Celtic festival names

Some time back I posted a video about cultural appropriation and Lora O’Brien pointed out that the modern Wiccan and Pagan usage of Sabbat names is appropriated from Irish culture and language.

Gerald Gardner and other early Wiccans did not use the Irish names for these festivals — that happened later. Wicca is not a Celtic religion.

It does seem wrong to lift these festivals out of context. There are other old names for these festivals in England and Wales (the Scots Gaelic has similar names to the Irish Gaelic, but pronounced differently).

Candlemas (Imbolc) evolved from the Feast of Torches which was celebrated all over Europe in honour of various deities depending on the locale. The nearest Roman festival was Lupercalia. The Greeks celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. In many places, pancakes, representing the solar disc, were eaten. The Irish festival of Imbolc appears to have a completely different origin.

May Day is a much older name for the festival celebrated on the first day of May than Beltane (which we’ve all been pronouncing wrong anyway). Lá Bealtaine is the Irish name for the month of May, as Michéal points out in an excellent YouTube video). Maiouma was celebrated in Greece and Floralia in Rome. The maypole was erected in southern England; fires were lit and leapt over in Northern England. In the Midlands of England, they celebrated the story of Robin Hood & Maid Marian by building bowers for them to lie in. The Old English name for the fifth month of the year was þrimilce. It literally meant “three milkings,” because the cows gave so much milk.

Lammas is a completely different festival from Lughnasadh and the names are not interchangeable. Lammas has different origins and a different story (the story of John Barleycorn). Lughnasadh was established by the god Lugh in honour of his mother, Tailtiu.

The old name for Hallowe’en in various parts of England was Hallantide (Hollantide in the Isle of Man), Hallowstide, or Allantide. It was called Samhain in Scotland and Ireland.

Why is this important? Because Ireland was violently colonized by the English, among other reasons. (All colonization is violent but this one was especially unpleasant.) And also because it’s way past time we stopped appropriating other people’s cultures and looked to our own roots. Not in a xenophobic or nationalist way, though. A person is part of a culture by virtue of having been brought up in that culture, or living in it, not by virtue of their genetic ancestry. If you live in England, you’re entitled to identify as English, for example.

Obviously this gets more complicated in colonized lands — you don’t get to identify as part of an Indigenous culture unless you are recognized as a member of that culture by the people of that culture (typically by being an enrolled member of the First Nation in question).

Anyway, conclusions: let’s stop appropriating, look to our own traditions, and respect other cultures by not lifting them out of context.

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7 thoughts on “Celtic festival names

  1. I agree with this line of thinking. Yes, of course we’d love to connect our pre-Roman heritage, but taking the name of the actual tongue of those still using it, won’t help.

    I didn’t feel right celebrating Bealtaine but became enchanted in Bringing in the May, or Merry May as I called it because….. well, bugger me, I’m English. And will now start phasing out the Celtic names, not out of xenophobia, but out of respect for the people they actually belong to.

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  2. Brilliant, when growing up in Sheffield, we didn’t really have a May celebration although there was the Lord Mayor’s parade for St George’s Day. Now in Nottingham, there’s the Robin Hood Games although this tends to spread out from May to June.

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  3. I agree with this, in its entirety. We need to stop appropriating from other cultures. The issue that arises (at least for me), is obviously I cannot (and do not) follow Native American traditions, regardless of where I reside, because the only reason I live here is due to colonization. But then I am told by those still living in Ireland (from where my family fled when they felt they had no other choice) that I am not allowed to consider myself Irish. I understand where they’re coming from, and why they feel that way – I didn’t grow up there, regardless of how I was raised. However, this leaves me with no place I can consider my own. What am I to do? I would appreciate any thoughts you have to give on situations like this.

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    • That is a tricky one. I still don’t know the answer. It is probably to observe the seasons here in North America and come up with our own cycle based on the land here.


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