How Celtic People Measured time. New Years in Ireland?

Celtic people measured time not by days but by nights. beginning at dusk instead of dawn. With Samhain when the crops were waning.Celtic king Beginning on  Oct. 31st. Not Jan 1st. One of the reasons for beginning with evening, is the Celts’ reverence for the moon and certainly they followed the stars, were great astrologers in fact. Take Newgrange in Ireland.  Newgrange is a  5000 year old passage grave and is situated so that the only drop of light shines through a tiny window on the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21st, remarkably close to Christmas and not a coincidence for sure, as the way of the Catholic church was to replace what pagan ideas they could with their own Christian teachings. See other posts on this blog for more information about early Christianity in Ireland.

Cair in the BurrenIf you have a desire to watch the stars yourself, check out this resource: Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve for directions and information about  viewing the night sky. Ireland is one of the best places on the planet to do so, as there are far fewer lights and its geographical and underpopulated location near the sea, affords a perfect view.

Newgrange ceiling stone engravings

Newgrange ceiling stone engraving

Solar Festivals were another way the Celts measured time.
The earliest known Celtic calendar was a lunar calendar called the Coligny calendar written in Latin characters but in Gaulish and made up of bronze plates. It divides each month into fortnights rather than weeks and begins with the full moon. (See Livingmyths.com for more information) Then of course the months were divided into sections beginning with each festival.

Fire FestivalSamhain,  Celtic New Year, Oct 31st, Ancient Fire Festival, the time when the veil of the Otherworld was lifted.

Imbolic Jan. 31, the beginning of winter, Lambing season and a time for women; perhaps they were thought to be most fertile during this period. The Catholic church changed this festival into St Brigit’s Day., thus Christianizing one of the Pagan goddesses.

Text of BeltaneThe book at the left has many more modern traditions celebrating  the Celtic festival, Beltane, which is on May 1st. It was another fire festival and in ancient times, cattle were driven between two fires, perhaps to cleanse or encourage the gods to make them fertile. All festivals  included what modern celebrations do today, games, food, and joy.

Lughnasadh July 31st celebrates summer, and the God of Lugh . The festival was celebrated with competitions of skill and horse racing. In Ireland, Lughnasadh was associated with the fertility goddess,  Emain Macha, who died in childbirth after being forced to race.

These are the more well-known festivals and perhaps the most celebrated. There are others to be sure, and also many more fairs, which were also cause to celebrate. For instance in my novel, the Sun Palace, I’ve a reference to the Taillte Fair.

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2 thoughts on “How Celtic People Measured time. New Years in Ireland?

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  2. Brighid – I really enjoyed this exploration of the Celtic year and how they measured time. It’s interesting that New Year being celebrated on January 1st is a relatively new tradition, only being adopted in the 1700’s. Thanks for pointing out that Samhain was the traditional start of the New Year for the Celtic people.
    Best wishes, and thanks for sharing your research into all things Irish and Celtic.
    Mairéad

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