Beltane: Welcome summer the ancient Celtic way

Young girls in fancy matching dresses dance around a Maypole with ribbons in their hands, others dance while crowd looks on

Children in Wiltshire dance around a Maypole, an integral part of ancient Beltane celebrations. Photo by Anguskirk, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, MAY 1: An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain.)

Enormous bonfires light a night sky that paints the backdrop for elaborate costumes, reenactments, dancing, fire-jumping and a revival of ancient rituals. Edinburgh now draws tens of thousands of attendees annually for its Beltane Fire Festival, which boasts hundreds of volunteers and performers; in some areas of Scotland and Ireland, remnants of old Beltane customs still remain. Halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane has always ranked among the most significant of pagan festivals.


The earliest Irish literature mentions Beltane, and for the pastoral Celts this festival marked a key time of year. In daylight hours, cattle were adorned in flowers and driven to summer pastures; at nighttime, people and cattle walked or leapt between bonfires in a cleansing and protective ritual. During this sacred time of year, early pagan customs were meant to protect crops, cattle and people from disease and other forces of nature. (Wikipedia has details.) A home’s doors and windows were decorated with May flowers, and holy wells were visited. The morning dew of Beltane was believed to hold unique qualities that conserved youthfulness and beauty. Candles and hearth fires that had been put out on Beltane Eve were re-lit with the Beltane bonfire.

Dark, nighttime, outdoors, crowds in front of building with pillars holding enormous bonfires

The Beltane Fire Festival at Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Samhain commemorates the dark half of the year, Beltane celebrates the light half of the year. New life springs forth, the sun returns in full strength and energy is abundant. In centuries past, both Beltane and Samhain were regarded as days of “no time”—that is, when veils between this world and the other world are thinnest. With this belief, pagans would protect themselves and their homes from spirits and mischievous faeries with rituals and natural objects, such as rowan branches, on the outside of their homes. Dancing would commence throughout the countryside and, following a promiscuous night in the woods, young people would gather in the morning to weave the ribbons of the Maypole. Feasts ensued, which were often accompanied by athletic tournaments, costumed performances, an elected king and queen and the decoration of flower wreaths and garlands.


In 1988, the Beltane Fire Festival made an attempt to revive the energy and atmosphere of ancient Celtic bonfires. With a focus on appreciation for the cyclical nature of seasons and the environment, the first Beltane Fire Festival was organized in collaboration with a folklorist from the Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. Five performers and less than 100 attendees were present; by 1999, the event drew 10,000 spectators. Today, approximately 300 performers attend and audience numbers vary between 6,000 and 12,000.

This year, organizers are announcing a debut of never-before-seen fire-related performance elements, along with glowing elements in a giant faerie garden made from wax gathered from Edinburgh’s underground caves. (STV Edinburgh has the story.)

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Groundhog Day / Imbolc: Can a shadow predict spring’s arrival?

Groundhog on ground looking away from camera

What will Punxsutawney Phil predict this year? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will he—or won’t he?

That’s the question asked by thousands of spectators in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and millions more following the story digitally. Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Tradition holds that, if a groundhog emerging from his burrow sees his shadow, winter will last another six weeks; if the groundhog does not see his shadow, an early spring is in store. Though much of the United States will be covered in snow on Groundhog Day 2015—with forecasters predicting a winter far from over—spectators will be left wondering until the much-anticipated emergence of the furry woodland creature.

The most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, resides in Pennsylvania, and his predictions have been publicized in beloved tradition for more than a century. This year, head on over to the official Punxsutawney website for information on the celebrations that last for days—dining, parties, music and much more are included.

Did you know? In Alaska, Feb. 2 is known as Marmot Day, since few groundhogs live in Alaska.

Origins of Groundhog Day lie in the ancient pagan holiday known as Imbolc, which falls between winter solstice and the spring equinox. Similar “prediction” holidays have existed around the world for hundreds of years, with native groups looking to a variety of hibernating animals, from bears to snakes (Wikipedia has details). Phil was declared the official forecasting groundhog of America in 1887, when the city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper made the declaration and began publishing stories about the groundhog.

Wondering what groundhogs really do on Groundhog Day? National Geographic offers the scoop on a different prediction.


An ancient Gaelic festival that once was observed across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Imbolc honors the goddess Brigid and has long been associated with the coming of spring. (Wikipedia has details.) Gaelic for “ewe’s milk,” in honor of lactating sheep (and the new life of spring that they represent), Imbolc is, by some accounts, more than 12,000 years old. Traditionally, Imbolc was observed on Feb. 1, but today, dates vary.

In Gaelic Ireland, enormous feasts were held for Imbolc. The goddess Brigid was invoked for the blessing of livestock, homes were cleaned, and Brigid’s cross was fashioned and hung on front doors. Brigid was said to visit favored households on Imbolc Eve; in return, families would set aside feasting food and drink for her. The hag of Gaelic tradition, Cailleach, is said to have gathered firewood as a prediction of weather, and in some areas, snakes and woodland creatures are watched as they emerge from their homes and hibernation.

Today, feasts continue for Imbolc in some regions (the International Business Times reported, with photos from recent celebrations). Some adherents still follow ancient rituals, by visiting holy wells and molding Brigid crosses.

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Categories: National ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Yule: Embrace midwinter and solstice during year’s longest night

Plate with Yule log and cookies in shapes of acorns, leaves and woodland animals, lit pine tree in backgroung

A cake Yule log is accompanied by cookies reflecting nature’s gifts. Photo in public domain

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21: The pale winter sun’s waning rays give way to the longest night of the year, on winter solstice—known also as Yule, or midwinter. One of the oldest celebrations of winter, Yule conjures visions of steaming cinnamon wassail, a crackling fireplace and the serenity of a blanket of snow. Despite the darkness and bitter cold, Yule is a time of joy: while enjoying the tranquility of midwinter, Pagans, Wiccans and many world citizens welcome the reemerging sun. Winter solstice marks a turning point when days begin, once again, to lengthen, and nights to shorten.


From the earliest centuries, Germanic peoples observed an indigenous midwinter festival; in ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held on the winter solstice, and evergreen décor, gifts and feasts accompanied the festival. (Wikipedia has details.) In pagan tradition, the Great Mother gave birth to the new Sun King on winter solstice—a belief still held by Pagans today—and as centuries progressed, outdoor bonfires were moved indoors to a hearth with a Yule log. (Note that in some regions, Yule bonfires are still held outdoors.)

In the hearth, a large oak log ceremoniously placed is kindled at dusk, being allowed to burn for many hours or several days—tradition varies. In Druid custom, mistletoe is cut from an oak tree. Decorated Yule candles help welcome such beloved traditions as wassail, toasts and caroling. (No fireplace in your home? No problem. Time Warner Cable is offering, through Jan. 2, the Holiday Yule Log, to light up television screens with a crackling fire.)

Today, Pagans and Wiccans still celebrate with wassail, feasts and, sometimes, a Yule log. Among some sects, Yule lasts 12 days from winter solstice. In some Scandinavian countries, this season is known as Jul.


The spicy aroma of cinnamon wassail will warm any kitchen!

Find abundant wassail and Yule log recipes at Food Network, Martha Stewart and

Feast dishes like Shortest Day Ham Loaf, Brighter Day Cheese Ball, Solstice Surprise Salad and Roasted Lamb Feast for a (Sun) King are at

Instructions for a Yule ritual with candles and blessings is available at this UK site.

Interested in Yule songs? How about a Yule altar? Get an altar how-to, learn Yule songs for kids, access a Yule playlist, find suggestions of things to hang on a Pagan tree and more at


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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan

Autumnal Equinox: Pagans, Wiccans observe event with Mabon and Ostara

Table set with candles, rocks, herbs, Wiccan symbols and stars

An altar set for Mabon. Photo in public domain

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 22: The autumnal equinox ushers in equal day and night around the globe, and for Pagans and Wiccans, this celestial event brings Mabon—the second harvest festival. As the Earth’s subsolar point crosses the Equator, the planet begins moving southward, increasing darkness in the Northern Hemisphere and light in the Southern Hemisphere. Wiccans use Mabon (or Ostara, in the Southern Hemisphere) as an opportunity for thanksgiving: to welcome the impending dark, to give thanks for the long hours of sunlight of summer and to rejoice in the current bountiful harvest. Spicy mulled wines, crisp apples and warming cider are offered and consumed.

Did you know? Mabon is the name of a god from Welsh mythology.

In the agricultural societies of centuries past, autumn meant gathering together after the long, laborious hours of summer planting. Though fewer families now spend the summer planting, tending and gathering, autumn can still be a time of winding down and reflecting. Wiccans recognize the aging Goddess and spend ample time in nature.

Make it! Apple dolls and Mabon cider: Anyone can celebrate the season (and its produce) with this craft—applehead dolls, complete with intricate features and explained at Martha Brew up some Mabon cider with the easy-to-follow recipe found here.

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Lammas, Lughnassadh: Christians, Wiccans, Pagans mark grain harvest festival

Grains, breads and rolls on table

Lughnasadh and Lammas have long been a first harvest festival: a time for giving thanks for grains, and baking with the fresh crops. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, AUGUST 1: Freshly baked breads, golden grains, dancing and the imminent days of autumn are all central to today’s celebration—by Christians, Lammas, and by Wiccans and Pagans (in the Northern Hemisphere), Lughnassadh. Though the name varies by tradition, this first harvest festival draws its roots from the same agricultural festival, steeped deep in history.

It is the joyful simplicity of gratitude for the change in seasons—from a season of planting to a season of harvest—that marks today’s occasion. While Lammas is a Christian holiday, it is observed primarily by the English and those of the Anglo-Saxon tradition; the Catholic Church previously commemorated both Lammas and the feast of St. Peter in Chains on August 1, but the latter feast has since been removed from the Roman Calendar. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) For Wiccans and Pagans everywhere, Lughnassadh is a time for reflection, renewed hope and dancing. Centuries ago, the blessing of the first fruits—that is, the first crops of the harvest—was performed in both the Eastern and Western Christian Churches.


Learn more about the link between grains, breads and faith in Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, a book filled with fascinating stories and traditional recipes, from ReadTheSpirit author Lynne Golodner.


The Anglo-Saxon version of Lammas, or hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass,” refers to the practice of bringing a loaf of freshly baked bread to one’s local church for blessing: the loaf would, of course, be made from the baker’s freshly harvested grain. The faithful would ask God’s blessings upon their harvest, and in some regions, Anglo-Saxon charms were placed upon the Lammas loaves. (Find scrumptious bread recipes at Allrecipes; get instructions for daily fresh bread from Mother Earth News.) Following Lammas Mass, Christians would partake in a Lammas Day feast, complete with the loaf that had been blessed in church.


Ancient Celtic myth describes a god of sun, of light and brightness: He is Lugh, the deity for whom Lughnassadh is named. Ever mirthful, Lugh is honored alongside his foster mother, Tailtiu, who is said to be responsible for introducing agriculture to Ireland. The story of Lughnassadh is one of the cycle of life, of the harvesting of grains and crops, and of one season’s fruits dropping seeds for the next. (Wikipedia has details.) In many areas, corn dollies were made from the harvested corn, sometimes hung in the home for a measure of luck.

Today, modern Wiccans and Pagans enjoy the season’s freshest produce, preferably in a feast: blackberries, grains, grapes and apples. Aside from ceremonies with dancing and bonfires, anyone can participate in Lughnassadh by giving thanks for the food on the table. (Learn more from Try a walk in the woods or fields, visit an orchard, or collect seeds for next year’s planting season.

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Imbolc: Pagans, Wiccans reflect and embrace the approaching light of spring

Crocuses and green grass poke out from the snow

Imbolc welcomes the approach of spring while winter is still evident. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1: The depths of winter may be the snowy reality for many right now, but Wiccans and Pagans welcome the impending warmth and light of spring on Imbolc (or Lughnassadh, in the Southern Hemisphere). Set halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Imbolc is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals and the first of three fertility festivals. Derived from the Old Irish i mbolg, “in the belly,” Imbolc was first a reference to the onset of lactation in ewes, which signified the approaching births of spring. Today, candles and tributes to one’s inner light substitute for the sun’s rays in many regions, as devotees hold faith that spring will come. (Read more reasons for celebrating Imbolc in this article at Patheos.) Imbolc is also marked as Saint Brighid’s Day.

The earliest Irish literature contains evidence of Imbolc festivals, some of which are associated with events in Irish mythology. Megalithic monuments (and their inner chambers) in Ireland reflect the importance of Imbolc, and enormous feasts were held in Gaelic Ireland for the festival. For both ancient and modern pagans, Imbolc focuses on Brighid, the goddess of the hearth, fertility and the lighter half of the year. (Wikipedia has details.) Brighid crosses were woven and hung on doors for good luck, children wove Brighid dollies and young and old asked for her blessings; today, Pagans and Wiccans continue many of these practices. (Find instructions and more at this UK site.)


Winter’s snow cleanses the earth, and upon melting, it fills rivers and streams that millions will depend upon for drinking water during the spring and summer months. Still, the bitter, grey weather can be trying—so Pagans and Wiccans focus their energies on spiritual renewal, household and physical cleaning and an internal purification similar to the Roman februa (think February) rituals. Devotees of any religion can benefit from candlelit meditation, journaling and relaxing baths before welcoming the bounty of spring. (Learn more about Imbolc foods, herbs, activities and more at

Did you know? Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination. Pagans would watch for serpents and badgers, emerging from their winter dens, as an indicator of spring.

A cleansing journal exercise: Just as with life’s events, the earth’s seasons cannot be rushed—nor are they in our control. As one Wiccan writer shares in the Huffington Post, this time of year is ideal for exercising creativity and for examining one’s inner fire. Light a candle, sit by a window and, looking out at the snowy landscape, ask: What is this fire in my heart? How do I keep it burning? And, finally: How do I tend my own hearth fire?

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Wiccan / Pagan

Winter Solstice: Seasons change; Pagans, Wiccans observe Yule

Winter scene with snow in woods, sun shining through trees in back

Winter landscape in Sweden. Photo by Lisa Widerberg, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 21: The vast majority of our readers live in the Northern Hemisphere and to all of you we say: Welcome to the longest night of the year!

We also have many readers in the Southern Hemisphere, especially Australia and New Zealand, and to you we say: Enjoy midsummer!

Wherever you live—and as long as men and women have walked the earth—the solstices have been marked as auspicious turning points in the calendar. For our Northern readers, this is the winter solstice. Often termed Yuletide or Yulefest, the days surrounding winter solstice have long been marked with cold-weather festivals and warm feasts, giving thanks for the “rebirth of the sun” and the reversal from increasing darkness to increasing light. Ancient Germanic peoples observed Yule; ancient Romans held Saturnalia, Brumalia and other festivals for the sun with food, gift-giving, gambling and often ludicrous behavior. Today, Pagans and Wiccans gather for Yule festivities: feasting and the lighting of the celebrated Yule log, which will smolder for 12 days.

Want recipes? Bake a tasty version of a Yule log with recipes from Food Network, Taste of Home and Martha Stewart. Sit back, grab a hot drink and relax in the serenity of winter.

Germanic peoples are credited the religious festival called “Yule,” and during Yuletide—which lasted approximately two months—many participants paid tribute to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky) and the god Odin (the leader of the Wild Hunt). Of course, this depended on where you lived in Europe at that time. Traditionally, enormous feasts and livestock sacrifices were associated with Yule. So merry was the atmosphere in these activities, in fact, that Grettis Saga refers to Yule as the time of “greatest mirth and joy among men.” Today’s Pagans and Wiccans often exchange gifts at Yule meals, while praising the rebirth of the sun and various gods. (Learn more from


Pot of wassail with orange slices floating in it, steaming on a stovetop

Wassail cider cooks on a stovetop. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Solstice traditions have many names around the world: Inti Raymi in the Incan Empire in honor of the sun god Inti, and Soyalangwul for the Zuni and the Hopi. In Machu Piccu, there still exists a large stone column known as an Intihuatana, or the “tying of the sun”; ancient peoples would ceremonially tie the sun to the stone so that it could not escape. The East Asian Dongzhi festival recalls yin/yang and the dark/light balance of the cosmos.


Winter got you down? Recharge with some all-natural ideas from the Huffington Post, such as enjoying the beauty of firelight or relaxing to some Classical music. In years past, pagans “wassailed” their fields with cider drinks—but a tasty wassail is great for sipping! (Find a recipe here. For an alcoholic version, check out the New York Times.)

Get in touch with nature by decorating your home with holly, mistletoe and evergreens; for a warm scent, make a pomander by decorating oranges with cloves (get instructions from Martha Stewart), noting the orange’s resemblance to the sun.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)


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Categories: International ObservancesWiccan / Pagan