What Are the Quarter Days and What Do They Mean?

Ancient Celtic Calendar: Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days

By Andrew E. Rothovius
July 22, 2021

Where did the dates for Groundhog Day, Midsummer Day, weddings in June, elections in fall, and Halloween originate? It’s all rooted in the ancient Celtic calendar. There are four “Quarter Days” near the solstices and equinoxes; the midpoints were called “Cross-Quarter Days.” Learn why we celebrate modern holidays the way we do!

The Celtic Calendar 

The timing of present-day rituals, traditions, and holidays was influenced by the ancient Celts:

  • Their calendar year was divided into four seasons or major sections—four Quarter Days
  • Then, each section was divided in half, creating four Cross-Quarter days. For the ancient Celts, Cross-Quarter days signaled the beginning of a season! For example, what is now Groundhog Day (Candlemas) would be considered the start of spring.
  • Some 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.
  • Together, the Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days made an eight-part year that reflected the natural progression of the seasons.

The Four 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.

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.) Folks celebrated by feasting, dancing, singing, and preparing for the hot summer days ahead. Learn more about Midsummer Day.

Image: A Midsommar celebration in Stockholm, Sweden. ArtesiaWells/Getty Images

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 Four Cross-Quarter Days

These days marked the midpoint between each solstice and equinox. For the ancient Celts, these signaled the beginning (not middle) of a 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.

Originally, this day 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 being halfway on its advance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox.

Much of this day is grounded in the seasons—estimating how soon spring-like weather will come and when to plant the crops. 

  • 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. Though we recognize animal behavior isn’t always the way to judge planting dates, the tradition continues, often with a wink and a smile.


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.

May Day or Beltane (May 1) was a time for the pairing of young couples, although not yet for their wedding, which would not come until the Quarter Day which was called Midsummer Day (June 24). Midsummer is basically the same as the Summer Solstice, so there were approximately 6 weeks between May 1 and Midsummer for the couple to get to know each other. 

Today, June is still one of the most popular months for weddings!

August 1, Lughnasadh (“Lammas Day”)

Lammas (a corruption of the Old English words for “loaf mass”) was the midpoint between the summer solstice and autumnal equinox.

Traditionally a festival associated with harvesting grain, it marked the beginning of the wheat harvest, and especially celebrated the first wheat or corn crop. Grains harvested at Lammas time also include barley, oats, and sunflower. Tenant farmers would have presented the first crop harvest to their landlord.

  • Lughnasadh was the wedding of the Sun god Lugh to the Earth goddess, causing the ripening of crops.
  • The church transformed it into the “feast of first fruits.” Villages would take the first loaves of bread to the “loaf mass,” which became corrupted in pronunciation to “lammas.” The word “lammas” comes from the Old English hlaf, “loaf,” and maesse, “mass” or “feast.”
  • After the loaf was blessed, the farmers broke it into four pieces and placed each piece in the corners of their barn to protect the newly harvested grain. Lammas bread was often made in shapes including wheat, owls, and corn dolls.

Much lore is associated with this day, including this proverb: “After Lammas Day, corn ripens as much by night as by day.”

It was upon a Lammas night, 
When corn rigs are bonie, 
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light, 
I held awa to Annie; 
The time flew by, wi’ tentless heed, 
Till, ‘tween the late and early, 
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed 
To see me thro’ the barley

–Robert Burns

The date is still celebrated in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere by baking Lammas bread, making corn dollies, bundling twigs together and enjoying large feasts with friends and family.

October 31, Samhain

Samhain (“summer’s end”) is celebrated as today’s Halloween. Many historians believe that it served as the start of the new year in the Celtic calendar—their “New Year’s Day.”

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. During this dark time of year, it was believed that the spirits of the dead wandered from sunset until midnight. After midnight, the ghosts are said to go back to rest. (That day, November 1, later became All Saints’ Day.) Samheim has happier associations too, such as apple bobbing, which was a form of telling fortunes for the new year.

We hope you found this history interesting! It’s fascinating to us how our modern holidays reflect the rich fabric of our past.


The 1993 Old Farmer's Almanac (with updates)


Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Quarter/Cross-quarter days

In the article about the Celtic Calendar and the quarter/cross-quarter days, there is an error in the one for Mid-summer's day. In it, it is said: 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.) Folks celebrated by feasting, dancing, singing, and preparing for the hot summer days ahead. Learn more about Midsummer Day..."

But, if what is in the bible is correct, then John the Baptist is about six months older than Jesus and thus, could not have "foretold" of Jesus' birth six-months hence. In scripture, it also says that after Mary learned that she was to have Jesus at the Annunciation, and that her kinswomen Elizabeth was also expecting; Mary visited Elizabeth and the baby (John the Baptist to-be) "leapt in Elizabeth's womb."


To say that the Celtic Calendar was only used by Celts living in the British Isles is incorrect. The Celtic Calendar was used by the Celts in the Republic of Ireland, which is not a British Isle.

Druidic/Celtic Tree

What about Imobolc, Litha, Mabon, and Yule?

Samhain and Halloween

It was not until 835 CE that Halloween was celebrated on 31 October (moved from 15 May). At that time, Samhain was NOT celebrated on the same day.

Until 1752 that American celebrated Halloween several days AFTER Samhain. In 1752 when we switched tot he Gregorian calendar, we began celebrating Halloween several days BEFORE Samhain.

In the 1950s, when people began resurrecting the ancient Celtic religion they began to celebrate Samhain on 1 November, the same day as All Saints Day and All Saints Eve (Halloween).

Now people are trying to claim that a Halloween is a Celtic holiday that Christians preempted.

The truth is that All Saints Day and Halloween are based on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Modern Wiccans are trying to steal the Christian holiday.

Love Farmer's Almanac

Love reading all the articles in this publication. There very interesting & informative. I read it daily. Just can't say enough about it! It's also a fun read! Keep up the good work!!!

Thank you!

The Editors's picture

Thank you, Sharon, for reading the Almanac! We appreciate your enthusiasm!

Great story, good explanation

Thanks a lot, it's been great explanation and interesting story!

St. Michaelmas Day

In France, the traditional calendar is made up of each day being dedicated to a Saint (though in the 27 years since I've lived there, it includes more and more names whom I'm sure were not Saints). Anyway, September 29 is St. Michael's Day, in reference to the one who holds the keys to heaven. Interesting to see the origin. BTW, I am not a believer nor do I have a religion. I follow Mother Earth and am more Pagan or Earth based.

John the Baptist did not tell

John the Baptist did not tell of the birth Jesus. John was thought to have been born 6 months before Jesus. His mother (Elizabeth) and Mary were pregnant at the same time. John foretold the coming of Jesus ministry. By the time John was old enough to talk Jesus was already born.

I'm a 21 female who's last

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'

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.

The Editors's picture

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

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.

That is some awesome

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,

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

...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.

Terrific info. I enjoyed the

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

I just love this stuff! I

I just love this stuff! I find it endlessly fascinating, I am sure if I had lived in a previous life, I would have lived by those old customs.