In yesterday’s post, I took a look at the four Fire Festivals or cross-quarter days on the Wheel of the Year. Today is all about the other four, the Solar Festivals.
The Solar Festivals are the two Solstices, Summer and Winter, and the two Equinoxes, Vernal and Autumnal. The Solstices mark the longest (Summer) and shortest (Winter) days of the year, while the Equinoxes are both times of equal day and night. The word “Solstice” comes from Latin and means “the Sun stands still” as it appears to do so for around three days. “Equinox” is also Latin, meaning “equal night”, as indeed the length of night is equal to the length of day.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice is around 21 December, the Vernal (Spring) Equinox around 21 March, the Summer Solstice around 21 June and the Autumnal Equinox around 21 September. These dates can shift by a few days depending on the year. For the Southern Hemisphere, these are reversed, which is important if you want to make your Druidry fit with the real natural environment around you: anyone who has seen footage of Christmas in Australia in the height of summer with fake snow and Santa on the beach will know how disjointed festivals can feel when they’re out of step with the Spirit of the land.
If you know nothing else about Druids, you probably know about the Druid rituals and huge public gatherings at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice. Every year, this ancient site attracts thousands of people who, for whatever reason, come to the stones to watch the sun rise on the morning of the Solstice. While there is some evidence to suggest Stonehenge may have been built to view the Winter Solstice instead, nobody wants to spend the night outdoors in Britain in December, so the Summer one is much more well-attended, and often attracts media attention.
In Druidry, the Solar Festivals are the big ones, especially the Solstices, they are seen as the hinges and turning points of the Wheel of the Year, and are often celebrated with the greatest ritual and feasting.
The Winter Solstice, known as Alban Arthan (the light of Arthur) celebrates the return of light at the time of the longest night, and the hope that brings. The Vernal Equinox, Alban Eilir (the light of the Earth), is the archetypal Spring festival of new life and rebirth. The Summer Solstice, Alban Hefin (the light of the Shore), celebrates the Sun at its greatest peak and power, while the Autumnal Equinox, Alban Elfed (the light of the Water) marks the end of Summer, the point of balance before the night begins to overtake the day once again.
In my practice, I feel that I respond more to the Solar Festivals than to the Fire Festivals. The Solar Festivals are not dependent on any particular culture, religion, mythology or agricultural cycle: they are real, observable, measurable, astronomical and scientific events that really have a marked impact on the lengths of the days and the changes of the seasons. This gives them an immediacy and presence I sometimes feel the Fire Festivals lack.
The Solstices are joyous celebrations, while for me the Equinoxes as points of balance are more still, centred and calm.
Together they mark the movement of the Earth around the Sun throughout the year and remind us that change is constant and cyclical, each year the same yet ever new.
[Prompt from Alison Leigh Lilly’s 30 Days of Druidry]