Monday, June 1, 2015

Shirley Martin on Celtic Celebrations

Before writing my fantasy romance, "Night Secrets," (Book 1 of the Avador series), I knew I needed to give my novel its own culture, its own civilization. The ancient Celts have long fascinated me, so I gave my fantasy a Celtic flavor, with my own variations. To describe the Celtic culture would take a book in itself, so here I've centered only on their festivals.

Celtic festivals weren't connected to equinoxes or solstices but were related to the fertility of the land. The four seasonal festivals reflect the pastoral and agricultural cycles of the year. Another way these festivals differed from more modern celebrations was that they began on the eve of the specific day of celebration. The Celts measured time by the moon.  In all of their calculations, night preceded day. In their festivals, we find traces not only of religious beliefs but also of a magical belief in things.

Samhain marked the beginning of the Celtic year and began on the night of October 31. (Guess what holiday we've derived from Samhain.)  On Samhain, the veil between the real world and the Otherworld was torn aside.  The sidhe--fairy mounds where the people of the Otherworld lived--opened, and spirits walked the land. The sidhe released phantoms and goblins to ride the night winds. The warrior dead came back to life, and bonfires were lit to guide the returning warriors. Gods and demons walked the night places, and humans knew to stay inside. A harvest festival, Samhain is the best-known Celtic celebration of all. (Although it's not part of the Avador series, my fantasy romance, "The Sacrifice, is based on this holy eve.)

Imgolg (or Imbolc) was a fertility festival celebrated on the first of February. It marked the beginning of spring. As believers of magic, the Celts brought divination and watching omens to this celebration. They lit candles and bonfires if the weather permitted.  Fire and purification played a prominent part in this festival. The Celts visited holy wells on this day where they prayed for health.

In more recent times, Imgolc has become a holy day honoring St. Brigid. Before going to bed, people left clothing and bits of cloth outside for Brigid to bless. In the morning, they brought the strips of cloth inside, now believed to have powers of healing and protection.

The Celts also believed that on Imbolg the Cailleach--divine hag--gathers her firewood for the rest of winter.

Beltane is the Celtic May Day festival and marked the beginning of summer, a time when cattle were driven out to pasture. As with Samhain, the people lit bonfires at night and walked around the fire; some even leaped over the fire.  People doused  household fires and relit them at the Beltane bonfire. A great feast that featured lamb accompanied these gatherings.  As a festival of life,decorations of yellow flowers--symbolizing sunlight--abounded, even on cattle. 

Some people say the bonfire was an attempt to mimic the sun and to ensure a plentiful supply of sunshine for the people, animals, and plants. In some places people took oatmeal cakes, a bit of which was offered to the spirits to protect their livestorck.

If tales are to believed, Beltane often became a riotous affair, where not only fire but romances were kindled.

Lughnasad was celebrated on August 1. Some say the god Lugh started the festival in honor of his mother. It marked the beginning of the harvest season. Often animals were sacrificed, the victims placed in baskets and thrown into the bonfire. The Celts held the concept of the vegetation or tree spirit that had the power over rain, sunshine and every means of fruitfulness. A tree held a prominent place in this festival, where tree branches were attached to houses to impart fertility.

This festival, too, involved great gatherings that included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, and as with Beltane, matchmaking.