Cicely Mary Barker, The mountain ash fairy
“They thought me, once, a magic tree
Of wondrous lucky charm,
And at the door they planted me
To keep the house from harm.”
In a recent post I described the best days of the week to see fairies (or to avoid them). There are also certain times of the year when they are more likely to be abroad in the mortal world, and when encounters are more likely- whether for good or ill. (I should confess at the start that I’ve broken my rule and included material from Ireland here, because it is so consistent with that of the British Isles.)
The bulk of the evidence on festivals and seasons comes from Scotland and Ireland. There is a little from Man, a couple of odd instances from England and Cornwall and from Wales all we really know is that there were three ‘spirit nights’, the Teir nos ysprydnos, when it was believed that supernatural beings of all descriptions were abroad (these were May Day, Midsummer Eve and Halloween). Despite any deficiencies, the accounts are nonetheless consistent. Two festivals stand out across Britain and Ireland- these are May Day and Halloween. On these occasions the fairies would be out and about in the world, partly for pleasure, sometimes because they moved home at these important times of the year.
On May Day fires were lit to scare away the fairies. This was done in Ireland, Scotland and on Man, where it was expressly the gorse that was burned. Both in Ireland and Man it was believed to be unlucky to give fire away to a neighbour at this time- perhaps because the protection from fairies was being dissipated. On Man, too, rowan, primroses and green boughs were gathered and laid before the doors of houses, stables and cattle sheds to exclude the fairies. The reason for these precautions seems to have been that this festival was the time when the fairies re-emerged after winter and held their first dances of the year. As they were freshly abroad in the world, again, they were deemed particularly dangerous. It was said to be unwise to draw water from a well for a drink after sunset. In Ireland, it was believed too that the sidhe would try to steal butter at this time of year; in Scotland, they stole milk from the cows. Also in Ireland it was considered that cutting blackthorn at this season would attract ill-fortune. In the worst cases, a sudden death would be regarded as an indicator of an abduction.
The next major seasonal festival of the year was Midsummer, but this has fewer fairy associations. In Ireland Beltaine fires were lit and once again these acted as barriers or discouragements to the sidhe folk.
Margaret Tarrant, Midsummer night
It was at Halloween (Samhain) that supernatural forces again became particularity dangerous. On this night the fairy folk were abroad once more, their last major excursion of the year, and mortals had to take precautions. In Ireland it was thought that the sidhe moved home on this night, whilst in Scotland the fairy court enjoyed its last processional ride (or rade). In the Outer Hebrides the season was said to be even more perilous as it was then that the fairy hosts fought amongst themselves, whilst in England this was the time of the year when the Wild Hunt rode through the nighttime skies of the South West. A person out on Halloween was in grave danger of being swept up with the fairy throng. The only way that the rade could be seen by a mortal without peril was to have rowan hung at their door (hence my use of the verse and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker at the head of this post). In Ireland offerings of food were left out near raths and other fairy sites in order to deflect their enmity. Conversely, it was said that this was the best time of year to rescue those abducted, as the doors of the fairy hills would be open.
Even if you did not encounter the fairies, the countryside could be tainted. For this reason, in Cornwall and in Ireland the advice was not to eat brambles after the end of October. As in May, cutting blackthorn was discouraged too in November. As at the start of the growing year, so at the end, torches were lit in the Highlands to keep the sidhe folk away.
Other dates with fairy links are Whitsuntide, when holy water was sprinkled inside Irish homes to ward off the sidhe and the season of Yule on Shetland, during which it was believed that the trows (trolls) would wander the island and enter human homes. In fact, the Highland community served by the Reverend Robert Kirk during the late seventeenth century regarded all the quarter days (Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween) as risky times when there was fairy danger.
John Duncan, The riders of the sidhe.
Whereas the evidence on days and times of day was rather less conclusive, it is possible with some certainty to point to festivals and seasons of the year, liminal turning points in the calendar, during which the portals to the supernatural open, or at least become more porous, allowing far greater access from one side to the other.
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.