Image: The Wheel of the Year at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, UK
The above ‘Wheel’ or calendar might look familiar to you. Maybe you celebrate some of these seasonal festivals yourself, or you might recognise them from popular culture or stories. Perhaps you’ve read about them in some of our previous blog posts, like Beltane Blessings and Sacred Samhain. Even if you don’t recognise these particular words, chances are that you’ve honoured these festivals in one way or another by different names - Christmas, Halloween, May Day, Diwali, Easter, Moon Festival and more.
The Wheel of the Year is the annual calendar of eight seasonal festivals (also known as sabbats) observed by Wiccans and other neo-Pagan groups. From the midwinter festival of Yule to the midsummer festival of Litha, these holidays are centered around celebrating the changing seasons and the cycles of the natural world.
ORIGINS OF THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR
Celebrating the solstices, planetary shifts and changing seasons is an ancient custom. Civilisations from prehistoric times recognised the cycles of the earth and created rituals to honour them. They adapted their lifestyles, their work and their eating habits to align with the changing seasons and the offerings of the natural world - e.g. autumn has long been a time for harvest and preparation for the winter, while spring has been a time for sowing seeds and celebrating new life. In this way, the concept of the Wheel of the Year is as old as the Earth herself.
However, this clear separation of the year into eight distinct festivals is actually quite a modern manifestation, commonly observed in Neo-Pagan and Wiccan groups. While the Wheel is heavily derived from the old traditions of Celtic, Germanic and Viking cultures, this neatly divided structure is evocative of a more modern trend towards order and organisation.
THE EIGHT SABBATS
The eight Wheel of the Year festivals, or sabbats, take place roughly one and a half months apart, splitting the year into defined eighths. There are two solstices (summer and winter), two equinoxes (autumn and spring) and four cross-quarter days that sit roughly in between the solstices and the equinoxes. The solstices and equinoxes are influenced by the sun’s position, and are sometimes referred to as ‘Lesser Sabbats’. The cross-quarter days are referred to as ‘Greater Sabbats’ or ‘the fire festivals’. While each sabbat has a long and rich history that could fill whole books, here’s a quick summary of what they symbolise and celebrate.
Note: Naturally, these festival dates are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Winter Solstice
Mid-end of December
The Promise of Spring
Beginning of February
Imbolc is a cross-quarter day that celebrates the first signs of spring. It actually aligns with the modern North American tradition of 'Groundhog Day', which is based on the belief that groundhog behavior on the 1st February can prophecy when spring will arrive. In Pagan tradition, Imbolc is a time for spring cleaning and purification in preparation for spring's impending arrival. It's also an ideal time for reaffirming one's intentions for the year ahead.
Varies between 19-22 March
Ostara is the spring equinox, celebrating the coming of the light. It's named after a Germanic goddess Ēostre, which is also where the word 'Easter' comes from. While Easter is traditionally considered a Christian holiday that honours the resurrection of Jesus Christ, both festivals are a time to celebrate new life and the reawakening of the natural world. Buds start to sprout, baby animals appear in the fields, and the days become warmer. It's a perfect time for planting seeds and spending time out in blossoming nature.
Beltane is another cross-quarter day, also known and celebrated as May Day. This is a festival of flowers and light, joy and fertility. Common traditions include dancing around the May Pole and crowning the May Queen, the personification of spring and summer. Homes are bedecked in flowers and greenery, and rituals relating to fertility and vitality are commonly performed.
The Summer Solstice
Varies between June 20-22
Litha is the summer solstice, or Midsummer festival. It marks the longest day of the year and the pinnacle of the sun's full power. As such, it's a festival to celebrate the sun. Bonfires are often lit to symbolise the sun's energy, and candle magic is strong at this time of the year. Summer fruits, flowers and plants are eaten and used around the home and in ceremonies. This is a time of abundance, growth and strength, before the days begin to shorten once more.
The First Harvest
Beginning of August
Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, is the cross-quarter day celebrating the first harvest. While summer is still going strong, this is the time of year when the first peeks of autumn start to become visible - trees begin dropping their fruit, and the first grains of the season become ready to harvest. Bread is an important symbol at this time, and a common tradition to celebrate Lughnasadh is to bake bread from the season's first grains to eat or to use in ritual.
Varies between 21-24 September
Mabon is the Autumn Equinox, celebrating a time of harvest and the impending winter. It's a time of balance, just like the Spring Equinox, when light and dark are equal. Traditionally, days were spent working out in the fields, harvesting crops, feasting and preparing for winter. Rituals that help to protect and prepare for the colder months are also popular at this time, and talismans and amulets might be created to ward off the dark energies that might come knocking during winter.
October 31st/November 1st
Samhain is the cross-quarter day that celebrates the transition between autumn and winter, and also the thinning of the veil between worlds. It's traditionally observed as a time to honour those who have passed into the afterlife, which is where the popular holiday of Halloween comes from. It's common to perform ceremonies to celebrate the lives of the dead and honour one's ancestors. It's also the last chance to dry and preserve autumn's bounty for the winter ahead. Mischief and revelry are also common at this time, with parties and feasts being held. For some neo-Pagans, Samhain is considered the Witches' New Year and is the most important of the eight sabbats.