The Date of the First Quarter – Is Imbolc a Lunar Sabbat?

wheel-of-the-yearBefore wristwatches and the modern calendar, people determined the date by looking at the moon and/or the sun.  A day consisted of a night and a day (in that order according to the Celts), the month was divided up based on the moon’s phase, and the time of the year was based on the cycle of the seasons.

For those requiring more precision for social, religious, commercial or administrative purposes, a calendar was created based on various either the sun (solar calendar), moon (lunar calendar) or both (lunar-solar calendar).   Unfortunately, many different calendars were created and many different calendars are still in existence today.

Solar Calendars

Some people create calendars based on the seasons and the solar year.  Most were influenced by astrology and were divided into twelve parts with a similar several days assigned to each part. For example, the Romans adopted the Julian calendar in 46 BCE where they divided the solar year into 365 days and grouped the days into 12 months with a leap day added to February every 4 years. Unfortunately they assumed a 365.25 day solar year versus the actual 365.242189 days.  This caused the Julian calendar to gain a day every 134 years causing a “drift.” The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 CE helped a little by adding a leap year thereby creating an average year length of 365.2425 days.  Britain and its empire did not adopt this reform until 1752, and the Eastern Orthodox countries until 1924.

For those using a solar calendar, there was also inconsistencies as to when the year should start. In 503 BCE, the Persian Zoroastrian started the year on the Vernal Equinox. Before the Romans adopted the Julian calendar, the Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and began on March 1.   The Romans added the months of January and February around 153 BCE and then fixed January 1st as the beginning of the new year when they adopted the Julian calendar. In 567 CE, the Council of Tours challenged January 1st as pagan and encouraged the use of December 25th as the beginning of the new year. The Roman Catholic Church influenced many countries through the Middle Ages to move the start of the year to one of several important Christian festivals – December 25 (the Nativity of Jesus), March 1, March 25 (the Annunciation), or even Easter.  Eastern European countries (most of them with populations showing allegiance to the Orthodox Church) began their numbered year on September 1 from about 988.  From the 12th century to 1752, England began the year on March 25 (Lady Day).

Lunar Calendars

Lunar calendars are created using the cycles and phases of the moon.  Though any phase could have been picked as the start of the cycle, the new moon commonly became adopted as the preferential starting point in most civilizations, a practice which can still be seen today in the Muslim and Jewish traditions.

Today, the new moon is defined astronomically as the point at which the moon does not appear to be illuminated by the sun and is dark or invisible.  Historically though, the new moon was the moment the first crescent could be seen after the dark moon, a custom that is still followed by the Muslim and Jewish lunar calendars. We now differentiate these two definitions by calling one the non-astronomical new moon (first crescent) and the other the astronomical new moon (dark moon).

The Christian Church uses an ecclesiastical lunar calendar which consists of calculated new moon dates based on a Metonic or 19-year cycle to decide it’s Lenten or Paschal Cycle. The ecclesiastical lunar month begins after the ecclesiastical new moon (about the same date as the first crescent or non-astronomical new moon). Easter is the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon (fixed at the 14th day of the ecclesiastical lunar month) following March 21st (fixed date for the vernal equinox.)

Solar-Lunar Calendars

Some developed calendars that continued to use the moon to delineate the months, but used methods to keep it in sync with the solar year.  For example, the oldest Celtic calendar is the solar-lunar Coligny calendar which showed that the Celts used the cycle of the moon to delineate months and added an intercalary month every 2-1/2 years to keep it in sync with the solar calendar.  It is unclear whether the Celts started the month at the full moon or new moon, but since they considered day as following night, it would be a fair guess that they used the new moon.

High Days, Holy Days, Holidays

Today most Wiccans celebrate eight sabbats — four at the equinoxes and solstices known as the “quarter days”, and four at the mid-points between these events known as the “cross-quarters.”

In Western history, the cross-quarter days fell during the change of the seasons and were often celebrated as significant agricultural festivals.  For example, it is known that the Celts considered these celebrations are their most significant holidays of the year and celebrated would celebrate them as fire festivals probably to celebrate the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.

Though the sun controlled the seasons, it was the moon that farmers used to decide the start of various agricultural events such as planting.  Farmers viewed the first quarter, or waxing phases, as being the most fertile and wet periods on the month and the proper time to begin planting. Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman naturalist, stated in his Natural History that the Moon “replenishes the earth; when she approaches it, she fills all bodies, while, when she recedes, she empties them.” The Farmer’s Almanac still provides information on planting by the moon.

Today, some Wiccans continue this tradition and celebrate the cross-quarters as the High Sabbats and consider them lunar celebrations, while the quarter days are called the Lesser Sabbats and are considered solar celebrations tied to the equinoxes/solstices.

Calculating the Cross-Quarter

As mentioned above, many tie the cross-quarter to a lunar calendar. Here in Kansas City, the astronomical new moon begin at 7:14 AM on January 20, and the non-astronomical new moon began on the evening of January 21st with the first appearance of the waxing crescent. This will be the 2nd new moon since the Winter Solstice. The next non-astronomical new moon will occur on the evening of 19th February. Though I am not a reconstructionist, this does lead me to speculate that if the first quarter was celebrated on a new moon, it probably would be on the 19th of February as January 21st is a little too early to celebrating the beginning of Spring. This thought aligns with the Farmer’s Almanac which notes that the moon favors most plantings to occur during the March-April months.

Another calculation that is sometime followed by some Wiccans is calculating the cross-quarter day using astrology. The astrological calendar is divided into 12 equal segments. Placed on a 360 degree circle, each segment is 30 degree long. Starting with the Winter Solstice, the first quarter of the year consists of Capricorn, Aquarius, or Pisces. The exact mid-point of this quarter would then be considered to be half-way through Aquarius or 15 degrees Aquarius which would be February 4, 2015. Sometime Pagans refer to this as Traditional Imbolc or Imbolc Old Style.  Calculating the cross-quarter by this means would probably be more for non-agricultural reasons such as religious purposes.

Today it is usually celebrated on the fixed solar calendar day of February 2nd, though some start the sabbat on the evening of February 1st in recognition that the Celts and others starting their day on the evening earlier.  This date is probably tied to the influence of the Roman Catholic’s celebration of the Purification of Mary.  Jewish women went through a purification ceremony 40 days after the birth of a male child (80 days after the birth of a female child). So in the 6th century (according to J.C. Cooper in The Aquarian Dictionary of Festivals), the church declared February 2 the feast of the Purification of Mary as it fell 39 days after Christmas or the birth of the male child named Jesus.

Celebrating the first Cross-Quarter 

In general, the first cross-quarter day would celebrate the eventual end of winter and welcoming of the coming of spring.  Throughout Europe, people celebrated festivals of renewal and of purification for the coming revival of life around this time. Depending on the weather, people may have seen visual signs of spring such as spring herbs and Crocus flowers. The buds of trees will begin to swell on warmer days and we start to hear birds making mating sounds.

The Celts celebrated this event by honoring the Maiden Goddess, the Goddess of the dawn and of fire who had various names in the Celtic-influenced lands such as Brid, Brighid, Brigit, Briginda, Brigdu, Brigid and Bride. Her names generally meant “the Exalted One” and her mythology had her tending the triple fires of smithcraft (physical fire), healing (the fire of life within), and poetry (the fire of the spirit).

This was also lambing time and the Celts typically named this day Imbolc (derived from imbolg meaning “in the belly” referring to pregnant ewes) or Oimlec (meaning “ewe’s-milk” referring to the lactating ewes in preparation for birth).  According to Gaelic folklore, Cailleach, the old woman of winter, intends to gather firewood every Imbolc to have ready for a longer winter. She would brighten the sky while she gathered her wood. Naturally, people looked forward to a dreary, overcast day on Imbolc as it meant Cailleach was still fast asleep and winter would be over soon.


We create calendars to give us a common dialogue about dates, and to allow us to celebrate together.  I am not a reconstructionist and do not attempt to adopt the religious practices of the past, but I do wonder if we have lost something tieing the first quarter to a fixed date on the solar Gregorian calendar.  What do you think?

About Sam Shryock

I am a resident of Kansas City metro area and have practiced Pagan Spirituality since 2007. I am a third-degree Wiccan with the Correllian-Nativist tradition, the local coordinator for Kansas City Pagan Pride Day, and the host of the monthly Kansas Coffee Coven. I currently work full-time in the Computer Industry. I am a retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel and have a Masters Degree in Computer Resource and Information Management. Most importantly I am a proud husband, father, and grandfather.
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