What is the Celtic Wheel of the Year?

The Wheel is an ancient rhythmic means of marking the changing seasons, and the changing nature of the agricultural year. The Four Seasons (Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, and Summer and Winter Solstice) are known as Solar Festivals, in that they mark a seasonal change caused by the Sun. The cross-quarter days are marked by Fire Festivals and are usually celebrated as significant agricultural festivals. Together the Solar Festivals and the Fire Festivals make up the Wheel Of The Year. 

 

Imbolc - 1 February

snowdrops

Today is the first of the year's four Fire Festivals, the festival of Imbolc (pronounced Ee-molc), also known as Candlemas. Quietly it celebrates the first signs of spring, and the return of the sun. Slim buds showing, snowdrops emerging, evenings growing lighter. With a sigh of warm relief, it marks – with some optimism – the successful passing of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year.

After the shut-in life of the long, dark months, Winter weakens, as the sun shines longer and lustier with each passing day. So Imbolc is a Festival of light and tender young shoots – new beginnings and fresh energies. This age-old festival of bonfires and blazes represents our own illumination and inspiration as much as it does light and warmth.

Candles are often lit on this day, in the presence of fresh white flowers, to celebrate the onset of green shoots and renewed light.

So, we wish you a fresh green Imbolc!

 

 

Beltane - 1 May

cherry blossom

This is the point of the old Celtic Wheel where spring energy fizzes to the Earth’s surface with joy, abundance, and the budding promise of fruition, after the long gathering of energies in the dark soil of winter.

Traditionally, Beltane is a time of union and unity, where the fresh masculine and feminine energies come together in balance and celebration.

Living in a time when many lament the repression of the feminine (present in all men and women, just as is the masculine energy), this is an opportunity to salute the healthy nature of balance. It is a time of deep-found love.

Old celebrations included the braiding of hair, weaving of flowers, jumping hand-in-hand over a lusty Beltane fire. Later on, Christians harnessed the celebrations with a church service and procession to the fields or hills, where the priest kindled the fire. In times old and newer, a rowan branch hung over the house fire on May Day to preserve the fire itself from bewitchment and bad luck.

Maypoles – supremely phallic symbols – were the focal point of old English village rituals. The community would gather flowers and green branches from the fields and gardens at dawn, and use them to decorate the village maypoles. The maypole ribbons would be danced into weavings and rhythms that bound together communities, mistakes and all. The fairest young May Queen was chosen from amongst the young people who would accompany her from door to door, flower-laden and singing. The Blessing of May would be granted to those who gave donations towards the general festivities; young creation and the fertility of Nature were exulted.

It feels a loss that the Wheel of the Year nowadays passes almost unnoticed, uncelebrated. We at Outrider Anthems will be leaping over a small fire tonight, wishing you all the joy of fresh energies and optimistic spirit. Perhaps you might do the same?!

 

 

Summer Solstice - 21 June

summer-solstice

Summer Solstice marks the zenith of the sun’s position in the sky, with the day’s light magically fading around night's heart. Even the birds respond, with extended choral meets and abundantly early dawn choruses.

Crops are ripening; the hard resilience of the dark months and fallow winter are bearing fruit. Farmers are working long into the light nights, helping the agricultural cycle to dance its produce into being.

The year is drawn up to its full height, arms are openly embracing life and the energy of the sun. It is rare in England to be experiencing it with quite the intensity of the past few days. Intemperate and extravagant, the heat brings wistfully to mind the importance of balance. How we long for the shade of a good oak tree, the relief brought about by a gentle breeze, the thought of cool water on our wrists, a gentle night of deep sleep. Such light, such energy, such fire, brings too a yearning for equilibrium.

For just a few mistaken days, we think the sun may stand still, that our summers might be eternal. Have you noticed the full flowers already on the brambles?

Fire is the element associated with Solstice. Now should be a time of great celebration of the sun’s energy. And we do celebrate. Life, fun, water fights and summer holidays, an idle hour in a hammock - engaging with the vitality and sheer zest of living.

Yet fire....it is impossible to write about fire without acknowledging its darker side: the terrible images and stories of Grenfell Tower, forest fires in Knysna and Portugal, the devastation of unremitting sun and drought in East Africa. The destructive nature of fire as an instrument of neglect, social injustice, climate change, warfare, repressive regimes and poor land management is evident in these tragedies. With them rises an incendiary sense of rage, evident too in the political unrest of England here and now. Fire is the symbol of revolution, the element of purging and change.

Perhaps we can use this Solstice celebration to think on what we wish to retain in our lives – personal, national, planetary – and what we wish to burn away in a positive spirit of change and regeneration. It can be very powerful to write both of these declarations out on separate pieces of paper – that which we wish to keep, that which we wish to lose/loose – and burn both in a solstice fire. Letting go in the flames that which no longer serves us, taking with us that which does - hallelujah!!

 

 

Lammas or Lughnasadh - 1 August

Lammas photo small

The Wheel of Life continues to turn with unrelenting reliability – this is the moment when summer truly begins to slip back into the gloaming. We may tell ourselves the nights are still long - light at 9pm. Yet not so long ago, the daylight danced that much later into the night. We tell ourselves it is just the beginning of summer; many of us have our long-awaited annual holiday still to come. And yet in the air there is already that faint wash – even in August sunshine – of autumn and winter lapping at the flower borders in the garden. Down in the allotments, the early fruits and vegetables are already blown; now it is the late rewards of sustained hard work swelling into fine-looking abundance. Wasp-stung plums are falling, plump apples are swelling, wild blackberries are staining hands and mouths with their dark juices.
 
And so we mark Lammas, or Lughnasadh, linked with the ancient Celtic god Lugh, god of light, son of the Sun; in myth this festival marks his funeral games. Now was the moment when the Sun God transferred all his power into the grain and gave himself up to be sacrificed in the harvesting of the grain. Breadmaking commemorated the sacrifice – from the harvest came the first new bread of the season.  This was the Saxon hlaef-masse or loaf-mass, now Lammas. 

The overwintered seed grain vitally safeguarded continuity of sustenance, ensuring a new year’s planting and the fresh green shoots of nourishment. From the final stalks of grain in the harvested fields the community corn dolly was created; he who drew the short straw was charged with keeping it under his family’s roof until the following spring, an onerous and weighty symbolic responsibility.

So this is a harvest festival, embraced by the Christian church as a time for giving thanks to the Earth for her fruits. It is also a time when we can celebrate within ourselves the fruits of our own gifts, particularly if we have been tending them well throughout the year.

Symbolically, it is a good time to winnow the grain and cast off the chaff. We can choose to dance into the prospect of autumn and winter, or we can rail against it and resist. We can choose either to walk with the Wheel of Life, or squander our life energy straining to halt it. An important choice.

One final tradition to share is that of wicker man. We are going outside now to make a wicker man of some sort. Before tossing him on a bonfire we will tuck into him a list of all the internal chaff and unfruitful stubble we wish to leave behind. Upon the good fire that he creates, we will bake a delicious loaf. And we will feel the fire’s heat as an exciting, enticing welcome into the starker, stiller months of settling energy and replenishing vision. 

 

We will add the later dates as the year progresses.

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