The Pagan University Year

This morning we had the usual end-of-year meeting of the University Examination Board. It’s been a difficult year so it was a longer meeting than usual but it went reasonably smoothly. Marks will be released to students either tomorrow or Friday. That basically concludes the formal business for the academic year.

The proximity of this important event to yesterday’s Summer Solstice got me thinking again about the academic year and how it relates to the old pagan calendar.

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 each of about 13 weeks.

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 traditional Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. The first has not been a holiday but from next year there will be a new Bank Holiday that occurs on or near 1st February, which completes the set of cross-quarter-day holidays.

Anyway, it is interesting (to me) to note the extent that the academic year here in Ireland is defined by these dates.

Usually the first semester of the academic year starts on or around September 21st (Autumnal Equinox) and finishes on or Around December 21st (Winter Solstice). Half term (study week) thus includes the Halloween Bank Holiday (Samhain).

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts on or around 1st February (Imbolc). Half-term is then around March 21st (Vernal Equinox, which roughly coincides with St Patrick’s Day March 17th) and teaching ends around May 1st (Imbolc). More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation. Most of us get to take the 1st August holiday (Lughnasadh) off at least!

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

One Response to “The Pagan University Year”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The solstices and the equinoxes are neither pagan nor Christian. Persons who worship the stars may attach extra significance to them than persons who don’t.

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