Distinguishing the New Year in the Irish or Scottish calendar can be a tricky issue, becuase it’s varied in date in different periods and in different countries. Until 1600 in Scotland, the New Year officially fell on March 25th, or Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation), a date that had been determined by the learned Dionysius in 527CE and which had been adopted across most of Europe over a three hundred year period between the ninth and twelfth centuries.1
Before the adoption of March 25th as the date for the New Year, the Church fixed the date on January 1st, as was the practice in the Julian calendar from the time of the late Republic. The shifting of the date for the New Year in Scotland was aimed to bring the year into line with the continent, who had been using the Gregorian calendar since 1582, but Scotland maintained the Julian calendar, along with the rest of Britain, until 1752.2
These dates for the New Year are obviously from the Christian calendar. In the pre-Christian Gaelic calendar of we see evidence of the year being divided into two halves – a summer half and a winter half – as well as the four seasons, which were marked by the four festivals.3 As a cycle, the seasons turn and each festival is observed in the proper order, but what evidence do we have to suggest which festival might have marked the new year for those pre-Christian Gaels?
You’ve probably heard that Samhainn is the “Celtic new year.” It’s something that’s oft repeated, but rarely analysed. Is it really the new year? Where does this idea come from?
In actual fact, it seems that the claim can only be traced back to antiquarian sources dating to the nineteenth century. The fact remains that really, in spite of the popular acceptance of Samhainn being viewed as the New Year in Ireland and Scotland, it is never really explicitly stated as being being the case in the literature (barring the occasional glosses of the modern translators in some of the tales that are set at Samhainn). That doesn’t mean that the New Year can’t be determined – necessarily, at least – but the case for proving Samhainn or any other date as being the date for the New Year isn’t necessarily as cut and dried as the case once appeared. Let’s start at the beginning (it usually helps…).
The Old New Year4
Back in the dim and distant days of the nineteenth century, as the field of Celtic Studies was starting to gain momentum, there was much to be written on the pagan past of the Celtic world. In 1886, John Rhŷs’ Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom was published – a seminal work on the subject in many respects – and so began the idea of Samhainn as ‘the Celtic New Year’ as a concrete fact. It is from Rhŷs’ work that more recent works that claim Samhainn as the Celtic New Year are based, either directly or indirectly.
The main points of Rhŷs’ argument were that:
- As according to the work of Caesar, the Celts reckoned their days as starting at night, and so their seasons gave precedence to winter over summer;
- That according to Cormac’s Glossary, the last month of autumn was the last month of the year (i.e. October);
- That the preponderance of divinatory rites at Samhainn was a reflection of the natural concern people had as far as what kind of fortune the coming year would bring;
- That in Irish custom, a fire had been lit from Tlachtga at Samhainn, by which all the hearths in Ireland were then relit – a new light for the new year, as it were.5
The first point regarding the precedence of nights and the winter season is a leap of logic on Rhŷs’ part. Caesar actually wrote:
“[6 18] The Gauls all assert their descent from Dis Pater and say that it is the Druidic belief. For this reason they count periods of time not by the number of days but by the number of nights; and in reckoning birthdays and the new moon and new year their unit of reckoning is the night followed by the day.”6
So there is no explicit mention that the new year was therefore naturally at the start of winter, and really, even though there does seem to be an emphasis on the eve of festivals in both Ireland and Scotland, it’s questionable just how relevant a non-native, and hardly unbiased, source (as Caesar was) is to the matter at hand.
Rhŷs’ second point, with regard to Cormac’s Glossary is also shaky. The entry actually states:
“Fogamur [Fogamur B] it is a name for the last month in the autumn…”7
The entry is therefore quite explicit in stating that it is simply the last month of the season, but Rhŷs offers a slightly tweaked ‘correction’ because, in his his opinion, the Irish has been tampered with.8 No evidence is given to justify why he thinks this and so it’s looking like Rhŷs is trying to force the evidence to prove his point. He further cites the work of John O’ Donovan as agreeing with him. At one point O’ Donovan does agree, but only based on this one source, and as the result of O’ Donovan’s own speculation on the matter – not from a direct translation of Cormac’s Glossary that happens to agree with Rhŷs.9
O’ Donovan goes to on to offer evidence for a variety of possibilities as to when the New Year might have been – something that Rhŷs notably neglects to mention – and he ultimately concludes: “The fact seems to be that we cannot yet determine the season with which the Pagan Irish year commenced.”10 Rhŷs begins to appear a tad disingenuous in his use of the evidence at this point.
The point about divinatory customs is a knottier one to determine, since there is a definite emphasis on such practises at Samhainn. While the other festivals also have their own divinations associated with them, Samhainn is the one that stands out the most, but this may arguably be due to the fact that of all the festivals, Samhainn also has the most emphasis on the supernatural, which would arguably make divination more reliable or desirable at such a time.
The evidence of the fires of Tlachtga has its origins with Keating in the seventeenth century,11 and as the only source that refers to this practice, its reliability must be called into question.12 As it is, then, only the divinatory rites could be considered to have a basis in fact, but considered by itself, the point may stand, but only as a weak support – inconclusive at best.
Even so, this hasn’t stopped Rhŷs’ point from being perpetuated. Frazer’s acceptance of Samhainn as the new year, in The Golden Bough, further helped to cement it as fact,13 and cited evidence from the Isle of Man, where a song was recorded as having been sung on Hallowe’en (Old Style) that began, “To-night New Year’s Night, Hogunnaa!”14
On the face of it, this song lends credence to Rhŷs’ point, but it could easily be explained by the fact that so many customs shifted from one festival to another as one became more popular and another less so, that this could simply be a case of a Hogmanay rite – where groups of young men and sometimes women would go round collecting food or money for a good shindig to celebrate the new year in style – shifting to Samhainn. Hutton argues this as being the case, “to increase merriment”,15 but arguably it would be a case of a Samhainn rite shifting to Hogmanay, and then back again.
The case for Samhainn…or Là Fhèill Brìghde…or Bealltainn?
As it is, Rhŷs and then Frazer may have based their argument for Samhainn as the new year on less than solid foundations, but we have yet to consider the evidence from the literature, lore and historical record in any great detail. There is evidence that could be seen to support Samhainn as the new year, but equally, there is evidence to support both Là Fhèill Brìghde and Bealltainn as well.
Much of the argument for Samhainn being the New Year is based on its prevalence in the tales; many of the most important events seem to happen at this time of year, and it gets more mention than any other festival. Samhainn was the usual time of year for a great assembly of the people,16 and so with everyone together in close quarters, at a time when Otherworldly elements are much more apparent, perhaps it’s inevitable and natural to emphasise its importance in the way the year was divided. Presumably, however, there was a reason for this time of year being chosen for such a meeting, so perhaps such a festive occasion did mark (or incorporate) the New Year as well as the start of the winter season.
Marie-Louise Sjoestedt interprets the conception of Oengus, in The Wooing of Etain, as being clearly the result of the time of year – Samhainn as the new year. His parents, Boann and the Dagda, come together in an illicit union after the Dagda stops time, with days becoming months to allow the birth of his son to go unnoticed by Boann’s husband. The result is Oengus, sometimes called the Mac In Dá Óc – ‘the son of the two young ones’ – which Sjoestedt interprets in the sense of the couple coming together as chieftain-god and ferility goddess, “when the year is born”;17 their act of union ever-renewing the vitality of the tribe through the conception and then birth of their son at such a remarkable time of year, within such a remarkable timeframe. Perhaps, as Sjoestedt argues, the divide between this world and the Otherworld is so thin because “this night belongs neither to one year nor the other, and is, as it were, free from temporal restraint. It seems that the whole supernatural force is attracted by the seam thus left at the point where the two years join, and gathers to invade the world of men.”18
The interpretation is seductive, in one sense, giving a deep symbolism to Oengus’ origins; but then one has to wonder whether a túath’s fate would really rest on such a clandestine act – the Dagda sleeping with Boann, when she is already married. Surely the purpose of stopping time is (primarily, at least) to avoid being caught? And surely, if the Dagda’s motives were for his people’s interests first and foremost, he would show strong leadership and get rid of Boann’s husband before sleeping with her, since in early Irish law several wives were permissible, but not several husbands.19 Is it simply the case that the nature of Samhainn, when the divide between this world and the Otherworld was so thin, would be the perfect timing for the Dagda to capitalise on with such a feat? Or perhaps Oengus, ‘Mac Óc’ – ‘the young son’ – really is named for the young year, renewed and vital once again and always.
Equally, it could be argued, that the timing is more to do with the transition of the season, from the summer half to the winter half. A recurring theme with tales set at Samhainn is struggle and combat, with the Otherworld and this world coming together in chaotic or hostile circumstances.20 It could be argued that this is reflective of the changing of the seasons, from the warm, bright summer, when people were busy tending to the crops and livestock, to make enough food to last the coming year, and kings led their men into cattle raids and combat to increase their renown and status; to the dark, quieter winter when the measure of the summer’s hard work, and the autumn’s reaping, would become apparent.
The chaotic theme of Samhainn, often accompanied by deaths in the tales – such as Muirchertach, Crimthann, Diarmaid mac Cerbhaill, Conaire Mór and Cú Chulainn21 – is perhaps an overshadowing of the potential of the season to come, when livestock and weaker members of the tuath might succumb to the cold or lack of fresh, nutritious food if the autumn’s harvest had failed. What better time to set tales that frequently feature the renewal of the bonds between the king and the land – or in some cases, the failure to live up to the contract of those bonds, such as Conaire’s breaking of his gessi in The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.
At the moment, then, there is as much ambiguity about interpreting the underlying meaning of the festival as there is in determining whether or not Samhainn was the New Year. We must look elsewhere to support the case, or not as the case may be. Perhaps, as scholars have often done, we can look to the context in which the festivals are mentioned, and whether or not one is given precedence over the others. In this case, a tale from the Ulster Cycle, The Wooing of Emer – the oldest body of tales from Irish literature – is often cited, because it lays the festivals and the seasons out clearly:
“No man will travel this country…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 Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Brón Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.”22
Here Emer is challenging Cú Chulainn to prove his worthiness (and seriousness) for her hand in marriage. The fact that Emer puts Samhainn first might suggest that this is the natural starting point of the year. However, later in the tale we are told:
“For two division were formerly on the year, viz, summer from Beltaine (the first of May), and winter from Samuin to Beltaine.”23
Applying the same logic, things are looking decidedly murky once again, and we must look keep looking for further evidence. A fourteenth century poem in the Hibernica Minora, for example, also begins the year with Bealltainn:
“I relate to you, a surpassing festival,
the priveleged dues of Bealtain;
beer, roots, mild whey,
and fresh curds to the fire.
Lugnassad, tell of its dues
of every distinct year,
trial of every glorious fruit,
food of herbs on Lugnassad day.
Meat, beer, nut mast, chitterlings,
they are the dues of Samhain;
a merry bonfire on the hill,
buttermilk, fresh-buttered bread.
Trial of every food in order,
this is proper at Imbolc;
washing of hand and foot and head;
it is thus I relate.”24
Once again, if we assume that the poem is starting at the New Year, then Bealltainn gets another vote for being the likely candidate. O’ Donovan gives further support to the idea, stating that the year was divided into two halves – gam (or geim), and sam, as The Wooing of Emer illustrates – in an Irish law tract. Here they are divided into two unequal parts of five months and then seven months, called Samh-fucht and Gamh-fucht, or summer-time and winter-time. For legal purposes, the summer period began in March and ended in July, with the winter period beginning in August and running through until the end of February, in order to help regulate grazing and trespass laws (since the price of rent for grazing land would vary according to the season).25
If we are to argue that Samhainn’s importance in the tales led to its prominence – such as in the example from The Wooing of Emer, where it is listed first and foremost in Emer’s challenge to Cú Chulainn – then equally the same argument could apply here. Fines for grazing trespass would have been higher in the winter, since the grass would not have grown back as quickly, and therefore there was more potential for damage or hardship to be inflicted on the injured party’s livestock.26 In this sense, one would expect winter to be listed first since the potential for damages would have been greater then. Presumably, therefore, the summer period is listed first because it is the first half of the year. Or maybe it just sounded better that way round, and too much is being read into the evidence…
O’ Donovan suggested that Là Fhèill Brìghde could have been the new year, since it made sense to start the year at the start of the spring, “when the sheep began to yean and the grass to grow…”27 – and, presumably, it makes sense from the view that the ploughing and sowing season and therefore the arable year also begins in earnest. Joyce mentions an Irish poem that gives February 1st as the start of the year, but his source, O’ Curry, never gave any evidence to support his claim.28
Equally, Bealltainn marks the start of the summer season and therefore the summer grazing up on the hills, which was traditionally marked with great ceremony – the saining of the cattle and other livestock between the bonfires (or over the smouldering ashes), followed by the saining of the people and relighting of the household hearth-fires from the community’s central bonfire.29 Many of these rites echo those of Samhainn – the emphasis on saining, the bonfire, and we do see some evidence of divination as well – and given the arguments made by Rhŷs, for Samhainn as the new year, Bealltainn is looking increasingly stronger as a candidate.
Considering the fact that the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have arrived in Ireland on ‘Monday in the beginning of the month of May’ – for which we can assume there is a direct reference to Bealltainn here – one might suggest that this also supports the idea for this being the start of the new year. That the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived at a festival where there is a certain emphasis on liminality, a shifting between the major divisions of the seasons and light and dark, either Bealltainn or Samhainn would have been appropriate. Perhaps symbolically, Bealltainn is the better fit for their arrival, since as gods they are heavily involved in the land and its fertile aspect. Or perhaps having their arrival at the start of the new year also made symbolic sense.
Looking to modern sources, Glassie gives either Bealltainn or Là Fhèill Brìghde (amongst others) as the dates for the “old” new year, before January 1st became the standard:
“The year is organized around centres more than beginnings, ends, and edges.
“The instant separating this year from the next is noted, not celebrated. Bells echo through Enniskillen on December’s last night, but New Year’s is only one of the twelve days of Christmas in the countryside, and a year is marked for remembrance on a day near its middle, the Twelfth of July for Protestants, the Fifteenth of August for Catholics. Without fretting about contradictions, the district’s people use two calendars. The new one consists of a subdivided unit, the year begun on the first of January. The old year’s first day is either St Brighid’s Day, February 1, or May Day, or both or neither.”30
And so it seems there might not be a definitive answer, since the old calendar provides so many different beginnings. Glassie makes a good point that should be borne in mind; the seemingly conflicting evidence might give us a headache, but it probably wasn’t such a problem to the Gaels.
Perhaps what we see from the evidence is a variety of different “traditional” new year’s day all competing with each other, according to local custom, and the legal, ecclesiastical, or agricultural calendar. Certainly the Martyrology of Oengus, which lists the qualities of each day of the year from January 1st onwards, is significant in following the Roman practice,31 whereas the examples of folklore and poetry we have seen suggest dates that are linked with the agricultural calendar at Là Fhèill Brìghde or Bealltainn, or perhaps mythologically at Samhainn.
1 Old Style and New Style Dates and the change to the Gregorian Calendar: A summary for genealogists.
2 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume I, 1957, p15. See also Old Style and New Style Dates and the change to the Gregorian Calendar: A summary for genealogists.
3 “That the Pagan Irish divided the year into four quarters is quite evident from the terms Earrach, Samhradh, Foghmar, Geimhridh, which are undoubtedly ancient Irish words, not derived from the Latin through Christianity; and that each of these began with a stated day, three of which days are still know…” [i.e. Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain, as they are known in Ireland. The Old Irish name Imbolc/Oímelc fell out of favour, being replaced with the name for the saint’s day instead.] O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plv.
4 See also the article at Caer Australis – Samhain is not the Celtic New Year.
5 Rhŷs, The Hibbert Lectures: Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, 1886, p514-516.
6 Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6:18. See also the article on the Coligny Calendar at Caer Australis for how the order of the months and their potential meanings can affect the argument.
7 O’ Donovan, Cormac’s Glossary, 1868, p74.
8 Rhŷs, The Hibbert Lectures: Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, 1886, p514.
9 O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plv.
10 O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, pliii.
11 Keating, The General History of Ireland, 1841 (1634), p245-p246.
12 Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and Feast of Tara,’ p130.
13 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p363.
14 Frazer, The Golden Bough, p634.
15 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, p363.
16 See, for example, The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn. Other events include the run up to Cath Maige Tuired, Táin Bó Cúailgne, The Adventure of Nera, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.
17 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p41-p42.
18 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p51-p52.
19 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p70.
20 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p53.
21 Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1968, p128.
22 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p27.
23 Meyer, The Wooing of Emer, p232. O’ Donovan gives the same outline in Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plii-pliii.
24 Meyer, Hibernica Minora, see also Jackson, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, 1935, p169.
25 O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plv; Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1903, p390.
26 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, 1997, p43-p46.
27 O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plv.
28 Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1903, p390.
29 See Bealltainn. McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p59; Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1993, p617-618; Stokes, Sanas Cormac (translated by John O’Donovan), 1868, p19; Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, 1982, p355; Sir William Wilde, Popular Irish Superstitions, 1852, p39-40; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p96.
30 Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, 1982, p351-p352.
31 O’ Donovan, Leabhar na g-ceart or The Book of Rights, 1847, plv.