Tomorrow (December 21) is Yule, also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice. Have you ever wondered why this day is called Midwinter, yet we refer to it as the first day of winter? That’s because our calendar is messed up. In Celtic times, Midwinter was exactly that, halfway been the start of winter (October 31) and the beginning of spring (February 1).
There’s great debate over whether the Celts actually celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, or whether they only kept the four major holy days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. You’ll find historians on both sides of the argument. Given that the Druids were very attuned to both nature and the movement of the heavenly bodies, I would think they did mark the occasions. After all, even though the Druids had nothing to do with building Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange or the other Neolithic stone circles, they no doubt understood they were there to at least mark the passage of time, if not for some greater purpose.
Let’s assume for a moment that the Celts did celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. If so, why? What did they mean? Well, they certainly would have been important to the cycle of the land, if not in the mythology in which the people believed. Here’s a look at each one, and what it may have meant in the lives of Celtic people:
Midwinter Solstice: This is the longest night of the year. This was a great gathering of the clans, with many symbols of fire and light used to try to encourage the sun to wax stronger once again. Agriculturally, the land lies fallow and covered in snow, waiting for spring. Mythologicaly, it is the rebirth of the god (call him Lugh, Mabon, Mithras, what have you) who died at Samhain. The goddess, by whatever name you call her, pauses from her role as Winter Hag to give birth to her son/Sun, only to return to her dark form thereafter until spring. (Last year I wrote about three possible festivals the Celts may have celebrated on this day.)
Vernal Equinox: Day and night are in equal balance. After this day, the light of day will eclipse the dark of night. The goddess is in her aspect of the maiden, and the god is young, but the two have not yet married and mated (that’s Beltane). She walks across the land, waking it from its winter slumber, leaving flowers where her feet touched. Agriculturally, the ground has thawed and it is time for tilling and planting to begin. Many festivities around this time involve the blessing of tools, seeds and even whole fields to ensure a bountiful harvest – though many of those same things also happened on Imbolc and Beltane.
Midsummer Solstice: The Sun is at the height of its power and so is the god. He is the strong, virile warrior. The goddess is with child, proclaiming her fertility just as the land does. Light and fire are the themes of this festival, including fire wheels being rolled down hills and in to lakes, symbolizing the sun’s strength. This is an auspicious time for gathering herbs, especially magical ones, which the Druids likely would have participated in. Nature spirits were thought to be especially active this night, long before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Autumnal Equinox: Again, night and day are equal, but this time night will take the upper hand. The god has been wounded at Lughnasa, but will not die until Samhain. His power wanes along with the sun. The goddess, heavy with child, reflects the fruits of the harvest in her swollen belly. All around, the earth is preparing for winter, feeding people and animals alike with bounty to store during the cold, dark nights that lie ahead. Trees blaze a riot of colors while preparing for their winter dormancy. The Celts held especially sacred the cutting of the final sheaf of the harvest (just as they did the first on Lughnasa). This was done by chance, rather than electing a specific person for the honor. The final sheaf would be plaited into a “corn dolly” in the shape of an animal or human, which was kept until the end of the next harvest and burned when a new one was created. The person who cut it was given a special elevated position for the day.
This is only a brief overview of what these feasts might have been. If you want more information, I recommend The Apple Branch by Alexi Kondratiev, from which much of the material for this post was taken.
What do you think? Do you think the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes? Why or why not? Do you think they are important? If you lived during that time, would you have celebrated them? Do you celebrate them now?