Let’s celebrate darkness and light eight times a year!
Reconnecting ourselves to Mother Nature by celebrating the eight sacred holidays
Our ancestors knew how to connect to the Moon, nature, and seasons, and they certainly knew how to party. The year was split in two; six months of light, six months of darkness. Both halves of the calendar were celebrated equally, one not more important than the other. Ancient cultures learned how to honor both darkness and light; differently, sure, but not unevenly. The darkness is as much part of the cycle of life as the light is, which called for celebration.
Earth, nature, and life all follow the same cycle, just like the Moon does. Based on the stars and the seasons, the year was spread into eight major events; four solar festivals (Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox) and four seasonal festivals, marking a significant seasonal change. Each event has its own meaning, theme, rituals, traditions, and celebrations. According to ancient Celtic culture, this was called the Wheel of the Year. The normal and natural cycle of life is always formed by a period of intense activity and energy, necessarily followed by a period of idling, recovery, healing, and introspection. Ancestors celebrated darkness as much as light and embraced death as much as life. Let’s mark our calendars and start partying like our ancestors used to back in the old days!
Josée-Anne Sarazin-Côté, astrologer and author, describes all eight holidays in her book “The Big Book of the Sacred Feminity.”
On March 21st we celebrate Ostara, which is the pagan commemoration of the period of time that brings more light than night. Ostara, Eástre, West Germanic Fertility, Life and Spring Goddess, seems, therefore, to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, always pictured with rabbits, eggs, and flowers. From this day, March 21st, the light takes over the darkness. It’s a light, optimistic, soft, joyous celebration of a new cycle starting. When it was time to celebrate Ostara, we would take a walk in nature to watch your awakening and the first signs of spring. This was the time to start dreaming, planning, and setting our intentions for what we wanted out of the next six months.
The Celts’ calendar is ingenious. The year is divided into eight equal parts: the four equinoxes and solstices are the “main” feasts, and, between each, precisely in the middle, there is a “middle” feast that is often called a Fire Festival or the sacred feast of the fire. Beltane is the first on the calendar: it is the middle day between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane corresponds to the energy of nature, which awakens and is reborn. Traditionally, it was a feast of love during which human beings took the opportunity to mate – just like in nature. Huge bonfires were set up around which we would dance until dawn. We sometimes wore masks to play games of seduction and rarely ended the night alone.
It’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the peak of light! Litha and Ostara are two festivals that resemble each other a lot by their very festive energy and their interactions with the fairy world. In contrast, Ostara, which marks the return of the light on darkness, has more of a victorious connotation than Litha, from which the darkness quietly begins to make a return. It was the feast of love and union. Traditionally, weddings and handfastings were celebrated on this day. It was, therefore, a wonderful time of love, light, hope, good wishes, and rejoicing. On Litha day, we celebrate everything in light with huge bonfires, and we enjoy it.
Lammas is the median day between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Many harvests took place during this day, and we thus suppose that this festival, a little like Mabon, served to underline the present and future abundance of Mother Nature. Symbolically, it was time to decide, in full consciousness, what we wanted to harvest or not. It was an opportunity to proceed with the wishes and intentions sown during the previous festivals: did we intend to reap the fruits, or did we consciously decide to let them die?
The fall equinox is the day when light and night are of equal duration. But this day symbolizes the return of darkness. From there, the night officially takes over. The equinoxes are symbols of balance. It is for this reason that the arrival of Libra in astrology coincides with this day. Traditionally, it was a harvest festival. Even today, this period is synonymous with abundance. We picked all the fruits, and we gathered all the possible vegetables, which we prepared, with family and friends, under the sign of gratitude. It was a time when we honored and thanked the Earth for all that it offers us, to celebrate life, but with more respect and solemnity than in previous feasts. We knew very well that the hard months were coming and that we had to treat the Earth with respect, not take anything for granted. During festivals of light, we celebrate with exuberance, with almost madness. In dark times, we celebrate practically in silence, with our heads bowed in gratitude.
It is the median day between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is the feast of death, in the sense of “day to honor our ancestors and our deceased, to thank them, to think of them.” This is the time of the year when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, which is why many cultures make offerings to their dead, place pictures of them on the altar. It is the best day of the year to clean up emotionally and energetically to get rid of what weighs us down, tarnishing our daily lives. Our Halloween is inspired by it, and we still find it today in other cultures (notably with el dia de Los Muertos among Latin American communities). It really is the party of darkness, even if not yet at its peak.
The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, the height of darkness. But from that moment, the light begins to prepare for its return quietly. Yule was a big holiday, celebrated over twelve consecutive days, from December 21st to January 1st. Our Christmas also comes from this Celtic feast. For this celebration of darkness, we feel the soft influence of light since we celebrate gently, with lots of love. We are far, however, from the big summer celebrations. Traditionally, it was a time to reunite with loved ones, exchange stories from the previous year, talk about the year ahead, laugh, play, have a good time together, and thank life and the Earth. We take care of ourselves. We rest, we recover, we cuddle, we bundle up, we eat well, we sleep a lot, and we thank each other for the wonderful past year.
It is the festival between Yule and Ostara. Imbolc, like Lammas, is a little less well-known celebration than the others. Imbolc is the last party of the season of darkness, the light will be back soon, and you can feel it in the energy. It was traditionally the day of Brigid, Celtic goddess of fire. Brigid is a triple divinity. That is to say that she represents the three aspects of the woman: the young virgin, the mother, and the crone. She is a great goddess of magic and protection and, like Ostara, of fertility and spring. On that day, we made Brigid’s cross, a kind of Celtic cross made from straw, which we hung on the front door in order to protect the house for the year to come. This is a confirmation party; we make sure we are on the right path and reaffirm our way.
Life is just a long party. We are born (Ostara), we play in our childhood (Beltane), we grow up and fall in love for the first time (Litha), we enter our roaring twenties and dirty thirties (Lammas), we mature and turn forty (Mabon), we retire and begin our second Saturn Return (Samhain), and we finally fully live our last few years of life (Yule). So let’s celebrate every period, every cycle, and every moment as much as we can!