Please help me welcome our guest today, John Cunningham, owner of Celtic Cross Online, which sells jewelry handmade in Ireland. He’s here with a wonderful infographic to help us celebrate the Summer Solstice, which is today in the northern hemisphere.
Did you know that this year the Summer Solstice will be celebrated on June 20? What is the Summer Solstice exactly? It occurs when the axial tilt of the earth is at its closest to the sun. This means it has more daylight hours than any other day of the year and it is known by many as the longest day of the year!
The Celtic people considered it a very special day and celebrated it in many ways. The Celts used ‘Natural Time’ which they took from Solstices and Equinoxes so that they could determine the seasons. It was their belief that it was a time to honor their Goddess who has many different names depending on which Celtic region they were in. For example, in France she was Epona, but in Ireland she was Etain.
The Celts believed that evil spirits would be banished during this time and that as a result their harvest would be in abundance. They celebrated with great bonfires, feasts and dancing. For a visual depiction of Celtic Traditions around the Summer Solstice, have a look at this infographic produced by Celtic Cross Online.
Imbolc (February 2) is the second of four high holy days in the Celtic year. Although it takes place amid cold and snow, it marks the beginning of spring, for the Celts believed all life begins in the darkness of the womb of the earth. It’s also the feast of the goddess Brigid, patroness of fire/forge, poetry/inspiration and the mysteries of hearth and home, including healing and childbirth. Step back in time with me to a cold February morn to get a glimpse of the way this feast may have been celebrated.
The morning star heralded the coming dawn as I made my way carefully up the icy path to sacred well, guided by the light of single taper. The pool was sheltered even in winter by the bare branches of an ash grove, which I pushed aside to make my ritual ablutions. My breath came little white puffs as I hurriedly washed my hands, feet and head in the freezing water, purifying and consecrating myself for the new cycle of work this day heralded. I left a small shiny stone and a handful of oats at the site as an offering before hurrying back to the village.
Brigid, bringer of spring, with her sacred cow and the fire of inspiration.
Dawn was just beginning to color the horizon with tendrils of pink, nearly matching my frozen fingertips, when I reached the village common. Many of the townsfolk were already gathered, their ploughs, scythes and other tools piled in the center, awaiting Brigid’s blessing. Once everyone had gathered, the chieftain’s daughter took up her place at the head of the pack, carrying in her arms a basket containing a small doll fashioned from rushes and dressed in a child’s dress, the Bride or symbol of the goddess Brigid. One by one, the mistress of each household came forth and placed in Bride’s bed a small length of cord, meant to absorb her healing power and bring good fortune to the family throughout the year. My mother was last.
As the sun began to rise, a bonfire was lit, and from it, each candle in the glimmering procession. These would be taken home to burn throughout the day and night so that Bride knew she was welcome in our homes. Slowly, the line of people moved forward, men banging their staffs upon the ground invoking Brigid to awaken the earth, women invoking her protection.
“Thrice be blessed, oh Shining One!” I shouted in my turn.
We winded our way from house to house, collecting offerings of eggs, cream and butter (dairy foods being symbolic of Brigid’s own sacred cow),rushes and even some seeds to be planted when the ground thawed. With each dwelling we passed, our ranks swelled, as did the light from our tapers, until I daresay you could see us from anywhere in the surrounding countryside.
We stopped when we reached the appointed spot, the underground den of a snake whose movements would divine the weather for the next moon.** Quietly, so as not to frighten the serpent, we chanted:
Brigid by Joanna Powell Colbert
“Today is the day of Bride. The serpent shall come from the hole, I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me. Blessed be Bride.”
The chant repeated dozens of times until finally she did emerge, slithering unperturbed into the brush amid cheers that the weather would be fair and spring was on its way.
Returning again to the village green, we collected our healing ribbons and tools and divided the offerings so that each family would have something for the candlelight feast to come. As we said our farewells and the ritual came to an end, I glanced at the bonfire, and for just a fleeting moment, thought I saw a fiery-haired face smiling back at me. Brigid was indeed with us.
**This practice is the origin of modern Groundhog Day. In Ireland, they had no snakes (nothing to do with St. Patrick), so the movements of a hedgehog were tracked instead.
Samhain, or as we know it, Halloween, marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year. We have no records of exactly how this holiest of feasts was celebrated, but traditions passed on over thousands of years give us a good starting point. What follows is my dramatic imagining of what could have taken place at a Celtic Samhain ritual. Journey with me back in time, won’t you?
The last of the day’s dying light casts long shadows at your feet as you depart from your small cottage. Leaving the door slightly ajar, you look back one last time at the simple plate of bread and cheese on a table by the front window, sustenance for wandering ancestral spirits, and to the single burning taper meant to both welcome the good and ward off the malevolent. All is in place. You can make your journey in peace.
As you walk through the countryside to the forest, you pass the herders and shepherds, coaxing sheep down from their highland pastures to their winter pens and leading the weaker cattle to be slaughtered, their sacrifice a store against the cold, starving days of winter that linger just on the horizon. In the thick blanket of leaves on the side of the road, squirrels and children scrounge for the last of the nuts and withered berries, for this is the night of last harvest. Anything remaining on the vine after nightfall is taboo, left for the spirits, a gift for the puca, with its long, shining mane and luminescent yellow eyes, or the beguiling Sidhe who ride out from the hollow hills in search of humans to enchant. Your stomach tightens against the current of unease in the air. This is the time of magic, the time when the dead walk among the living, for the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight.
It is dark by the time you reach the stone circle and the air is thick with the scent of wood smoke and sounds of merriment. Friends call greetings and beckon you to feast with them on the roasting meat of a sacrificed boar, freshly baked barley bread and dishes made from apples and gourds. You gladly accept a cup of cider and sit on the cold earth to sup.
Watching the crowd you see tribesmen of all ranks joined together to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next. To the east, a group of giggling young girls take turns peeling apples and casting their seeds like lots to divine the identity of their future mates. In the center of the circle, a couple leans toward the bonfire, each grasping the handle of pan, seeing their future predicted in the dancing of the hazelnuts on its surface. All around you, a stream of dancers twirl, some from an overabundance of drink, while others keep the more sacred tradition of dancing to keep the evil spirits at bay.
You are about to join them when a hush falls over the crowd as an elderly woman enters the circle, her long gray hair trailing loose over the folds of a black cloak. You recognize her as the high priestess of the Druids and bow to show your respect as she passes by, shuffling footfalls echoed by the thumping of her walking staff.
When you rise, you see someone has placed a large cauldron over the fire. The woman takes her place behind it and lifts her arms in invocation. The air stills and the crowd holds its breath. When she looks up, her eyes hold an otherworldly fire and you realize the Goddess stands before you. Before you can draw breath, you hear her reedy voice resonate in your head, although her thin lips scarcely move.
“This night you pay homage to Me, keeper of wisdom, harbinger of death, She to whom all return in the end. In my cauldron you shall be reborn or taste the bitter dregs of death, dependant on your actions in this life. Come forth and drink in remembrance of those who have passed through the veil before you.”
Your Chieftain steps forward, carrying a bowl in which the blood of the slain boar was the collected. He and the Crone walk the circle moonwise and pour out the blood at the base of each stone in thanksgiving for the fertility of the past year and as a gift meant to ensure its continuance in the year to come.
Returning to the center, she dips the cup into the cauldron and presents it to the Chieftain. He drinks, passes it on to his family, who give it to the next and so it makes its way around the circle. When it comes to you, you hesitate, seeing for a moment in its gleaming surface the blood of the fallen boar, even as its acrid smell identifies the contents as mere red wine. You swallow, wincing as the sour liquid winds its way to your belly, and seat yourself on the ground.This is the time for saying farewell to those whom the tribe has lost since the last Samhain festival. You close your eyes and slowly their faces take shape, the father lost to winter’s chill, the sister who died in childbirth, neighbors and friends who were their own bloody sacrifice in battle. And then you think of her, the Goddess Cerridwen. You must make you peace with her, for life is fickle and you know not if you will live to see this festival again. After several moments of silent prayer, another face rises in the darkness, a man crowned with antlers. It is his voice you hear this time, the dying God.
“Mourn me not, for I shall always return. Born on the longest night as the child of light, I wait only for the return of the sun. Blessings be upon you and those you hold dear.”
As you watch, his antlers fall off and he is swept into the Goddess’ ancient embrace.
When you open your eyes, you see the priestess is now gone. The ritual is over. All that remains of the former revelry are a few people casting objects into the fire – bunches of reeds or scraps of cloth representing their prayers – and those still rapt in private contemplation.
Taking a torch lit from the bonfire, you join your friends for the journey home, for no one should wander alone this night. There is solace in numbers from both the wolves howling in the hills and the wandering spirits.
Later, as you rest your weary head, you reflect on the transition of this ritual, from the time of harvest into the season of silence and of sleep. Though the land will soon be swathed in ice and snow, deep within the frozen earth, life goes on unseen. And from these tiny seeds, swaddled in their loamy wombs, shall rise the buds of spring.