We start with death. Samhain (pronounced sa-wain) is the time at which 'the veil between the worlds' is at its thinnest. It is a time for remembering and honouring the dead. There were many shamanistic 'death' rituals that took place at Samhain involving the psychedelic mushrooms psilocybe semilanceata which grow all over europe at this time of the year. The christians called it 'all souls day' and then halloween. Its connections with death and spirits is what gave Samhain its dark 'halloween' image.
The day of the dead rituals would mark the start of a fast in communion with the dead and in sympathy with the Sun. We would all symbolically die at this time of the year and await the return of the sun from its journey through the underworld. This practice made perfect sense, as we would be fat from the bounty of summer and due to the finite supply of food for the winter, it was best to face the darkness and lean times head on.
The Winter Solstice 21st December, marks the Darkest moment of the Year. This was a most sacred moment for our pagan ancestors who built huge monuments like 'New Grange' in Ireland, aligned specifically to the sunrise of the shortest day. It marked the point at which the Sun starts to return, from now on the days get longer. A most joyful time and a few days after yule, when it was clear to the ancient astronomers that the sun was indeed returning, a huge feast would take place. Our fasting would be over .... the sun is reborn.
The christians morphed the day into Christmas, which interestingly also marks the day the Son (of God) is reborn.
Imbolc is said to derive from 'ewes milk' 'Oi melg'.
At this time of the year nature is building up a head of steam to be released as soon as the weather warms. The ewes start producing milk long before they have their lambs. For us this was a sip of summer, a promise that spring was on its way. The Celtic festival of Imbolc is Brigids day. Brigid, Bridey or Brid was the goddess of fire. Fires were lit in her honor.
For the christian calendar, this day was renamed 'candlemas' and candles are lit for the virgin Mary.
The awakening, the beginning of the bounty. Of course all the symbols of Ostara are well known to us as the symbols of Easter. Eggs, rabbits and lambs mark the return into the 'light' half of the year. In the pagan tradition great sacredness was associated with the sacrifice of the first lamb. In the Christian tradition the 'Lamb' is sacrificed to be resurrected.
Nature is an overwhelming froth of blossom at this time of the Year. The flowers burst forth in a virulent display of fertility. Our most famous fertility ritual , the dancing around the maypole is still widely practiced today. Traditionally, a young woman bearing the title 'The Queen of the May' would lead a procession, culminating in the dance around the phallus.
Midsummer's day. The longest day. The Sun God is at the peak of his power. This is probably the most notorious of Pagan/Celtic festivals of recent times, mainly due to the resurgence of the desire to celebrate the day at the most spectacular Solar temple ever built...Stonehenge. Traditionally a time for dancing and partying, it shows no sign of having lost its appeal !
People stay up all night to watch the sun rise on this day.
The beginning of the harvest, also know as Lammas.
Lughnasadh, (pronounced Loo nasa ) is for Lugh, the corn gods day. Lughnasadh is the first of the harvests within the sabbats of Western European paganism. It is also known as the bread harvest. Kids still make corn dollies on the housing estate where i grew up. The little corn men are representations of Lugh. When the corn is cut, Lugh is cut down and symbolically falls into the waiting arms of the crone, sacrificed that we might live. The famous wicker man ritual is a Lughnasadh ritual.
The harvest festival, thanksgiving. Although it is a time of plenty it is also a time of reflection. This is the time that the sun God prepares to leave the world once more, standing at the door of the Underworld and yet basking in the abundance of the harvest, it is a time of feasting and fattening at the threshold of death.