Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days

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Ever wonder why June is the month of weddings, how Groundhog Day got started, or why we hold elections in the fall? The timing of present-day rituals and holidays may be based on the calendars of the ancient Celts and other cultures. These divided the year into four major sections, called quarter days, and then divided each of these in half, creating four cross-quarter days; together, these made an eight-part year that reflected the natural procession of the seasons.

The Quarter Days

The days that marked the four major divisions of the year were called Quarter Days; they originally marked the solstices and equinoxes, fitting readily into the rhythm of the ways people farmed. As the 12-month Roman calendar was adopted for both civil and religious purposes, all of the Celtic days began to conform more closely with the liturgical year of the Christian church and became identified with major religious festivals.

[Editors' note: Historians are divided as to whether the ancient Celts observed the solstices and equinoxes (what we call quarter days). Some believe that the Celts divided the year into just four major sections: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh (what we call cross-quarter days). For this article, we will assume that the ancient Celts observed all eight divisions of the year.]

March 25, Lady Day

Around the time of the spring equinox, Lady Day became the traditional day for hiring farm laborers for the planting and harvesting seasons ahead. (In the church calendar, this day became the feast of the Angel Gabriel's annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Christ.)

June 24, Midsummer Day

Around the time of the summer solstice, this day was the midpoint of the growing season, halfway between planting and harvest. (The English church later celebrated this day as the birthday of John the Baptist, who foretold the birth of Jesus exactly six months later.)

September 29, Michaelmas

Around the time of the fall equinox, the harvest commenced on this day, and there were great fairs and festivals. This started the custom of early autumnal elections, because it was a convenient time for people to gather. Elections came to be shifted to November in the American climate, where the harvest season was more stretched out.

December 25, Christmas

This observance originated as a winter solstice festival and celebrated a time of resting and gathering fertility for a new round of sowing and reaping. The Celtic rituals merged easily with the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. Farm workers were usually paid for their year's labor at Christmas, giving them reason to celebrate and three months rest before the next season.

The Cross-Quarter Days

These days marked the midpoint between a solstice and equinox. For the ancient Celts, these marked the beginning of each season, with the major two divisions being winter (Samhain), starting the dark half of the year, and summer (Beltane), starting the light half of the year.

February 2, Candlemas

Candlemas acquired its English name from the candles lit that day in churches to celebrate the presentation of the Christ Child in the temple of Jerusalem, but originally it was called Imbolc (lambs' milk) because the lambing season began. It was also called Brigantia for the Celtic female deity of light, calling attention to the Sun's being halfway on its advance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox.

  • It was not held as a good omen if the day itself was bright and sunny, for that betokened snow and frost to continue to the hiring of the laborers 6 weeks later on Lady Day.
  • If it was cloudy and dark, warmth and rain would thaw out the fields and have them ready for planting. Our Groundhog Day is a remote survivor of that belief.

May 1, May Day

May Day, or Beltane, was the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts. It was a day for dance and song to hail the sown fields starting to sprout.

  • Beltane was a time for the pairing of young couples, though not yet their wedding, which would not come until the next Cross-Quarter Day, after three months of seeing how they suited each other.
  • Today's June weddings came from this tradition; given impatience of the couple, the waiting period came to be shortened to a six-week span.

August 1, Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh was the wedding of the Sun god Lugh to the Earth goddess, causing the ripening of crops.

  • The church transformed it into an offering from the first fruits of the land; the first loaves baked from the new wheat were offered at the Loaf Mass, which became corrupted in pronunciation to Lammas.

October 31, Samhain

Samhain ("summer's end"), or Halloween, marked the beginning of winter for the ancient Celts, and many historians believe that it served as the start of the new year in the Celtic calendar. It was the day when the cattle were brought in from pasture; those needed for the winter's supply of meat would be slaughtered. Since Samhain was the death-night of the old year, it came to be associated with ghosts and graveyards. It has happier associations too, such as apple bobbing, which was a form of telling fortunes for the new year.

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I'm a 21 female who's last

By Tiffany sullivan

I'm a 21 female who's last name is Sullivan and are full celtic which I just recently discovered, but I have always been attracted the nature and all its surroundings. It has always made me feel alive andand quite different only because I would always occupy myself with what Mother Earth gave us :). But I invited faerys to be free and safe to live but only with pure heart and pure intentions with all love,and also I started to sing from my heart!feeling like snow white :) and birds,all air totems and other animals come to me!All the time! It's mostly the wren, mockingbird,woodpecker even a huge blue bird that I have no idea what it is but was speechless for it was only once.. and red cardinal.A hawk ALWAYS is seen soaring high above me at random times of the day!These are all meanings, I just wish I knew more!?.. plus I wake up with hoof prints and little foot tracks along with 3 and a half long hands with 4 fingers scratching on the dirt by my door,might I add I have a 'blasted oak' about 6 feet from my door that happened around February of this year and electrocuted our power box! That is what started a nack on the Fae. but then I found out I'm a hundred percent irish and caught up on what I've always needed to know about my heritage and remember what eas!. But if anyone can tell me what and why these hoof prints and little hand prints and scratching marks?? What is it they want? any yes I was giving honey as an offering to the fae to hopefully see them or just to be around life with them!.. BUT PLEASE LET ME KNOW ABOUT THESE HUGE HOOF PRINTS THAT ONLY WALK AT NIGHT, OH AND LONG BLACK ANIMAL HAIR HAS BEEN FOUND WHERE THE PRINTS WERE more than once..

While Andrew Rothovius'

By celtblood

While Andrew Rothovius' article is very good, he makes a major (and very common) mistake by stating that May Day (or Beltane) is the halfway point between Spring and Summer. As DruidJames pointed out, May Day is the BEGINNING of Summer, just as Samhain (Hallowe'en) is the beginning of Winter.

Somehow, Midsummer and Midwinter have become confused in the minds of so many (including, apparently, the Old Farmers' Almanac) as the beginning dates for these seasons. Anyone at all familiar with the history of our seasonal celebrations as established throughout time, as well as our calendars, can easily see that Midsummer and Midwinter are just that-- the MIDDLE of those respective seasons, NOT their beginning.

I've attempted to get the Almanac staff to correct this mistake, but have had no success.

Thank you for your feedback.

By Almanac Staff

Thank you for your feedback. We believe that the author had meant that Beltane was the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, rather than halfway between the starting points of the Celtic spring and summer seasons (which are Imbolc and Beltane, as you had mentioned). However, we have made some revisions to the text for clarity and accuracy, which we hope will help. Thank you for your interest in The Old Farmer's Almanac.

Samhain was a significant

By DruidJames

Samhain was a significant time for divination, perhaps even more so than May or Midsummer’s Eve, because this was the chief of the three Spirit Nights. Divination customs and games frequently featured apples and nuts from the recent harvest, and candles played an important part in adding atmosphere to the mysteries. In Scotland, a child born at Samhain was said to be gifted with an shealladh, “The Two Sights” commonly known as “second sight,” or clairvoyance.

Apple Magic
At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grows an apple tree whose fruit has magical properties. Old sagas tell of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach, (Evan Avlach) and in Britain, Avalon. At Samhain, the apple harvest is in, and old hearthside games, such as apple-bobbing, called apple-dookin’ in Scotland, reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple.

Dookin' for Apples
Place a large tub, preferably wooden, on the floor, and half fill it with water. Tumble in plenty of apples, and have one person stir them around vigorously with a long wooden spoon or rod of hazel, ash or any other sacred tree.

Each player takes their turn kneeling on the floor, trying to capture the apples with their teeth as they go bobbing around. Each gets three tries before the next person has a go. Best to wear old clothes for this one, and have a roaring fire nearby so you can dry off while eating your prize!
If you do manage to capture an apple, you might want to keep it for a divination ritual, such as this one:

The Apple and the Mirror
Before the stroke of midnight, sit in front of a mirror in a room lit only by one candle or the moon. Go into the silence, and ask a question. Cut the apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror, eat eight of the pieces, then throw the ninth over your left shoulder. Turn your head to look over the same shoulder, and you will see and in image or symbol in the mirror that will tell you your answer. (When you look in the mirror, let your focus go "soft," and allow the patterns made by the moon or candlelight and shadows to suggest forms, symbols and other dreamlike images that speak to your intuition.)

Dreaming Stones
Go to a boundary stream and with closed eyes, take from the water three stones between middle finger and thumb, saying these words as each is gathered:

I will lift the stone
As Mary lifted it for her Son,
For substance, virtue, and strength;
May this stone be in my hand
Till I reach my journey’s end.

(Scots Gaelic)
Togaidh mise chlach,
Mar a thog Moire da Mac,
Air bhrgh, air bhuaidh, ‘s air neart;
Gun robh a chlachsa am dhrn,
Gus an ruig mi mo cheann uidhe.

Carry them home carefully and place them under your pillow. That night, ask for a dream that will give you guidance or a solution to a problem, and the stones will bring it for you.

Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween.

Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally means “summer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as O�che Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calendar, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry of celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.

In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples -- for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal.

In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year. The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the new year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year -- not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age.

At at all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire, and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.

The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries. In the 1860s the Halloween bonfires were still so popular in Scotland that one traveler reported seeing thirty fires lighting up the hillsides all on one night, each surrounded by rings of dancing figures, a practice which continued up to the first World War. Young people and servants lit brands from the fire and ran around the fields and hedges of house and farm, while community leaders surrounded parish boundaries with a magic circle of light. Afterward, ashes from the fires were sprinkled over the fields to protect them during the winter months -- and of course, they also improved the soil. The bonfire provided an island of light within the oncoming tide of winter darkness, keeping away cold, discomfort, and evil spirits long before electricity illumined our nights. When the last flame sank down, it was time to run as fast as you could for home, raising the cry, “The black sow without a tail take the hindmost!”

Even today, bonfires light up the skies in many parts of the British Isles and Ireland at this season, although in many areas of Britain their significance has been co-opted by Guy Fawkes Day, which falls on November 5th, and commemorates an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in the 17th century. In one Devonshire village, the extraordinary sight of both men and women running through the streets with blazing tar barrels on their backs can still be seen! Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winter’s dark.

Terrific info. I enjoyed the

By Claire

Terrific info. I enjoyed the explanations and the comments by DruidJames.

That is some awesome

By GypsyWytch

That is some awesome information - I learned a few things. Samhain is also Hekate's night, a Celtic goddess of death and transformation, the crossroads, and patron goddess of witches and magic.

Just so you'll know,

By Crone Witch

Just so you'll know, Hekate/Hecate is a Greek Goddess. She is the Goddess of the crossroads, of magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy. She was celebrated in Greece on August 13th when offerings were left at crossroads.

...and actually, Hekate was

By Wa. Witch

...and actually, Hekate was pre-greek but adopted into the greek pantheon (where she is most known) like many gods and goddesses. Her origins are thought to be from Asia Minor.

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