Many of the ancient pre-Christian celebrations were hijacked when Christianity arrived, and adapted – or toned down. Some of them have been forgotten altogether. We take a look at the history of some of the well-known festivals.
Candlemas on 2nd February was known as the festival of light in pre-Christian times. It marked the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox. One of the original Celtic names for this day was Imbolc – literally, ‘in the belly’ (of the Mother), a reference to the birth of lambs as a sign of the first stirrings of spring.
May Day, held on 1st May, was an ancient pagan fire festival, the fires encouraging the crops to grow. Believe it or not, this was considered the first day of summer and an occasion for popular, sometimes raucous, celebrations. It was known in Germany and the Netherlands as Walpurgis Night, when witches would meet on Brocken mountain. Nowadays in some parts, May Day is celebrated by dancing around the maypole and crowning a young girl the Queen of May.
Midsummer’s Day or the Summer Solstice is on a day between 21st and 25th December (in the southern Hemisphere) and June (in the northern hemisphere) and has been a festival in the northern hemisphere since ancient times, celebrating the longest day of the year. It related to fertility practices and ceremonies performed to ensure a successful harvest. Stone circles were part of the ritual, such as Stonehenge, aligned to the sunrise on Midsummer’s Day. When Christianity spread, the day was renamed St John’s Eve. In Ireland bonfires were lit on hilltops and some parts of Ireland still celebrate with a huge fire, feasting, music and dancing.
Lammas, celebrated on 1st August, was the medieval name for the Christian holiday that celebrated the beginning of the harvest season and the end of summer. Lammas means loaf-mass, the day on which loaves of bread were baked from the first grain harvest. This festival was adapted from the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh (the Irish word for August is Lúnasa) and was observed throughout Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man to celebrate the first fruits of harvest. Lughnasadh means the funeral games of Lugh, the sun god, in honour of his foster-mother Tailtean.
Michaelmas on 29th September was the feast of St Michael and All Angels. During the Middle Ages, it marked the shortening of days. Pre-Christian communities celebrated the completion of the harvest around the autumn equinox and this celebration was adopted by the church to become Michaelmas.
In England it was traditional to eat a goose on this day and in Ireland, finding a ring in a Michaelmas pie would soon lead to marriage. In Scotland, the eldest daughter of the family would make a St Michael’s Bannock, a large scone-like cake.
We have very different celebrations now but somehow the ancient rituals, such as dancing around a leaping fire, have a certain charm as well.