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The Pagan Calendar is divided into eight ritual and celebratory events: four major and four minor celebrations that mark the passing of the year and celebrate a phase in the relationship between God and Goddess. This is sometimes referred to as the Wiccan Ritual Year or the Wheel of the Year. Since many pagans who celebrate these festivals are not Wiccan, we shall refer to it as the Wheel of the Year. Why a wheel? This is because the symbol that illustrates the sequence of the year is usually drawn in a circle, representing the continuous coming and going of the seasons and the years. A line has a beginning and an end, but a circle has always represented The Infinite.
[Image courtesy of Golden Valley Art]
[Copyright ©Golden Valley Art]
The four major festivals are called the “Greater Sabbats”, whereas the remaining four are “Minor Sabbats” and fall on the solstices and equinoxes.
These eight festivals of the Pagan Year are distinct from the “esbats” or monthly marking of the new moon and full moon.
Some pagans celebrate the festivals on the dates as dictated by the Gregorian Calendar, other pagans will celebrate the festival at the closest full moon, and others will look to the specific astrological conjunctions that mark the beginning of a festival.
According to Ronald Hutton (seminal historian on paganism), there is no evidence that pre-Christian people celebrated the eight festivals of the year. Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh were originally Gaelic quarter days. The concept of adding the equinoxes and solstices was adopted by modern Gardnerian Wicca in the 20th Century which also brought it more into line with Neo-Druidry. Many native peoples will have marked the equinoxes and solstices, which are observable in nature, but the actual eight-part Wheel of the Year is a more modern creation.
Some names for the God: Sun King, Green Man, Horned God, Father Nature
Some names for the Goddess: Mother, Maiden, Crone, Wise Woman, Mother Nature, Lady of the Wild Things
Samhain (31 October – 2 Nov)
Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) is considered the Pagan New Year. This is a time of celebrating the lives of those who have passed on and is a festival of the Dead. There is a general belief that the veils between this world and the afterlife are thinnest at this time of year, and as such it is a perfect time to welcome back the Dead, to remember them and hold feasts and celebrations in their honour. In paganism, death is very much a part of life, and is not seen as something morbid; it is a time to contemplate life and death as a sacred whole.
The old year dies and dissolves for the new year to begin. Death is merely a reminder of rebirth and how the Wheel of the Year keeps turning, even beyond the grave.
Other names: Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Feast of the Dead, Ancestor Night, Festival of the Returning Dead
Yule (19 – 23 December)
Yule, which is also known as the Winter Solstice, marks the longest night of the year when the sun is at its lowest point. Between Samhain and Yule, the Lord of the Night (symbol of death) has ruled and the Goddess in her Crone aspect has given us wisdom. Now it is the time when Light returns and the Great God/Sun or divine male is reborn. It is one of the four solar festivals.
Other names: Winter Night, Winter Solstice
Imbolc (1 – 2 February)
Imbolc (pronounced Im-olc with a silent “b”) celebrates the land awakening and the growing strength of the Sun/God deity following his rebirth at Yule. The Goddess is venerated in her maiden aspect (her three aspects being: mother, maiden and crone/old woman). It is a time of cleansing, purification and dedication. The young god approaches the maiden goddess with desire; their love igniting the creative energy we see in spring.
Other names; Candlemas, Brigid’s Day, Bride’s Day
Ostara (19 – 23 March)
An equinox is when the sun crosses the celestial equator – day and night are of equal length: for pagans this is a solar festival when the powers of winter and darkness are equal to the powers rising to bring summer and light. The Horned God rides forth on the hunt and heralds in a time of celebration. Winter is behind us and the potential for life and growth abounds.
Other names: Lady Day, Festival of Trees, Spring Equinox
Beltane (1 May)
Beltane is a time when the Great God and Goddess are united in sexual union: the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of God and Goddess, the Hieros Gamos/”greenwood marriage” that is often replicated within ritual through the year. Hence this is seen as a fertility festival, represented by such rituals as dancing around a phallic maypole. The God impregnates the Goddess creating the potential for life, the harvest of the land later in the year.
Other names: May Day
Midsummer (19 – 23 June)
The summer solstice marks the midsummer point of the year when the sun is at its highest point: the longest day in the year. One of the solar festivals; this is when the God is crowned Lord of Light and is at the height of his power. Having known complete love with the Goddess, he now turns and sets sail for the Land of Rebirth. From this point his powers start to wane and the days become shorter. The Goddess prepares to give birth to the fruits of the land, the annual harvest.
Other names: Litha, Summer Solstice
Lughnasadh (1 – 2 August)
Lughnasadh (pronounced loo-na-sah) is a grain/corn festival or festival of the first fruits when pagans give thanks not only for food, but for all gifts and blessings, granted by the bounty of the fertile Goddess of the Land.
Other names: Lammas, Festival of the First Fruits
Mabon (20 – 24 September)
Mabon is an equinox, which is when the sun crosses the celestial equator – day and night are of equal length: for pagans this is a solar festival. As the days lengthen, pagans once again consider the darker faces of God and Goddess. It can also be a time to honour old age and the coming winter. This is a second harvest celebration, giving thanks for and sharing the fruits of the earth to ensure the blessings of God and Goddess through the winter.
Other names: Autumn Equinox, Second Harvest, Wine Harvest
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, by Scott Cunningham
Hedge Witch: Guide to Solitary Witchcraft, by Rae Beth