Wheel of the Year: The Eight Pagan Holidays Explained
Wiccan Wheel of the Year: A Short Background
The Wheel of the Year is a representation of the eight pagan holidays or Wiccan Sabbats. These holidays honor and celebrate the seasons and cycles of life for those who practice paganism or Wicca.
Even those who are not of these spiritual denominations or beliefs recognize these holidays in different ways. It is considered by many to be an earth-based religion.
What Are the Sabbats?
The holidays, or Sabbats, are representations of the start of each season and mid-way points between them. They are split evenly throughout the year.
They are referred to as pagan holidays as they hold roots in the pagan religions of the Celtic and Germanic pagans. Wiccan observe these days as Sabbats. Although the word Sabbat holds roots in Judaism and Hebrew, in reference to the Wiccan religion, it originates from the word Sabbath, which means a meeting or gathering to practice rituals and rites.
Pagan holiday and Sabbat are interchangeable in that they represent the same days on which the rituals and celebrations occur.
What Are the Eight Pagan Holidays?
Winter solstice; preparations for upcoming cold months
Celebration of the promise of the return of spring
Celebration of spring and fertility
Halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice; celebration of fertility
Summer solstice; celebration of the harvest
Midway point between summer and autumn; first harvest
Autumn equinox; celebration of the arrival of autumn
October 31/November 1
A time for honoring passed souls; thin veil between the living and the dead
8 Pagan Holidays Explained
1. Yule: Winter Solstice (Dec 20–23)
Yule is held during the winter solstice when our days become shorter. It is the time in which last preparations are made for the coming cold months. It is also a time to remind oneself of the warmth and life-giving source of the sun or fire. Trees are decorated with foods that thrive in the cold months to represent continual growth and life through the dark, cold nights.
Some Christmas traditions come from Yule, such as the use of mistletoe and the use of a yule log, which was believed to have the ability to banish evil spirits and bring good luck. One of the oldest winter traditions in the world, the winter solstice is held on the shortest day of the year.
2. Imbolc: The Promise of Spring (Feb. 2)
Imbolc translated literally means "in the belly" in Gaelic. It is called this because it is when the sheep first began to give milk again, signifying they were pregnant.
A joyous occasion, it symbolized the promise of the return of spring and is halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. This is a time in which both crops and animals are blessed to ensure an abundant year that all would be healthy and new life would spring forth soon. Signs of the first buds of spring are appearing.
Maidens and the pagan goddess Brigid are honored on this holiday as they represent fertility. With the conversion to Christianity in Ireland, Brigid the goddess became Saint Brigid, and missionaries incorporated the traditional pagan customs into Christianity in Ireland.
3. Ostara: Spring Equinox (March 19–22)
Spring has arrived! Our days are becoming warmer and longer. New life is sprouting all around us. Fertility is abounding and is represented with the hare and eggs, origins of some Easter traditions come from this holiday. Ēostre is a Germanic goddess who became the namesake of the Easter and Ostara traditions.
4. Beltane: Festival of Fire; Mayday (May 1)
Beltane is the halfway point between spring equinox and summer solstice. It is an exciting time because spring is now in full bloom, and the longer, warmer days of summer are approaching. The word “Beltane” originates from the Celtic god Bel and the Gaelic word “teine,” which means fire.
A time to give gratitude and thanks to the fertility of spring, festivities start on the eve of May 1st with big beautiful bonfires representing life and end on May 1st with wearing flower crowns and dancing the maypole. Beltane is also considered a time when the veil between worlds is thin as with Samhain; therefore, it is a magical and powerful time. Beltane was also considered to be an important event for celebrating and nurturing the harvest.
So now, as the Maiden form of the Goddess whispers to us of hope and new beginnings at the festival of Imbolc, it is on a cold February morning that you are invited to step onto the ‘Wheel of the Year.'"— Carole Carlton, author
5. Litha: Summer Solstice (June 19–23)
Litha is the midsummer celebration of the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is the time when not only all work can be done but enjoyment as well; the days have become long enough to do both. It is also a time when engagements are announced, and blessings are made for a full, abundant crop in the coming harvest.
Traditional methods of celebration include bonfires and torchlight processions—rituals intended to encourage the sun, whose power shall wane throughout the remainder of the season. Many modern pagans refer to Litha simply as “Midsummer.”
6. Lughnasadh: First Harvest (August 1)
The midway point between summer and autumn, this festival marks the first harvest of grains and fruits. It celebrates the new harvest of bread and fresh fruits, gives gratitude for it, and is also the time when many would become married. The festival is named after the Celtic god of light, Lugh, and is the first celebration of autumn and the harvest.
According to legend, Lugh’s mother, Tailtiu, cleared the lands of Ireland to help prepare for the planting of crops. This mythical backstory helps to explain the festival's historical role as a celebration of the harvest.
7. Mabon: Autumn Equinox (Sept. 21–24)
Mabon is the arrival of autumn and with it the reaping of the harvest. It celebrates the abundance, the fruit of the labor put in throughout the year and signals preparations for the winter soon to come.
8. Samhain: Halloween; Witches' New Year (Oct. 31/Nov. 1)
Samhain is one of the most important festivals of the year. It is believed to be a very magical time as the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thin. It is on this eve that one honors their passed family, friends and familiars.
Jack o'lanterns are lit to light the way for the passed souls. It is considered a very powerful time and is great to ask for guidance, help, clearing of negativity, and starting of the new year in a positive light. It is a magical time that many still celebrate today.
These are only short explanations of these beautiful pagan holidays. They are truly filled with wonderful traditions, foods, crafts, and gatherings all their own.
Where Does the Wheel of the Year Begin?
Where does the wheel start? Considering the Wheel of the Year is a circle and truly has no beginning or end, it is often asked when the new year begins.
Some believe the new cycle starts on Samhain as it is the witches' new year. Others believe it falls on or after Yule since that more closely corresponds to our modern calendars.
**The dates vary when it comes to the solstices and equinoxes because it can vary from year to year, however, they tend to fall within a 3–5-day range.
Do you celebrate pagan holidays of the Wheel of the Year?
Origins of Pagan Holidays
The Wheel of the Year holidays originate mostly from Celtic and Germanic pagan rituals, many moons ago. Some of the pagan holidays were celebrated by Celtic pagans, others by Germanic.
It is unclear as to when exactly the eight were melded together to become the now known and recognized Wheel of the Year.
The holidays with Celtic origins are:
- and Samhain.
The holidays with Germanic origins are:
- and Mabon.
The pagan holidays or Sabbats are not only split between Celtic and Germanic pagan traditions but as follows:
Greater and Lesser Sabbats
According to Wiccan beliefs, the Sabbats are split into Greater and Lesser Sabbats.
The Lesser Sabbats are those that fall on the solstices and equinoxes, known as quarter holidays, as they evenly split the year according to the sunʼs position. They are rooted in the Germanic pagan religious celebrations. The Lesser Sabbats are:
- and Mabon.
The Greater Sabbats are those that fall in-between, the cross-quarter days, and are rooted in the Celtic or Gaelic pagan traditions. These Sabbats are also referred to as fire festivals. The Greater Sabbats are:
- and Samhain.
Sun and Moon Sabbats
Another way in which the Sabbats or pagan holidays can be split into are Sun and Moon Sabbats.
The Sun Sabbats are those that are based on the position of the Sun falling on solstice or equinox. They are:
- and Mabon.
The remaining Pagan holidays, Sabbats, are celebrated on full moons or in the case of Samhain the dark moon. These are:
- and Samhain.
As you can see, there is a clear definition of the two sets of four that when blended together became the eight we know today.
The seasons and astronomical positioning of the sun during solstices and the equinoxes obviously occur worldwide; therefore, similar celebrations of these are found across the world.
They are not solely pagan holidays or Wiccan Sabbats, nor were they first celebrated by them. These natural occurrences have been honored, celebrated, and recognized by many of the ancient cultures and civilizations of man.
Role of the Seasons
The Wheel of the Year and the eight pagan holidays are a representation of the different seasons throughout the year. With each season, there are certain things to ask for or intentions to set that resonate with that particular time of the year. Whether you’re pagan or not, it is good to keep in mind the seasons and what they represent.
- Winter is a time of reflection: Hibernation and looking inward is natural during the cold winter months. It is a time in which we can ponder, take a look at the past to learn from it, and contemplate the future and which seeds we want to plant in the coming spring.
- Spring brings with it new beginnings, growth, abundance, and fertility. This is the time to set in motion new goals, intentions, and ideas into our life. We are coming out of the cold winter and have reflected and gone inward. Spring beckons us back out to feel the warmer days and plant new seeds, both literally and figuratively.
- Summer gives us the longest days of the year, providing more hours for us to accomplish tasks as well as relax, as everything should now be in full bloom. It’s a time to think about what you would like to have come to completion or fruition in your life and to free yourself of those things that will not bring forth a rich harvest.
- Autumn allows us to reap our benefits. It’s a time of harvesting and a time when we are able to see the fruit of our labors and hard work we have spent the majority of the year nurturing and tending to. It’s a time to evaluate and recognize the work and seeds we planted back in spring; did it bring forth fruit? By looking at the aspects of our life that bore fruit and those that did not, we can begin to ask ourselves the questions we should be reflecting on during the winter.