Modern (Wiccan-based) pagans have settled into celebrating 8 major holidays spaced evenly around the year, and based, for the most part on ancient celebrations. There were traditions of having fire festivals (partying around a big bonfire) at Mayday and Samhain, and at the solstice. There were, of course, harvest celebrations, and when the local technology supported it, the summer and winter solstices were noted as special occasions. It is far more likely that seasons were celebrated- harvest, yule, mid-summer, at what ever time was convenient. One doesn’t stop during the harvest to have a party, but is natural to have a blow-out when you have successfully insured that you will have grain (apples, meat, or whatever) for the next year.
After harvesting the grain and beans and fruits and storing those as carefully as one could, there was the animal harvest. Any surplus livestock would be slaughtered to reduce the amount of feed required to get the living ones through the winter, but this wasn’t done until it was cold enough that the meat wouldn’t go bad during the processing. The Saxons called November Blotmonath, the month of meat feasting. (Some meat was salted, some dried, some smoked, some preserved for a while by the cold. In the far north it would freeze. So this time of year was the time for feasts- blots, where you thanked the gods for the meat you were eating. Neighbors could stagger their slaughtering, enabling them to share the labor and the meat while it was still fresh. One didn’t slaughter an animal without thanking the gods, and maybe the animal, for the meat they were providing. Sites like Yeavering have signs if great halls, and collections of skulls, that probably indicate sacrifices and religious feasting. Modern Asatru celebrate Winterfinding as the start of winter- usually at a full moon in October or November (or a weekend near then convenient for the kindred members to get together). We must not imagine that our ancestors did differently- people will always have to negotiate to figure out whose house and what day they are going to get together for the holidays- no matter how they are worked out.
As modern people we have easy access to knowing when the solstices and equinoxes occur. It’s not too hard to watch to find when the sun has set at the lowest spot on the horizon and starts moving back northerly again. People also can set up markers to help them know when these celestial occasions occur- like the sun shining down the passageway at New Grange on the Solstice. Our house has something like that- the rising sun on the equinoxes comes through one bedroom window, through two doorways, and down the hall to hit the far wall of the house only on those days. It’s very cool, and probably totally accidental. But other than something like that, our ancestors probably didn’t have the same precise awareness of the astronomical dates as we have these days. They noticed the various harvests, the first fruits, and other seasons that dictated what they’d be doing for the next weeks- hence Mayday and Samhain (signalling the time of year when spirits would likely be active) as major celebrations. Since we can determine the Solstices and Equinoxes, we have plugged four more holidays between the celestial ones, and there are old celebrations like Candlemas and Walpergis night that fit in those general time frames.
It’s convenient to space the holidays evenly around the year, and many people have worked hard to find out how our ancestors celebrated, but even when we try to reconstruct, the holidays are placed for our convenience. This has been so as long as we have recorded history. The Romans, for example, moved the celebration of the New Year from the logical start of spring, at the equinox, to the Kalends (or first) of January, specifically because their laws settled that elections should take place at New Years. But after they had conquered all the nearby tribes, it took too long for a newly elected consul to get out to wherever the armies were going to attack the next “barbarian” tribe if he couldn’t start until after the Equinox, so they shifted New Year to mid winter. (Who knows why they didn’t change the law about when elections were held instead!) It’s fairly common knowledge that Christmas was switched from the spring (when shepherds are in the fields) to the same day as the Mithraic celebration of the Sol Invictus, so that changing holidays would be easier. There is plenty of precedent for making holidays convenient for the worshipers.
I am thrilled that there is breathing room between most of the major holidays. It’s pretty clear that most cultures think that the beginning of winter is a good time to get together with your friends and celebrate. Since we are still looking around for the site, settling on the date, and looking for speakers, readers and vendors, we don’t have that stuff to announce in December, so I will be posting about holidays this month. I hope you enjoy it, while getting together with your friends (at whatever level is comfortable for you!).