Lughnasa, the greatest Celtic festival, was celebrated on the last Sunday in July, or the first Sunday in August, in recognition of Lugh. Lugh was god of light, silver, and the moon. He was also master of craftspeople and artists. Lughnasa marked the beginning of the harvest when the rural community was once again on the threshold of plenty. The celebration of Lughnasa was quite a raucous affair! The coming of Christianity, however, toned down the celebrations. Instead, Lughnasa became marked by penitential pilgrimages to mountain tops or holy wells. Bishops now sat where druids once presided. Numerous festivals were held countrywide. One of the larger celebrations, Aonach Carmen, had Ss. Patrick, Kevin, Columcille and Brigid as its patrons. As Celtic festivals were transplanted by Christian holidays, the role of Lugh was taken over by Christian saints. Nowadays Lughnasa is marked by the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick.
The festival of Bealtaine, or May Day, was a time of intense spiritual activity. A time of change and new beginnings, Bealtaine was dedicated to the young sun god Bel, who later in the year becomes Lugh. The second part of the name ‘taine’ means ‘fire’ in Irish; fire plays a major part in the festival. Hilltop bonfires were lit, and green May bushes were erected in gardens and squares. Flower garlands of the season’s blooms were made. The festival was a two-tiered event, to welcome the summer and to beseech the spirits for a bountiful harvest. Today, the first of May is celebrated by Catholics as the beginning of Our Lady’s month; May altars are erected in homes and adorned with fresh flowers.
Samhain, like Bealtaine, was an occasion when the spirits were extremely active. It was held in the month of November and was so important that Christian missionaries dubbed it the ‘Pagan Easter.’ A huge assembly took place at Tara during Samhain. The religious ceremonies were accompanied by horse racing, games, fairs, and markets. Missionaries found the festival impossible to eradicate so they changed the date of All Souls Day from May to November to coincide with Samhain. During Samhain, the division between the natural and supernatural was at its weakest. Samhain is strongly associated with the dead and the invisible. In modern times, the feast of Halloween, as it is now known, is still a time for spirits, mystery and revelry. Bonfires continue to feature, as do various children’s games, dares, pranks and divinations.
Finally, the feast of St. Brigid occurred on February 1st, the first day of spring. We associate the festival with the Christian saint but initially Brigid was a Pagan goddess of fertility. She was much loved and venerated, as her feastday marked the reawakening of nature and the recommencement of work on the land. Some customs still persist, such as the making of the cross of St. Brigid out of green rushes. Another custom of the festival was on Brigid’s eve ribbons were left out on window sills for the Saint to bless on her travels. These ribbons, or Bratógs, were used as charms to cure ailments or to protect their wearer. As Brigid was a fertility goddess the Bratógs were said to cure barrenness in women and female animals and also to help in child birth.