Original versions of ancient Celtic calendars have been lost, but scholars believe the Celts used a lunar calendar, based on the thirteen full moons of the solar year, as well as recognizing solar Solstices, Equinoxes, and the all-important cross-quarter days between them.
Beltaine and Samhain, are the most important cross-quarter holidays of the year. They appear to be based on the rising and setting (respectively) of the Pleiades star system from which, it is rumored, the Shide or Elven race originally came to Earth.
To understand the Celtic calendar, we must have a basic understanding of the astrology on which it is based. In many cultures of the Western World, the Pleiades constellation plays an important role, for it occupies a unique place in the heavens.
In myths dating back to the dawn of history, the neighboring constellation of Orion embodies the story of the three Magi (magicians) who followed a star to a newborn king. Orion’s three belt stars are called the three kings, and Sirius the dog star is said to be the star they follow each year as the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin) gives birth to the Sun (Son) at the Winter Solstice each year.
This astrological story of the birth, death, and resurrection of the son of the virgin has been repeated for thousands of years in the mythology of many cultures, long before it became Christian dogma. In the Celtic world, Lugh (also spelled Llew) is the Sun god, born of a virgin. He is killed/destroyed and reborn each year. His holiday is called Lughnasa, celebrated on August 1st.
In times before electricity, particularly in northern latitudes where the dark nights were very long during winter, the return of the Sun each year was a major event for celebration. And, since the Celts began each day at sunset and each season began in the quarter preceding a Solstice or Equinox, Samhain (the cross-quarter day before Winter Solstice) became, the biggest holiday of the year. It was seen as the beginning of the new year and is now celebrated as Celtic New Year.
Lunar Tree Calendar
Neo-pagan Celts often use the lunar tree calendar created by Robert Graves, which is based on the Ogham tree alphabet. There is some controversy about whether all of the letters of the Ogham were actually named for trees, but it is clear that some of them share names with trees.
Quarter & Cross-quarter Days
Cross-quarter days are well-documented ancient Celtic celebrations of the seasonal changes of the solar year. This wheel of the year is generally accepted in modern magical traditions. Beginning and ending with Samhain (Halloween), which is commonly recognized as the “Celtic New Year,” on October 31st (or technically November 6th or 7th), each holiday has a particular meaning and feeling to it.
Based on the length of daylight relative to darkness, the solar calendar celebrates eight main holidays through the year. The Solstices have been said to represent the masculine – positive pole and the Equinoxes the feminine – negative pole. The cross-quarter days are energetic openings in the year when the veil between our world and the Otherworlds is thinnest.
Each Solstice or Equinox is related to one of the four directions, or “airts.” Litha – Summer Solstice, the longest day, is related to the element of Fire and the South, while Yule – Winter Solstice, the longest night, is traditionally connected with the element of Earth and North (though some traditions place Air in the North and Earth in the East). Ostara – Spring Equinox represents Air and East, while Mabon – Autumn Equinox represents the Water element and the West. Day and night are exactly equal on the Equinoxes.
The Placement of the Elements
In Western magical traditions you will often find Air associated with East, and Earth associated with North, though these placements may not be ideal for every situation. There are many variations of this arrangement. Depending on where you live, the elements may be aligned with different directions. You will have to tune in to feel where they like to hang out in your area – and don’t be surprised if they sometimes change places! After all, each of the elements can be anywhere and everywhere.
There is some evidence pointing to the probability that Air was originally placed in the North in the ancient mystery schools. See Re-thinking the Watchtowers – 13 Reasons Air Should Be In The North by Mike Nichols, who’s other writings I also highly recommend. This is a question each practitioner must resolve with their own experimentation, depending on where they live. Sometimes it is best to go along with the traditions practiced by groups in which you participate, for the sake of consistency. Magic is a fluid, living practice, not a set of rigid rules that must be slavishly followed.
Cross Quarter Days
Between each of the quarter days (Solstices and Equinoxes) are the cross-quarter days. These are the most important and magically potent holidays. Just as a crossroads, twilight, or any place or time “between” one thing and another is more powerful for working magic, the times exactly between the quarters are recognized as doorways into the Otherworlds. This is why Samhain, Beltaine, Imbolc, and Lughnasa are so widely celebrated in the Celtic tradition, with Samhain and Beltaine, being the most important holidays of all.
Celtic quarter and cross-quarter days
Due to the fact that Druids, witches, wizards, and anyone else who might have kept these traditions alive, were systematically persecuted and killed, and that they also did not believe in writing important things down, we really have very little solid evidence about who they were, and how they actually lived and celebrated. Yet modern magical historians have been able to piece together a semblance of their traditions by studying the ancient myths, gathering folk lore, and intuitively “channeling” information.
What is important now is that the information actually “works” in our modern magical context, and that it forms a cohesive whole. The Celtic magical tradition is still evolving and it always will be. It is a living, growing spiritual path that can never be “nailed down.” Even so, we have a rich and varied mythology on which to draw, so the ancient roots of modern Celtic magic are very much alive, connecting us to the wisdom of our ancestors.
To learn more about these fascinating calendars, the Celtic Holidays, the Ogham tree alphabet, and how to use them in your magical practice, sign up for the Celtic Mystery School Magical E-mail Correspondence Course.