In the late 1970s, I was asked to compose a set of seasonal ceremonies for the Alexandrian Wiccan coven of which I was a member. One thing that struck me as soon as I started researching for Midwinter was that none of our ancestors seem to have celebrated the winter solstice which normally falls on December 21st, but many celebrated on December 25th, a few days later. Similarly, Midsummer’s Day, the traditional date of Midsummer celebrations across the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, falls on June 24th, not on the summer solstice, which usually occurs on the 21st. Solstices represent the midpoints of the solar standstills that occur twice a year and span about five days when the sun’s apparent rising and setting positions on the horizon don’t visibly move. It puzzled me that modern Pagans seem to celebrate the solstices and not a few days later, in keeping with ancient practice.
Answers emerged in the 1990s through the researches of Ronald Hutton, Steve Wilson and others. Steve Wilson was among those researching the origins of the eight seasonal celebrations that are a feature of modern Paganism, certainly of Wicca and Druidry. They discovered that the festival cycle known to many of us as the Wheel of the Year was formulated in the late 1940s and early 50s by Gerald Gardner (right), the father of modern Witchcraft, and Philip Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Both were keenly interested in Celtic folk traditions and discovered that a sequence of cross-quarter day festivals that fell between the solstices and equinoxes had been widely celebrated in Ireland under the names Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain and Imbolc. Each had an equivalent in English folk festivals: May Day, Lammas, Hallowe’en and Candlemas. Dubbing them Fire Festivals, Gardner incorporated them into his version of Witchcraft.
Nichols (left), who knew Gardner well, liked the balanced mandala created by the eight seasonal rites, the solstices, equinoxes and the quarter days. They gave a communal celebration roughly every six weeks throughout the year. Nichols tried to persuade his colleagues in the Ancient Druid Order to adopt the eightfold scheme but they refused, preferring to stick to celebrating only the two equinoxes and the summer solstice. The Wheel of the Year finally made its appearance in Druidry when Nichols incorporated it into the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which he founded in 1964. Prior to the modern creation of this festival wheel, each of the festivals had been celebrated by some people in some areas, but no community or group had ever celebrated all of them.
This still leaves the mystery of why most modern Pagans now celebrate the solstices and not Midsummer’s Day and Christmas Day, as our ancestors did. To unravel this, we need to go back a little further, to the Druid revivals of the 18th century. By this time, the science of astronomy had taken over from astrology and the dates of the solstices were predictable and understood. When William Stukeley (left) surveyed Stonehenge in the 1740s, he noted the alignment of the Heel Stone with the summer solstice on June 21st. This spectacular piece of ancient engineering caught the public imagination and that of the Druid revival groups that began to emerge a few decades later so that they made the assumption that Druids celebrated the summer solstice. This in spite of the fact that a fair had long been held at Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, and that the Heel Stone sunrise alignment is equally good on that day. The idea having taken hold that Druids celebrated the summer solstice, the further assumption was made that they celebrated the winter solstice too.
Ronald Hutton brought together a wide range of sources in his 1996 study of the ritual year in England, Stations of the Sun. In it, he addresses the discrepancy between ancient and modern pagans/Pagans in celebrating summer and winter. He concludes that what our ancestors actually celebrated was not the solstices, but the point a few days after the solstices when the sun’s rising and setting positions begin to move again. At Midwinter, this is the time at which the light was considered to be reborn, hence the birth of children of light at this time in various ancient pantheons.
In Druidry, many of us celebrate the rebirth of the Mabon (‘Child’), son of Modron (‘Mother’), whose story features in The Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The antiquity of the Mabon is affirmed by inscriptions to a god, Maponus, in Romanised Gaul and Britain and by the Lochmaben Stane, a large solitary boulder on the Scottish Borders that was formerly the focus of large regional gatherings. Modron is reflected in numerous inscriptions to the Matronae (‘Mothers’) on groups of three female deities that cover a similar geographical range to the Maponus inscriptions and appear at more-or-less the same time. Our Scandinavian ancestors celebrated Christmas Eve as Modranicht (‘Mother’s Night’) and it is likely that the Gallo-British Matronae were celebrated as giving birth to Maponus, the child of light, on the same date, the moment of his rebirth being sunrise on the old Midwinter’s Day, December 25th.
So, the doubts about the timing of modern pagan celebrations I had in the 1970s were confirmed in the 1990s, since when I have been regularly reminding anyone who’ll listen of the times when our ancestors actually celebrated Midsummer and Midwinter. How little impact my efforts have had should be plain to anyone remotely connected to modern Paganism, where greetings always go out on the solstices. Ah well, one can but try.
In the BDO courses, we recommend celebrating the original dates for the original reasons. As the popularity of our courses grows, perhaps the old ways and days will undergo a revival. My early 1990s translation of ‘awen’ as ‘the flowing spirit’ (based on what turned out to be a very inaccurate Victorian Welsh dictionary) has certainly caught on and is now used by Druids and others all over the world, so anything is possible!