Samhain and Beltane: Celebrating the Cross-Quarter Days

by on March 9th, 2015
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When I first began to study Wicca and Witchcraft I learned about the traditions of Samhain and Beltane, Lughnasahd and Imbolc, four of the eight sacred days in the Pagan year. Many Pagan traditions adopt an unofficial, alternative calendar referred to as ‘The Wheel of the Year” during which there are eight sacred holidays that include the solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days.

I loved, and still love, the chance to contemplate the more subtle shift in the seasons during the cross-quarter holidays; those times between the equinoxes and solstices. For me, the cross-quarter days present an opportunity to go within and consider how the season is affecting me, what I can learn from or how I can better align myself with the changes Mother Earth is presenting.

Samhain (pronounced Sow -when) falls on October 31 and may be best known for its connections to the modern day version of Halloween but its roots actually spring from ancient Celtic New Year celebrations. It’s believed by some that the separation between the worlds of the living and dead become pliable at Samhain and many pagan folk use it as an opportunity to communicate with ancestors who have passed.

That was the focus of the first Samhain ritual I ever attended, and I don’t mind sharing that as a person who spent the better part of her childhood in a fundamentalist religion, I was more than a little nervous about participating in this particular aspect of Witchcraft. What I learned from facing my fears that night shaped my spiritual journey more than all those Sundays in church.

I stared into the Samhain fire (a candle in the center of a large iron cauldron) and practiced the art of scrying as my teacher explained it; I softened my vision and focused only on the flame. I didn’t “see” any dead people with my eyes or hear any unexplained voices, but inside I felt a sense of calm and the presence of a parent I’d lost at a young age. That Samhain night I learned not to be afraid of things just because I couldn’t explain them.

Beltane (Bell-tane) is May 1, and sits directly across from Samhain on the Wheel of the Year. Where Samhain honors the past, Beltane focuses on the future by celebrating fertility and sexuality as sacred actions – and not just physical fertility and sexual action. All the positive ways in which we express our fertility, such as work, creating art or serving our community and all the consensual ways in which we express our sexuality – including abstinence if that’s our choice – are honored at Beltane.

When I was younger the highlight of my Beltane eve was to symbolically reenact the Great Rite (the sexual union of the Goddess and her Consort) with my dear husband. As I’ve grown older the meaning of the sacred day still resonates deeply within me, but with a different focus. I’m now more interested in learning how I can channel my fertile energy in a way that benefits someone other than myself.

One way that I ritualize this intention is to spend part of each Beltane day meditating in my garden. There I can feel the power of spring’s fertility pulsing through my body. It energizes and inspires my creative flow – helping me to think of ways I can contribute to causes I support.

Samhain and Beltane are both “fire festivals” in the Celtic tradition – named so because great bonfires that purified and blessed were part of the cross-quarter day celebrations. But as they are opposite each other on the Wheel, it could be said that the two sacred days are opposite each other in meaning. One is dark, somber and inward-looking while the other is bright, festive and expressive. They represent the dark and the light, and following the traditions of Samhain and Beltane remind me of the balance that’s present in Nature. The same one I’m ever trying to keep.

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