By M. F. Erler
In recent years I’ve become very interested in the ancient feasts which marked the passage of the seasons, especially those of my Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors. My geographer son has even helped me build a small and accurate replica of Stonehenge in our backyard. He used a compass and calculations of latitude, longitude, and altitude to mark the position of the sunrises and sunsets on the Equinoxes and Solstices.
But what has really caught my attention are the celebrations, or feasts, which mark the mid-points between the Equinoxes and Solstices. It’s especially interesting to see that many of them are still observed in some form in our own times, though most people have no idea where they originated.
To the ancients, all these dates were known as times when the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds was thinnest. The best example is probably Halloween, Oct. 31, which marks the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. Ever since ancient times, this has been observed as a time when the dead were said to walk the earth for one night. Now, of course, we have costumes, Jack-o-lanterns, and trick or treat. The Catholic Church in Medieval times made it the eve of All Saints Day, a day to honor the saints who had died. Our word “Halloween” comes from the words “All Hallows Eve” or “Hallows E’en.”
Next we have Feb. 2, which marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. We call it Groundhog Day. In Medieval times it was taken by the Church as Candlemas, a service when all the candles made to be used in the coming year were consecrated. I’m not sure what the rodent has to do with candles, but there is a slim connection—candles were the main source of light and the groundhog needed light to see his shadow.
The midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice is May 1, which some of us still celebrate as May Day. This was a festival of fertility in ancient times, which appealed to the gods to provide good crops. In many climates, this was the time of year that most of the crops were being planted and domestic animals were giving birth. The ideas of flower baskets and Maypoles have probably come down to us from ancient fertility rites.
It’s taken me much longer to find information on Aug. 1 or Lammas, which is midway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. I finally got information in a book on Druids that I ran across at a workshop of Celtic Heritage in America. I learned, as I suspected, that Lammas is a feast of harvest. In northern climates, it would be just the early first-fruits. The word Lammas in Irish is Lughnasadh, and in Scottish Gaelic it’s Lunasad. Lunasa is Irish for August, too.
The ancient god Lugh, in Irish myth, is god of all arts and crafts. He is also considered to be the greatest of the gods, and the name implies he has a large head. Lugh is found beyond the British Isles, too, being depicted in early art from Sweden to the Punjab. Of course, the Irish added their own twist, weaving the story that Lugh has now become “Lugh-chromain” which is the Irish word we pronounce as “leprechaun,” certainly a crafty character if ever there was one.
So whatever time of year it happens to be, there’s something to celebrate. To me, the passage of the seasons is a reassuring reminder that whatever Fate or Mother Nature brings, life goes on. And if we don’t like the current season, another one will arrive soon enough.