Irish Mythology: Festival and Holidays

Ancient runes and a pentagram marking the ancient Celtic festival days

 VeraPetruk / Getty Images 

There are eight annual sacred days in Irish mythology: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain, two equinoxes, and two solstices. Many ancient Irish mythological traditions surrounding these sacred days disappeared during the 20th century, but neopagans and ancient historians have used ancient records and documented observations to piece together the traditions and revive the ceremonies.

Key Takeaways: Irish Mythology Festivals and Holidays

  • There are eight sacred days in Irish mythology that take place at different intervals throughout the year. 
  • According to Celtic tradition, each year was quartered based on the changing of the season. The year was further quartered based on the solstices and equinoxes. 
  • The four fire festivals, which mark season changes, are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
  • The four remaining quarters are the two equinoxes and the two solstices.

Fire Festivals: Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain 

In ancient Celtic tradition, a single year was divided into two parts: the darkness, Samhain, and the light, Beltane. These two parts were further divided by Cross Quarter days, Imbolc and Lughnasadh. These four days, known as the fire festivals, marked the changing of the seasons, and displays of fire feature heavily in both ancient and contemporary celebrations.

Imbolc: St. Brigid’s Day

Imbolc is a Cross Quarter day that marks the beginning of spring recognized annually on February 1. Imbolc translates to “in milk” or “in the belly,” a reference to the cows that would start lactating after giving birth in the springtime. Imbolc is a fertility festival with reverence for light, referencing the impregnation of Brighid, goddess of health and fertility, by the seed of the rising sun.

As with most ancient Celtic culture, Imbolc became St. Brigid’s Day, a Christianization of the goddess Brighid. Imbolc is also recognized as the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare, the second patron saint of Ireland.

Beltane: May Day 

Beltane marks the beginning of the season of light, during which days are longer than nights. Celebrated annually on May 1, it is commonly known as May Day. The word Beltane means bright or brilliant, and displays of fire were often used to celebrate the sacred day.

Ancient Celtic tribes lit bonfires to welcome the longer days and warmer weather of the summer season, and young people and travelers leaped across the bonfires for luck. The most significant of these Celtic festivals in Ireland was held at Uisneach, the sacred center of the Emerald Isle.

Contemporary May Day celebrations in Ireland include community fairs, farmers' markets, and bonfires.

Lughnasadh: Harvest Season

Observed annually on August 1st, Lughnasadh marks the beginning of the harvest season. It is the second Cross Quarter day of the year, falling between the autumn equinox and Samhain. Lughnasadh takes its name from the funeral of the mother of Lugh, the Irish mythological God of all Skills. Observers feasted and participated in funerary games, or sporting events similar to Olympic contests.

Ancient Celtic cultures often held handfasting or engagement ceremonies on Lughnasadh. Couples intertwined their hands while a spiritual leader fastened their hands together with a crios, or traditional woven belt, a practice from which the phrase “tying the knot” is derived.
For ancient people, Lughnasadh was a day of sacred pilgrimage, which was later adopted by Christianity. During Reek Sunday or Domhnach na Cruaiche, observers scale the side of Croagh Patrick in honor of St. Patrick’s 40 days of fasting. 

Samhain: Halloween

Samhain marks the beginning of the dark days, during which the nights are longer, the days are shorter, and the weather is colder. Samhain, observed on October 31, was a time to store food and supplies in preparation for winter.

Ancient observers lit two bonfires and ceremoniously herded cows between these fires before slaughtering them for the feast and throwing their bones into the fire. The term bonfire originates from this “fire of bones”.

During Samhain, the veil between the world of men and the world of the fairy folk is thin and permeable, allowing for the fairy folk and the souls of the dead to walk freely among the living. The sacred festival became known as All Saints Day by Christianity during the 9th century, and Samhain became the precursor to modern Halloween.

Equinoxes and Solstices

The two solstices and the two equinoxes are Yule, Litha, and the autumn and spring equinoxes. The solstices mark the longest and shortest days of the year, while the equinoxes mark days that are equally light as they are dark. Ancient Celts believed that the successful progression of the year relied heavily on sacred rituals observed on solstices and equinoxes. 

Litha: The Summer Solstice 

The summer solstice, called Litha, is a festival of light marking the longest day of the year. The midsummer festival is observed annually on June 21.

Litha was marked by a multitude of displays of fire. Wheels of fire were set ablaze on hilltops and rolled down the hills to symbolize the descendant of the sun from its peak at the solstice into the darker part of the year. Individual homes and entire communities lit bonfires to protect themselves from the trickery fairies that walked among men during the solstice. The acts of these mischievous fairies became the premise for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1595.

By the 4th century, Midsummer’s Eve became known as St. John’s Eve, or the Eve of St. John the Baptist, observed on the evening of June 23.

Yule: The Winter Solstice 

Yule, or the winter solstice, marked the longest, darkest night of the year. Observed annually on December 21, ancient Celts, as well as ancient Germanic tribes, held feasts as symbols of hope that the sun and the warmth would begin to return.

By the 5th century, Yule became closely associated with Christmas. During Yule, mistletoe was collected for its healing properties, and large, evergreen trees were cut down, brought inside, and decorated with objects that served as gifts for the gods.

Eostre: The Spring Equinox and St. Patrick’s Day 

The two equinoxes are marked by equal amounts of light and darkness. Ancient Celts saw this balance in nature as an indication of the presence of magic and, in the case of the spring equinox, a time to sow seeds. Eostre, named after the Irish goddess of spring, is observed annually on March 20.

Like Imbolc, the spring equinox was adopted by Catholicism and associated with St. Patrick, Ireland’s first patron saint, which is celebrated annually on March 17. Eostre is also considered to be the precursor to Easter.

The Autumn Equinox: Fruitful Harvests 

The second equinox of the year is observed on September 21. It is unclear whether the ancient Celts had a name for the festival, though neopagans refer to it as Mabon, after the ancient Welsh sun god.

Observers held a feast, the second feast of the harvest season, as a way to give thanks for the first part of a fruitful harvest season and as a wish for luck during the coming dark days of winter. The feast was held on the equinox during a time of balance between day and night in hopes that the wishes for protection during the winter would be better received by the supernatural world.

Celebrations during the autumn equinox were later adopted later by Christianity as the feast day of St. Michael, also known as Michaelmas, which is held annually on September 29.

Sources

  • Bartlett, Thomas. Ireland: a History. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Joyce, P. W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland. Longmans, 1920.
  • Koch, John Thomas. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
  • Muldoon, Molly. “Today is one of the eight sacred Celtic holidays of the year.” Irish Central, Irish Studio, 21 December 2018.