The wheel of the year is generally known the pagan calendar. It consists of eight major holidays in the general Pagan calendar. So, let’s take a look at each of these Sabats, or pagan holidays.
Samhain ~ October 31st – November 1st
This is the most magical night of the pagan year, which is found on the exact opposite of the Beltane (another pagan holiday) in the wheel of the year—which makes Samhain the dark twin of Beltane. Samhain is also known in many names like Halloween, Hallow E’en, All Hallow’s Eve, and all hallows. During this night, it is believed as the Spirit night wherein the veil that separates the Otherworld and the human world is at its thinnest—and this makes it a night of power for those practicing witchcraft.
Samhain is a Celtic word that means ‘summer’s end.’ But, what makes Samhain more spine-tingling is the fact that all over the world, many cultures celebrate this festival no matter what they call it. Further, this is one of those few occasions wherein the Eve of the celebration is more celebrated than the day of celebration. For example, All Hallow’s Day is on Nov. 1, but Hallow’s Eve is more celebrated and thus the Halloween celebration begins at sundown of October 31. While other cultures like pre-Spanish Mexican also observe the festival of the dead on the same day. Likewise, the Egyptians also have their own celebration.
Aside from being celebrated as a sprit night, it is also celebrated as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. As a day night of the dead, it is also believed that the dead can return to the human world if they so wish. That’s why in many cultures they set an extra seat on their table for departed loved ones who may wish to visit them.
The jack-o-lantern has long been used to celebrate Halloween; its first use can be traced back to travelers using jack-o-lanterns to scare faeries or evil spirits who might lead them astray in their journey. For witches, Halloween comprises one of the 4 Greater Sabbats or High Holidays.
Yule ~ December 21st
Yule is also known as the Midwinter Night’s Eve that also coincides with the Christmas season but the day itself is celebrated earlier than December 25. During Yule, pagans celebrate the holiday with mistletoe, Yule logs, presents, carolling, and tree decorating. They even have a nativity set, but the three central characters are Baby Sun-God, Father Time, and Mother Nature.
The real celebration of this holiday is rooted into the Winter solstice where the nights are longer than the days. It is during this time the birth of the Sun King happens. The Great Mother Nature gives birth during the longest night of the year, which symbolizes the hope for the coming lengthening days, the Light of the World, the Sacred Fire, and the new spark of hope. This is also where Christmas—as celebrated by Christians is also rooted and where many parallelisms are seen with paganism. This is the reason why the Puritans, John Calvin, and Martin Luther refuse to acknowledge and abhor Christmas.
For modern witches and pagans, Yule is celebrated during the actual Winter Solstice which usually varies year in and year out. Commonly, winter solstice occurs on or around December 21 and is considered as a Lower Holiday or Lesser Sabat in the modern Pagan calendar. But, still it is an important holiday wherein pagan customs are heartily observed. Examples of these customs are: burning of the Yule log within the first try and letting it urn for 12 hours to bring good luck; and a girl standing under a sprig of mistletoe got more than hearty kiss; also the use of the mistletoe, ivy, and evergreen which represents everlasting life and fertility.
Candlemas ~ February 2nd
Candlemas is the Christianized name for this pagan holiday, but it used to be called as Imbolc which literally means ‘in the belly;’ Oimelc, which means ‘milk of ewes;’ and Brigit’s Day in honor of Brigit, the great Irish Goddess. Brigit is also known as Bride, thus she is the goddess who bestows a special patronage on any woman about to be handfasted (married)—and thus the ritual handfasting This holiday celebrates the beginning of Spring or the light returns. Thus, Candlemas is the time for the Pagan Festival of Lights.
For Witches, Candlemas is a version of the Pagan version of Valentine’s Day wherein there is an emphasis on carnal frivolity. Candlemas eve falls on February 1 and the customary pagan ritual is to place a lighted candle on each and every window of the home beginning on sundown of Candlemas even. And if you like making candles, for witches this is also a good day to make them. During this day, the usual rituals are performing rites of spiritual purification and cleansing as well as creation of Brigit’s crosses out of wheat or straw and hang all over the house for protection.
Ostara or Lady Day ~ March 25th
This is also known as the vernal equinox wherein the spring season reaches its apex and once more the length of the day and night is equal. At this point, it is a pagan belief that the god of light wins the ascendancy battle between his dark twin and heralds the coming of longer days and shorter nights. And it is at this point where the great Mother goddess, who returned to her Virgin aspect in Candlemas and conceives the sun-god (who will be born on yule). For witches, Lady Day is one of the Low Holidays or Lesser Sabats of the wheel.
Beltane or May Day ~ May 1st
In the modern witch’s calendar this is among the 4 great festivals of the year. May Day is considered as the beginning of summer and is found directly across Samhain or Halloween in the wheel calendar. The common customs practiced during this pagan holiday are: maidens bathing their faces in the dew of May morning to retain their youthful beauty, drinking, music, feasting, sword dances, morris dances, archery tournaments, processions of milk maids and chimney-sweeps, repairing boundary markers and fences, and beating he bounds or walking the circuit of one’s property.
For witches, this is principally a time of un-shamed fertility and sexuality and thus phallic symbolism in traditions like riding a hobby horse and Maypole.
Midsummer ~ June 24th
Aside from the 4 great festivals of the pagan calendar, there are also 4 lesser holidays. These 4 lesser holidays (Low Holidays or Lesser Sabats) usually coincide with 2 equinoxes and 2 solstices—all of which are referred to as the ‘quarter-days’ of the year. Midsummer is the summer solstice, wherein the days are longest and the night is shortest and is thus a low holiday.
A customary activity during this time is to light a bonfire at sundown which wards off evil spirits while providing light to the revelers—this activity is known as “setting the watch.” People often jump through these fires as a sign of good luck. Other customs are maidens picking up St. John’s wort to divine a future lover, decking the front door of the house with white lilies, orpin, St. John’s wort, fennel, and birch.
Lammas or Lughnasadh ~ August 1st
The festival of the Lammas which falls on August 1 marks the beginning of fall and the end of summer. It also heralds the first harvest. It is one of the High Holidays of Witchcraft. Lammas means “loaf-mass” because this is commonly the day where baked bread is made from the first grains of harvest of the year. In Irish Gaelic, the holiday is a feast to commemorate the funeral games of the Irish son-god Lugh—thus the name of the celebration is Lughnasadh.
A common feature of this Gaelic celebration is the Tailltean marriages wherein a man and woman can live together in the same roof—like a trial marriage—until the next Lammas (a year and a day) where they can commit to each other for good or back out of the arrangement and thus bring the Tailltean marriage to a close.
Mabon or Harvest Home ~ September 21st – 23rd
It is during Mabon where the day and the night are again equal in length, which also heralds the coming of the time when the nights grow longer than the days. It is one of the pleasant holidays celebrated in pagan religion with the concept of sacrifice. Mythically speaking, this is the time of the year when the god of light is defeated by his twin—the god of darkness. At this point, it marks the time for man to rest after hard work, wherein crops have already been gathered and winter is just a month and a half away.