Wiccan festivals (known as Sabbats) are celebrations that can be thought of like traditional Judeo-Christian holidays. The Sabbats celebrate the changing of the seasons and other things such as equinoxes and solstices. Wiccan author Rae Beth described the Sabbats as marking “a phase in the relationship between the Goddess & the Horned God.” To people who are new to Wicca, this may all sound a bit bizarre. An important thing to keep in mind is that, in Wicca, symbolism plays a big part in the beliefs & practices.
So think of the Goddess & the Horned God as symbolizing the cycle of nature. Things are born (spring), flourish (summer), begin to slowly wither away (autumn), and ultimately die (winter), only to be re-born (spring). This concept, which Doreen Valiente termed the “Wheel of the Year”, is a key concept when discussing the Sabbats.
The celebration of Sabbats can be traced back to Margaret Murray. In her book “The Witch-Cult of Western Europe”, Murray claimed that there were two dates that were of significant importance to the witch-cult. These were “May Eve”, which is now referred to as Beltane, and “November Eve”, now known as Samhain (or the more popular term, Halloween).
Let’s stop here for a second and talk about Margaret. I mention this disclaimer any time anything regarding Margaret is brought up. It is a well-known fact that most (if not all) of Margaret Murray’s claims in her publications have been historically disproven. And although there are a number of hard-core “Murrayites” who stand by her claims, it’s not possible to talk about Murray without bringing up the fact that the academic and historical communities labeled her a fraud.
As I mention in my sub-section on the evolution of Wicca (which can be found in the History of Wicca section), the standard of proof is different when you’re talking about validating anything from an historical perspective. Although Murray’s claims were dissected to such a degree that anyone wanting academic proof of a witch-cult in Europe wouldn’t give Murray’s work a second glance, it cannot be denied that much of her work influenced the pioneers of Wicca.
So, historically factual or not, Murray’s description of the religious observances of the supposed “ancient witch-cult” influenced Gerald Gardner to the point that he originally posited four “great festivals” that were celebrated in Wicca. These festivals were May Eve (Beltane), August Eve (Lughnasadh, or Lammas), November Eve (Samhain), and February Eve (Brigid). Gardner said that the dates corresponded to the “divisions of the Gaelic year”.
In 1962, Doreen Valiente referred to the “Wheel of the Year” which consisted of eight Sabbats in total; four “greater” Sabbats, and four “lesser” Sabbats.
The Sabbats underwent some changes in the Wiccan space, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. But the eight Sabbats have become a well-accepted part of Wiccan history, belief, and practice.
Okay, class, that’s enough dry lecture for today’s history lesson. Let’s talk about these eight Sabbats and what they have come to represent. We’ll start with everyone’s favorite holiday, and arguably the “high holiday” of Wicca: Samhain/Halloween
Samhain – 31 October
Although the terms Samhain and Halloween are often used inter-changeably, their origins were quite different. In the sources of the Early Medieval (500-1000 CE) Irish, the 1st of November was a festival that marked the beginning of the winter season. It marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the cold, dark winter ahead. As with many cultures, the holiday is celebrated at sunset on the day before the calendar date. So, Samhain festivities began on 31 October at sunset and continued until sunset on 1 November. The festivities included lighting of bonfires, a theme that is repeated in other Sabbats.
Halloween, on the other hand, has roots in the Catholic religion. 1 November was All Saints Day in the Catholic tradition. The night before, or All Hallow’s Eve, was a time when Christians would celebrate and honor their departed loved ones. It is believed that Halloween and All Saint’s Day was created as a “Christianization” of the pagan Samhain celebration. Given the fact that many of the Christian holidays show clear signs of pagan influence, it’s entirely possible that the Samhain-to-Halloween conversion is true.
For Wiccans, celebrations and traditions from both the Gaelic and Catholic influences are evident. On Samhain, it is believed that the “veil” between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, thus allowing the living to honor (and even communicate with) the dead. Samhain is viewed by the majority of Wiccans as the Wiccan New Year.
Within the symbolism of the God & Goddess (and with the Wheel of the Year), the God dies and returns to the underworld (and he STILL has to connect through Atlanta to get there) where he awaits to be reborn at Yule. Kind of a bummer of a concept to think of, especially if it’s supposed to be a New Year’s party. The obvious correlation is that plants, flowers, and trees are shedding their leaves and pedals and are preparing for the impending cold.
Yule – Winter Solstice (around 21 December)
Yule occurs on the Winter Solstice. The date varies, but is usually between 21-23 December. It has been described as “the birth of life & light.” The Winter Solstice is the “longest night of the year” in the Northern Hemisphere, as this is when the sun is at its furthest away from the North Pole. After the Winter Solstice, the days slowly begin to get longer. Because of this, in 274 CE, the Roman Emperor Aurelian made a decree that the Winter Solstice would be celebrated as the birthday of the sun.
The festivals celebrating the Winter Solstice became extremely popular. Around the 4th century, Christian authorities, wanting to eradicate pagan celebrations, replaced the celebration of the Winter Solstice with Christmas. Yep, that’s right… Not only was Christmas NOT celebrated on December 25th prior to the 4th century, but it was deliberately placed on the calendar to “Christianize” the pagans.
Many of the ancient Yule celebrations persist to this day. Yule was typically celebrated by lighting of bonfires (we witches LOVE our bonfires), drinking of spiced beverages such as cider, hanging wreaths, decorating trees (yep, that’s another pagan thing that Christians have incorporated into their holiday), and was all-around just a time of the year to spend with loved ones.
When you think of the term “mythology”, you probably think of the Ancient Greeks & Romans, Zeus, Athena, and Greek author Homer. But, in 1948, author and poet Robert Graves published a book called “The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.” In his book, he described two mythological “Kings” who rule nature at different times of the year. Yule (or Midwinter) marks the metaphorical time when the Oak King battles his adversary, the Holly King. The Oak King triumphs, and.. Well, if you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to keep reading. I don’t want to give away the ending.
Symbolically, Yule is seen as the time of year when the Goddess gives birth to the God. Since the God is also associated with the sun, its symbolism fits with the changing of the seasons
Imbolc/Candlemas (2 February)
Imbolc, which begins at sunset on 1 February and continues until sunset on 2 February, marks the midpoint between winter & spring. Stewart & Janet Farrar, who were some of the original pioneers of Wicca, described Imbolc as a time when the first hints of spring “in the womb of Mother Earth.” Beneath the frozen ground, the seeds of plants and trees slowly begin their germination process. It has been viewed as an ideal time to be initiated into the Craft. Many Wiccans use Imbolc as a time of cleansing and purification, as spring is just around the corner.
Early Medieval Irish literature references Imbolc as a celebration of St. Brigid (a patron saint popular in Irish Catholicism). Western Christianity also marks this time as the “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.”
In Wiccan symbolism, Imbolc is the time when the Goddess is recovering from having given birth to the God. The God is viewed as a young, lustful boy, which is associated with the seed germination process that nature undergoes during this time.
Ostara – Spring Equinox (around 21 March)
Ostara, celebrated at the Spring Equinox, is a celebration of Spring having arrived. It has been termed the “Festival of New Life” and is described by Silver RavenWolf as “the return of fertility to the land.” Indeed, Ostara is a celebration of fertility, and in nature, we see the plants and trees returning to life. Animals awaken from their winter hibernation. And what’s the first thing an animal wants to do when they wake up from a long winter’s nap? Procreate. It is during the Spring Equinox where night and day are equal (equinox literally means “equal night”). See? You learn stuff about words here, too!
Although Ostara was not one of the original Sabbats described by Murray, it has been widely accepted in the Wiccan community as a valid pagan celebration.
Eostre, the Saxon Lunar Goddess of fertility, is symbolized by eggs and rabbits (are you seeing a trend yet with pagan symbolism in Christian holidays?). The Goddess spreads her fertility across the Earth, breathing new life into nature.
Beltane/May Day (30 April)
The festival of Beltane has been celebrated for centuries. It was originally found in Early Medieval Irish sources, and it was widely celebrated in Western Europe until around the 19th century. It was celebrated by the lighting of (yep, you guessed it) bonfires. Beltane is celebrated at the same time as May Day, a pre-Christian celebration of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. Beltane was celebrated as the beginning of the summer season in some pre-Christian pagan cultures, such as the Celtic tradition. May Day also became associated with the celebration of the Maypole, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a pole, around which people dance. It’s a very common folk festival theme.
The symbolism surrounding Beltane is similar, but somewhat varied. To some, such as Evan John Jones, who was a practitioner of witchcraft and an author, Beltane marks the birth of the young Horned King, and others (such as Cunningham) say it is a celebration of “the emergence of the young God to manhood.” It has also been interpreted as a time at which the God impregnates the Goddess. Beltane has also been associated with the Iron Age god, Bel, from which we get the name of the Sabbat.
Litha – Summer Solstice (around 21 June)
Litha, or “Midsummer” as it is more commonly referred to as, is a major folk festival that has been celebrated in the British Isles from at least the 13th century. It marks the height of summer, and it is the longest day and shortest night of the year. Celebrations of Midsummer continue to the present day, with many Wiccans and other pagans gathering at historical sites such as Stonehenge to celebrate the holiday. It is typically celebrated by… BONFIRES! Who would’ve guessed?
At the height of summer, the Goddess is seen as dancing and joyous, but carries with her a message that “everything changes” because, from this day forward, the days slowly begin to get shorter. The God is seen as being at his peak as well.
Remember that story about the Oak King and the Holly King? Since Midsummer is the antithesis of Midwinter, it is at Midsummer when the Holly King, having recuperated from his defeat at Midwinter, returns and slays the Oak King. From this day hence, it was thought that the Holly King ruled the rest of the year, until Midwinter when the Oak King returns. Riveting story, right?
Lughnasadh/Lammas (1 August)
To be quite honest, I have no clue how to pronounce Lughnasadh. The word appears in Early Medieval Irish texts and refers to Lugh, a mythological hero and Irish deity. This Sabbat typically marks the beginning of the harvest. Some Wiccans view this holiday as the Wiccan thanksgiving, being thankful to the land for bringing bountiful harvests.
Lammas (pronounced like the pluralization of the animal, lama), is an English term for a Medieval festival that occurred around the same time as Lughnasadh, and also celebrated the beginning of the first harvest of the year.
Mythology & Symbolism
Janet & Stewart Farrar described Lammas as a commemoration of the Irish deity Lugh, who, according to Irish lore, was sacrificed during this time.
Mabon – Autumn Equinox (around 21 September)
Mabon is the final Sabbat until we start anew with Samhain. Unlike most of the other Sabbats, Mabon is not associated with any known folk festivals in the British Isles. In fact, the term “Mabon” was developed by Aidan Kelly, which he adopted from a character in Medieval Welsh literature. It’s been described as another harvest festival as the harvesting of crops continued through the Autumn Equinox. Ann-Marie Gallagher, in her book “The Wicca Bible: The Definitive Guide to Magic and the Craft” said that it marked the point “when the dying Sun God begins his journey across the western ocean to sojourn with the eldest aspect of the Goddess, in the land of the dead at Samhain.” Sounds like the ending to a movie, doesn’t it?
So there you have it! Obviously after Mabon, we start the new year with the celebration of Samhain. Whether you take the symbolism and integration with mythology literally or not is entirely up to you. Unlike many of the holidays celebrated by the majority of the Judeo-Christian establishment, the Wiccan Sabbats have largely remained free of popular commercialization. At the same time, however, you can see the symbolism of many of the Sabbats peppered throughout Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter.