By definition, Wicca is a nature-based religion. But what does that mean, exactly? Well, among other things, it means that we seek to worship and honor and live within the cycles of the earth; of the days, months and seasons; of life, death and rebirth. The backbone of this in the Wiccan religion is by following the Wheel of the Year.
The Wheel of the Year is one of those things that is both ancient and modern. All the holidays on the wheel were celebrated by various pagan cultures at one time or another- some of them by several, albeit under varying names and with varying traditions. But although we have sought to take historical traditions from those past celebrations, and to find the common threads that run through them all, the fact remains that our current celebrations of the Wheel of the Year have a lot of modernity mixed in. And that’s fine! Something isn’t more accurate or more true just because it’s older. The insight and information we now have about many cultures and the way they honored the cycles of the seasons enriches our practice.
There are eight holidays on the Wheel of the Year, and they are called Sabbats. They are solar holidays; based on the cycles of the sun, and they occur roughly every six weeks. There are four major and four minor Sabbats- the solstices and equinoxes, which are the minor Sabbats, and the cross-quarter days, which are roughly halfway between the minor Sabbats, and these are the major Sabbats. Then there are the monthly full moon celebrations, which are called Esbats. Some Wiccans also celebrate on the Dark Moon as well, but it is the Esbats which are the most well-known. This post is going to be focusing on the Sabbats.
The mythological cycle of the Sabbats follows the God and the Goddess as the God is born, grows, courts and mates with the Goddess, who becomes pregnant by and with the God. The God weakens and dies at the end of the year, descending to his position as Lord of the Underworld, but he is reborn of the Goddess at the return of the light, and the cycle repeats itself again. This is linked in with the Goddess’s own descent into the Underworld- a theme that has roots in ancient mythologies that predate Christianity. Obviously this is symbolic mythology. But it’s mythology that is a powerful archetype; spanning multiple cultures and eras of time. It was among the Sumerians in the tales of the goddess Inanna ; among the Egyptians with Isis and Osiris; the Greeks with Demeter, Persephone and Hades.
There are many places you could start explaining the Wheel, but we will start at Yule.
Yule/Winter Solstice. (varies between December 20-23). The Sun God is born of the Goddess after her return from the Underworld at Yule, the shortest day of the Year, after which the light begins to return to the world and the days gradually lengthen. He grows in strength and she rests after her hardships and her labor.
Imbolc/Candlemas/Brigid’s Day. (February 2). The Goddess is renewed as the Maiden, and the God continues to grow in strength, as the days lengthen and the first signs of life spring forth from the darkness of the winter.
Ostara/Spring Equinox. (March 20-23). Named after the Goddess Eostre or Eastre, also known in Ostara, this is the time when Persephone returns to Demeter and the earth rejoices, and thus is the Sabbat celebrating the Goddess as the Maiden. The young God grows to maturity. This is the beginning of spring, when the days and the nights are equal. The Goddess and God wake the animals out of hibernation, and bring vegetation to the earth again.
Beltane/May Day (May 1). The Goddess and the God court and mate, and the Goddess again becomes pregnant of the God. Spring is in full swing.
Litha (June 20-23). The longest day of the year, the God is at his strength and the powers of nature reach their highest point, and the crops and the livestock flourish after the mating of the Goddess and the God. This is the peak of the summer.
Lughnasadh/Lammas/August Eve (July 31-August 1). This is a time of mixed sorrow and joy, as the God’s strength begins to wane and the Goddess realizes he is dying but is joyful because she realizes he lives on inside her as her child. The harvest is brought in and the fruits drop and leave their seeds on the earth.
Mabon/Fall Equinox (September 20-23). The time of the completion of the harvest. The days and nights are equal but dark will begin to overtake light. The God becomes a willing sacrifice as the Lord of the Harvest and the Hunt. The Goddess prepares for her own journey into the Underworld, to search for him.
Samhain/Halloween/Feast of the Dead (October 31). The Witches’ New Year just as it was the Celtic New Year (makes more sense then the middle of winter, don’t you think?), this is the farewell celebration of the God’s sacrifice, and the Goddess’s descent into the Underworld to search for him. The rest of the harvest is gathered in, the earth rests, and the cycle begins again at the end and the beginning.
There are certain customs that go along with each holiday. Many of these are taken from what we know of older celebrations. Many of these were Christianized as Christianity became the dominant religion.
Yule: It is traditional to burn a Yule log to celebrate the light coming back into the world. Decorating with holly and mistletoe is traditional too- the white berries represent the God and the red ones represent the Goddess. Decorating a tree is another custom, although they decorated a living tree. Again, the star at the top of the tree symbolized the light coming back into the world. The decorations on the tree were considered offerings.
Imbolc: This holiday, also known as Candlemas (and it still is on the traditional Catholic calendar) is often heavily focused on the goddess Brigid in her maiden aspect. Imbolc “is Irish-Gaelic, translated variously as “in the belly” and “ewe’s milk”, and represents the quickening of Light and Life” (1). This holiday is celebrated by making sun wheels, by spring cleaning, and since it is a Sabbat of new beginnings, it is a traditional Sabbat for rededications and initiations.
Ostara: This feast is a celebration of fertility and abundance, and its symbols are the hare and the egg (sound familiar?). The hare represents fertility and abundance. Eggs are a symbol of great potential and the beginnings of life; the yolk represents the sun, and the white, the Goddess. This is a traditional time to plant seeds and plan for new growth.
Beltane: Possibly the most well-known as a witches’ holiday outside of Samhain, traditions with Beltane are the Maypole, and the dance of the Maypole, where it winds up covered with ribbons. The pole represents both the phallus of the God and the world tree of life which exists on three different planes (branches in the heavens, trunk on the earth, roots in the ground). Bonfires on Beltane are also very traditional, and people will jump the fire to gain blessings, or couples will jump together as a pledge of love to one another. Like Samhain, it is believed the veil between the worlds is very thin on this Sabbat, making it a great time for works of divination or other similar works. It is also a common time for handfastings (Wiccan wedding ceremony).
Litha: Litha is another big bonfire night. It is not uncommon for people to stay up all night to see the sunrise, while enjoying some of the fruits that only are available during the summer. Handfastings are also common on Litha. Litha is also a great time to take part in activities such as camping.
Lughnasadh: The first of the three harvest Sabbats, this feast focuses heavily on the God Lugh, the Celtic sun god, and god of crafts. Making corn dollies or corn related dishes (cornbread, etc.) is a way to celebrate this holiday. So is feasting with friends and family, and reaping the fruits of your garden, if you have one.
Mabon: The Wiccan Thanksgiving, many celebrate it like the more familiar version of Thanksgiving. Many of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes are associated with Mabon. Other choose to give thanks by giving of their time or energy; maybe they give food to a homeless shelter or volunteer to clean up a river bank. Fall de-cluttering is another common activity, as many people try to organize themselves before the start of the school year.
Samhain: Probably the most well-known and the biggest Sabbat, very often Wiccans will have two separate celebrations of it; one that is more “pop culture” and one that is spiritual. Not that there is not overlap between the two. For example, carving a jack o’lantern is both an ancient pagan tradition and a pop culture Halloween one. But it’s not uncommon for a Wiccan to take ones’ kids trick or treating and then later that night perform their Samhain ritual. This is a time to honor our ancestors and some Wiccans make an ancestor altar, with pictures and other memorabilia of loved ones who have gone before. This is another time when the veil between the worlds is thin, making it an excellent time for divination. It is an excellent time for magick, particularly magick that you would do at the time of the dark moon, like banishing, protection, spirit contact.
This is just a very brief overview of each Sabbat and their meaning and traditions. For more detail, I would suggest purchasing Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials series. This has information on the meanings and rituals of each Sabbat, as well as more light-hearted things like recipes. An example of the books can be found here. There are also other books, such as The Modern Witchcraft Guide to the Wheel of the Year and Witch’s Wheel of the Year: Rituals for Circles, Solitaries & Covens, but I haven’t read them and so can’t give my opinion on them.