Monday marks the summer solstice,the longest day of the year. In Celtic mythology, the sun God is at the peak of his powers, the mother Goddess is pregnant with his child who will be born at the winter solstice. In Australia, New Zealand, and a chunk of South America, it is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There they huddle before a warm fire, and celebrate the opposite solstice in December at the beach.
The four sky holidays (equinoxes ans solstices) are celebrated with bonfires–spring at dawn, summer and midday,autumn at dusk, winter at midnight. If those times of day remind you of Easter sunrise services and midnight mass, you have penetrated the Celtic roots of some of our non-biblical religious customs. Many of the quaint practices of Easter–rabbits, eggs, lilies, new clothes–are vestiges of pre-Christian religious customs celebrating the arrival of spring.
The ancient Celts, according to tradition, observed eight evenly spaced nature holidays. Solstices and equinoxes were dictated by the rotation of the earth around the sun, while the four cross-quarter holidays were earth-centered. The Celtic New year (Samhain) was on November 1st, surviving as Halloween and All Saints Day and the Mexican Day of he Dead (November 2nd). Like the Jews, whose New Year is observed in the fall, the Celts began their days at desk and went through the darkness of both night and winter into the light of renewal, revival, and rebirth.Samhain was the time of the final harvest and bringing the animals back from pasture for the winter.
Anticipation of spring with the birth of lambs gave the February 1st the name of Imbolc, or ewe’s milk. We observe it as Groundhog Day on February 2nd. This ancient holiday was a time to clean house n anticipation of spring. (Last chance to take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations!) .
Beltane was a fertility festival celebrated on May 1st. May Day was originally a flower-centered festival, gathering wildflowers and planting crops, not an international labor holiday. Lammas or Lughnasad, August 1st, celebrated the first harvest. It comes much sooner in warmer climates in the northern hemisphere, but these holidays originated in Northern Europe. Colonial New Englanders continued the ancient Celtic custom of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to church to be blessed and shared at Lammas. (I prefer a blessing of the vegetables to a blessing of the animals. Vegetables are much better behaved in church.)
We modern humans are largely disconnected from these rhythms of earth and sky, insulated by air-conditioning and food from the grocery store that can be frozen or refrigerated. WE can eat blueberries and watermelon year-round even if it means shipping them long distance from Chile or other pints far south. Change of clothing is one of our few requirements as the seasons change and we swap coats and sweaters for t-shirts and bathing suits. And yet, the pull of the rhythm of the seasons is still strong. The urge to plant is evident int he spring, even if we are more often planting for beauty than for sustenance. Recreation moves outdoors in the warm summer months, while long winter nights are a time to huddle in front of the fireplace, with short daytime forays for snow sports in colder climates. We can try to insulate ourselves from nature,but we are in fact a part of nature,and our bodies and hearts pulsate to its changes. We are also dependent on nature for all the resources that sustain us–food, water, electricity, fossil fuels, metals and minerals, plants and animals.
Each season brings different gifts of both beauty and sustenance, challenge and opportunity. If a single word unites these eight ancient holidays into a common thread, it should be gratitude. Gratitude for rain and sun, soil and water, food and fuel,beauty and wonder. Eight chances to county our blessings and honor Mother Earth and Father Sky. A joyous summer solstice to all my readers!