In modern Druidry, we tend to celebrate eight major festivals a year, which together form a cyclical calendar known as the Wheel of the Year. This schema developed from the friendship and collaboration between Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, and Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Together they took the four Solar Festivals celebrated by the Druids and the four Fire Festivals celebrated in Witchcraft and created a whole pattern, a journey through the seasons and the turning of the Earth around the Sun, with a festival every six weeks or so.
The Fire Festivals derive from the Celtic agricultural year, and are often marked with the lighting of bonfires, hearthfires and candles. As the Celts reckoned the beginning of a new day from the sunset of the previous day, so too the new year may be seen to begin at the close of the old one, with the festival of Samhain (31 October/1 November) being described in much modern Paganism as the beginning of the new ritual year. The other Fire Festivals follow with Imbolc (1/2 February), a festival of new life and light, Beltane (30 April/1 May), a spring festival of blossoming and growth, and Lugnasadh, also known as Lammas (1/2 August), the first harvest of wheat.
The calendar dates are all approximate, and may not fit with the actual changes in the seasons depending on where you live, with the effects of climate change altering them further. For those who prefer to celebrate by recognising the signs of nature, you can celebrate Samhain at first frost, Imbolc when the first snowdrops appear, Beltane when the hawthorn is in bloom and Lughnasadh when the wheat (or equivalent crop) is being harvested in your area.
If you’re working with a grove or group, it might make more sense practically to use the calendar dates, but I also always try to note the real seasonal signs and honour them in my personal practice.
While I am lucky to live in a semi-rural area, like many modern people, I am somewhat divorced from the hard work of agriculture. With food available all year round in supermarkets, it’s easy to forget where our sustenance really comes from. The Fire Festivals can remind us of this, and help us to recall our connection to local food and farming. An interesting and worthwhile exercise at these festivals is to cook a meal from only local and seasonal ingredients – a practical way to honour the tides of the year and the gifts of the Earth, while also being better for the environment. Growing your own food, even just in pots or windowboxes, can also help reconnect you to these cycles.
The “Fire” element of the Fire Festivals always puts me in mind of both illumination and purification. At Samhain, bonfires lit up the increasingly dark nights and provided protection from ghosts and spirits. Fragments of this practice can still be seen today in pumpkin lanterns, and in the UK, bonfire night on 5 November, since co-opted as a memorial of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot, but which carries echoes of earlier times. At Beltane, cattle were passed between two fires to purify them, the smoke helping to remove ticks and insects. Fire can symbolise enlightenment, a candle in the dark, a guiding light, and it can also represent purification, burning away that which is no longer needed.
The Fire Festivals are times for looking outward to the natural world and the seasons, and for looking inward, finding and kindling the Awen, the “fire in the head” of inspiration to set intentions for the turning year ahead.
[Prompt from Alison Leigh Lilly’s 30 Days of Druidry]