Pagan and Neopagans celebrate their holy days and festivals based on nature and the changing of seasons. The Pagan/Neopagan seasonal cycle, called the Wheel of the Year, consists of eight major Sabbats. The Sabbats are happy occasions filled with celebrations of the seasons.
With the Wheel of the Year, there is no beginning or end of time thus being a continuous wheel: birth-death-rebirth, and spring-summer-autumn-winter-spring being the most obvious ones. These parts all make up a harmonious whole. So when we have the beginning of winter in the north, we have the beginning of summer in the south. Without one we cannot have the other. Physically as well as spiritually, Pagans express their understanding of these principles by making use of these special changes in cycles.
Many aspects go into making a Sabbat ritual work. Attention to proper symbolism, atmosphere, and ritual attire should be taken into consideration. Pagan Sabbats begin at sunset the day before the holiday. Four of the Sabbats, known as cross-quarter days, have Celtic origins and are called by their Celtic names. The other four mark important points on the solar calendar.
The eight Sabbats are:
February 1 – Imbolc
March 20 – Ostara (Spring Equinox)
May 1 – Beltane
June 21 – Midsummer (Summer Solstice/Litha)
August 2 – Lughnasadh
September 23 – Mabon (Autumn Equinox)
November 1 – Samhain
December 22 – Yule (Winter Solstice)
The Pagan holiday of Imbolc begins on February 1st and continues into the sunset on the 2nd. It is one of the oldest celebrations that marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox which has a long history in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The name comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the belly,” with reference to winter food stores, or “ewe’s milk” (oímelc). Oímelc refers to the herding animals that have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. It’s the time of natural beginnings and preparation for the growing season.
Imbolc is traditionally a great festival honouring Brigid (Brighid, Bride, Brigit) the Goddess of Fire, of the Sun and of the Hearth. She brings fertility to the land and its people and is closely connected to midwives and newborn babies (The School of the Seasons).
Ostara (Spring Equinox)
This is the beginning of the Pagan year, at least among Wiccans and Celtics. This is the time of the Spring Equinox, and is a great time to celebrate the rebirth of the soil and the land. According to The Venerable Bede (672-735 CE), a Christian scholar and monk, Easter was named after Eostre (Eastre ) the name of the Germanic goddess of spring and to whom the month of April was dedicated. The festival of Eostre was celebrated at the vernal equinox, when the day and night are equally shared (Pagan Centric).
In 325 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine determined that Easter should be on the first full moon of spring, which begins with the spring equinox on March 21st. This made it easier for Pagans to accept Christianity (The White Goddess).
Some traditions celebrate this holiday on May 1 or May Day, while others begin their celebration the eve of April 30th. It marks the beginning of the third quarter or second half of the ancient Celtic year. Beltane means fire of Bel; Beli being one name for the Celtic Sun God, whose coronation feast is now celebrated. As summer begins, weather becomes warmer, and plants begin to bloom. It is a fire festival that celebrates the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic contact with the sun. In early Celtic times, the Druids would extinguish and then ritually re-light the fires following day.
Fire is still the most important element of most Beltane celebrations and there are many traditions associated with it. It is seen to have purifying qualities. People leap over the Beltane fire to bring good fortune, fertility (of mind, body and spirit) and happiness through the coming year.
Midsummer (Summer Solstice/Litha)
Litha is a time to celebrate the power of the sun during the middle of summer. The sun is at its highest point in the sky, and Litha is the longest day and shortest night of the year. For Pagans, this is a significant point in the Wheel of the Year. The turning of the wheel suggests the turning, or progression, of the seasons. Pagans decorated wheels with flowers and then placed lighted candles on them. These were then taken to a body of water and set afloat. It is often the time of the first harvest of the season and hence a celebration of this bounty has been held for hundreds of years. The day lasts so long, the celebrations lasted well into night (The Pagan and the Pen).
Midsummer night’s eve is also special for followers of Wicca and of the Faerie faith. Oftentimes, covens will use the alternative date of June 25 representing Old Litha (Wicca).
For some Pagans the Summer Solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess that took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility. They see their union as the force that creates the harvest’s fruits.
The festival of the summer solstice is concerned with both fire and water, as from this point onward the sun will decline in its power. The symbol of fire represents keeping the sun alive. The water element is used for the ritual blessing of individuals, sacred wells, and springs.
The festival of Lughnasadh is held on August 1. The word Lughnasadh is associated with the god Lugh, and the festival was held to commemorate his marriage. At Lughnasadh, the Wheel of the Year begins to shift from growing time to harvesting time. Observing this festival ensured an abundance of fruit and grain for the months to come. The first fruit picked and vegetables cultivated were considered to be sacred to the Old Gods, and was therefore treated in a special manner.
Corn and grain are the predominant features of rituals at this time because they symbolize the fertility of the earth, the awakening of life, and life coming from death. The harvest period would continue until Samhain when the last of the harvest was put away for the winter months.
Mabon (Autumn Equinox)
Mabon, or Autumn Equinox, is one of the solar festivals on the Wheel of the Year, is celebrated sometime around September 21. Equinox means “equal night.” Again, as with the spring equinox, we have a time of equal day and equal night. However, after this night, the days grow shorter and the sun begins to diminish in power. The Equinoxes represent balance, and Mabon is a time to celebrate this balance. This Sabbat is basically the end of the agricultural year.
It is a time to reap what you have sown, for giving thanks for the harvest and the bounty that the earth has provided.
Samhain (Summer’s End) is one of the four Sabbats, the highest holy day for the witches. Wiccans most often recognize Samhain as their New Year, which is also called Ancestor Night. As the veil between the worlds of life and death is thin on this night, they take this time to remember their beloved dead (thewhitegoddess). Not only did the Celts believe the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolved on this night, they thought that the presence of the spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future.
Samhain is celebrated October 31, the same night as Halloween. When Christians adopted the festival, they celebrated it as All Hallows’ Eve, followed by All Saints Day though it still retained elements of remembering and honouring the dead. To celebrate Samhain the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration of the festival. After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months. It represented the final harvest, when the crops were safely stored for the coming winter.
Yule (Winter Solstice)
Yule is when the dark half of the year relinquishes to the light half. The Winter Solstice, the rebirth of the Sun, is an important turning point, as it marks the shortest day of the year. It has been recognized and celebrated for centuries throughout the ancient world.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia was held on the winter solstice, and people would decorate their homes with boughs of evergreen trees and bushes. Gifts where exchanged and normal business was suspended.
The Persian Mithraists held December 25th as sacred to the birth of their Sun God, Mithras, and celebrated it as a victory of light over darkness.
These festivals are very old, and mark important times in the agricultural cycle of the year. All of the eight Sabbats were celebrated in the ancient world, but not all necessarily by the same people or at the same time. It should be remembered that depending on where you live, the seasons are different. The earth goes through its changes every season just as we go through our changes every season. The Wheel of the Year tells us a story of the cycle of life.
British Broadcasting Corporation at www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/
The Pagan and the Pen at www.thepaganandthepen.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/celebrating-the-pagan-summer-solstice/
The White Goddess at www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/samhain.asp
Pagan Centric at www.pagancentric.org/pagan-origins-of-easter
Religious Tolerance at www.religioustolerance.org/easter1.htm
The School of Seasons at www.theschooloftheseasons
Wicca at www.Wicca.com/celtic/ akasha/litha.htm