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Pagan Holidays and Rituals

 

            Pagans celebrated the Solstice and Equinoxes and what is called the “Cross-Quarters”:  Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasad.  These holidays are closely linked to a Celtic agricultural calendar of plantings and harvest.  The year is viewed as a cycle of nature and a cycle of the soul as well.  The soul is expected to follow the same path as nature itself, and pagans looked to nature for spiritual guidance.

 

            “Samhain Eve”, a.k.a. Halloween is known as the witches New Year, and this celebrates the world of spirits and ancestors.  According to paganism, this time of year marks when the earthly world and the world of spirits are closest and the veil separating the two worlds is at it’s thinnest.  Because so many spirits or ghosts are thought to have crossed over to the earthly world and wander the streets on this night, the living were expected to give “treats” to them as bribes in order to keep them from misbehavior. 

 

            Pagans honored their ancestors at this time more than any other.  It was also a holiday used to grieve for what had recently passed.  Altars for the dead were built and adorned with their favorite foods, and stories about the recently deceased were shared on this night.

 

            “Winter Solstice Eve” was a holiday celebrated by pagans that marked when the sun was furthest from the earth.  Candles and fires were lit on this night in anticipation of the “birth of the sun.”  Pagans were especially jovial during this holiday, and would exchange gifts with one another and sing songs at dawn to welcome the sun’s “return.”  During the Christian conversion of England, many rituals practiced by pagans during this holiday were later incorporated in the Christian holiday Christmas.

 

            “Imbolc” was the time of year when winter began to slowly fade and the first new growths could be seen.  The days would grow visibly longer, and buds on trees would begin to show, which served as an indication for all that planting time was near.  The pagan community would pledge to the earth and each other to work hard in the coming year.

 

            “Spring Equinox,” also known as Eostre or Oester was a festival that celebrated spring’s arrival and the balance of day and night, and the equality in duration between the two.  Traditionally it was a time of egg hunts and other celebrations of fertility for the earth and for humans alike.  This holiday later became very closely linked to the Christian holiday that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

 

   

            “Beltane Eve,” also known as May Eve was traditionally a time when pagans would honor their bodies through physical pleasure, often mating with one another all night long.  In honoring their own bodies this way, pagans believed that they were honoring the body of the earth as well, as the two, according to paganism, were very closely related.  Fires were kept ablaze all night, and during the day people would dance around the May pole adorned in flowers and garlands.  It was also thought to be a time of spiritual cleansing and forgiveness among friends and families for misunderstandings and hurt. 

 

            Like Samhain, the veil between earth and the spiritual world is thought to be thin during this time as well.  However, while Samhain marked the time of death and the deceased, Beltane Eve was a celebration time of birth and life.

 

            “Summer Solstice” also known as Litha marks the longest day of the year, and also observed the great power of the sun.  This was the day that marked both the triumph and failure of the sun, for each proceeding day would grow shorter and shorter.  Traditionally, a wicker man was built and people would hang offerings form his branches that would later be burnt.  The offerings symbolized things that needed to be let go, such as bad habits, grudges, etc.  This holiday also marked the approaching harvest.

 

            “Lughnasad” marks the first harvest and was sometimes called “loaf mass.”  On this holiday, pagans celebrated the wake of their fallen God Lugh (the sun), and the sacrifice that dies and rises, like the sun and the crops.  It was also a time of uncertainty, as people would base the worth of coming harvest on the first.

 

            “Autumn Equinox” or Mabon marked another harvest and another balance of night and day; however, this time the days would begin to grow significantly shorter instead of longer.  The fruits and vegetables harvested at this point would serve as center pieces of large dinners, and the community would gather to enjoy the fruit of their hard work.  This day also provided a time for communities to reflect back on the year, and consider what should be done differently in the year to come.

Pagan aspects of Christian holidays

 

In the 5th century, as Christianity began to gain influence in pagan England, the Roman church found it a difficult task to break the newly converted communities from their old pagan rites and rituals.  In efforts to convince the masses of Christianity as the only acceptable and legitimate religion, the Roman church allowed for some intermingling and overlapping of pagan holidays and rituals with Christian holidays.  Perhaps the most notable, and certainly most widely accepted blending of the two religions and their holidays would be what is now known as Christmas and Easter.

 

Christmas

 

Christmas, as we celebrate it today, is mixed with both Christian and pagan elements.  For instance, in paganism, the 21st of December is the birthday or renewal of the “Sun God,” as well as the Winter Solstice. Pagans were well aware of the sun cycles and seasons, as it was the governing factor of their religion by and large.  The 21st of December was important to pagans because it marked the point in the year where the days would begin to get longer, in terms of the duration of time that the sun would be out.  This pagan holiday, called “Saturnalia” was celebrated with an extreme amount of generosity and general merriment among everyone.  Gifts were exchanged with neighbors and evergreen trees were decorated and danced around in celebration of nature and the perpetuation of life.  All was made possible, according to paganism, by the Sun, and his return (on December 21st of each year), marked the promise of a new year.  Later, when the Roman church attempts to unite pagans with Christianity, the attempt proves futile.  Since they cannot stamp out the holiday entirely, the Roman church changes the date of the celebration and assigns new Christian meaning to it, designating it the birth of Jesus Christ rather than the birth or return of the Sun god.  This was done in by the Roman church with hopes to make the transition from paganism to Christianity smooth.  There is significant evidence that Jesus was not born in December at all, as the Bible specifically states that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem during tax season which would have been during a warmer part of the year, namely, late summer, early fall.  

 

In order to account for the pagan rituals that were still practiced on the new “Christian” holiday, the Roman church assigned Christian meaning to the pagan rituals of gift giving and generosity.  The gift exchange became associated with the three wise-men that presented Jesus with gifts after his birth.  Clearly, giving offerings to Jesus the son of God is much different than giving gifts to each other; however, this allowed the church to accept the gift exchange that continued, even after they banned the pagan holiday.  In fact, the two holidays became so intertwined, that the word Christmas actually derives from the words “Christ” (Christian) and “mass” (meaning a pagan ritual or rite). 

 

 

Easter

 

Similarly, many aspects in which we celebrate Easter today derive from the pagan celebration of the return of spring.  The ancient Anglo-Saxon pagans would celebrate the return of spring with a celebration called “Eastre.”  In fact, the entire month of April was known as Eastre, and was named after the goddess of fertility.  According to ancient myth, Eastre was responsible for turning a bird into a rabbit.  It is no secret that rabbits have a rapid reproduction period, and this fact makes perfect sense when considering it as the symbol of the goddess of fertility.  Although the rabbit has nothing to do with the crucifixion of Christ, it is still viewed by many today as the universal symbol for Easter, which, technically is a Christian holiday.

 

above: (Jones&Pennick, 197)