Cross Quarter Days once held the most important holidays of the year for the ancient Celts and other nearby cultures. Today, most of us have never heard of a Cross Quarter Day. Yet, we still celebrate holidays that are remnants of those distant times.
WHAT THE HECK IS A CROSS QUARTER DAY?
That’s the question I asked when I first heard the term. The answer starts with Quarter Days. I know you’re familiar with these, even if you think you aren’t. Quarter Days are the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. These days are naturally observed as Earth makes its annual orbit around the sun.
For some ancient cultures, there were also Cross Quarter Days. These were the midway points between solstices and equinoxes. Since they likely used the moon’s phases, the dates may not have been precise, but the idea was to observe the date as close to the midway point as possible.
WHY WERE CROSS QUARTER DAYS IMPORTANT?
If we still lived lives in tune with nature and the seasons, we would feel the seasons change around the Cross Quarter Days. Think about the Cross Quarter Day between fall and winter. That’s around the first week of November. I live in Arizona and have family that lives in Washington. In both locations, I hear people commenting about how Halloween is when the weather really starts to change.
In other words, the Fall Equinox often still feels like summer, whereas Halloween is when it truly feels like summer has ended and fall has begun. The ancient Celts celebrated a Cross Quarter Day holiday around November 1 called Samhain (pronounced saw-win.) The word Samhain means “summer’s end.”
The ancient Celts saw the Cross Quarter Days as a unique time of year. They believed the barrier between our world and the underworld weakened, allowing the dead to slip through to the land of the living. This belief has spawned a fascinating array of holidays throughout the year. Some have vanished in modern times, but we can still see remnants of some in our modern celebrations.
CELEBRATING ON CROSS QUARTER DAYS
For ancient Celts, the Cross Quarter Days marked the beginning of seasons rather than the midseason.
FEBRUARY 2: Imbolc and Candlemas
Imbolc is a Celtic word meaning lamb’s milk, and this holiday was the beginning of the lambing season. They also called this day Brigantia in honor of their female deity of light. It celebrated the sun reaching its midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
The Celts tried to estimate how soon spring-like weather would come so they could plant crops at the right time. If Imbolc brought a bright, sunny day, they saw it as an omen for more snow and frost for another six weeks. If it was a dark, cloudy day, it was an omen of warmth and rain on its way to thaw the fields so they could plant sooner.
Today’s Groundhog Day is a remnant of Imbolc. Although we have more scientific ways of predicting the weather for planting, we enjoy the Groundhog Day tradition, even if it is with a wink and a smile.
As Catholicism spread and synchronized with many older celebrations, Imbolc evolved into Candlemas, a day when churches lit candles to celebrate the Christ Child’s presentation in the temple of Jerusalem.
MAY 1: Beltane and May Day
Beltane was the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts, a Cross Quarter Day between spring and summer. The celebrants enjoyed the day by singing and dancing as the people saw the fields sprouting.
Beltane was the time of year when young couples were paired together, like an engagement. Many of the weddings would take place on the Quarter Day, known as Midsummer (June 24), giving the couple about six weeks to get to know each other. To this day, June is still one of the most popular months for weddings.
AUGUST 1: Lughnasadh and Lammas Day
Lughnasadh was traditionally the wedding of the sun god Lugh to the Earth goddess. Their union caused the crops to ripen, ensuring another year of food provision.
The Catholic church transformed this holiday into a Feast of First Fruits. The offering included wheat, corn, barley, oats, and sunflower. They were baked into bread and given at the Loaf Mass, which eventually became known as Lammas.
Lammas is still observed in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Bread is still the focus of the celebration when friends and families gather for a large feast.
OCTOBER 31: Samhain and Halloween
The most important Cross Quarter Holiday in the Celtic culture is Samhain (pronounced saw-win). The word means “summer’s end,” and it marks the beginning of a new year.
Samhain was a night of magic, games, costumes, and spirits of the dead, ferries, old gods, and animal spirits looking for souls to take. So the people would dress up, pretending to be one of those spirits so that the real spirits would pass by them without harming them.
They carved faces in large hallowed-out turnips to confuse the spirits. They left food for their dead relatives in front of the fireplaces and left food on the porch to appease the evil spirits. This practice, of course, turned into trick-or-treating much later.
After all the ghosts and spirits went back to rest in the underworld at midnight, the next day was celebrated as All Saints’ Day.
Across the ocean on another continent, the people of Mexico celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. There is disagreement in the academic world about whether the Day of the Dead is entirely indigenous to the ancestors of the Mexican people or if it contains elements brought to them from Spain and southern Europe. Whatever the answer, the Day of the Dead is a national symbol in Mexico today. In 2008, UNESCO added the tradition to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Learn more about the Celestial Origins of Halloween on Episode 51 of the Night Sky Tourist podcast.