Sunday, November 11, 2007


Cross-Quarter Days

What we think of as some of our traditional Christian holidays are usually older festivals which the Christians took over. Few scholars doubt that Christmas was actually a much older festival celebrating the return of the sun--the rebirth of light into the world--after the shortest day on the Winter Solstice, December 20 or 21. Easter, likewise, was clearly, originally an old Spring fertility festival, or perhaps you thought that Easter eggs and Easter bunnies were symbols of something else. As we celebrate things near the solstices (and to a lesser degree at the equinoxes) we also tend to have holidays on or within a few days of the midway point between solstice and equinox--the Cross-Quarter days.

The Celts had names for them: Samhain (Nov. 1); Imbolc (Feb. 2); Beltane (May 1); and, Lughnasadh (Aug. 1). That last should rightly be Mid-Summer, but generally Mid-Summer is celebrated on the Summer Solstice in late June (so much for the mid).

I find it interesting that we still have modern, albeit not that important, holidays on each of these days or close enough. There's Halloween (and All Saints Day and All Souls Day/Day of the Dead) for Samhain. Imbolc has lapsed to near meaninglessness with Groundhog's Day. Walpurgis Night (April 30) has some drinking and bonfire burning still in central Europe and May Day was pretty big in the Soviet Union but has become pretty unimportant lately (unless you think Cinco de Mayo is the slightly delayed version here in America for Hispanics). May 1 is also the Celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, somewhat important to Catholics. The least of them is the August 1 day which in the Northern Hemisphere is Lammas, "Loaf Mass," the blessing of the wheat harvest. In America, this festival has migrated to July 4 where it is roughly celebrated in the same, traditional way, with outdoor family meals and bonfires (now fireworks), but it's still strong in Ireland and Switzerland on the original day. Of course, it is possible that July 4 has also taken over the purpose of the older Summer Solstice festival as well. That's a tough call. I'd put that to another holiday as explained just below.

Memorial day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September now mark the start and end of Summer here in America even though the real start of Summer and Fall lag by three weeks or so and thus those modern holidays steal the thunder the Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox used to have.


The "real start of summer" is on the summer solstice because Europe has an exaggeratedly littoral climate (because of the Gulf Stream). This is because the ocean acts as a huge heat reservoir that causes the air temperature to lag the energy input substantially.

In our (continental) climate, where there is no such reservoir, summer starts at the beginning of June (close enough). The same happens with the other seasons.
I believe you, and there certainly seems to be just that difference between us and the Europeans.
I've always found it fairly amusing that Easter falls on the first Sunday, following the first full moon, following the first day of Spring.
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