One of the first things many witches learn is to follow the Wheel of the Year. The Wheel of the Year is a calendar of the annual holidays for Wiccans. Because I am not Wiccan, I celebrate a few of the holidays but not all. Remember you do not have to be Wiccan to be a Witch. Although I don’t necessarily follow the Wheel of the Year that closely I wanted to write about it because it is a great guide to creating a practice and it is important in a lot of practices.
The Wheel of the Year itself was created along with Wicca which started in the fifties but the holidays on the wheel are from the ancient Celtic and Germanic Pagan traditions. Traditional Wicca has a lot of Celtic influence. It contains eight Sabbats that correspond with the cycles of nature. This is because in the ancient times they viewed nature as having a mind of its own. Their lives were also heavily influenced by the natural cycles so these were worth celebrating and they still are. These Sabbats are broken down into four solar festivals: the Winter solstice, the Spring equinox, the Summer Solstice, and the Fall equinox. Then there are four seasonal festivals that focus on the seasonal change that occurred in that time. All of these Sabbats have names as well: the Winter solstice is known as Yule, the Spring Equinox is Ostara, the Summer solstice is Litha, and the Fall equinox is Mabon. The other four holidays are called Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
- Yule: Yule is known as the Winter solstice or the witch’s Christmas. This holiday celebrates the shortest day of the year and usually falls between Dec. 21 and 23. Yule is all about renewing life because although the night is long the sun comes up again. After this night the sun begins to stay out longer so we celebrate this phenomena. The ancients believed that this time of year was when the sun god was born. This was later translated to the Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25. All of the Christmas traditions like trees, decor, and presents come from the Pagan Yule. The reason we decorate with trees and plants is because trees were believed to be a home for nature spirits in the cold. In return these spirits would give protection and good fortune to the people in the home. We use evergreen trees because these trees symbolized resilience and rebirth. The next tradition was the bonfire which contained the Yule log. Nowadays most people just burn the Yule log in a fire place since it’s kinda hard to have a bonfire depending on where you live, but this fire symbolizes the rebirth of light and the sun god. At the bonfire everyone would throw a piece of holly in the flames to symbolize letting go of last year’s problems. Then finally a piece of the Yule log was saved to start next year’s fire. This continued this tradition of rebirth and continuity.
- Imbolc: Imbolc is the holiday between Winter and Spring. The word Imbolc can be translated to “in the belly” and because it was associated with the coming of Spring this holiday is a fertility holiday. Imbolc celebrates fertility, rebirth, and purification. This holiday is celebrated on Feb. 1 and it is the inspiration for Groundhog Day in the US. The ancients celebrated by burning lamps and lighting bonfires as the days became longer. Feasts were also common. Nowadays this holiday has themes of reconnecting with nature as Spring is on the way.
- Ostara: Ostara is the celebration of the Spring equinox so it is usually celebrated on March 19-23. This day is like the Witch’s Easter and this is where we get traditions involving rabbits and eggs. So it was celebrated through feasts, dying eggs, flower decor, and rabbits and chicks were common symbolism for this holiday. This holiday is all about rebirth and renewal. This is why the egg is so important, as a chick is born out of it in spring.
- Beltane: Beltane or May Day is the festival between Spring and Summer which celebrates light and fertility. Because this holiday is between the spring and summer; and it is encouraging fertility, fire is an important symbol because it stands for passion and letting go of inhibitions. Dancing was also important and the ancients often danced around a tree which eventually turned into the maypole that we see today. Then a young girl would be crowned the May queen with a flower crown to symbolize fertility/the fertility goddess.
- Litha: Litha is the celebration of the Summer Solstice and it is celebrated around June 20th. It is thought that Litha was the ancient word for June. Litha is all about light overcoming darkness so it was often a fire festival with bonfires and dancing. There was also a feast where honey cakes and fruit were common. This festival was also known to have protection rituals as the ancients believed that supernatural entities awoke in the Spring and were at full power by Summer. Couples would also get married as part of the celebration and perform a ritual to protect their marriage.
- Lughnasadh: This festival was the celebration of the harvest and Summer turning to Fall. The first fruits of the harvest were often used as offerings to deities. There were many festivities including horse racing, wrestling matches, archery, fencing, etc. Basically any competition happened at this festival. These competitions were thought to honor one of the ancient Celtic goddess Talitu.
- Mabon: Mabon, or where Thanksgiving actually originated from was the celebration of the Autumnal equinox. Like the modern Thanksgiving, this is our time to reflect on and give thanks for the past year. Unlike the modern day Thanksgiving which is celebrated in Nov. Mabon is celebrated around Sept. 22. On this day, it is customary to dress up and have a lavish feast as it is at this point of the year that we are preparing for a restful winter. This time of year is also when the veil between our world and the spirit world begins to thin so this is a good time to honor deities and start some spirit work. On this holiday we relish in the fruits of our labor and reflect on what we accomplished in the past year.
- Samhain: Finally there is Samhain, the witch’s new year or modern day Halloween. The word “Samhain” means Summer’s end and this holiday brings us into the winter months or the dark part of the year. Like Mabon, this was also a time to give thanks and reflect. It was also important to reflect on what was lost in the past year, including loved ones. This holiday laid the foundations for modern day, Day of the Dead. It is at this time of year that the veil between our world and the spirit world is thinnest so it was thought that one’s ancestors might visit! This is what Day of the Dead is all about. So like Day of the Dead, the Pagans would leave offerings to their ancestors like a favorite meal and an altar of their favorite things. The reason for costumes and sugar skull masks comes from the fact that some spirits had malicious intent so the ancients would disguise themselves. There were also bonfires and a celebration all about chaos. It was thought that the world was born from chaos so when the dead came back it would fall back into chaos. Pranks were often done the night before Samhain then made right the next day to symbolize divine forces taking over the chaos. It is also believed that the bonfires on Samhain were actually BONE-fires and the ancients burned the bones of dead animals.
Although there are more holidays than this depending on what cultures influence your craft these are the main ones that most witches celebrate. I think it is interesting that all or almost all of these holidays have been Christianized/modernized for today’s people. It goes to show that we never stopped honoring the cycles of the universe, we just do it differently now. I personally do not celebrate all of the holidays. I celebrate Yule, Ostara, Litha, Mabon, and Samhain. I recognize these holidays because they are the beginning of each new season and as a witch I feel obligated to celebrate Halloween because duh. It’s like the only day I can be myself without being weird.