Archive for the ‘ritual’ Tag
There was the briefest mention of fire in the previous post, but much more about the other three elements. Why?
Deborah Lipp notes in her The Way of Four Spellbook (Llewellyn, 2006):
Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules (pg. 10).
Now Lipp’s observation both captures the nature of fire and also feeds our stereotypes about impulse, passion, strong feeling. How often we may long — or fear — to be out of control, fearless, spontaneous! Who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point? Why would the Australian-inspired Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain opt for its advertising slogan “No rules. Just right”? Because there is indeed a rightness to fire — it can only flame up where there’s something to burn, after all. And most of us have been storing combustible material for a long time. How else to explain our explosions, outbursts, flares of temper? Even our language about these things draws on fire for metaphor.
Following the theme from the last post, we can speak of a fire baptism. You’re wholly in it when that happens. The full experience, nothing held back.
John the Baptist, Jesus’s precursor, explains to those asking, “I indeed baptize you in water … but he that cometh after me is mightier than I … he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire”. We sense the power in fire, of all the elements closest in so many ways to Spirit. It can purify, transform, forge and anneal. Its extreme heat can also scorch, char, consume and destroy. Each element transforms its own way. “We didn’t start the fire”, sings Billy Joel. “It was always burning since the world’s been turning”. But he goes on: “We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. And sometimes we even try to “fight fire with fire”. Yet we also long for fire to kindle cold hearts, to heat a flagging will, to spark the spirit deepest in us. We yearn to be fire.
“O! for a muse of fire”, cries Shakespeare’s Chorus in the first line of Henry V, “that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”. We long to blaze, because we feel in fire something native and free. We are both it and other, too, as with all the elements. “Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire”, says Jose Luis Borges. The elements are natural sacraments, folds and garments for Spirit all around us. For fire, we light candles in so many traditions, for so many reasons, the flame cheering to the eye and heart.
I both am and am not fire. Self and other: the quest of our days, the distinction we cherish and also long to cast away. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, shaman, through all these experiences and intuitions we still ask ourselves, each other and the world: “What makes a good burn?”
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Maybe the purest ritual Druids and Christians might share is one which seeks not to fill our ears with answers, but that gives us space and silence to listen to and ponder the questions. In some ways, the long, slow burn of Spirit in us is fire in its most potent form of all.
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Beltane approaches, that festival of fire. The Edinburgh-based Beltane Fire Society celebrates 30 years this year of a dramatic festival of thousands, from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am. Here’s the “Drums of Beltane” subpage of the Society’s website. As the page notes,
Beltane may be known as a fire festival, but it may as well be considered to be a drum festival too. Drums are the beating heart of Beltane that create the rhythm of the festival, drive the procession forward, and soundtrack the changing seasons. They have been an integral part of Beltane since our tradition was first re-imagined on Calton Hill in 1988.
Looking for a fix of Beltane energy to get you launched? Here’s a video of the Drum Club which will be among the groups performing this year for the event. Just the first five minutes will give you a fine taste of Beltane fire in sound form. We can spark from anything, but sound and rhythm are powerful keys.
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In this post you’ll find me wearing my hat of the linking, connecting and informing Druid, so salt to taste.
“My Druid is Christ,” wrote Saint Columba (521-597), among other things the founder of the abbey on Iona. Ask yourself what to make of such a remark from this early Irish missionary, working in what is now Scotland. You can even be Bardic about it, and shape your meditation into a triad of insights. Out of one of my meditations emerged a triad that begins: “Three things we serve, who love both flaming Star and branching Tree …”
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And out of such echoes from a distant past comes the Romantic conception that Druidry and Christianity initially co-existed in amity. Evidence exists both to support and refute such a view. But whatever the reality of that period, which we may never know, we can certainly identify its spiritual gold and and continue to create with it in the present.
OBOD Chief Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:
Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity. It did this in at least four ways: it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints. That Christianity provided the vehicle for Druidry’s survival is ironic, since the Church quite clearly did not intend this to be the case (pg. 31).
As I poke around “ironic survival” further in this third (Part 1 | Part 2) reflection on Jesus and Druidry, I note one quite obvious thing many others have of course commented on. The Galilean master is at his most Druidic when he speaks with images of the natural cycle of things:
Truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
An extensive Druid-Christian liturgy could be written with just the nature images that pervade Christian and Jewish scripture. Already many such resources exist. The OBOD website provides “Resources for Exploring Christian Druidry“, which include music, ritual calendars, books, and links to organizations like Forest Church.
Life and death are ironic, paradoxical. As integral gestures and movements of the cosmos, they’re also a “human thing”: we long for and fear the change that comes in death as in all such transformations. Initiation prefigures it, and life delivers it without fail. We all live and change, die and change. Druidry offers itself as a prime example of what it teaches, living, dying, changing and living again.
And Druidry, or at least Orders like OBOD, aren’t above borrowing and adapting rich language, Christian or not, attentive to the powers of Three. Nuinn (the Druid name of Ross Nichols, OBOD’s founder) writes:
Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion, dating from the days of early man when the three were one (pg. 19).
This careful attention to triads and unities means that their presence in other traditions makes them attractive to Druid ceremony and ritual. Some OBOD rites include versions of the following Trinitarian as well as Druidic language:
May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Created Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us. May the world be filled with harmony and Light.
Rev. Alistair Bate, author of the OBOD website article “Reflections on Druidic Christology“, comments from a sensitivity to the contact points of the two traditions:
A more orthodox rendering of Chief Nuinn’s triadic formula might be “May the blessing of the Uncreated One, of the Creative Word and of the Spirit that is the Inspirer be always with us”. This, I believe, would not only be more truly in tune with the bardic experience, but would also resonate with the Om/Creation idea found in the Hindu tradition. As we envision Awen, the primordial sound, echoing out of the void, we connect with our own creative inspiration as part of that first creative Word, which is in Christian terms, at once Christ and his Spirit.
And with greater enthusiasm, perhaps, than comparative or historical theological accuracy, Bate concludes his article, summoning to his aid the words of probably the single most influential Christian thinker and writer:
In the 4th century St Augustine declared, “That which is called the Christian Religion existed among the Ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the Human Race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity”. That the religion of our most ancient ancestors is in essence very similar to that of our more recent ancestors is the conviction that keeps some of us simultaneously both Druid and Christian.
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A Footnote on Orders and Flavors of Druidry
Some readers, writes Philip Carr-Gomm in his foreword to Nuinn’s Book of Druidry,
might be pleased to learn of such a dialogue between Druidry and Christianity, particularly when it results in specific action being taken to initiate a new impulse within the Christian movement. Others might be disappointed, hoping Druidry was exclusively ‘pagan’. But Druidry is a way of working with the natural world, and is not a dogma or religion … Druidry honours, above all, the freedom of the individual to follow his own path through life, offering only guides and suggestions, schemes of understanding, methods of celebration and mythical ideas — which can be used or not as the practitioner sees fit (pg. 14).
It’s important to note that OBOD Druidry differs here from Druid Orders like ADF which are more explicitly religious. There are of course also members of OBOD who practice it as their religion. Carr-Gomm writes from the same universalist Druid strain that shows up repeatedly in OBOD and in its stance toward other traditions and religions. Visit the current ADF homepage and you read:
Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) is a Pagan church based on ancient Indo-European traditions expressed through public worship, study, and fellowship.
Explore further and you find specifics of ADF belief and activity that would exclude dual membership in ADF and a Christian church for all but the most liberal Christian. Among these are
the ADF Initiate Program, a course of training into the ways of magic, seership and trance for ADF, and with it a current of spiritual initiation
together with a cultivation of ancestral seership and contact, and an explicitly duotheistic ritual structure:
As a part of the work of growing our spiritual current the clergy of ADF have been exploring an otherworldly locale and inner Nemeton where we have been forming relationships with beings we call the ‘Ancient Wise’, those of the Sacred Dead who were poets, magicians and priests, and who would be willing to join with us to help us all walk the elder ways. This has been done through the good offices of the two deities who we honor in every sacrifice, the Warders of the Ways, the Earth Mother and the Keeper of Gates.
Compare this to the frequent shifting of language in the opening of OBOD’s “prayer which unites all Druids” but which ADF labels (accurately) a creation of the Druid Revival of the last 300 years, and thus from their perspective inauthentic. Listen closely at any OBOD gathering and you’ll hear these variations and others:
Grant, O Spirit(s)/God/Goddess/Holy Ones, thy protection …
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Image: Iona Abbey.
Highland Oak Nemeton, Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, LA, the magic of assembled Druids, and a sunny weekend of Gulf Coast weather in the 70s and 80s worked their cumulative spell on the 50 or so attendees of this year’s OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering. The spirits of the land witnessed Druids from OR, CT, VT, PA, FL, TX, LA, NE, VA, MI and other states make their way to the south-central U.S.
image courtesy Steve Cole
The workshops explored the Gathering theme “Opening The Seven Gifts” of Druidry. OBOD offers a lovely 2:30 video that presents the Seven Gifts more attractively than a bald recital could.
Our presenters kept the topics lively, sharing insights and fielding comments. Druidry needs no “outside experts” — the spiritual path generates its own.
Nonetheless, it’s always a draw to have a visiting speaker — and once again we welcomed the always-fabulous Kristoffer Hughes, one of Her Majesty’s Coroners, author, professional actor, OBOD Druid, and head of the Anglesey Druid Order in the U.K.
Kris spoke on “When the Last Leaf Falls: Death, an Awfully Big Adventure”, examining Western attitudes toward, and treatment of, the dead, and ways Druids can respond creatively and spiritually to the frequently dysfunctional nature of the Western “death industry” and its dehumanizing and ecologically destructive practices. He also urged us to bring each other in on, and discuss, our own plans for our deaths, disposal of remains, and the types of memorials we want.
Kris during his talk — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
Dana dispelled stereotypes of magic during her evening talk around the fire our first night, the opening ritual fresh in our memories. The following morning Richard addressed the core of Druidry — getting back in touch with nature.
Richard and Dana
Lorraine helped many meet a new animal guide, Gabby drew us to consider healing, Jacob turned our thoughts to philosophy, and I explored the awen and the potentials for inspiration. Even if [below] my gesture at one point suggests a fish story — “the big one that got away”.
photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
We initiated three Bards and five Ovates, held opening and closing rituals, along with the Seasonal Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox) ritual, went on nature walks, and visited the Seven Sisters Live Oak in nearby Mandeville, LA.
Below is our Welsh Druid guest communing with the tree, estimated to be over 1500 years old, and below that is a more distant shot to suggest something of its size.
John Beckett captured an image of the atmospheric Spanish moss parasitic on so many trees south of the Mason-Dixon line.
photo courtesy John Beckett
Storytellers and musicians, notably Jacob Pewitt and Brian Van Unen, made the slowly cooling evenings magical around the fire.
Jacob and Brian — photo courtesy John Beckett
What better way to leave behind the 18″ of snow in Vermont from the recent March nor’easter?!
Always, always, it’s the faces, the reunions, the collapse of miles between us, and the conversations that make each Gathering so memorable.
Don’t know anyone before you arrive? You will before you leave!
Kathleen and Kezia — photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
Sovereignty, Lady of an inner realm which flows ceaselessly into this one, you birth, nourish and sustain us. May my deeds serve not my own will alone, but your larger shaping for the good of all. In my words here, in my deeds, thoughts, feelings and dreams, let that light and song and fire illumine where it can, whom it may.
If conditions here no longer allow for the manifold inner purposes and directions to manifest outwardly, physical life may well withdraw from one world, moving to another. Yet in spite of the uncertainty and dark despair that may arise in our hearts from time to time, this lovely, difficult, damaged world is far from exhausting its spiritual purposes.
As a sacred laboratory for experiences for many beings, and for spirit to inhabit all lives, possibilities and forms to know itself again, the world unfolds still, rich with potential. Both established forms yet with us and new ones coming into being offer choice, beauty, misery, destruction and growth. From the small to the great, from the inner to the outer, from seed and leaf to flower and fruit, through decay and transformation and renewal, it has ever been so.
True it is, that all realms touch, intermingle and answer each other. Events here send their ripples and taproots elsewhere for good and bad, and a shift there brings about a corresponding change here. The walls of the world echo. The great wonder is not that we have no influence on life, but that our influence often exceeds our knowledge. Day to day is not always the place to look for vision, though what we see elsewhere in vision and dream returns us here to labor anew.
Because that’s what makes a uni-verse, a one-turning. We are part of the work and movement of a marvelous many-faceted whole. It’s a measure of our priorities and the fading of the ancient heritage we have received and often abandoned in our pursuit of other things that many of us no longer know this in our bones, that we have to re-learn it through often bitter experience before we can begin again to make use of it to shape something better. But our cells know better, and our dis-ease may yet call us back to here and now, our suffering may still wake us to rebellion and questioning and discovery, our losses may perhaps stir us to compassion rather than endless lament and blame and surrender.
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The seed of ritual, planted. The promise of spring, uttered. The shaping of hands to make each thing happen, foretold and prefigured at the birth of each woman and man into this world, from the great family ranged behind and all around us, that family of blood and friendship and teaching in the other worlds. Ancestors, hear us.
Slowly we apprehend what is essential and what is not, the long journey fashioned and felt and followed as we abide in multitudes of forms.
For us, the essential thing is that there is everywhere a conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period, based on the observation of biocosmic rhythms and forming part of a larger system — the system of periodic purifications (cf. purges, fasting, confession of sins, etc.) and of periodic regeneration of life. This need for a periodic regeneration seems to us of considerable significance in itself. Yet the examples that we shall presently adduce will show us something even more important, namely, that a periodic regeneration of time presupposes, in more or less explicit form — and especially in the historical civilizations — a new Creation, that is, a repetition of the cosmogonic act. And this conception of a periodic creation, i.e., of the cyclical regeneration of time, poses the problem of the abolition of “history,” the problem which is our prime concern in this essay. — Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.
Lady, we gather in your grove, where your blessing yields all seasons at once. You abolish time in each moment, directing us forward and back, to ends and beginning, seed and leaf and fruit and fallow time. You regenerate us constantly, your dark and bright moons, this daily sun, stars overhead — who cannot see it?
Often, we cannot. Teach us again, three by three by three.
“The Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red milk of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer” — Caitlin and John Matthews, The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 43.
Clothed in rags, we walk the streets of the cities and wastelands, forests and plains and mountains of Time.
Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned … — J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”.
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“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,”
(some wishes are horses – watch out where they stride!)
but my words are wingéd – they fly to your side
to wish you a happy New Year ’17.
It’s not for myself that I say it – I mean
may you flourish and grow, whatever the weather:
as long as we’re in this, we’re in it together.
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Mantle of Brighid about me,
Memory of Brighid within me,
Protection of Brighid around me
keeping me from harm,
from ignorance, from heartlessness,
this day and night,
from dawn till dark,
from dark till dawn.
— John O’Donohue (adapted), The Four Elements, Transworld Ireland, 2010, pg. 109. (Also available in Random House editions.)
I find in this poem a prayer most fitting for these darkening days till Yule and sun-return (never mind the ritual season). I add to it these visualizations as I say the opening triad of actions:
I see and feel the soft, warm cloak of Brighid furl and drop around me. I touch the weave of the cloth. I see the mantle extend outward, expanding the presence of Brighid all around me. “Beneath your mantle you gather us.”
I feel the memory of Brighid arrive as I whisper her name, her presence in thought and feeling, in the hearth-fire, in human warmth and affection, in animal caresses, in the sun’s brightness, hidden behind clouds or yellow in the December sky. Her mantle means we help manifest her, bring her here. “Remind us how to kindle the hearth.”
I feel the awen of the divine kindling in and around me whenever I put off despair and choose better. I sense the awen in others, upholding me even as I uphold them. I name them now, sitting or standing before any fire or flame or light, which I declare Brighid’s fire and flame and light.
O’Donohue writes: “One of the reasons for the modern poverty of spirit is amnesia. Even though there is a great harvest of healing energy within memory, people seem to make so little use of it. Rather than living from this harvest within them, they seem in the demented rush of modern life to live more out of their poverty” (pg. 113).
I hold my hands up before me and say more of this prayer-poem:
To keep it bright,
to preserve the flame,
your hands are ours,
our hands in yours
to kindle the light
both day and night.
And then I close, repeating the opening triad once or twice more as it feels right.
Mantle of Brighid about me,
Memory of Brighid within me,
Protection of Brighid around me.
And I see Brighid’s cross, feel it foursquare, if I receive no other intimation of the goddess. I sein my thoughts, feelings, and actions of the day with it, sometimes continuously through the hours if I need it, to preserve, preserve, preserve the flame.
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Image: Brighid’s cross. Pic w quote below:
To begin this post I invoke with the words of a great Bard, the late Leonard Cohen, who sings in his song “Anthem” : “Ring your bells that still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There’s a crack, a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in.”
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Doing my small part to ring some bells and locate some nearby cracks to work with, it’s been in my thought more and more to explore Wantastiquet. But it took word of another’s recent climb to the peak to prod me into visiting this local treasure. As a Nigerian acquaintance said to me recently, quoting an African proverb, “Those who live nearest the church arrive late.”
Just over the Connecticut river east into New Hampshire, Wantastiquet Mountain rises to approx. 1350 feet. It’s a moderate 1.5 mile hike to the summit — about an hour’s walk along numerous switchbacks for this 57-year old. From downtown Brattleboro it’s a little over half a mile to the foot of the mountain, so plenty of hikers and their dogs were out enjoying the afternoon. The sunny weather hovered in the mid 50s, oak leaves carpeted the trail all the way to the top, and as mountain treks often do for me, the climb had the feel of pilgrimage. There is a berg-geist, a mountain spirit, if I silence the mind chatter and attend. The rumble of weekend traffic from nearby interstate 91 which the river valley amplifies begins to fade around 500 feet up.
The site is a perfect shanshui — landscape, literally “mountain-water” — one of my favorite Chinese words from a year in the mid-80s spent teaching English in the People’s Republic of China. The Connecticut river valley defines the state line between New Hampshire and Vermont for 150 miles, and seen from the west, the peak appears to ascend right out of the river. Here’s a view from perhaps 70 feet up on the trail, looking back toward Vermont.
Evergreens march along either side of the path, but the few remaining leaves on oak branches above them account for the trail’s leaf cover.
The pines and oaks busy themselves both splitting the rock and holding it in place.
Gathered near the marker at the summit were several resting hikers who left shortly after I arrived.
In the distance, the peaks of Ascutney (45 miles north) and Hogback (13 miles due west) loom through the haze.
I’d gathered a handful of acorns along the way, thinking to plant them as I establish my grove at home. But as I neared the top, an impromptu ritual (my favorite kind) threaded into my attention and I made an offering instead. Finding a clearing a few hundred yards away, I bowed to each direction.
I gather, I give away.
To the North:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
To the West:
you are holy —
may it grow there
To the South:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
To the East:
you are holy —
may it grow there.
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Images: Wantastiquet map.
[This is an early version of what is becoming a page on Ritual, a link from the header menu above.]
From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.
Even animals exhibit ritualized behavior, if we count courtship displays, and dominance/submission behavior in pack and herd animals. What is instinctive in animals becomes conscious among humans, and though anthropologists and psychologists have developed a range of explanatory theories, none captures all the richness, variety and potential power of ritual.
Whenever I catch myself thinking “empty ritual,” I realize I’m what’s missing. Ritual is simply a form, like a recipe or dance move or martial arts kata. And like a kata, it’s “a routine or pattern of behavior that is practiced to various levels of mastery,” as the Wikipedia entry for kata puts it.
So if my heart isn’t in it, if the pattern-making doesn’t hold my attention, if it doesn’t carry significance to me, it will naturally feel empty to me — because I haven’t filled it with my dedication, my energy and imagination, my preparation, my sense of participating in something larger than myself. The essential component is me. If we want meaningful rituals, it’s up to us to create them.
Families and friends develop rituals to celebrate their relationship — you may have our own examples of a favorite gathering-place, in-group slang and allusions to past shared events opaque to outsiders, and so on. Humans are meaning-seekers and pattern-makers. Ritual is one expression of how human consciousness works.
/|\ THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR
Ritual is simply another tool, and Druidry as an earth-centered spirituality includes the ritual celebration of the seasons. The eight-fold seasonal cycle common to Wicca and Druidry and many Pagans generally is a modern conception. It appears to be the happy result of a collaboration, or at least of mutual influence, between Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols. In the middle of the last century they were inspired to merge the four Fire Festivals of the Celts of early February, May, August and November with the equinoxes and solstices. The names we give the holidays may vary, but roughly every six weeks you can find a festival marking the turning of the Wheel of the Year.*
Ritual can be magically simple, and needn’t take place only on one of the “Great Eights.” Ritual needs nothing more than you and your intention. You visit a favorite meadow or grove or stone outcropping, and you whisper to yourself a favorite poem, maybe even a verse — simplicity itself — like “This is my rock” by David McCord:
This is my rock
and here I run
to steal the secret of the sun;
This is my rock,
and here come I
before the night has swept the sky;
This is my rock,
this is the place
I meet the evening face to face.
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*The Wheel of the Year
October 31 – November 2: Hallowe’en, Samhain/Samhuinn, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Todos Santos, Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos.
December 20-22: Yule, Winter Solstice, Alban Arthan.
February 1-2: Imbolc, Oimelc, St. Brigid’s Day, Groundhog Day, Candlemas.
March 20-22: Spring Equinox, Ostara, Alban Eilir.
May 1: May Day, Beltane, Bealtainne, Walpurgis Night.
June 20-22: Summer Solstice, Midsummer, St. John’s Day, Litha, Alban Hefin.
August 1: Lughnasad/Lunasa, Lammas(tide).
September 20-22: Autumn Equinox, Alban Elfed, Mabon.