As an ancient culture, the Celts are well-known for their eight Pagan holidays. They followed what we now call the wheel of the year, which Wiccans and Pagans also observe to worship and respect the changing seasons.
The wheel of the year symbolizes the eight Sabbats, including four seasonal festivals and four solar festivals, which were important times of year for the ancient Celts.
These celebrations marked the coming months and were an opportunity to honor the Gods and Goddesses associated with the seasons and holidays.
While the Celts shifted to more Christian-based beliefs for a long period, a Pagan revival in the 1500s reintroduced these natural celebrations to modern culture.
Let’s explore the eight ancient Pagan holidays celebrated by our Celtic ancestors.
Key points from this article:
The ancient Celts were well-known for celebrating eight Pagan holidays, also known as the wheel of the year.
These celebrations revolved around the changing seasons and symbolized rebirth, fertility, and other natural occurrences.
While some of these holidays were repurposed by Christianity, a Pagan revival has led to the reintroduction of these celebrations into modern culture.
Date: February 1st – February 2nd
Marking the halfway point between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox.
Having been repurposed by the Christian faith, Imbolc is better known today as weaving of crosses, which celebrates the only female patron saint of Ireland, St. Brigid. However, it is thought that the story of St. Brigid was inspired by the Ancient Celtic goddess, Brigid.
Imbolc celebrates the impending Spring and the rebirth of the land it will bring. The days are getting visibly longer and the Celts celebrated the return of the light.
Some ways that ancient Celts may have celebrated Imbolc would have been with communal feasts and weaving crosses out of reeds that would invite the Goddess Brigid into their homes to bless and protect them.
The weaving of crosses is a tradition that still stands today and is popular throughout Ireland, even if it is more in celebration of the Christian St. Brigid than her Pagan alternative.
Date: March 20th – March 22nd
The Spring Equinox celebrated the arrival of Spring. In fact, the Spring equinox was not just celebrated by the Celts but by almost every culture all over the world.
The Ancient Norse called it Ostara, the first day of the Iranian calendar falls during the Spring equinox, and in ancient Egypt, they would celebrate the festival of Isis at the same time.
Because the Spring equinox is a solar festival, it is celebrated at different times of the year depending on what hemisphere you are in. The northern hemisphere celebrates the Spring equinox in March, whereas the southern hemisphere celebrates it in September.
This celebration was one of rebirth. Balance, and new beginnings. However, the date might seem familiar and that is for a good reason.
The Irish now celebrate St. Patrick’s day on the 17th of March. This is another glowingly obvious example of how the early Christians adapted Pagan beliefs to suit their needs and agendas.
But do not be mistaken, this was not a sad celebration. Instead, there was much fertility and hope to be celebrated. The time of harvest was still a way off and the land was still bright with life and joy.
Date: May 1st
Thought of as a fire festival, the Beltane festival was associated with the fertilization of the land. This was when cattle and other domesticated farm animals would be moved to the pastures, when the fields would be sewn with that year’s harvest, and births would happen abundantly.
Two bonfires would be lit close to each other, and the cattle would be driven through the two to cleanse and purify them before they were moved to grazing pastures.
The evening of Beltane was a big party with feasts, dancing, music, maypole celebrations, and a community celebrating the beginning of the most plentiful time of year.
It is also thought that the Ancient Celts celebrated a being called the Green Man.
This entity was often depicted as a green man covered in leaves and shrubbery. It was this being that bought the fruitful beginnings of this exciting time of year and so he was warmly welcomed. This is also where many wicker man celebrations may have begun.
Date: June 20th – 21st
The second solar festival, Litha falls during the summer solstice marking the longest day of the year and the shortening of the days. This celebration was all about the power of the sun.
Also known as Midsummer, ancient Celts would celebrate this time of year with blazing bonfires and ceremonial dancing.
This day was the longest day of the year and signified the battle between the Oak King, who represented light, and the Holly King, who represented the dark. Each of the two solstices of the year was a time when this age-old war would rage on.
During the Summer solstice, the Holly King would always inevitably win.
Date: August 1st
This Celtic celebration is often mistaken for the harvest festival, when in fact it is a celebration in anticipation of a fruitful harvest. If you have not noticed already, the ancient Celts loved to celebrate the run-up to important events as much as the event itself.
Also known as Lúnasa or Lughnasa, this celebration was held to worship the Celtic God, Lugh. He was the god of Justice and nobility, and one of the members of the Tuatha dé Danann. He was also celebrated for his expert craftsmanship and skills in battle.
Lughnasadh was the time to appease God Lugh in the hopes of a fruitful harvest.
Some traditional celebrations would have been sporting events such as horsemanship, archery, and authentic competitions. Of course, it would not be a Celtic celebration without a lot of food, music, drink, and dancing.
Date: September 21st – September 23rd
The Autumn equinox, Mabon falls in late September for those in the Northern Hemisphere but for people in the Southern Hemisphere, this holiday is celebrated during the month of March.
Mabon symbolizes the autumn harvest in full swing. During harvest time ancient Celtic communities were faced with either a bountiful year’s harvest or a failed crop.
However, the word Mabon itself is not Celtic. In fact, it is unlikely to be of ancient origin at all and is more likely to be a new Paganism name for this time of year. We are not even 100% sure if the ancient Celts celebrated Mabon but it is quite possible considering the importance of the other solar festivals of the year.
If they did celebrate it, they would likely have celebrated with bonfires and feasts. They may have even enjoyed blackberry wines or apple ciders, as these fruits would have been plentiful at this time of year.
Mabon has become a traditional part of Neo-paganism with many modern-day Pagans picking blackberries, having large feasts with their families and communities and celebrating the end of the warm and bright portion of the year.
Date: October 31st
Now, before we go any further, please note that the pronunciation of this holiday is a bit of a sore spot for many. The correct pronunciation is sow-in, just in case you were inclined to say sam-hane instead.
Although Halloween may be the more familiar holiday on this date, Samhain is where it all began.
It signified the end of the harvest, the fields were now bare and the leaves were changing and falling. The air was getting chillier and the beginning of the cold, dark months was closing in.
This time of year was when many ancient Celts would reconnect with their lost loved ones.
They would also allow the fires in their homes to burn out completely before the night was over.
They would then spend the day harvesting the last of that year’s food growth, storing it, and preserving it in the hopes of it lasting through the winter.
Celebrating a plentiful harvest, they would have great feasts, light bonfires, eat, drink, and be pretty damn merry.
Once the festival was over, the fires in the homes would be relit with the flames of the sacred Samhain bonfire.
Date: December 21st
We may know it as Christmas but the Celts celebrated Yule, the Winter solstice, around the 21st of December.
During this celebration, the Celts would experience the longest night and shortest day of the year. There is still evidence of the importance of Yule, you only have to look at the tomb in Newgrange, County Meath. Visitors still flock to this place in the hopes of experiencing the sun flooding the tomb as it rises in the morning after the solstice.
The common bonfire was once again lit as the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King raged on once more, only this time the Oak King always came out victorious.
It’s believed that the tradition of the yule log came from this very celebration. Where a log saved from the previous year’s bonfire would be used to light the next year’s Yule bonfire.
I am a British-born copywriter who moved to Ireland over a decade ago and have been captivated by Irish culture, landscape and folklore. I enjoy sharing my passion for Ireland through my writing as a freelancer.