The Celtic year was broken up into eight parts; Quarter days were determined by astrology and were celebrated during the winter and summer solstice, and the spring and autumn equinox. Cross quarter days were celebrated at the mid-point between these dates and had significance with agriculture but particularly with the raising of livestock.
Cross Quarter Days
The four cross quarter days are known as Samhain (Oct 31- 01 Nov) Imbrolic (Jan 31 – 01 Feb), Beltane (April 30 – 01 May), and Lughnadh (Jul 31 – 01 Aug); each has two dates as the Celts believed the new day started at sunset.
Beltane, when cattle are put to pasture in the spring; and Samhain when they are brought in for the winter were/are liminal dates and it was believed that at this time the boundary between the living and the dead was fluid. Certain observances had to be made to keep spirits, particularly those, of your ancestors appeased.
Samhain was the gateway from summer to winter but belonged to neither, it was also when someone with second sight was believed to have the most powerful powers of prophesy or divination. As it marked the gateway into winter, Samhain always had an association with death. This was a time for livestock to be slaughtered and salted, in preparation for the cold weather; and family members who had died would be remembered and honoured.
This was the time of the third and final harvest; anything still left in the field after Samhain was left for spirits, but as a final cull, an armful of dead plants and straw would be brought home and fashioned into a human shape representing the Winter King. He would have a place set for him at the table on Samhain evening, and he represented the family’s dead relatives. After the meal was finished, the uneaten portion of his meal would be left outside for spirits and faeries.
The Winter King’s reign lasted until Beltane, and the effigy would be kept until then, when it would ceremonially be cast into the flames and burnt in the Beltane bonfire signalling the return of light with Lugh, the Sun God.
After the rise of Christianity, when the Western Church moved All Souls Day from May to October, traditions began to morph. What started as an honouring of the dead, changed to it’s present association with the devil. Samhain became Halloween, from All Hallows Eve and a shift in emphasis started to take shape as Christians tried to discourage pagan traditions.
Some of the ancient traditions associated with Samhain, invoked an element of prophesy or divination like eating an apple on Samhain night looking in the mirror could result in seeing the reflection of your future spouse. If you looked too long you could see the image of Donn who was regarded as both the God of the dead, and also the ancestor of the Gaels, as time went on Donn was removed and the imagery changed to that of Satan.
These fire festivals have been celebrated in Ireland at least as long as 4 century BC, but there is some speculation that Samhain in particular dates back much further and is related to the Indian festival of Diwali.
The Irish took these traditions with them to America during the mass emigration after the Potato Famine.
Jack o Lanterns were traditionally made from hollowed turnips and had been used both to carry an ember from the sacred ‘bone fire’ back home.
Ordinarily, good fire management was part of a woman’s household duties, letting a fire go out overnight would have been regarded as very slack, but not following a fire festival. On these dates people extinguished their fires and relit them from the sacred fire.
Once in America, it became apparent that pumpkins were much easier to carve out and so the tradition of Pumpkin Jacks began.
This has come full circle, just like the wheel of the year, as we now hollow pumpkins on Halloween here in Ireland, rather than the turnips I remember struggling with at school.