seax wica lyblacSeax Wica And Lyblac


by Richard Sermon


England has a rich tradition of annual customs and festivals which include Yule, Lent, Easter, May Day, Midsummer, Harvest and Halloween, as well as many local minor festivals. The majority of published references on English folk tradition tend to attribute either Roman or Celtic origins to these annual events. For example, Yule is often identified with the Roman Saturnalia, and May Day with Florialia. However, it is the Celtic calendar that is most often used to explain the origins of the English traditional year.

The Celtic Calendar

The Celts are first recorded in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, who locates them in the area of the upper Danube. Later Roman historians referred to a number of peoples within their empire as being either Celts or Gauls. At their greatest extent, Celtic languages were spoken throughout what is now northern Italy, France, Spain, Britain and Ireland.

'No man will travel this country,' she said, 'who hasn't gone sleepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning, from Imbolc to Beltane at the summer's beginning and from Beltane to Brón Trogain, earth's sorrowing autumn'.

The above passage comes from the 1Oth to 11th century collection of Irish heroic tales known as the Ulster Cycle.(1) During the wooing of Emer by the hero Cúchulainn, he is required to sleep for a year before she will agree to marry him. In describing the year Emer also provides the earliest reference to all four of the Irish pagan festivals, that marked the changing of the seasons. Three of these festivals' names have survived in Ireland and highland Scotland, as the month names for May, August and November. However, in later sources Brón Trogain is known by the name Lúgnasad.

Surviving Old Irish Festival Names

Old Irish Irish Scots Gaelic Interpretation
Imbolc ----- ----- Ewes milking
Beltane Bealtaine Bealltainn Bright fire
Lùgnased Lùnasa Lùnasdal Lug's festival
Samain Samhna Samhainn Summer end

In the 19th century during the 'Celtic Revival' these early Irish festivals were rediscovered by folklorists and academics who attempted to reconstruct a pan-celtic year, that was said to have existed not only in Ireland and Scotland, but throughout Britain and the former Celtic speaking parts of Europe. This 'Celtic Calendar' was believed to have included the winter and summer solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes, as well as the four recorded festivals that marked the changing seasons. In addition, it was thought that bonfires had been a central part of all these festivals, giving rise to the idea of the Fire Festivals. The resulting calendar has been used extensively since the 19th century to explain the origins of the English traditional year.

Celtic Revival Calendar

Celtic Year Date Assumed Equivalent
Winter Solstice 21 December Yule
Imbolc 1 February Lent
Spring Equinox 21 March Easter
Beltane 1 May May Day
Summer Solstice 21 June Midsummer
Lùgnasad 1 August Lammas
Autumn Equinox 22 September Harvest
Samain 1st November Halloween

However, this calendar has now been called into question by the work of Ronald Hutton.(2) He has pointed out that while Imbolc, Beltane, Lagnasad and Samain are found in the Goidelic branch of the Celtic language group (Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic), they are not found in the Brithonic branch (Welsh, Cornish and Breton). Given the lack of evidence that these festivals were observed by the Celtic Britons, it is difficult to see how they could then have passed into English folk tradition. It should also be noted that the early Irish texts do not mention festivals on the solstices or equinoxes, hence the lack of Old Irish names for these.

The concept of the 'Celtic Calendar' is now so deeply imbedded in both popular and academic belief, that it is repeated throughout the literature on Celtic culture, history and archaeology, but with no reference back to original source material. So much so that many eminent archaeologists and historians have reproduced the calendar in their various works. Nevertheless, in Hutton's final conclusions he clearly demonstrates that the 'Celtic Year' is a modem scholastic construction.

Celtic Months Names

Welsh Cornish Scots Gaelic Irish Equivalent
Ionawr Genver Faoilteach Eanáir January
Chwefror Whever Gearran Feabhra February
Mawrth Merth Márt Márta March
Ebrill Ebrel Giblean Aibreán April
Mai Me Céitean Bealtane May
Mehefin Metheven Òg-mhios Meitheamh June
Gorffennaf Gortheren Iuchar Iùil July
Awst Est Lùnasdal lùnasa August
Medi Gwyngala Sultainn Meám Fhómhair September
Hydref Hedra Damhar Deireadh Fhómhair October
Tachwedd Du Samhainn Samhna November
Rhagfyr Kevardhu Dùdlachd Nollag December

The English Year

The English or Angli are first recorded in AD 98, when the Roman historian Tacitus describes them in his study of the Germanic peoples the Germania.(3) Tacitus locates the Angli in what is now the border area between Germany and Denmark, part of which still bears the name Angeln. In the 5th century AD the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) began to leave their homelands in north Germany and Denmark, and settle in lowland Britain following the collapse of Roman rule. Their arrival and settlement in Britain is described by the Northumbrian cleric Bede in AD 731.(4) The Anglo-Saxons called their new land Englalond and their language Englisc, after the Angles. While the nature of the Anglo-Saxon settlement is still hotly debated (folk migration versus dominant élitc), they were the first to identify themselves as being English.

The earliest description of the English (Anglo-Saxon) year is given by Bede in AD 725, who in a text on the church calendar, De Temporum Ratione, also described the Anglo-Saxon pagan year.(5) The year started at Yule (Geola) in the middle of winter, and was preceded by a festival known as Mothers Night (Modra Nect). Half way through the year was the festival Litha (Liða) in the middle of summer. The year consisted of 12 lunar months which approximated to those of the Julian calendar.

Anglo-Saxon Months

Anglo-Saxon Translation Equivalent
Æfterra Later Yule January
Solmonað Sol-month February
Hreothmonað Hreth Month March
Eastremonað Easter month April
Drimilce Three-milkings May
Ærra Liða Earlier Litha June
Æfterra Liða Later Litha July
Weodmonað Weed-month August
Haligmonað Holy-month September
Winterfylleð Winter-full October
Blotmonað Blood-month November
Ærra Geola Earlier Yule December

Bede also described what he thought to be the origins of the month names. Yule was not only the name for the middle of winter but also the months before and after the festival. Next came the month of mud (sol) when cakes were offered to the gods. The following two months were named after the Anglo-Saxon goddesses Hretha and Eastre, the spring goddess. Then came the month when cattle had to be milked three times a day. The summer festival Litha, like Yule, was flanked by two months bearing the same name. Weed-month was simply the time when weeds grew most, and Holy-month when offerings were made to the gods. Finally came the month of the first winter full moon, and the month of blood when animals were slaughtered or sacrificed.

Anglo-Saxon Seasons, Solstices and Equinoxes

Anglo-Saxon Translation Equivalent
Lencten Lent Spring
Sumor Summer Summer
Hærfest Harvest Autumn
Winter Winter Winter
Efniht Even-night Spring Equinox
Middansumor Midsummer Summer Solstice
Efniht Even-night Autumn Equinox
Middanwinter Midwinter Winter Solstice

Bede goes on to explain that the pagan English year was divided into just two seasons, winter and summer. The earliest references to Lent and Harvest occur in 9th century texts. In Byrhtferth's Handboc, a scientific manual written in AD 1011, all four seasons are named as lengten, sumor, Hærfest and winter.(6) Lent being the season when the days began to lengthen and Harvest when the crops were gathered in. Byrhtferth also described the relationship between the seasons, the solstices and the equinoxes, and clearly interpreted the Latin word solstice as Midsummer.

Therefore, the Anglo-Saxon texts provide us with the names of the months, seasons, solstices and equinoxes. Many of these names have survived into modern English, and are found throughout the Germanic language group. This broad agreement among the Germanic languages, when compared with the Celtic languages, would suggest that a common year is more likely to have existed in the Germanic rather than Celtic speaking parts of Europe.
Surviving Germanic Season and Festivals Names

Anglo-Saxon English Dutch German Swedish
Geola Yule ------ Julfest Jul
Eastre Easter ------ Ostern ------
Lencten Lent Lente Lenz Vår
Sumor Summer Zomer Sommer Sommar
Hæfest Harvest Herfst Herbst Höst
Winter Winter Winter Winter Vinter
Middansumor Midsummer Midzomer Mittsommer Midsommar
Middanwinter Midwinter Midwinter Mittwinter Midvinter

This commonality is also reflected in the English names for the days of the week. In the 3rd century AD, when Germanic soldiers were recruited by the Roman Legions, various Germanic tribes began to adopt the Roman seven day week with its days named after the planets. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were named after the same planets as their Latin equivalents, while Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were named after the Germanic gods Tiw, Weden, Thunor and Frig. When the Anglo-Saxons began to settle in lowland Britain during the fith century AD, they brought their week with them. These names have survived down through the centuries and are found throughout the Germanic language group.

Germanic Day Names
Anglo-Saxon   English        Dutch             German            Swedish
Sunnandæg     Sunday        Zondag           Sonntag           Söndag
Monandæg      Monday       Maandag       Montag            Måndag
Tiwesdæg        Tuesday        Dinsdag         Dienstag          Tisdag
Wodnesdæg   Wednesday Woensdag     Mittwoch         Onsdag
Þunresdæg     Thursday      Donderdag   Donnersdag    Torsdag
Frigedæg         Friday            Vrijdag           Freitag              Fredag
Sæterndæg     Saturday       Zaterdag        Samstag           Lördag


The historic sources clearly demonstrate that Yule, Lent, Easter, Summer, Midsummer, Harvest, Winter and Midwinter, all derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Furthermore, these names are found throughout the Germanic language group, in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that have never been inhabited by Celtic language speakers. This would suggest that the major divisions of the English traditional year are of Anglo-Saxon rather than Celtic origin. These survivals from the Anglo-Saxon year must surely have provided the fabric into which later traditions, such as May Day and Halloween, have been woven. Future research could usefully re-examine received wisdom about the origins of English folk customs, many of which are assumed to have Celtic origins, but are not found in the Celtic regions of Britain or Ireland.

This article has been developed from two earlier published papers under a similar title.(7 & 8)


KINSELLA, T. (trans). The Tain. Oxford, 1970. 272.
HUTTON. R. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford. 1996. 408-11
MATTINGLY, H. (trans). Tacilus, The Germanic. Penguin. 1970. 134-5
KING, J. (ed). Beds, llistorical Works, 1. Loob. 1930. 68-74
JONES, C. (ed). Bede, De Ternicorum Rations, XV.1976.
KLUGE, F. (ed). 'Byrhtfer'd's Handboe', Anglia, V111. 1885. 298-337
SERMON, R. T1w Mankind Quarterly. XL, 4. 2000, 401 A20
SERMON, R. English Dance & Song, 63. 2001. 1, 3-4

Published in Glevensis, Journal 34, 2001.