Clan Chattan Association Mid-Year Newsletter, March 2008
IN THIS BUSY computer-driven wired world, the internet, e-mail, blue tooth, cell phones and black berries were supposed to make modern life easier and more convenient. But nowadays it seems that these devices increase the pace of life to a faster tempo than ever. Despite living in a ‘global village’, in our increasingly urban society we are also becoming disconnected both from each other and from the delicate rhythms and seasons of our fragile planet.
OUR HIGHLAND ancestors were far more connected to their community and to the seasonal cycles of the environment around them. Life was tough. Survival was a challenge. Everything depended on understanding the balances of nature and knowing the intertwined patterns of the seasons, weather, crops, livestock and game. Timing was everything. A harsh winter or sunless spring meant a bad harvest, famine and devastation.* In the rains and mist of ancient Caledonia/Alba, it was no wonder the Druids venerated the coy sun and marked and observed the four Albanns, or equinoxes and solstices with alternating desperation or enthusiasm.
FOR OVER two and a half thousand years, the lunar calendar of the Celtic west was divided by four important Quarter Day holidays. Whether marked on the Coligny, Julian or the Gregorian (which followed the Julian by eleven days) calendars, these important quarter day feasts were also times of celebration, family and clan gatherings and renewal. They were also expressed and celebrated with fires.
THE DARK HALF : Samhain (November 1). The last pale vestiges of summer faded as if a dream. The land and the year symbolically died in dark and cold. Kin and clan gathered to both celebrate and to give thanks for the rich harvest and fruits of the land and the hunt. At the first spark of the newly kindled year, our ancestors also gathered together around the fire to plan and debate courses of action for the upcoming seasons. They listened to the Sennachie and Bards tell stories of their ancestor’s heroic deeds in raid and battle. Our forbearers also believed that at this pivotal time and at Beltaine, the veil or portal between the natural world and the supernatural world of faerie was open. Vestiges of this are celebrated by children the night before on All Hallows ‘Een. During this day, what the Roman Catholic Church later proclaimed as ‘All Souls Day’, both holy saints and beloved family members who had died were also honored and remembered with candles, feast, toasts, prayers and bonfires.
Imbolc (February 1) : Winter’s icy grip started to imperceptibly, slowly melt away. The first quiet stirrings of the newly pregnant land and the lactating ewes and cattle upon it was just barely evident. Like a flame in the snow withered land, the bright crocus and pansy were heralds of awakening spring and an encouraging sign of the fertility Goddess Bride. With flame, white candles and offerings of milk poured into the soil, Bride’s Christian reflection, Saint Brigid was celebrated at Candlemass. In ancient Eire and Alba, Brigid herself was believed to be Mary’s midwife – magically brought by angels or the faeries all the way from Eire to Mary in her time of need at the manger. Imbolc is also the day when ‘an Cailleach’, the wise old crone goddess gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make winter last a bit longer, she will cause the weather on Imbolc to be bright and sunny, so she can gather more wood. It is a good sign if Imbolc is a day of rain and clouds - as it means ‘an Cailleach’ is asleep and winter is almost over.
THE LIGHT HALF : Beltaine (May 1). Encouraged by bonfires on hilltops, the fiery sun showed his face and stirred hearts in ‘the merry month of May’. Joyously alive after a tough winter, our earthy ancestors echoed the jubilant rhythms of life and fertility amidst a burgeoning explosion of spreading leaf and swelling bud. Gathering together, perhaps they circled around a decorated Maypole or processed around the local maze to a piper or fiddlers tune. Wearing vibrant colours and floral garlands, the woman of the clan joyously danced and leapt over bonfires - to be blessed and cleansed by the sacred smoke. Cattle, the main symbol of wealth and prestige, were also driven through the smoke. Newly plowed earth was laid bare and seed was sown in anticipation and hope for the future. Babies sown last summer at Lughnasadh were born in the sweet month of May. In the Celtic west, the blessed Mother Mary was honoured in her three forms: as young Virgin, as blessed Mother and as aged Crone, wise with sorrow….one who never left her son’s side - even at the cross.
Lughnasadh (August 1) : Again expressed in bonfires on the hill tops, Lughnasadh was a celebration of the clans first harvests of corn, grain and herb and ripening fruit and berry. It was also a time of gathering not just the first bounties of the earth but where family, kin, clan, tribe and kingdom gathered together to strengthen bonds, allegiances and friendships. The warriors of the clan also flexed their muscle and practiced feats of strength and speed, expressed in cattle raid and battle. Resplendent in checks, tartan, elegantly gleaming weapons and jewelry, they strutted their stuff in front of the women-folk or raced shaggy ponies under the summer sun. Despite of or because of the noise, harps, bagpipes, barking dogs and gossip, the more vital business of passion, love and life kindled at Beltaine was expressed in hand-fasting, engagements and marriages - all sealed with blessings and summer’s golden kiss.
SO. In this modern frenetic world we’ve created, take some precious time to reconnect with yourself: with an ancient, simpler time, with your family and with the precious Earth under your feet. Turn off the television, cell-phone and computer. Go outside more - rain or shine, winter or summer. Have a look around your own home - be it city, suburb or country. Notice the subtleties of the ever-roving waxing and waning moon during the ‘wheel of the year’. Mark the differences where the wan sun rises at the winter solstice, the first day of spring or on blessed Easter morn. Where does ‘Old Sol’ triumphantly rise on Mid Summer’s Day or forlornly set on the autumnal equinox. # Look at the stars. When was the last time we noticed Venus rising out of the misty pre-dawn murk? I’ll bet the last time we all watched clouds floating by is back when we were kids.
And perhaps, on one of the Celtic Quarter-Days that resonate in your own heart, you can gather a few friends or family members. Have a cheery meal and a libation together. Light a wee fire if you can. Share in the happy silence. And Reconnect.
*Which meant that there would soon be a creach or raid on whoever you were at feud with!
# Most of the Standing Stones and Ring Cairns in Clan Chattan country are oriented to lunar or solar events.