On Lúnasa

It’s the first of August which means it is the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasadh (which, in modern Irish, is Lúnasa). This coincides with the English Lammas Day one of many Christian festivals which have pagan origins. Traditionally 1st August marks the start of the harvest season and is celebrated accordingly, with rites involving the first fruit and bread baked from flour obtained from the first corn.

Tomorrow being the first Monday in August it is a Bank Holiday in Ireland called Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa. This holiday was created by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 when Ireland was under British rule. While the holiday was subsequently moved to the end of August in England and Wales it has remained at the start of August in Ireland, which is a far better place for it in my opinion.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. I find it intriguing that the academic year for universities here in Ireland is largely defined by the above dates dates.

The first semester of the academic year 2021/22 starts on September 20th 2021 (the Autumnal Equinox is on September 22nd) and finishes on 17th December (the Winter Solstice is on December 21st ).  Halloween (31st October) is actually a Sunday this year so the related bank holiday is on Monday 25th October; half term (study week) always includes the Halloween Bank Holiday. The term is pushed forward a bit because it finishes on a Friday and it would not be acceptable to end it on Christmas Eve!

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts 31st January 2022. Half-term is then from 14th to 18th March (the Vernal Equinox; is on March 20th) and teaching ends on May 6th.  More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation.

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Another tradition seems to be that examinations come straight after bank holidays, both in May and August. The repeat examination period begins on August 4th this year. You can interpret that in two ways: one is that students have a guaranteed day off to do revision; the other is that the bank holidays in May and August are ruined by the need to prepare for exams…

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