It might feel like many holidays and festivals are just an excuse to spend money and let loose, but even the most commercialised public festivities can trace their origins back to ancient roots.
Equinoxes, changes in the seasons, and astrological events have been observed by humanity for millennia as the natural calendar that dictated our very survival. The hardships that early humans experienced meant that each new season they survived was a cause for celebration, and anything they could do to ensure the survival of the next was vital.
From observing the stars to determine the best time to begin planting crops to celebrations of the earth’s abundance that gives life each spring and harvest season - some rituals became so ingrained into the fabric of human civilisation that they can still be found in our modern-day observances. Here are six pagan festivals that we still celebrate today.
While Halloween has become synonymous with costume parties, excessive amounts of sweets, and all things horror, we can still very much find the origins of the pagan celebrations in how we celebrate today.
Many of our current Halloween traditions can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Once the final harvest of the year was complete, celebrations would begin that usher in the darkest season of the year. Ancient Celts also believed that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, allowing otherworldly creatures and dark spirits to break through into the world of the living. They would burn fires through the night to burn away the darkness, leave offerings of food and treats to appease the spirits and dress up as animals to confuse the fae folk that might try to cause them ill will. Wards were also used to keep angry spirits at bay, including turnips that were hollowed and carved into twisted and scary faces, lit from inside with a candle.
Before the festival of Christmas spread across the Ancient Roman empire around 336 AD, the winter solstice was marked with varying traditions across the European continent.
The Anglo-Saxons and Celtic populations of Britain celebrated the pagan festival of Yule, a nature focussed festival that observed the shortest day of the year and the continuing life of nature even during the darkest and coldest months of the year. Typical Yule traditions included lighting the Yule log in the family hearth, decorating the home with winter greenery like mistletoe, holly, and Ivy, and gift-giving.
3. Hogmanay/New Years' Eve
Every year on New Year's Eve, the streets of Scotland are filled with people celebrating Hogmanay. It’s unclear where the origins of Hogmanay started, but it’s believed that the festival evolved from a mixture of the Celtic Samhain traditions and the winter solstice celebrations of the Vikings who raided and settled in Scotland.
Many of the Hogmanay traditions practised included burning away the darkness of the night with torchlit processions, music, dance, feasting, and first footing; the tradition of being the first foot through the door of friends and family to bring them luck in the year ahead.
4. Valentine's Day/Lupercalia
More recognisable today as a holiday of chocolate and candy, sickly sweet greetings cards, and love hearts, the pagan origins of Valentine's day were much less family-friendly.
Dedicated to the ancient Roman god Lupercus, protector of farmers and shepherds, Lupercalia was an ancient festival of fertility that travelled throughout the ancient roman empire. More than just a celebration of love between people, the ancient festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in mid-February to ‘purify’ cities and ensure a fruitful and fertile year for both agriculture and the townspeople.
Observances included feasting, ritualistic sacrifices of goats and dogs, and a naked run through the town where participants were flogged with strips of the flayed goats' skin.
Like Christmas, Easter was adopted as the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus by Christianity around 300 AD, but it has a far more ancient pagan origin. Named for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre, Easter was the time of the year when pagans would say goodbye to long nights of cold and darkness and hello to longer, brighter days when food would begin growing in abundance.
Much of the traditional iconography that we associate with Easter today comes from pagan celebrations, including the easter bunny (Ēostre was often symbolised by a hare) and hot cross buns that were baked in her honour (the cross symbolised the equal balance of the four seasons).
Falling midway between the Spring equinox and the summer solstice, mayday celebrates the height of spring and its abundance. Ancient Romans celebrated with Floralia, a festival of flowers dedicated to the goddess flora, whose power to make the fruit trees blossom would mean a strong crop harvest later in the year.
In Celtic Britain, Beltane celebrated spring reaching its height and the anticipation of the summer to come. Bonfires would be lit in fields, and people and cattle would walk around them, sometimes jumping through or over the fires for luck. The home fires burning hearths would be put out and re-lit using flames from the Beltane bonfires to usher more luck into the home, and dwellings would be decorated with fresh flowers from the fields.