This essay covers the 8 High Days of the Neopagan and ADF ceremonial calendar. As some people have different High Days in their hearthculture it is always possible to add ceremonies.
2. High Day Essays
2.1. November 1 - Samhain
Gaulish name: Samonis
Welsh name: Calan Gaeaf (Beginning of Winter)
Gaelic name: Samhain (summer’s End)
Neo-Pagan name: Samhain
German-Neopagan-Name: Ahnengedenken (Ancestor’s Commemoration)
The many Names of Samhain throughout the traditions reflect the end of summer and the beginning of winter, the dark half of the year. It’s time to prepare for the winter to come and to say “goodbye” to summer and light.
For the providers, the harvest and the reduction of the herds are finished and it gives a lot of meat for feasting. For the warriors the time of peace begins. It is a time of unusual exchange between the Otherworld and the human world as is to be expected at the turning of the year, but certainly also influenced by the darkening of the year. In the Celtic lands there are many references which suggest that the main part of the feast had more to do with winter’s end (LeRoux & Guyonvarc'h, 2003), as is as well suggested by the names. It is supposed that the ancestors veneration is influenced by the Saxon (Hutton, 1996). Mannhardt (2004), probably Hutton’s resource puts an ancestor’s blot in this time. But actual evidence is scarce. If folk customs of this feast have survived I believe they can be found in the traditions of Martinmas: Lantern processions, references to the “Wild Hunt” roaming the skies, the prominence of a white mare and customs pointing towards a “burning of the sun”. However, as with all folk customs, their traces usually end up in medieval times, neither verifying, nor falsifying that they could be older.
Many Neopagans stress the commemoration of the ancestors on this day, while others stress the beginning of the “reign of the Cailleach”, the dark hag. In my practice, I incorporated as much of the “Martinmas customs” as possible.
2.2. December 21 – Yule
Gaulish name: Devoriuros
Welsh name: Alban Gaeaf
Neo-Pagan name: Yule
German Neopagan name: Weihnachten (hallowed nights, used as well for Christmas)
The Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year. Stepwise the length of the days will start to grow again. The earth concentrates her energy within and under a snow cover nature recovers from the time of yielding fruits.
In most of the Indo-European lands winter can be quite a harsh time and life depended on the harvest of the providers and how the nourishment was distributed. Daylight was scarce, so it is not surprising that many solar deities, Sun deities, or deities connected to salvation are known to have been born around midwinter. In the German folklore after the solstice come the twelve nights called “Rauhnächte”. It is said that Wodan or another Lord of the wild host, rides with his followers through the wintery sky. Many legends turn as well around his consort “Holle” (Hulda), a form of Frigga, who is connected to rewarding the good. At more southern areas under the name of Perchta, she is part of the wild host showing herself with a scary mask.
Modern Paganism stresses mainly the rebirth of the Sun. For the ones more centered on a Duotheism (e.g. Wicca) the Sungod consort of the Moongoddess is born. Others choose to honor a single Sungod or an archetypal divine Sun.
In Germany, Christmas goes under the less Christianized name of “Weihnachten” which can be translated as “hallowed nights”. So I tend to use that name. In my practice I incorporate a lot of folklore that I learned while living in the Provence, where the symbolism, though translated into Christian terms is so obviously Pagan, that I had the impression to have found a treasure chest. My favorite ritual focuses on the birth of the Sun and how everybody gives strength to the Divine Sun by living a virtuous life.
2.3 February 1st - Imbolc
Gaulish name: Usmolgos, Ambivolcos
Welsh name: Calan Gwanwyn (First day of spring)
Gaelic name: Imbolc (in the belly)
Neo-Pagan Name: Imbolc
German Neopagan name: Lichterfest (Festival of lights)
Imbolc is a time of preparing for the coming year, of cleaning, preparing and forging plans. At Imbolc it is already visible that the light is returning, but winter has not passed yet and in middle Europe snow often still covers and protects the land. But we can feel the awakening of the Earth in the air.
For the Celtic lands there is very little historical basis to be found for Imbolc. The “Mound of Hostages” in Tara shows a chamber which is illuminated by the rising Sun at Imbolc, but the historical basis is quite scarce. Probably this is justified by Imbolc being a house-feast mainly for the family (LeRoux & Guyonvarc'h, 2003). February was often a time of epidemics and if the harvest was not good, the people could be weakened by malnourishment. It was not always easy for the lady of the house to have enough butter and milk for this feast. So this certainly explains the emphasis on protection and the lack of “hall-festivities” for this time of the year. But as the pre-Christian Balts celebrated in February as well the feast of a household Goddess (Trinkunas, 2002) there is some implication that supports Imbolc being a household feast.
Neopagans today often emphasize the aspect of cleansing. Celtic oriented Neopagans focus as well on the Goddess Brighid, whose folklore is well attested in Ireland and goes certainly back to a Celtic Goddess. Influenced by the Christian Candlemas, for many this is as well a time of blessing the candles. This is why for German Neopagans the feast is often called “Lichterfest”.
In my own and grove practice I focus on Brighid. It is a feast where we think of our projects for the next year and ask for blessing and inspiration, to be able to bring those projects from the unseen world of thoughts to the physical seen world.
2.4 March 21st – Ostara
Gaulish name: Dius Aratri
Welsh name: Alban Eilir
Gaelic name: Spring Equinox
Neo-Pagan name: Ostara
Spring Equinox is a feast that celebrates the beginning of the lighter season. In middle Europe nature has awakened. There are often small inundations as the snow from the mountains cascades into the valleys and fills the small rivers to wild streams. While Yule is the birth of the Sun, Ostara can be seen as the (re-) birth of the Earth.
In the Celtic hearth culture there are not many references if this feast was celebrated or not. Even for the Germanic cultures evidence is scarce. Many elements of the Easter folk traditions have been (re-) Paganised. Already the eggs connected to the feast can actually be traced back to the Acadians and Sumerians where it was one of the major holidays. It was a New Year feast connected with the marriage of heaven and earth but also with the recreation of the world by the telling of a creation story. In the most prominent version it is Marduk who has actually taken up the role from his father Enki. The Jewish tribes had many similar traditions, but after the Exodus they were slowly changed into the Pessach festivity. But it is interesting to see how much of the Mesopotamian tradition was diffused into the Mithraic tradition which was taken up especially by the Roman Legions. The Mithraic symbolism has than been taken up again into Christianity with Jeheshua of Nazareth in the role of the Savior. The impact of the original feast has been so strong, that many traditions prevail and it is important to know that they are initially coming from a Pagan near eastern diffusion. So historically in the near east it has been a new year’s creation story celebration, connected to a great sacrifice.
Neopagan practice has re-Paganised a lot of the Easter symbolism, but usually staying here on a folkloric level, so that for many the feast seems and feels more like a preparation for Beltane or “just a spring festival”.
In my own practice I started to include the creation aspect. Well aware of the Non-IE aspect I am still planning to incorporate more of the Creation Story aspect within this feast.
(For a German treaty on this subject see here)
2.5 May 1st – Beltane
Gaulish name: Belotenes
Welsh name: Calan haf (Beginning of summer)
Gaelic name: Beltane
Neo-Pagan name: Beltane
German Neo-Pagan Name: Walpurgisnacht
Beltane is a festival marking the beginning of the warm season of the year and the end of winter. Nature is in full bloom and greets us with the most wonderful flowers.
Most Celts seem to have known only two seasons: Winter and summer. Beltane, marking the beginning of summer is therefore an important time in the year. Mythologically it seems to be connected with beginnings and ordeals. The connection could be with the beginning of the warring season for the warriors. So certainly there would have been rituals for protection. For the peasants it was the time between sawing and harvesting. The herds would go to other pastures and needed special protection, the remains can still be found in festivities like the Appenzeller “Alpaufzug”. Later in the folk lore it seems to have been a festival connected strongly with fertility magic, which became the witches’ dancing night. Maybe a last flirting dance before couples would part because of war or bringing herds to different pastures. In the Folk tradition the May pole dance seems to be very popular at this time. An old tradition from Germany is as well the dance around a dancing lime-tree, often with balcony constructions, so the dance would be above the ground, really on the tree and surrounded by the intensive scent of the lime tree flowers.
In modern Pagan practice this is the time of the union of heaven and earth or moon and sun power. The Goddess and the God rejoice in a Hieros Gamos, a holy marriage. This is strongly influenced by Wicca, as in other historical Pagan cultures we can see sacred unions occurring at other times of the year.
I took up the practice of a “Wild Hunt” or another kind of competition to choose the May King / May Queen. Usually I also try to incorporate the union of polarities. Another thing very important to me is the Maypole dance which obviously can only be practiced in greater groups.
2.6. June 21st – Litha
Gaulish name: Mediosamos
Welsh name: Alban Hefin
Gaelic name: Summer solstice
Neo-Pagan name: Midsummer, Litha
German Neo-pagan name: Mittsommer (middle of summer)
Midsummer is the triumph of the sun, the peak of the regency of the sun, with the memory, that in every peak there rests the beginning of the decline. It is full of the promise of harvest and some of the harvest already starts, though the really busy time is yet to come.
For the Celts, we don’t have any references that they actually feasted midsummer, although as they maybe used Stonehenge they certainly had to know when it was. Going even further back to Germany in the 2nd Millennia BCE the Bronze Age people had at least a measurement for the Summer Solstice as is shown by the Nebra Sky Disc, prominently showing as well Sirius. So it is probable, that the day maybe connected to the rising of Sirius was somehow ritually feasted. In the folklore a lot of the traditions are similar to Beltane with dancing and protection magic, celebrated with bonfires. In Germany the tradition is strongly connected with medicinal herbs, dancing with wreaths, jumping over the fire and burning the wreath for protection.
Modern pagans often feast around the sun, many rituals read similar to Beltane. I incorporated in the grove practice a ribbon dance representing the sun, which I feel is quite appropriate.
2.7 August 1st - Lughnasadh
Gaulish name: Oinacos Lugous
Welsh name: Calan Elfed
Gaelic name: Lughnasadh
Neo-Pagan name: Lughnasadh
German Neo-pagan name: Schnitterfest (Cutting feast)
This is a festival of the harvest, a time to start gathering and reaping what has been sown.
In Ireland funerary games for Lugh’s foster mother Taltiu were held. The tradition of the Games has been carried on into modern Switzerland, where around this time many sportive games are held. Another strong influence is the folk lore of the sacred king and his sacrifice, which can be traced back to Mannhardt (2004) and has been popularized by Frazer (2000). Although historically there are many different dates for sacrificed Gods, Celtic and Wicca oriented Pagans today often take Lughnasadh as a date for sacrificing the Corn God.
Others feast around the God Lugh, Llew of the many skills, and as a day to show off skills, which goes well with the sportive and games aspects.
In my own practice I usually concentrate around the sacrifice of the corn king and around skills. It is a time for me to consciously think about food and how we relate to our animals.
2.8 September 21st-23rd - Autumn Equinox
Gaulish name: Diocomrextios
Welsh name: Gwyl Cynhaeaf (Feast of harvest)
Neo-Pagan name: Mabon
German Neo-pagan name: Herbstbeginn (beginning of autumn), Erntedank (Thanksgiving for harvest)
The time of the Autumn Equinox is a time of harvest, thanking and balancing the plenty we’ve received from Mother Earth and our work. It stands at the crossroad between dark and light.
Historically I have the most difficulties with this feast, maybe because it was a very busy time. There was a feast for Wotan who has consciously been changed by Ludwig the Pious in the 9th century CE to Michaelmass, making thus Michael instead of Wotan the main Patron of the Germans (Becker-Huberti, 2001). Fires were lit and harvest feasted. There were feasts at Eleusis connected to the Persephone-Demeter Myth. Though not really IE, but as well connected to the latter was the Sumerian akiti-shununum, the autumn New Year feast with the sowing of barley. This brings us to the festivities of the intoxicating beverages which can be paralleled in the Indian Soma Feast. In appropriate places many colorful vintage festivities are held, some including fertility dances, processions and pictures drawn with fruits or flowers. The most well known in Germany is the “Oktoberfest”.
Some Neopagans put the death of the Corn king at this time but that doesn’t seem appropriate for me, as by the autumn equinox the grain harvest is finished for many weeks. Wiccan oriented Neopagans call the feast Mabon. I believe it goes back to Aidan Kelly, but I haven’t figured out why. I actually did put the theft of Mabon in my own storytelling at this time of the year, but this is purely my interpretation paralleling the Core-Myth.
A ritual which has become my “standard”-Ritual for the harvest equinox has much to do with looking at the light and dark and letting participants weave strings of light and dark between them and then putting symbols for their personal light and dark harvest in it and thanking for the learned lesson. I am aware that this ritual is more on the magical side than on the ADF religious one.
Becker-Huberti, M. (2001). Lexikon der Bräuche und Feste (3rd ed.). Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder.
Frazer, J. G. (2000). Der goldene Zweig. Das Geheimnis von Glauben und Sitten der Völker. Reinbeck: Rohwolt Verlag
Hutton, R. (1996). The Stations of the Sun. A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press.
LeRoux, F., & Guyonvarc'h, C.-J. (2003). Die Hohen Feste der Kelten: Imbolc - Beltaine - Lugnasad - Samain (2. ed.). Engerda: Arun-Verlag.
Mannhardt, W. (2004). Wald- und Feldkulte: Band 1: Der Baumkultus der Germanen und ihrer Nachbarstämme mythologische Untersuchungen. Boston: Adamant Media Corporatio
Trinkunas, J. (2002). Rasa. Götter und Rituale des baltischen Heidentums: Arun Verlag.