we now call ‘Celtic’.
Contemporary conceptions of the Wheel of the Year calendar were largely influenced by 19th Century and 20th Century British Paganism, including the Golden Bough by James George Frazer (1890), The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret Murray, and The White Goddess by Robert Graves (1948)… none of which are considered reliable source material today.
In Wiccan Traditions each festival is referred to as a Sabbat, based on their founder Gerald Gardner’s (debatable) view that the term was passed down from the Middle Ages.
While he originally wrote little publicly about the Pagan festivals, Gerald Gardner did begin outlining the cycles in his work through the 1950s and 1960s. He claimed that the eight-fold system originated with the Druidical tradition of Gaulish tribes, although there are no surviving records of the practice before the Roman conquest of Britain.
The phrase ‘Wheel of the Year’ was probably first used in print to describe the yearly cycle of witches’ holidays by Justine Glass (Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense, 1965), and has been part of the foundation of Pagan religion ever since.
One of the problems with this complicated history is that we now have a somewhat tangled, and mangled view of the original Pagan festivals, which are actually two sets of four holidays, combined into an eight-fold ritual calendar. So the Wheel of the Year is perhaps two wheels, rotating next to each other.
It can be a bit confusing when thinking about Pagan holidays because they seem similar from tradition to tradition. For example, within the Wicca traditions, there isn’t a huge difference between how you might celebrate Bealtaine and the Summer Solstice a few weeks later.
Dates of the Pagan Festivals
The celebration of these holidays usually take place during seasonal festivals or to coincide with astronomical events and solar festivals, but their actual dates can vary from year to year, or between traditions and different practitioners. Some will even celebrate the Pagan festivals as whole seasons, especially the Celtic Fire Festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Calendar dates for celebration may be marked on the quarter and cross-quarter days proper, aligned to the nearest full moon or new moon, or chosen as the nearest weekend for secular convenience. This last is especially common when trying to match availability within a working group!
Traditionalists may insist on marking the Fire Festivals on the astronomical midpoint between the previous solstice/equinox and the next solstice/equinox, or take the reform of the Roman Calendar into account. This can push the dates out from the start towards the middle, of the months in which they are usually celebrated.
The festivals as we know them in Modern Paganism originated in Europe and North America, so were observed in the middle latitudes in the Northern hemisphere. Therefore, the now traditional times for celebrating the season don’t match up with the seasons in Southern hemisphere countries or countries located near the equatorial line. People who live in these regions typically move the dates forward by six months so that they can align their festivals a little more accurately with the seasons they may be experiencing.
So, the Fire Festival dates can be changeable, but due to astronomical shifts, so can the Quarter days (solstices and equinoxes, which fall within a specific time period in their usual monthly alignments).
You will most often see the dates of the 8 festivals laid out in Modern Paganism with some variation of the following:
- The Winter Solstice, Midwinter, or Yule: December 20, 21, or 22.
- Imbolc, Imbolg, Candlemas, or Brigid’s Day: February 1 or 2.
- The Spring Equinox, Eostar, Ostara, or Oestarra: March 20, 21, or 22.
- Beltane, May Eve, Beltaine, Bealtaine, or May Day: April 30 to May 1.
- The Summer Solstice, Midsummer, or Litha: June 20, 21, or 22.
- Lughnasadh, Lughnasa, Lúnasa, or Lammas: August 1 or 2.
- The Autumn Equinox, Fall Equinox, Mabon, or Harvest Home: September 20, 21, or 22.
- Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowmas or Halloween: October 31 to November 1.
Some of the names and associations that have been allocated to these festivals are just plain wrong, made up Neo-Pagan bullshit (I’m looking at you, Ostara and Mabon), but that’s a little outside the scope of this article.
(Although we ethically and essentially disagree with Patheos as an organisation, and with many of the authors who write for them on Paganism, this is an article by Aidan Kelly explaining why he essentially made up many of the common names for the Pagan Festivals from the 1970s on. Take it as you will.)