Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd. It is 40 days after 25th December, and so it is believed to be the day that Mary was purified after giving birth and therefore the day that Jesus was first taken to the temple.

The date is known as Candlemas because in the 11th century all candles that were going to be used in church that year were blessed, and people took their own candles to church to be blessed also.

In Mexico the date is called Día de la Candelaria and it marks the end at the Christmas celebrations. The baby Jesus is taken from the Nativity scene and dressed in a special outfit before being taken to church to be blessed. According to tradition, whoever found the baby Jesus charm inside the Roscón on 6th January has to buy the tamales (chicken and meat wrapped in corn dough) for the party after the Candelaria ceremony.

February 2nd is also linked to many non-Christian festivals relating to hopes and prayers for a good harvest later in the year. It is the date of the pagan festival of Imbolc, the Roman festival of Lupercalia and a Mexican festival were the indigenous villages took their corn to be blessed before planting.

Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule

The Festival of Yule

As part of their Christmas celebrations, many people will probably be tucking into a delicious chocolate cake called a “Yule Log”, or they might even recognise the name “Yuletide” for this time of year, which features in the odd Christmas song.  But what does that strange little word mean?  What was, or is, Yule?

In actual fact, it is an ancient Germanic pagan festival that was traditionally celebrated throughout Northern Europe and was brought to Britain by settlers from those lands.  The full period of Yule lasted for almost two months through December and January, centred on Midwinter’s Day (21st December in the modern calendar – when the days are at their shortest before they start to get longer again), which was followed by the main 12-day festival.

As Christianity started to spread through Western Europe, one of the ways that conversion and assimilation to the new religion were encouraged was to hold the new Christian festivals at times when people were accustomed to holding major feasts and celebrations.  In the case of Yule and the Midwinter celebrations, the new Christian festival was Christmas and the 12-day Yule celebrations gradually became the 12 Days of Christmas familiar to us even today, with Christmas itself at the beginning and Epiphany (6th January) at the end (Easter, All Saints’ Day and many more were deliberately timed to coincide with earlier festivals too).

Because of its associations with the nights starting to get shorter at midwinter, Yule was a festival linked to the cycle of the year and people’s belief in the rebirth of the sun and was one of the main pagan fertility festivals.  It is also a fire festival, with celebrations centring on people gathering around a fire.  However, while the midsummer festival was all about public and community celebrations, Yule was a quieter, more reflective time when families and loved ones would gather at home around the fire.  At the centrepiece of the ancient festival was the “Yule Log”.  This was a large oak log which was brought into the house with great ceremony and lit at dusk, using a small piece of wood from the previous year’s Yule Log.  According to tradition, the log would remain alight throughout the festive period (it was considered unlucky for it go out), and was generally burned away completely apart from the small piece saved for next year.  Ashes from the Yule Log were used to make charms to bring luck, or scattered over the fields to bring fertility.

While most of us don’t burn a big oak log at Christmas, the name has persisted in one of the things we eat.  But that’s not the only link between Yule and our Christmas traditions – in fact some of the things most associated with Christmas festivities can be traced back to the ancient celebrations.  Some of us might be lucky enough to get to kiss the one we love under a sprig of mistletoe at a party or at home in the coming days, but bringing mistletoe inside at this time of year was originally a Yule tradition.  It was a sacred plant in many forms of pagan religion, especially if it had been growing on oak trees.  Midwinter was traditionally when the high priest would cut the first mistletoe, after which people would take some of the plant into their homes for decoration during the festival and because it was thought to protect the house against lightning and fire.

Light was an important element of the festival and people would try to make sure their homes and buildings in their community were as well-lit as possible to mark the time of year – just like we do by putting lights on a tree, on our houses or even on ourselves.  When you sit down on Christmas Day for dinner, you might have a lovely decoration in the centre of the table, with flowers, holly and other plants surrounding a candle that will be lit during the meal.  If you have one of these, you are also following a Yule tradition.  The Yule Candle was surrounded by evergreen plants including holly and was lit on the first evening of the festival to light the festive meal, then  burned throughout the night and all the following day.  It was then put out and relit on each of the 12 days of celebration.  Like the Yule Log, it was considered unlucky for it to go out unless extinguished deliberately.  The candle was thought to bring light and good fortune to a household for the coming year.  Burning a candle through the 12 days of Christmas was a tradition that persisted long after pagan beliefs had been largely replaced by Christianity – in fact it was common until around 150 years ago.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing a knock at the door and opening it to be greeted by people regaling us with well-known carols.  But although most of the songs they sing tell the Christian Christmas story, they are actually continuing the ancient tradition of Wassail.  The word was a common Yuletide greeting meaning something like “Good health”.  It was used as a toast while passing the “Wassail bowl” around a gathering for everyone to drink from, and when meeting friends and strangers.  People would go from house to house singing traditional festive songs and bringing their good wishes to others in the community.

It’s actually quite amazing how many of the much older Yuletide traditions gradually became incorporated into Christmas over the years.  Although the name of the festival and what people were marking and thinking about at that time of year certainly changed, many of the things they did remained the same, and some of them are still around today.  When we gather with loved ones in the coming days, we should remember that we are doing what our ancestors have been doing in late December for many centuries, and we are sharing not only a modern Christmas and all that goes with it, but also some ancient winter traditions.

Thanks once again to my amazing husband, Blue badge Guide, Ian Braisby for writing this for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox    Summer Solstice

Autumn Equinox

Many cultures around the world hold celebrations on or close to the September equinox every year.  The date changes slightly due to it being based on the movement of celestial bodies rather than our modern calendar, with this year’s festival due to be marked on September 22nd.  So what is an equinox?  In simple terms, it is the date on which the sun shines directly on the equator, resulting in a day and night of equal length everywhere in the world.  There are two each year, one in spring (the vernal equinox) and one at the beginning of autumn (the autumnal equinox) – in the Southern hemisphere the reverse designations are used due to their seasons being the opposite of ours.

Traditionally, these two days have been understood to mark the change of seasons – from winter to spring and from summer to autumn.  No matter what region people live in, or what culture or religion they follow, they have always understood the importance of the seasons for their lives.  And such transitional times have always been used as times of reflection and planning.  So perhaps that is why the two days every year that mark the equinox are associated with festivals in so many current and past cultures.

In the case of the autumnal equinox, festivals have focused on expressing thanks for the good summer weather that brings the ripening of crops and fruit, and on looking ahead to the darker and colder days of winter.  Let’s take a look at a few of these festivals in a bit more detail.

In Pagan religious traditions, the autumnal equinox is referred to as Mabon.  It is one of the sun festivals that divide the year and marks a traditional harvest festival.  It is a time for people to complete projects, be thankful for harvest and start preparing for winter.  Sharing gifts and produce with those less fortunate is also an important tradition.  Because of the equal day and night, it is seen as a time of balance – the ideal opportunity to reflect on your life, count your blessings and refocus on what is most important to you.  In England, as with the other major astronomical festivals, pagans gather to witness sunrise at the ancient site of Stonehenge.

In Japan, as well as marking the end of the autumn harvest the festival is also about ancestors.  It is part of a Buddhist festival known as Ohigan, with the equal day and night said to mark the time when spirits of ancestors are able to travel to Nirvana.  It is a public holiday and people visit and decorate the graves of their ancestors as part of the celebrations.  In many ways, this element is similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is celebrated slightly later in the year.  The festival was also used as a national celebration of former emperors and members of the imperial family.  As well as thinking about ancestors, however, people meditate on their own lives and gather with living family members.

The Ancient Greeks also understood the equinox as a time when movement between worlds is possible and marked the date as the time when the Goddess Persephone would return to the underworld to be with her husband Hades.  People took the opportunity to reflect on their successes or failures over the previous months.

As the Christian religion expanded, it co-opted numerous existing festivals to aid acceptance among the population and ensure a smoother transition to the new religion.  The autumn equinox is no exception, and the Christian feast day of Michaelmas (St Michael and All Angels) is celebrated the week after the equinox.  Michaelmas has many of the same traditions as Equinox celebrations in other religions and cultures, including gathering fruit and nuts and eating a fattened goose to symbolise a successful harvest.  It was also seen as a time of transition – in medieval England, for example, the traditional employment fairs, where people could get new employment or find a new employer, were all held in the days and weeks immediately after Michaelmas.

It is clear that ever since humans have understood astronomy enough to recognise the existence of the autumnal equinox, it has been a significant date in the calendar.  The examples above show that cultural and religious traditions from throughout the world, and throughout history, have tended to hold equinox festivals with very similar themes.  These are celebrating the products of nature, reflecting on life, family and mortality, and preparing for the winter ahead.  All of these are universal human concerns, and it is fascinating how this date has been taken as an opportunity to think about them in so many different times and places.

Related posts: Lughnasadh    Yule


Lughnasadh pronounced loo-na-sa takes place on the 1st of August. It’s a pagan festival which marks the beginning of the harvest season. It’s named after the Irish god Lugh who was the god of skills, crafts and swordsmanship amongst other things.

Originally it was a feast which was held in honour of Lugh’s mother who had died of exhaustion after clearing the Irish land for agriculture.

Lughnasadh is one of the eight dates in the pagan Wheel of the Year. These days it is celebrated by giving thanks for the harvest to come. Sometimes they will bake a corn god which they will sacrifice and eat. If it rains on the day it is seen as Lugh’s blessing.

Related post: Autumn Equinox