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While many Pagans and Wiccans view the Wheel of the Year to start at or after Samhain, the Celtic New Year, and the first holiday of the New Year as Yule, with the birth of the Child-God and it's sense of renewal, I like to view the first holiday as Imbolc, the time when the mother moves aside to make way for the Maiden to take her rightful place.
Imbolc, is a holiday that is also known as Brigid's, Brighnasadh's, or Bride's Day and, in later, Christian times, as Candlemas, and is held on February 1 or February 2. This day is dedicated to Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Smithing, and Healing.
Imbolc is the first Pagan Festival of the year because it is held at the time of the year when life is beginning to awaken, and the first breath of Spring is in the air after the cold, dark and dead months of Winter.
The Christians re-named the festival Candlemass, because on this day, all of the candles that were going to be used for the rest of the year were made. Part of the festival's rituals include lighting candles and fires, as well as performing various rituals to help guarantee a good crop in the year ahead.
Imbolc is also the time when we look upon Mother Earth as a woman who is going through the first few months of pregnancy, keeping the life within her, as it waits for its time to burst forth from her cold and frozen soil, producing the early signs that Spring soon will finally arrive.
Brigid, is associated with this festival and, although she has been associated with all three phases of the Triple Goddess, at Imbolc, Brigid is always the Maiden. It is at Imbolc that Brigid the Mother moves aside, making way for Brigid, the Maiden, to take her rightful place as the lover of the young God. Many people celebrate this as the time of the true marriage of the God and Goddess.
The ritual at Imbolc also includes the Corn Maiden, who is wrapped in a white bridal outfit, representing the Goddess and is then shown around as the Bride, or "Brigid the Bride." The Bride is then laid in a basket, representing her bridal bed, with a wand decorated with ribbons and flowers placed over her, representing the God.
The holiday of Ostara, or Eostar, also known as the Vernal Equinox or the first day of Spring, is held on March 21. Ostara symbolizes balance and is the time when people welcome the return of Spring. This Spring Equinox festival is seen as a fertility rite, that celebrates the birth of Spring and the reawakening of life from the Earth.
This is a sacred day, where people often light new fires at sunrise, and spend the day rejoicing, ringing bells and continuing to follow the ancient Pagan custom of decorating hard-boiled eggs as a symbol of the Goddess of Fertility.
Eggs are used because they are obviously representative of fertility and reproduction, and have been used since ancient times in fertility rites. People paint them with magickal symbols, and then either caste them into the fires or bury them in the Earth as offerings to the Goddess.
During the Spring Equinox, in certain parts of the world, eggs are painted in the sacred solar colors of yellow or gold, and then used in various rituals to honor the Sun God. This holiday too, invokes the Goddess, in her aspects as Eostre, the Saxon Fertility Goddess, and Ostara, the Germanic Fertility Goddess.
Other traditions use this day to worship different fertility deities, such as the Green Goddess and the Lord of the Greenwood. This festival too, like so many other Pagan holidays, was taken over and "christianized," and the Spring Equinox was turned by the Christian Church into the religious holiday of Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, much like the Pagans' celebrating the resurgence of crops from the now thawed and fertile Earth as they honor their fertility dieties; and in that "christianizing" tradition, the holiday of Easter was named after the Goddess Eostre shortly after the end of the Middle Ages.
The determination of when Easter Sunday will fall is still based upon the ancient lunar calendar system, having the holiday fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or following the Vernal Spring Equinox. This, in Pagan tradition, is seen as the pregnant phase of the Triple Goddess, when the Earth is passing into it's fertile season.
Easter, like most of the Christian religious holidays that have come forth from earlier Pagan festivals, brings with it many Pagan traditions as well. Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are all tied back to Pagan traditions. Eggs were an ancient fertility symbol and often used as offerings to the Goddess; and even the bunny or hare was a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, for it was a sacred animal of many of the Moon Goddesses. In fact, the Goddess Ostara, was known to have a rabbit, or hare, as her consort.
Beltane is the Festival of Flowers that is held on May Eve, April 30. This festival, in part, honors the Goddess Blodeuwedd, also known as "flower face", who was created by the Goddess Arianrhod's brother, Gwydion and uncle, Math to be a wife to Llew Llaws, Arianrhod's son, upon whom she placed a curse when he was born. Her curse was that he would never have a name, never hold a sword and never marry a woman of this Earth.
The first two parts of the curse were cleverly gotten around, with the help of the Magician Math, but the last one, finding him a wife "not of this Earth" was harder, and Blodeuwedd was finally created by piling flowers on top of flowers and, with the help of Magick, she stepped forward to be Llew Llaw's bride.
Unfortunately though, Blodeuwedd was born an adult, never having made any choices for herself until, while her husband was away, she found herself falling in love with Gronw Pebyr, a minor dark god. Blodeuwedd and Gronw then entered into a plan to kill her solar diety husband. The plan was not a success, however, and in punishment, Blodeuwedd was turned into an owl, a creature of the night, while her paramour was destroyed.
This holiday takes many of the things it represents from the Blodeuwedd story, such as it's ability to symbolize desire, sexuality, fertility, and romance. Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess referred to Blodeuwedd as the "May Queen" and the festival rituals often involve a maypole dance.
Litha is the holiday also known as the Summer Solstice and falls on June 21, which is the beginning of Summer and the longest day of the year. This holiday celebrates the fact that the Child-God has finally grown into the Sun King.
The festival of Lammas, or Lughnasad, is held on August 1, and is dedicated to Lugh, the Celtic God of Light. This time of the year represents the Death of Sun King, and was originally celebrated as a Harvest ritual that symbolized anticipation.
In the Pagan tradition, at the arrival of Lammas, a Corn Mother doll is made and put in a trunk to rest and rejuvinate herself and to await her return at Imbolc as the Corn Maiden.
Mabon, also known as the Autumnal Equinox, is celebrated on September 21, the first day of Fall. This is traditionally a harvest festival, similar to Thanksgiving in the United States.
Samhain is held on October 31, and is also known as Halloween or All Hallow's Eve. It is considered the most important of all the holidays celebrated by Pagans and Wiccans, and is also the Celtic New Year.
Samhain is the time of year when the veil that separates the physical and spirit world is at it's thinnest point, therefore making communication with the dead easier then at any other time. This is also a time for remembering those loved ones who have departed this Earth.
December 21 marks the first day of Winter, and is known as the Winter Solstice. This holiday is called Yule., and is the longest night of the year. Yule is used to celebrate the birth of Child-God, which is a natural symbol of renewal. This holiday is often celebrated by burning logs.
Thus, the Wheel of the Year has once more made its complete turn, and all that has been, begins anew.