Ancient Celtic Holidays

Gwenivere goes maying

Gwenivere goes a-Maying.

We have been in session now at Walden School of Liberal Arts for about six weeks and classes are running fairly smoothly. I’ve neglected both of my blogs in the rush to get school started.

During the first five weeks I completed the first unit in my astronomy and earth systems classes, which has included ancient astronomy, constellations, an overview of the solar system (for earth systems) and cosmology (in astronomy). I would like to pass on to you some ideas for teaching these subjects before I get too far along in my classes.

midsummer bonfire

Midsummer bonfire.

Here is a link to the lesson plan I developed on Ancient Celtic Holidays, which is my topic for today:

Ancient Holidays-f

In my last post I discussed the Mayan calendar and if the world will actually end in 2012. We had a great discussion about the possible ways the world could end in astronomy and what the truth of each claim was. We worked through the calculations for the base 20 system the Maya used, and talked about the end of the 13th b’aktun cycle which is supposed to happen this December 21st.

Punxsutawney Phil emerges

Punxsutawney Phil emerges.

Then we went on to talk about how the ancient Celtic peoples of Great Britain calculated their seasons and looked at how certain features of their holidays have continued on to the present. I made up a lesson plan that talks about this, which you can download here:

Here are some websites that go into more detail: http://www.celticwisdom.net/holidays.html

http://www.celticatlanta.com/holidays/index.htm

stonehenge

Stonehenge, a megalithic site from Pre-Celtic England.

We don’t know much about the megalithic peoples that originally built the many standing stone (menhir) ruins of England, including Stonehenge. By the time the Celtic peoples immigrated into the area, these structures were already very old. The Druids, shamans of the ancient Celts, discovered that certain alignments of stones pointed to the solstices and equinoxes, concepts that ancient people were well aware of. They also saw that these dates (the quarter dates) didn’t really correspond with the starting of seasons. For example, summer is already well underway by the time of June 21-22, which we say is the start of summer. To the Celts, this was Midsummer. The starting points they used for their holidays were the halfway points between the solstices and the equinoxes, or cross-quarter dates.

holly

Holly was revered by Celtic people because it remained green during winter.

Let’s start with the most familiar Celtic holiday: Yule, or Alban Arthuran (the Light of Arthur). If you were an ancient Celt, you believed that supernatural forces ruled the world, and you would dread the daily march of the sun toward the south. Each day it sets a little sooner and a little further south on the horizon. What would happen if it kept going, and the world ended in Ragnarök, the Eternal Winter and fate of the Gods? When they saw the apparent progression of the sun slow down and stop about December 21 each year, then start back north again, they knew that the world would not end and spring would come again.

During Yule, the hearthfire was put out, a fresh oak log was placed on the fireplace, and the Druid would relight the log from the central bonfire. Plants that kept their leaves were revered, such as evergreens, holly, and mistletoe. Yule celebrations would last through five days (the extra five days to make 360 come out to 365).

Cailleach

The Cailleach. As she strides across Scotland, the stones which fall from her apron become mountains. She controls the seasons, and gathers her final wood for the winter on Feb. 2.

If you count up the days between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox and divide by two, you get a date around the beginning of February. This is when the Celts would celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of spring. We don’t have much of a holiday there any more except the Catholic holiday of Candlemas. Yet there is something . . . Groundhog’s Day! This strange little celebration with an odd twist: if the groundhog sees his shadow on that day, it will mean six more weeks of winter. This never seemed to make sense to me. After all, if you see your shadow on that day, it means it’s sunny and spring is probably more likely to come early. Why would seeing a shadow cause more winter?

Groundhog

Groundhog standing in a field.

So where did this come from? Imbolc marked the day that Cailleach, a witch with powers over the seasons, would leave her hovel to search for firewood for the rest of winter. She had the power to transform into woodland animals, including the hedgehog. If the day was fair and sunny, she would be able to gather more wood, and spring could wait until the equinox, six weeks later, since she now had plenty of wood to keep her warm. If it was rainy on Feb. 2, then she gathered less wood and spring came sooner when her firewood ran out. When the Celtic and Germanic people who followed this tradition came to Pennsylvania and other places in early American history, they didn’t find any hedgehogs so groundhogs had to do instead. Much of the specifics of the holiday have been lost with time, but the core of tradition of this day as the start of spring remains.

groundhog day movie

Bill Murray and Andie McDowell in “Groundhog Day” which was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois.

As for how Punxsutawney Phil got to be the official groundhog, you’ll have to travel to Punxsutawney to find out. I’ve been there, and it doesn’t look much like the movie with Bill Murray and Andie Macdowell, which was in fact filmed in Woodstock, Illinois (Punxsutawney was too far off the beaten track to film at, so they found a town with a similar size and look, although Woodstock is much less hilly). In Punxsutawney, on Feb. 2 the town officials and thousands of others gather at Gobbler’s Knob, a small hill about two miles outside of town. They open up a tree stump and take out Phil, then speak with him in Groundhogese to find out his forecast.

groundhog zoo

A statue of Punxsutawney Phil greets visitors to Phil’s actual home in the Groundhog Zoo inside the library at Punxsutawney, PA. I took this photo on my tour through the area in Sept., 2009.

The rest of the year, Phil lives in a special zoo with windows in the town library. During the daytime he’s usually asleep. All over town, statues to Phil have been set up and painted in bright colors. We’ve come a long way from Cailleach and her firewood, but we still talk to a furry woodland creature on this day, just as the ancient Druids did.

Bill Murray stepped here

This is the spot where Bill Murray’s character kept stepping into the puddle of icy slush in “Groundhog Day.”

On the Vernal Equinox, the Celts celebrated Ostara (the origin of our word Easter). It was also known as Alban Eiler, the Light of the Earth. It is a time of planting, a rare day of magic. Ostara’s traditions were mostly absorbed into Easter, so little of the original holiday remains unless the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs have something to do with it.

Bryn Mawr college maypoles

Braiding the Maypole on May Day (May 1, or Beltaine) at Bryn Mawr College.

Beltaine was the celebration of the beginning of summer, and occurred around May 1st. In later England, it was called May Day and up until about 100 years ago was still a day of celebration here in the United States, where children and young women went “a Maying,” gathering flowers to weave a crown and braiding the Maypole. In ancient times, family hearthfires were extinguished and relit from a central hilltop or summer bonfire.

The summer solstice marked Midsummer or Litha to the Celtic peoples of Europe. It was also known as Alban Heruin, the Light of the Shore, and marked a time for gathering herbs and celebrations that lasted through the night. Faeries and sprites crossed over from the underworld to tease humans. According to Shakespeare, Puck was the worst trickster of all. It was a time for falling in love by the light of the moon.

Lammas bread

Lammas bread for the Festival of First Fruits.

Of all the Celtic holidays, Lammas or Lughnasadh (“Lugh’s Assembly” – pronounced Loo-Nah-Sah) on August 1 is the least known or celebrated today, unless you count families taking summer trips during that time. We are no longer a pastoral people, so this first harvest festival, the festival of first fruits and the funeral feast of Talitiu, the mother of the God Lugh, is not much remembered. This holiday marks the beginning of autumn and the decline of summer into winter. It is a time to dismiss regrets, make farewells, and give gifts of breads, grains, and corn dolls. During medieval times, it was common to take a fresh loaf of Lammas bread to the village priest to bless, then break off pieces of the bread to place in the corners of the barn to assure protection for the harvest.

The first harvest

The First Harvest, celebrated as Lammas or Lughnasadh (Lugh’s Assembly) on August 1.

On the Autumnal Equinox the second harvest festival was held. Known as Mabon or Alban Elved (the Light of Water), this day was a time to give thanks, to learn new things, and it was a day of rare magic when the world balanced. Apples and other fruits and nuts were gathered in, and a symbol of this holiday was the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. Today in the United States this holiday has been replaced by Thanksgiving.

halloween

The Jack-O-Lantern, a symbol of ancient Samhain.

The end of the Celtic year and start of the new year came on the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Counting the days, we find it happened around Oct. 31-Nov. 1. There is obviously a holiday there which we still celebrate, and is probably the strongest remaining Celtic festival. It was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) and marked the Feast of the Dead (Fleadh nan Mairbh) to honor lost clan souls. It was the final harvest, or harvest of souls, and the time to prepare for winter. The veil between the worlds was thin and spirits of the dead, including faeries and demons, could cross over and make mischief. To appease these souls, offerings of food including small cakes were left out. The Druid would dress with a carved pumpkin for a head and walk through the village with a torch to relight the home fires again from the central bonfire. Later on, children would dress as the lost souls and travel from house to house, asking for treats and threatening to cause mischief if not appeased.

Samhain illustration

A design representing the Festival of Samhain, by Alien Dreams.

The early Catholic missionaries to the British Isles tried to stamp out these traditions unsuccessfully. Then they hit on a brilliant strategy: to subsume the pagan festivals into Christian holidays by placing the major Catholic feast days to coincide with the ancient holidays. They declared Nov. 1 as All Saint’s Day, the day to celebrate any saint without a specific birthday feast. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve, which mutated into Halloween.  Midsummer became the feast of St. John, but the ancient idea of herbs having great potency on midsummer was carried over into the belief that St. John’s Wort has healing powers.

St johns wort

St. John’s Wort, which is associated with the Festival of St. John (or midsummer) and was considered to be most potent if gathered on Midsummer’s Eve.

Easter was already in the spring, since it occurred on the Sunday after Passover. But no date is known for the actual birth of Jesus; the taxation mentioned in the Book of Matthew probably happened around 4 BCE based on when Cyrenius was actually the governor of Syria (meaning that this year should be 2016, not 2012) and it was most likely during Passover (springtime) as well, since people would be returning to their hometowns anyway. So putting Christmas during December has more to do with substituting a Christian holiday for the Celtic Yule or the Roman Saturnalia than it does with the actual birthday of Jesus.

Eventually many of the original meanings of the Celtic holidays were lost through time and christianization of the older pagan ways. Today, some groups of neo-pagans and wiccans still try to follow the ancient cyclic holidays, but they have to use their own interpretations, since so much of the original context is lost.

I find it fascinating to see how these traditions have mutated and morphed through the centuries, being almost forgotten and subsumed in modern culture. Punxsutawney Phil is quite far removed from Cailleach the Witch, but the kernel of history remains even if it is buried deeply. We might still burn a Yule log or hang a holly wreath without realizing that the roots of these traditions go much further back than the Christian era. Some of our seemingly absurd celebrations are deeper than we realize and had meaning to the ancient peoples of Europe. So the next time you dress up as a ghost and go bobbing for apples, just think of how you are taking part in an ancient ritual, handed down through the ages, and enjoy the quirks of history. I can only wonder how much of our modern culture will survive as long.

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About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project (http://elementsunearthed.com) will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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