Samhain On or around the 31st October in the northern hemisphere, 1st May in the southern, Samhain is the festival of the dead, a festival of remembrance and honouring of our dear departed friends and relations. It is said that at Samhain the veil that separates the worlds is at its thinnest. So our world, the world of Faerie, and that of the dead, blend as one. It is no wonder then that this night has become so wrapped in superstition. It is a night of wonder and magic. On this night the Cailleach (the Crone) comes to strip the leaves from the trees, to quicken the decay of the flesh of the year, so that it may feed the new life to come. We can also ask Her to take the unwanted aspects of our personal year away, so that these too might be transformed. Yet even on the darkest night of Samhain, whilst our minds ponder our mortality, if we listen carefully, we can hear the sound of a new-born child crying for its Mother’s breast, for soon it will be Alban Arthan, the Winter solstice, and the Wheel will turn once more.
Winter Solstice - Alban Arthan
The name for the festival of the Winter Solstice in Druidry is Alban Arthan, which means 'The Light of Arthur'. Some Druid Orders believe this means the Light of the hero King Arthur Pendragon who is symbolically reborn as the Sun Child (The Mabon) at the time of the Solstice. Others see the Light belonging to the star constellation known as the Great Bear (or the Plough) - Arthur, or Art, being Gaelic for Bear. This constellation shines out in the sky and can symbolise the rebirth of the Sun. At this point the Sun is at its southernmost point almost disappearing beyond the horizon, and the days are at their shortest. This was a time of dread for the ancient peoples as they saw the days getting shorter and shorter. A great ritual was needed to revert the course of the sun. This was probably calculated by the great circles of stone and burial grounds which are aligned to this festival, such as Newgrange in Co. Meath, Eire. Sure enough, the next day the Sun began to move higher into the sky, showing that it had been reborn.
This time of year is very cold and bleak, which is why so many celebrations are needed to help people get through the Winter months. It is significant that many civilisations welcomed their Solar Gods at the time of greatest darkness - including Mithras (the bull-headed Warrior God), the Egyptian God Horus and, more recently, Jesus Christ.
On or around the 1st February in the northern hemisphere and 1st August in the southern, Imbolc is often seen as the first of three Spring festivals. It is hard sometimes to think of Spring in what feels like the depths of Winter. But if we look at the ground we can see the first shoots of green beginning to reach towards the Sun. Imbolc can be celebrated on either the 1st or 2nd February, or more naturally when the Snowdrops cover the ground.
Spring Equinox - Alban Eilir
The name for the festival of the Spring Equinox in Druidry is Alban Eilir, which means 'The Light of the Earth'. As the Sun grows warmer, so life begins to show through the soil. Small signs at first - the daffodils and crocuses - then more green as the bluebells and wood anemones spread through the woodland. Plants are seen by some as inanimate greenery with no actual feelings and life force. But Druids see life in all living things, from rocks and stones, to rivers and springs, plants and trees - all life is sacred. Have you ever thought about how you recognise the beginning of Spring? Is it the plant life? The weather? How does a plant know when it is time to grow? It cannot tell the time or see a calendar. Yet it knows. If it has senses, then it has consciousness, if it has consciousness then it is more than an inanimate life form. So it is the return of life to the Earth that is celebrated at Alban Eilir, the time of balance.
One of the inner mysteries of Druidry is the Druid's egg. Life-giving, it is the egg protected by the hare, which is the symbol of Alban Eilir - still celebrated by the giving of Easter eggs by the Easter bunny.
On or around 1st May in the northern hemisphere and 1st November in the southern, Beltane represents the beginning of Summer or the height of Spring. It is thought that the ancients only recognised two seasons, these being Summer and Winter. Beltane is the time when the Earth is literally buzzing with fertility. Life springs forth in all of its richness, and the land is covered with beautiful flowers; the freshly opened leaves of the trees are a quality of green that they only show at this time of year. At Beltane the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God. Some celebrate Beltane on the dates given above, whilst others look to the flowers of the May tree as their signal that Beltane has, at last, arrived.
Summer Solstice - Alban Hefin
The name for the festival of the Summer Solstice in Druidry is Alban Hefin, which means 'The Light of the Shore'. Druidry has a great respect and reverence for places that are 'in between' worlds. The seashore is one such place, where the three realms of Earth, Sea and Sky meet. There is great power in places such as these. It is the time of greatest light when the Solar God is crowned by the Goddess as the King of Summer. It also brings some sadness because from now until Alban Arthan, the Sun's strength is declining and we have entered the waning year. For some this is the time of the Dark Twin, or Holly King, who is born and will take his crown at Alban Arthan. Of all the festivals Druidry is mostly associated with Alban Hefin. The wonderful white-robed figures filmed at the dawn rituals at Stonehenge are testament to this. However, to many Druids it is the turning seasons and the cycle of life, death and rebirth - reflected in the Wheel of the Year in its completeness - which are significant.
On or around the 1st August in the northern hemisphere, 1st February in the southern, Lughnasadh is celebrated as the first of two harvest festivals, the second being Alban Elfed (the Autumn Equinox). At Lughnasadh we see the fields of corn being cut, and for some this is the true time of the festival. In the fields John Barleycorn, who laid with the Lady in the woods at Beltane, has grown old, and now stands bent and bearded with a crocked cane. He looks to the Sun as he has changed from green to gold, and he known that his time has come. His life will feed the people, and it is this sacrifice that we honour at Lughnasadh.
Autumn Equinox - Alban Elfed
The name for the festival of the Autumn Equinox in Druidry is Alban Elfed, which means 'The Light of the Water'. The Wheel turns and the time of balance returns. Alban Elfed marks the balance of day and night before the darkness overtakes the light. It is also the time of the second harvest, usually of the fruit which has stayed on the trees and plants that have ripened under the summer sun. It is this final harvest which can take the central theme of the Alban Elfed ceremony - thanking the Earth, in her full abundance as Mother and Giver, for the great harvest, as Autumn begins.