The Quarter Festivals and the Druids

9 07 2019

Public access to Stonehenge currently takes place on four of the so-called ‘quarter festivals’. What exactly are the quarter festivals? And why are these occasions so celebrated by the Druids?

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

Quarter festivals are sets of four dates that divide the year into four equal quarters. The dates when Stonehenge has open access to the public are the solar quarter festivals, defined by the movements of the sun. The summer and winter solstices (usually 21 June and 21 December) are the days when the noontime sun is, respectively, highest and lowest in the sky and so the hours of daylight are, respectively, their longest and their shortest. The spring and autumn equinoxes (usually 21 March and 21 September) are the dates when the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west and so the night and day are of equal length. These observable facts about the sun in the sky have made these points in the calendar sacred times in cultures all over the world – including at Stonehenge, whose axis is aligned to the directions of summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset.

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

But there’s another set of quarter festivals – fitting in between the solar festivals – that were celebrated by the ancient Celts. They’re known as ‘lunar festivals’ because they were determined by the full moon. They didn’t fall on regular calendar dates like the solar festivals, since the cycles of the moon don’t match exactly with the calendar of the year defined by the sun’s movements (in reality the earth’s orbit around the sun). However, in modern usage these four originally lunar festivals have gained fixed calendar dates. Using the Irish terminology, the two most important are Samhain (31 October) and Beltane (1 May), which divide the year into summer and winter halves. The other two are Imbolc (1 February) and Lughnasa (1 August).

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The fixing of their dates links these four festivals to the corresponding Christian festivals and names by which they’re best known in English. Imbolc has become St Brigid’s Day, and the following day, 2 February, is Candlemas. Lughnasa corresponds to the harvest festival of Lammas. Samhain has become Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day, also known as Hallowmas. Of the four festivals, Beltane – May Day in English – has perhaps best preserved its pagan origins in the perennial customs of maypoles and may queens, although in modern times it has gained a new significance as Labour Day, the holy day of socialism.

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The lunar festivals were also called ‘fire festivals’ because the ancient Celts celebrated

them with bonfires. The establishment of Bonfire Night on 5 November shifted the fires of Halloween by a few days and attached to them a new political significance. In my view, it’s high time that British custom got over its symbolic need to demonise Roman Catholics (as represented by Guy Fawkes) and moved the bonfires back to Halloween where they belong. In Celtic – especially Irish – tradition there are many stories associated with the lunar festivals, especially with Samhain, when the veil between this world and the otherworld is very thin – a great opportunity for adventures back forth between the worlds.

 

Modern Druids conduct ceremonies on the four lunar festivals in the tradition of the ancient Celts. They also conduct ceremonies on the four, more universal, solar festivals. This makes a total of eight quarter festivals that provide the backbone of the Druids’ sacred calendar. It is thanks to modern Druids’ custom of doing ceremony at Stonehenge on the solar festivals that public access has been negotiated on those days. I understand that the Druids are also conducting ceremonies near Stonehenge on the lunar festivals too, in order to establish a custom of religious usage in this location which they hope in time will enable public access on these four dates as well.

Article by guest blogger and author/storyteller Anthony Nanson.  Sponsored by Stonehenge Guide Tours

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