Are ancient traditions irrelevant to today’s world? Or can they help us cope with the stresses and worries of our busy lives? In my own life, which has veered, sometimes wildly, from crisis worker to psychotherapist, to author and workshop presenter, plus a husband or two, I’ve found that the earth-based culture and society of the ancient Celts has helped me to connect to the rhythms of the natural world. As I hike along the seashore or in the forest, as I work in my garden, I see how the flowers and trees, birds and animals, the tides, the light and the weather all change with the passing seasons in the great wheel of life. I find the physical exercise relaxes and recharges me. The time spent in and with Nature calms the whirl of my thoughts and helps me gain perspective on my everyday life. It’s the real world—the one that’s all around us, yet so often lost sight of amid the concrete and asphalt that enclose most of our days.
The pre-Christian world of the Celts was an animate and ensouled universe. The land was the Great Goddess, whose breasts flowed with the rivers that fertilized the Earth. The Celts dwelt in clearings in the forest, where they learned the secret language of the trees. They knew how to shape-shift into birds and animals in order to understand the wisdom and power of stag, boar, hawk and salmon. They viewed life as a continuous cycle of birth-death-rebirth, for they understood that everything moved in a spiral, from the growth of a snail’s shell to the whirling galaxies above. Because they believed in reincarnation, they were fearless in the face of death, seeing it as “but the center of a long life.” It was not uncommon for a man to lend money and agree on repayment in a future lifetime.
At the coming of Christianity, the Celts continued to view the world with love and respect since it was a divine creation of God. The first monastery in Ireland resembled the old tribal villages: small farmsteads in forest clearings. Hermit and anchorite led ascetic lives in caves or even trees and wrote exquisite poems of praise for the gifts of Nature. The old Irish scholar, Robin Flower, described the first Celtic Christians as regarding the world with “an eye washed miraculously clear with continuous spiritual exercise,” which gave them “a strange vision of natural things in an almost unnatural purity.” Even as late as the 19th century, ordinary farming and fishing families still lived every day in close communion with the Divine. Woven through their lives was a complex and beautiful tapestry of daily and seasonal prayers, rituals and ceremonies. Whether sowing seed, spinning wool or milking cows, these country dwellers carried out every task in the spirit of prayer, despite the poverty and hardships of subsistence living. Although they prayed to Christian saints and angels, these figures thinly veil the pagan gods and goddesses whose names they once bore. And these invisible protectors were not merely to be found in church on Sundays, or in a heavenly beyond, but attended everyday life in kitchen, field and barn. The changing seasons announced the steps of the yearly dance, and were welcomed with feast-days and merrymaking to acknowledge and give thanks for the ever-turning cycle. The lives of these people unfolded to a universal pattern, an integration of community, earth and spirit, in a way that we, in our fragmented and alienating society, can scarcely imagine.
The Celtic year spirals through four festivals, and here are some of the ways I’ve incorporated them into my own life. As the land emerges from its long winter sleep in early February I celebrate the first signs of Spring with the festival of Brigit, goddess of the growing light, who later became Saint Brigit, most beloved of female saints in the Celtic countries. I fill my house with candlelight and invite friends over to make Brigit’s crosses out of straw. Their intricate shape pre-dates Christianity and is very similar to sun symbols found in many indigenous cultures. We hang them above door or mantelpiece to invoke Brigit’s blessing upon our households in the coming year. Children love to make the crosses too, and theirs are traditionally hung over their beds to protect them during the night. The earth is beginning to soften for the plow, so I use this time to dream about what seeds I want to sow in my life in the coming cycle of growth. Brigit is also a goddess of inspiration, so I call upon her to inspire my visions.
At the beginning of May, the festival of Beltaine heralds the season of light and growth and the blossoming of the earth. In the Celtic lands, country-dwellers left the confines of their winter quarters to spend the warm summer days in the green world. My friends and I celebrate this joyous season outside whenever possible, making flower garlands to wear before we head for the oak woods a short distance from my home. We cut a leafy branch and perform the time-honored ritual of “bringing the summer home” to our neighborhood. With song and circle dances—not to mention flagons of May wine flavored with sweet woodruff flowers––we use this time to celebrate relationships, sensuality and creativity.
Summer ripens into Lughnasadh, later called Lammas, the August festival of the first fruits. In early Ireland, all the tribes gathered in country-wide assemblies for sporting contests and trading fairs. Our county agricultural fairs are a modern survival of this ancient custom! The first meal of the new harvest was a very special event, so we celebrate outdoors with a Lughnasadh picnic or barbecue in the park. Central to our feast is a loaf of home-baked bread, which is blessed and shared among us as a reminder of our reliance upon earth’s bounty. The warm summer days also give us the opportunity to take stock of what the season has yielded in our lives so far. What dreams are coming to fruition? What will be the harvest of our souls?
Now the wheel turns to the darkening of the year at Samhain in early November—the festival that we know as Halloween. It was a time when, in the Celtic lands, grain and meat were stored for the winter and the earth left to lie fallow. The spirits of the dead roamed the world, so we gather in the evenings to honor our ancestors and to remember all those who passed over to the Summerlands this year. The long winter nights afford a time to go within and reflect on what we have accomplished—and what we are ready to let go of.
And so I try to consciously align myself with sacred time by attuning my life to the spiral of the Celtic year. The Universe invites me to the grand dance, in which my partners are the sun, moon, stars and tides and every living thing. I am a part of the ebb and flow of the cosmos. Instead of grimly struggling towards distant goals, I can now appreciate the present moment and enjoy the journey.
Mara Freeman, M.A., British author, is a storyteller, psychotherapist and modern Druid. She is the author of Kindling the Celtic Spirit: Ancient Traditions to Illumine your Life throughout the Seasons (HarperSanFrancisco).