Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories

When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.

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When is Samhain?

All Hallows Eve falls on the 31st of October – the night before All Hallows Day, also known as All Saints Day. It’s part of the Catholic calendar. All Hallows Eve is also, in this tradition, known as All Souls Night – a time for remembering the less saintly-dead. It’s this tradition that Mexican day of the dead festivities, and pumpkin lanterns would seem to belong to.

We know that Samhain was the end of the Celtic summer. However, as with all ancient festivals, the issue of dates is a tad compromised by the problems of calendars. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar came in, adjusting the previous Julian calendar and fine tuning when leap years happen. The reason for this is that the date of Easter is calculated (because the only reference to it is the Jewish lunar calendar) in relation to the spring equinox, so calendar drift was causing the Church some headaches.

We are now about 14 days different from when the Julian calendar would have placed dates, but we can’t just work with the 14 day difference to get something like the ancient date. It’s seems unlikely the Celts were using Julius Caesar’s calendar, for a start. That calendar was not managing to keep with the recognisable solar events (critically the spring equinox) which was why it was reformed. Whatever calendar the ancient Celts had, it was neither of these. By the time Samhain shows up in written record, we were well into the period using the Julian calendar. No help can be found there. That All Souls night latched onto it, seems likely, but with the calendar issues, the exact date is tricky to pin down.

Maybe there wasn’t an exact date. The other three Celtic festivals are all associated with events. Imbolc is ewes milk and the snowdrops. Beltain is the hawthorn flower (may) and the bluebells. Lugasnadh is the grain harvest. Samhain has got so tied to the 31st and Halloween, that we don’t talk so much about the physical triggers. It’s the end of summer, but what does that mean?

For me, Samhain is all about the leaves coming down. While there are green leaves on the trees, something of summer remains. When the last leaves have gone, it is definitely winter. Samhain falls on the uncanny tipping point between the two. The threshold. The falling of the leaves tends to coincide with the coming of the frosts, another easy to spot marker of seasons.


Today (2nd November) there has yet to be a frost here. I can see green leaves from my window. We have not yet turned to face the winter. For me, it does not yet feel like Samhain, even though All Hallows Eve has been and gone.

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Nimue Brown is the author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors. Pagan Dreaming, When a Pagan Prays and Spirituality without Structure. She also writes the graphic novel series Hopeless Maine, and other speculative fiction. OBOD trained, but a tad feral, she is particularly interested in Bardic Druidry and green living.


  • Editor B
    Editor B Sunday, 02 November 2014

    I'd heard Samhain was the time when animals that couldn't be expected to survive the winter were slaughtered.

  • Nimue Brown
    Nimue Brown Monday, 03 November 2014

    yes, that's my understanding - and the loss of green leaves, foliage etc must have played a role in determining that, too. Frosts as well, I expect.

  • Syndi
    Syndi Wednesday, 05 November 2014

    I agree...I live in the Pacific Northwest and I feel that the season and the calendar do not match..I usually celebrate part of Samhianon the 31st and a second celebration of saying good by to Autumn and Welcoming Winter on November 31, 2014

  • warren rake
    warren rake Wednesday, 05 November 2014

    It is my understanding that the cross quarter days are the midway point between the solstice and the equinox, or vice versa... The dates are not constant. Therefore I feel the cross quarters cannot be constant either. Approximately May 1, August 1 November 1 and February 1.

  • Arranell
    Arranell Wednesday, 05 November 2014

    I was just thinking about exactly this the other day. I woke wondering if anyone else thinks we might be celebrating Samhain when the veil isn't /actually/ at its thinnest, when the harvest isn't /quite/ here yet simply because we have become so accustomed to the date and associations with Halloween.

    It's awesome to see this article posted, so soon after I had been thinking about this. :) Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Maria OToole
    Maria OToole Thursday, 06 November 2014

    Oct. 31 for me marks the beginning of the 3rd harvest in an agricultural calendar: Lammas for grain, Mabon for the late fruit like apples and grapes to be dried or preserved, and Samhain for the animals, early enough that they would not need supplemental winter feed but late and cold enough for meat to be preserved: smoked, salted, made into pudding (sausage as we call it here). The dates we use are close enough for planning ritual and get-togethers. I suspect that the ancients didn't use calendar "dates" as we do...and lots of traditions use "nearest weekend" anyway!

  • Maria OToole
    Maria OToole Thursday, 06 November 2014

    And then there's the Southern Hemisphere...our Samhain is their springtime...

  • HighburyPaul
    HighburyPaul Thursday, 06 November 2014

    Using leaf fall is slightly vague though. Leaves fall in temperate climates for over a period of 2-3 months (different species loose their leaves at different times). The ancients must have chosen a specific species, like the hawthorn of Beltain. Grain harvest could also be quite variable depending on the crop. How, as modern peoples, do we contend with the shifting dates of harvest and flower / leaf fall due to climate change? The answer must lie in the fact that, as modern people, we are so calendar fixated that we expect exact dates. Nature is never exact and her rhythms change each year. Conclusion, our celebrations should also be flexible.

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