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.
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.
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).
- Yvonne Aburrow (2018), An inclusive wheel of the year
- Yvonne Aburrow (2020), Pagan festivals
- Alexa Duir (2003), The eight fold wheel of the year
- CN Beyer, The Wheel of the Year / The Sabbats – a critical account of the God and Goddess cycle from Wicca for the rest of us.
- Anonymous (1998), The wheel of the year: the story of the seasons – the cycle of the God and the Goddess, in Spiral Nature.
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Lupercalia
- Robin Herne (2004), Lupercalia: adapting an ancient Roman festival for modern times
- Christine Hoff-Kraemer (2014), The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle and the Forgotten Origins of Neopagan Theology
- Yvonne Aburrow (2015), Move over Easter Bunny, here comes the Easter Fox
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Now the green blade rises: a Pagan perspective on Easter
- Yvonne Aburrow (2015), Blue Beltane
- Yvonne Aburrow (2016), May Morning in Oxford
- Yvonne Aburrow (2015), Summer Solstice, and the gender-stereotyping is easy
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Lammas
- Blackbird Hollins (2005), The Victory of Lugh: a short study on the meaning of Lughnasadh
- Yvonne Aburrow (2017), Autumn Equinox
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Samhain and Remembrance
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Ancestors
- Yvonne Aburrow (2014), Beloved dead
- Christine Hoff-Kraemer (2014), Ancestor Work: It’s Not Always About “Honoring”
- Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz (2005), Winternights
- Robin Herne (2004), Samhain myths
- Yvonne Aburrow (2013), Yule
- Druidry.org (OBOD), The Eightfold Wheel of the Year