Names for Pagan Festivals

You might be wondering where the names of contemporary Pagan festivals come from, and why some of them them are controversial. Here’s a brief history of where they come from, and why it matters.

Beltane and Imbolc and Lughnasadh and Samhain are Irish and Scottish Gaelic names (the English names are May Day, Candlemas, Lammas, and Halloween or All Hallows Eve). Yule and Litha and Eostur are Anglo-Saxon names.

Imbolc or Candlemas

The name Imbolc is Irish and Scots Gaelic, and refers to the festival celebrating the goddess Brighid. Brighid was honoured in both Ireland and in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

The name Candlemas is English and refers to the many candles that were lit for the Catholic feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Spring Equinox

Aidan Kelly made a list of festival names in the 1970s. He decided to call Spring Equinox “Ostara”. This was a conjectural name for the ​Spring Equinox and the goddess Eostre which was invented in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm. Ancient cultures did not celebrate the Spring Equinox. The Christian festival of Easter (named some variant on Pascha everywhere else in Europe) is the first Sunday after the first full moon after Spring Equinox. The ancient Anglo-Saxon Pagan festival of Eostur was the fourth full moon of the year, and did not always fall near Easter. Early medieval converts to Christianity persisted in calling the festival by the old Pagan name. In the Druid tradition, this festival is named Alban Eilir (the Light of the Earth).

Beltane or May Day

Beltane or Beltainne (meaning “bright fire”) is the Irish and Scottish Gaelic name for the first of May. In England it was and is called May Day. The month of may was named after the Roman goddess Maia. The North of England had the custom of jumping over the Beltane fire and driving cattle between two fires on May Day. This was also the custom in Scotland and Ireland. The south of England celebrated with maypole dancing. The Midlands had the custom of May Games and creating a bower for Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

Litha or Midsummer

​The name Litha for Midsummer is a genuinely old name, as that is what the Anglo-Saxons called it (the month of June was named Aerra Litha, before midsummer, and the month of July was named Aeftere Litha, ​after midsummer). I tend to just call it Midsummer though. In the Druid tradition, this festival is named Alban Hefin (The Light of the Shore).

Lammas or Lughnasadh

Lammas means ‘loaf-mass’ and is from Middle English. It is a celebration fo the corn harvest. Lughnasadh is a completely separate word and refers to the games established by the god Lugh in honour of his mother Tailtiu (pronounced Tahl-tee). Lammas and Lughnasadh are not interchangeable.

Autumn Equinox

The name Mabon was applied to Autumn Equinox by Aidan Kelly in the 1970s because he thought the Welsh story of Mabon ap Modron was similar to the Greek story of Demeter and Persephone which is often associated with the Autumn Equinox. ​This is an attempt to universalize mythology which is generally a bad move: myths are particular to their locale and culture.​ Also the Welsh god Mabon was and is nothing to do with the Autumn Equinox, which was not celebrated by ancient Pagans. Contemporary Pagans celebrate it as the time when day and night are equal. Some people relate it to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It can also be seen as the fruit harvest. In the Druid tradition, this festival is named Alban Elfed (the Light of the Water).

Samhain, Hallowe’en, or All Hallows’ Eve

Samhain or Samhuinn (pronounced soween or saveen) is an Irish and Scottish name. All Hallows’ Eve and Hallowe’en are English names. It has been argued that the ancient Celtic Samhain was not a festival of the dead at all, but rather a celebration of the liberation of the People of Danaan from the Fomorians. The names Hallowe’en and All Hallows’ eve refer to it being the eve of the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls.

Yule or Midwinter

Yule is a very old name for the winter solstice and it is known as that (with various spellings) in many northern European cultures. It is not known exactly what the word means but it has been suggested that it means a turning point. The Anglo-Saxon name for this festival was Geola. The Anglo-Saxons also celebrated Modranecht or Mothers’ Night. In the Druid tradition, this festival is named Alban Arthan (the Light of Arthur).

Further reading

12 thoughts on “Names for Pagan Festivals

  1. I think the ancients must have celebrated the Equinoxes. There are chambered cairns with the passages aligned to catch the first rays of the sun on the Equinoxes.

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  2. Interesting.
    A note on Lammas. It was a feast of the first fruits of the corn (American English = wheat) harvest, and the blessing of the first loaves of the corn harvest. Among South African Anglicans, however, it was, for a while, the feast of St Peter’s Chains, and was when we remembered political prisoners, until the Establishment decided to abolish it. I think the RC Church celebrates it on that day, the Orthodox observe it in January.
    Lammas was, of course, inappropriate for South Africa, but there was a pagan Zulu firstfruits festival in February. It was on a date decided by the chief, and no one was allowed to harvest their corn (American English = grain) until then. It would begin with young men killing a bull with their bare hands.

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