The Top Pagan Festivals - The Big 8 Holidays
Neo-paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Its focus is on a nature-based relationship between people and the environment. Pagan traditions are earth-based. Pagan rituals remind people they a part of the natural environment not apart from it. During a pagan ritual, the participants call on the ancient deities and reconnect with the changing of the seasons.
Pagan rituals reflect the turning of the wheel. They acknowledge the natural world and the integration of all aspects of the living entity called Mother Earth. These festivals are also called Sabbats. Numbering 8 in total, they are considered as either Major or Minor Pagan holidays. While it is true not all pagan groups celebrate these specific pagan festivals, in general, most conform to what is often called the Wiccan calendar.
The Wiccan Calendar consists of 8 specific pagan celebrations. They mark the 8-points of the year. Several of them intersect with traditional Judeo-Christian holidays. This is the result of historical borrowing. In the past, Christianity adopted and adapted pagan festivals, incorporating some into their own form of ritual. Christmas and Easter, for example, have their roots in pagan holidays. Many of the characteristics we consider integral to the celebration of these 2 festivals has as its pedigree the celebrations of pagan gods.
The Pagan community currently divides the festivals into two types: Major and Minor Sabbats. Major Sabbats are Samhain or Hallowe’en (October 31), Imbolc (February 1-2), Beltaine (May 1) and Lughnasad (August 1). The Minor Sabbats mark the solstices and equinoxes. They are Yule (December 21), Ostara (March 21), Litha (June 21) and (September 21). While the Major Sabbats are fixed holidays, the Minor Sabbats shift in accordance with the increasing or decreasing light. In other words, the Minor Sabbats are movable feasts. One important factor to note, however, is the above dates are applicable to the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinoxes and solstices must be adjusted to reflect the seasonal changes.
The celebration of festivals follows a pattern.
A Pagan festival begins with a cleansing of the ritual space. Sweeping the area, smudging and/or using salt and water, the participants prepare the space.
After a calling of the quarters/elementals/watch towers or guardians, and the Gods and Goddesses, the ceremony continues. From this point, it varies according to tradition.
There is frequently music, dancing and chanting. Whatever the specific group, the focus is on the specific reason for this Pagan gathering.
After all is said and done, everyone gathers to celebrate. The host provides the feast or it is a potluck affair. Food can be vegetarian, meat or satisfy both tastes and moral preferences. Everyone eats and drinks. The usual gossip and merriment abound and the topics of both the mundane and the magical life fill the room.
Two of the best-known pagan festivals are Samhaine and Yule.
Samhain at Edinburgh
I. Samhain or Hallowe’en Festival
Hallowe’en is the pagan fastival that refuses to die. In North America, in particular, October 31 is a time of parties, dressing up in costumes and, for children, going door-to-door shouting, “Trick or Treat.” This pagan festival has roots in the past. It is an ancient Celtic festival marking the start of the New Year or, at least, the dark half of the Celtic Calendar. Samhain is one of the 4 Great Celtic Festivals. The others are Imbolc, Lugnasad and Beltaine. These 4 receive mention in the Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions ) and/or the Coligny Calendar .
Samhain, together with Beltaine, is the most important seasonal festival in the Pagan calendar. Originally, it was a festival over which the Druids and the King of the Celtic tribe presided. It was a mandatory festival marking the regeneration of the King’s powers, renewal of the economic contracts and feasting. Every 3rd year, all the high Kings attended a feis at Tara.
A salient feature, which carries on to this day, was contact with the Other World. You talked to and gave gifts to your family dead. Unlike many of their Christian counterparts, Celts did not fear the dead. The Other World of ancestors and those who have passed over was an integral part of the World of the Celts. Today the Pagan community celebrates and rekindles this connection by recognizing the ancestors on this night.
For the Druids, Hallowe’en is a fire festival. For rural Pagans, this time marks the end of the farming year. Animals came in from pasture; the final harvest is complete. One Pagan tradition seen until the late 19th century honored the harvest Gods with the ceremonial cutting of the Last Sheaf – the Carlin (Old Woman). Other pagans included mention of the Great God Daghda and his matings with various women on this day, most notably the Dark Morrigan. For modern Pagans this illustrates the perfect example of the intermingling of the concepts of Life and Death in Celtic philosophy.
Today, various Pagan communities celebrate Hallowe’en by lighting candles, craving pumpkins, honoring the ancestors, divining, self-retrospection and psychologically preparing for the coming cold or dark-half of the year. There are still remnants of this Pagan Celebration in the Mexican Feast of the Dead. This is a 3-day celebration from October 31 to November 3. An integral part of the rituals is a visit to the cemetery where the family picnics on the family plot.
II. Yule - the Pagan Christmas
Unlike Hallowe’en, the origins of Yule are Northern. This Pagan festival combines Old-Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions. The Christmas tree is decidedly German. The Romans noted the decoration of evergreens by Germanic tribes. Queen Victoria and her German husband, Albert, popularized this Pagan holiday ritual during the late 19th century.
Modern Pagans consider Yule a special Solstice. This is the longest night of the year. The sun is at its nadir. The purpose of this winter festival is to recognize the power of the night and the return of the Sun God. It is also a time to acknowledge Cernunos (Herne), the Hunter. He is responsible for the culling of the weak and the sick. He rules the forest and winter while Mother Earth sleeps, to awaken refreshed come the arrival of Spring.
Yule is a festival focusing on the male aspect of life – the God. It is also a Fire Festival. The bonfires burned bright on this the longest night. A bonfire is a form of sympathetic magic. Pagans lit it with hopes of calling back the sun. At Yule, some Pagan communities celebrate the birth of a Sacred Child. This is the Sun child. Other groups honor mother Earth who will, after her sleep, bring new life and hope to the land.
Non-Pagans may also recognize 3 other Pagan celebrations. These are Ostara, Midsummer/Summer Solstice and Harvest Fest.
IV. Midsummer or Summer Solstice
The Druid and Faery festival of Midsummer is the Solar Pagan festival of Litha. In times past, the Christians knew this day by the name of St. John’s Day. This is a time when the Sun reaches its zenith. It is when the powers of growth are at its strongest. Crops are growing tall in the fields. Flowers are blooming in profusion. There are young animals playing in the pasture.
Pagan communities light fires to indicate the power of the Sun. They stay up late and celebrate the ripening of life in Mother Earth under the Sun God. Midsummer is the time for Faery sightings. It is also a time for gathering specific herbs said to reach their magical and medical potency during this time. Among the top plants on a Pagan’s list for a Midsummer cutting is St. John’s Wort.
III. Ostara – Pagan Easter
Ostara is the recognition of the balance of the year. It is the Spring Equinox, the time when the dark and light halves are equal. This festival, like Yule, has Germanic roots. It is frequently, though maybe questionably, associated with the Goddess Oestre or Ostara. Her symbol is the hare.
Another symbol of this Festival is the egg. This Pagan tradition utilizes the concept of eggs and rebirth as it recognizes the power of the Mother Earth as she revitalizes the world. This is a truly green festival with its focus on birth or all types. It is a time for celebration of plant life and animals.
Today, children all over the world celebrate Easter with chocolate eggs and bunny rabbits without giving a thought to the origins. Ukrainians and other Baltic people still elaborately decorate eggs to acknowledge this day.
V. Harvest Fest – Lughnasadh or Lammas
Lughnasadh, as the name implies, is a Celtic festival – one of the 4 Great Celtic Festivals. In the Coligny Calendar, this date divides the light-half the year. Lughnasa honors the great God, Lug Lámfhota. He is a God of Light and the Sun. His festival marks the first Harvest. In ancient Ireland, the day acknowledges ripening grain and maturing potatoes. It was also one of feasting with races and the settlement of judicial matters. It is said in Pagan history that many of the Celts met this day in Tara. The King and the chief Druids were there to handle court matters, but it was also the site of a great Fair. Throughout the land since, Fall Fairs mark this day with horse racing and displays of athletic skills.
For some modern Pagans, this is the day to show respect to Demeter, the Greek Goddess of the growing grain. For all Pagans, it is the time to celebrate the bringing in of the first fruits of Mother Earth. They meet at Sacred Wells and places to mark the start of the harvest.
There are 4 more festivals comprising the Pagan Calendar. Both the Autumn Equinox or Mabon and Imbolc or Oilmelc are Celtic festivals. Both are also lesser known by the public. The former is a Harvest Festival; the second celebrates the first stirring of Spring. The last festival once was very popular. It is fertility ritual dedicated to the marriage of the God and the Goddess.
VII. Imbolc – Spring’s first stirrings.
The word Imbolc or Oimelc is Celtic. They refer to the first stirring of Spring, the lactating of Ewes. This is reference to a pastoral time of pagan history. Imbolc marks the midway between the cold or dark half of the year. It is one of the traditional Great Celtic Festivals.
In some Pagan groups, this is the day the Goddess Brigid, (or Bride), strikes the ground with her willow wand. In doing so she is the catalyst for the thawing of the ground and the melting of the lakes and streams. For a while, many Christians celebrated this Pagan holiday under the guise of honoring St. Brigit. Later, the day was renamed Candlemas for the Virgin Mary. There are currently vestiges of this rite of spring in the North American festival of Groundhog Day.
VI. The First Harvest Festival – Mabon
The Pagan Festival of Mabon is frequently forgotten among the other Harvest Festivals. It has a Celtic name, but there is no indication of it being Celtic in orgin. Mabon, however, receives higher respect in the non-pagan world as the Autumn Equinox. It is the time when dark and light are once again in balance. It was a time when the farmers could see whether they would have enough food at hand to take them through the winter.
Today, as part of the ever-turning wheel of Pagan and Wiccan festivals, It is a festival of Thanksgiving. In fact, its time in September is close to Canadian Thanksgiving. Some groups burn a Corn Lord in honor of the completion of Harvest on this day.
VIII. Beltaine – the Fertility And Mariage Ritual
Besides Samhain, Beltaine is the most important Celtic Festival of the Pagan Calendar. It marks the turning of the wheel towards the light. It is the start of the light half of the year. This is obvious from the lighting of fires and to the choice of God. On Beltaine, the male God of choice is Bel or Belenus.
Oral pagan history has passed on a variety of information on the importance of Beltaine. Of primary interest is the Beltaine fire. The herders drove their cattle through the ashes of the fires or two separate fires to “purify” them before taking them out to pasture. People leapt the flames to improve their own health and virility. The flames also baked cakes or bannocks for use in prognostication.
Beltaine marks the union of the God and Goddess. It is a time of fertility. Christianity innocently continued on the tradition with the May Queen. She, and her consorts, dance around the phallic Maypole which tradtionally represents the God. The Morris Dancers are also a vestige of Pagan traditions. In Ireland and other countries, the May Bush, the Maypole and other symbols of life and creation mark the holiday. Some Pagan groups have a ritual mating. It is a time, as well, for encouraging the fruitfulness of life in all its forms. This blatant sexuality is one reason why the staid religions stamped it out except for a few vestiges. What they could not do to Hallowe’en, they did to Beltaine.
Pagan festivals are a vestige of the past but also reflect the current state of the Neo-Pagan world. The above Wiccan Festivals reflect one common aspect of the system of Pagan Festivals. This is not to say all Pagan groups celebrate the days in the same fashion. It also acknowledges the differences among the diverse Pagan community. Many have related and/or additional holidays reflective of their own tradition.
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