We all know that many of our holiday customs have pagan origins. Easter eggs and rabbits and lilies, trick or treat at Halloween, yule logs and Christmas trees. But I think that the pagan influence is deeper and wider. What are the top four holidays in this country? Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, and either Halloween or Thanksgiving (which is too close to Christmas). Each one of them arguably is a blend of the eight holidays on the wheel of the year, blending traditions from the two closest pagan holidays. Four sky holidays—the solstices and equinoxes)–share the wheel with the earth-based cross-quarter holidays of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain, which (respectively) celebrate the signs of earth’s renewal, fertility, first harvest, and descent into winter..
Starting the year at Christmas in the deep winter only a few days after the solstice, we bring nature indoors. Winter solstice was celebrated at midnight, a custom that survives in midnight mass. The greenery comes indoors and we light candles to entice the returning sun. Some of the winter holiday blend spills over to trying to hasten the signs of spring (easy when you live in the South as I do). The fit of spring cleaning takes place at that time as it did in the ancient time of Imbolc. At Imbolc the holiday greens were discarded and the house prepared for spring. So if you are late in taking down your decorations, just blame it on the pagans.
The next pair is the spring equinox and Beltane, with Easter conveniently falling in between. The spring equinox is celebrated at sunrise—sunrise Easter service, anyone? It’s also a fertility festival as the earth renew itself along with Jesus’s resurrection. Fertility symbols—rabbits, eggs—migrated from Norse paganism to attach themselves to Easter. The fertility part spills past the X-rated celebration of Beltane (May 1st) to add the more sedate and sentimental Mothers’ Day to the mix.
The shift of the two summer holidays attached itself, not to a Christian festival but to a national holiday in the United States, Independence Day. Summer solstice was celebrated with bonfires at noon. We have the 4th of July picnic at noon, celebrating the harvest foods of corn and watermelon that connect us to the Lammas first harvest on August 1st, although the fireworks replacing the bonfire have to wait till after dark to be fully appreciated. The solstice, around the 21st or 22nd of June, often coincides with Fathers’ Day. In the Celtic tradition, earth is female, sun is male, so it is appropriate to celebrate fathers at the summer solstice as the sun is at the height of his powers, shedding warmth and light on all below.
The autumnal equinox is the most neglected of the four sky holidays, but it does mark the turn toward winter, which becomes more pronounced at Samhain or Halloween. Samhain marked the return of the flocks from the fields, some to be wintered and others to be slaughtered. Only the turkey—one pardoned, others roasted– reminds us of that aspect of wintering, along with the final harvest that also migrates to thanksgiving. The autumn equinox was celebrated at dusk, which is the time to go trick or treating, or if you wait till much later, to eat the leftovers from the Thanksgiving feast. The baptizing of Halloween into all saints and all souls days is a reminder of the darkness and ending of the cycle of the year before we begin again. In fact, both the Jews and the Celts celebrated the new year at this time of year. Just as the Jewish sabbath began at sundown, going into and emerging from the darkness into the light, so it was with the seasons for both Jews and Celts.
The blending of holidays does not diminish either their Christian significance or their pagan significance. Rahter, the holiday cycle is a multi-dimensional celebration of human history, faith, and tradition alongside a connection to the earth and the heavens and the turning of the seasons. It’s not a binary choice. We can do both without dishonoring either, because both traditions enrich the textures of our individual and common lives.