BELTANE, SAMHAIN AND THE CELTIC YEAR WHEEL
This page explains how the Celtic Year Wheel works and why the Glastonbury Dragons have their Dragon Days on the days that we do.
BELTANE AND SAMHAIN
Beltane and Samhain are the Gaelic festivals of the beginning of Summer and the beginning of Winter.
They are often confused with May Day and All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), which are festivals of the Roman, Julian Calendar. The ancient Celts and their Druids did not use the Roman calendar or its system of months; they had their own way of observing the turning of the year.
Many people are under the impression that Beltane is on the 1st of May and that Samhain is on the 31st of October. These very common misunderstandings have been created over recent centuries by many books about Druidry, Witchcraft, Celtic Mythology, Folk-Lore, and modern paganism, repeating the error of earlier writers.
The old Celtic way of measuring the year was actually much more in tune with Nature than the modern calendar system that we use today. By observing eight fire festivals throughout the year, defined by the solstices and equinoxes, their way was in harmony with the natural order of things; and it did not require the unnecessary hassle of adding an extra day on to a month every four years.
THE MODERN MESS
In contrast to the ancient Celtic system the modern calendar is in a real shambles. Some months have 31 days, others have 30 days, and February has 28 days (and 29 every fourth year). The 9th month is named ‘Sept’ which means 7, the 10th month is named ‘Oct’ which means 8, the 11th month is named ‘Nov’ which means 9, and the 12th month is named ‘Dec’ which means 10. Not only is this erratic but England also removed eleven days in the middle of the 18th century; which is why Old Christmas Day is still celebrated by some on the 6th January.
In the year 1752, Wednesday the 2nd September was followed by Thursday 13th September; which meant that lots of English Virgos did not have a birthday that year.
Because of the removal of eleven days, Old May Day would now be on the 12th May and Old Halloween would be on the 11th November. But do not worry, Beltane and Samhain still stand where they have always stood; the Sun and planet Earth do not get confused, only humans do.
The modern system, the Gregorian Calendar, was invented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. This was done to replace the Julian Calendar that was created by the Roman Empire in 45 BC.
Because England was independent of Vatican rule it stayed with the Julian Calendar of the old Roman Empire until 1752; then it finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar to synchronise with the rest of Europe. But as mentioned above the Celtic way did not use the Roman months at all.
THE CELTIC YEAR WHEEL
The Celtic Year Wheel is defined by the solstices and equinoxes; which are absolute fixed moments in time. Many sacred sites, like Newgrange in Ireland, were built to synchronise with important annual events like the Winter Solstice (the shortest day) thousands of years before Rome even invented its calendar; Beltane and Samhain are part of that ancient system.
A year is like a circle and the Celtic Year Wheel measures time like a clock does.
Just like a clock the year has twelve divisions. The twelve divisions are called the signs of the zodiac and each sign is 30 degrees wide – which is so much neater than divisions of 30 days, 31 days, 28 days and sometimes 29 days.
The Sun, throughout the year, appears to move through the twelve signs of the zodiac (which is actually an optical illusion created by planet Earth circling around the sun). If you look at this circular chart it will all become very clear.
At the 12 o’clock position is the Winter Solstice (the shortest day). This exact moment is when the Sun appears to enter the 30 degrees of Capricorn. At the 6 o’clock position is the Summer Solstice (the longest day). The two solstices are also known as Midwinter and Midsummer. At 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock are the two equinoxes.
The four stations of the Sun (the solstices and equinoxes) divide the year into four quarters. The Celts bisected these quarters and created what are known as the ‘Cross-quarter Fire Festivals’ – Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. They are exact moments of time just like the solstices and equinoxes are. Using the clock analogy, Imbolc would be 1.30, Beltane would be 4.30, Lughnasadh 7.30, and Samhain 10.30.
When combined with Pope Gregory’s Gregorion Calendar (and it can vary a little bit every year), the Cross-quarter Fire Festivals actually occur around the 6th February, May, August, and November.
The Glastonbury Dragons run their Dragon Days as close as possible to true Beltane and true Samhain; however, we made the decision to celebrate on days that were good for visitors to come to our town. We celebrate our May Fayre on the Bank Holiday Sunday closest to Beltane and our Wild Hunt on the closest Saturday to Samhain.
This year the actual moment of Beltane falls on the 6th May, the exact day that we are having our May Fayre – this is a very fortuitous coincidence.
Our Samhain Wild Hunt will be on Saturday 3rd November, just a few days before the moment of true Samhain.
THE EIGHT CELTIC FIRE FESTIVALS
Winter Solstice – Sun at 0 degrees Capricorn – approximately 21st December.
Imbolc – Sun at 15 degrees Aquarius – approximately 6th February.
Spring Equinox – Sun at 0 degrees Aries – approximately 21st March.
Beltane – Sun at 15 degrees Taurus – approximately 6th May.
Summer Solstice – Sun at 0 degrees Cancer – approximately 21st June.
Lughnasadh – Sun at 15 degrees Leo – approximately 6th August.
Autumn Equinox – Sun at 0 degrees Libra – approximately 21st September.
Samhain – Sun at 15 degrees Scorpio – approximately 6th November