We pagans have adopted a wheel of the year tradition that was somewhat practiced in ancient times only with four major holidays, not 8 as in the modern era. Each pagan tradition has its own version of the holidays.
The wheel starts with Yule in December, continues with Imbolc in February, followed by the vernal equinox, also called Ostara in March or April. In the summer time, we have Beltane in May, Litha for summer solstice. Then there are other harvest festivals such as Lammas/Lughnasadah, and the autumn equinox Mabon, Samhain is the last holiday of the year, or New Year’s Eve, when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. For Wiccans, Pagans, and witchcraft practitioners, the wheel of the year begins October 30th, and ends the next year on October 31st.
Samhain is the third, and last Harvest of the year. This is the beginning of winter, the end of the summer. On Samhain October 31st, the veil between the worlds thins, making communication with the spirit realms possible. Many try to communicate with their ancestors. Samhain celebrates the Dark Mysteries, a time to feast with your beloved dead. After Samhain, we have Yule, a celebration of the sun’s rebirth. Yule coincides with Christmas. Some Pagans keep a Yule tree. Yule celebrates the fact that the sun comes back on the 21st, winter solstice, but it is slow in rising again until Imbolc, which beings on February 1st at sundown. Imbolc ends on February 2nd. The name Imbolc refers to being “in the belly of the Mother” where seeds are planted, because that is when spring begins. Imbolc is a time of year to light candles right after sunset. Candlemas, or February 2nd, is the day to make and bless candles for the liturgical year.
Ostara is linked to Easter. At this point during the year, light is increasing, which eventually brings balance to the dark. Ostara’s official day to celebrate is March 24th. Marriages are celebrated around this time. The holiday that follows Ostara is May Day, or May 1st. Dancing around the maypole is a pagan tradition that continues in modern times. Eggs are a huge Beltaine symbol since it is a holiday about fertility, be it in the body, or the mind. Then comes Litha, which is in June on the 20th-22nd, celebrating the longest day of the year, with life emerging for the summer, and the other harvest festivals which are Lughnasadh/Lammas, and Mabon. Lughnasadh is on July 31st to August 1st. This celebrates the first harvest of the year, and the beginning of the end of the summer. The last holiday to celebrate during the year is Mabon, on September 21st, the Autumn Equinox, which divides the dark and the light evenly. We can celebrate individually or at gatherings.
Sabbat was taken from the Hebrew word “Shabbath,” which meant “to rest, “ usually on the 7th day of the week. Not all traditions celebrate all the Sabbats, as not everything related to Sabbats is related to the Devil or demons. Modern pagans worship the ancient Deities, not the Devil. Modern Pagans are not devil-worshippers, although those do exist. Modern witchcraft is hardly about the devil worship ancient Pagans were accused of when they were persecuted for being “witches” only because they had herbal knowledge. Many people were burnt at the stake for no good reason other than disagreeing with the church. Modern Paganism is a nature religion based on the Goddess, not devil worship.
Holidays & Sabbats
IMBOLC – Wiccans celebrate a variation of Imbolc as one of four “fire festivals”, which make up half of the eight holidays of the Wheel of the Year. Imbolc is defined as a cross-quarter day, midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara). The precise astrological midpoint in the Northern hemisphere is when the sun reaches fifteen degrees of Aquarius. In the Southern hemisphere, if celebrated as the beginning of Spring, the date is the midpoint of Leo.
Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc (also known as “Candlemas”) is the traditional time for initiations. Among Reclaiming-style Wiccans, Imbolc is considered a traditional time for rededication and pledges for the coming year.
Around March 21
SPRING EQUINOX / OSTARA – Ostara is one of the four lesser Wiccan holidays or sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. Ostara is celebrated on the spring equinox, in the Northern hemisphere around March 21 and in the Southern hemisphere around September 23, depending upon the specific timing of the equinox. Among the Wiccan sabbats, it is preceded by Imbolc and followed by Beltane.
In the book Eight Sabbats for Witches by Janet and Stewart Farrar, the festival Ostara is characterized by the rejoining of the Mother Goddess and her lover-consort-son, who spent the winter months in death. Other variations include the young God regaining strength in his youth after being born at Yule, and the Goddess returning to her Maiden aspect.
BELTANE – Wiccans and Wiccan-inspired Neopagans celebrate a variation of Beltane as a sabbat, one of the eight solar holidays. Although the holiday may use features of the Gaelic Bealtaine, such as the bonfire, it bears more relation to the Germanic May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans celebrate ‘High Beltaine’ by enacting a ritual union of the May Lord and Lady.
Among the Wiccan sabbats, Beltane is a cross-quarter day; it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere on May 1 and in the southern hemisphere on November 1. Beltane follows Ostara and precedes Midsummer (see the Wheel of the Year).
SUMMER SOLSTICE / MID-SUMMER / LITHA – Litha is one of the eight solar holidays or sabbats observed by Wiccans, though the New Forest traditions (those referred to as British Traditional Wicca) tend to use the name Midsummer. It is celebrated on the Summer Solstice, or close to it. The holiday is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest. Among the Wiccan sabbats, Midsummer is preceded by Beltane, and followed by Lughnasadh or Lammas.
LUGHNASADH / LAMMAS – Lughnasadh is one of the eight “sabbats” or solar festivals in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. It is the first of the three autumn harvest festivals, the other two being the Autumn equinox (or Mabon) and Samhain. Some Wiccans mark the holiday by baking a figure of the god in bread, and then symbolically sacrificing and eating it. The Celtic name seems to have been a late adoption among Wiccans since in early versions of Wiccan literature the festival is merely referred to as “August Eve”.
Many Wiccans also use the name Lammas for the sabbat, taken from the Anglo-Saxon and Christian holiday which occurs at about the same time. As the name (from the Anglo-Saxon hlafmæsse “loaf-mass”, “loaves festival”) implies, it is an agrarian-based festival and feast of thanksgiving for grain and bread, which symbolizes the first fruits of the harvest. Wiccan and other eclectic Neopagan rituals may incorporate elements from either festival.
AUGUST EQUINOX / MABON – Mabon is the name used by some Wiccan traditions as well as some other forms of Neo-Paganism for one of the eight annual holidays central to their Beliefs. It is celebrated on the Autumnal Equinox, which in the northern hemisphere occurs on or around September 23rd (occasionally the 22nd). Many celebrate on the 21st since most early Wiccan and Neopagan sources reference this date as Mabon. Although due to Global Warming it no longer falls that early. In the southern hemisphere, the Autumnal Equinox occurs usually around March 21.
Also called Harvest Home, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair, or as Alban Elfed by Neo-Druidic traditions, this holiday is a ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and God during the winter months. The name may derive from Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology, although the connection is unclear (see below).
SAMHAIN – Samhain is considered by most Wiccans to be the most important of the four ‘greater Sabbats’. It is generally observed on October 31st in the Northern Hemisphere, starting at sundown. Samhain is considered by most Wiccans as a celebration of death and of the dead, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets, and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals, the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness and death, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the spring festival of Beltane, which Wiccans celebrate as a festival of life and fertility.
On a personal side, my path as a hereditary witch holds that Samhain marks the beginning of turning of the wheel. I’ve always thought of Samhain as the Pagan New Year, and celebrate it as such.
WINTER SOLSTICE / YULE – Many Wiccan-based sects favor a plethora of sources on winter solstice holidays to recreate a type of Yule holiday. While the name “Yule” is used, it is not a reconstruction of the historical holiday. Wreaths, Yule logs, decoration of trees, decorating with mistletoe, holly, and ivy, exchanges of presents, and even wassailing are incorporated and regarded as sacred. The return of the Sun as Frey is commemorated in some groups. In most Wiccan traditions, this holiday is also celebrated as the rebirth of the Great God, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. The method of gathering for this sabbat varies by practitioner. Some have private ceremonies at home, while others do so with their covens.