The Wheel Of The Year (The Wheel for short) is often a confusing one for Australian Pagans. In the southern hemisphere, the dates for all of the solstices, equinoxes and seasons are inverted. For example Yule (mid winter) is traditionally celebrated in the northern hemisphere towards the end of December. Thus for us here in Australia, Yule would be celebrated toward the end of June (as shown in the image above).
The wheel of the year is how most witches and Pagans refer to one year’s worth of seasons and the festivals that mark them and the continuing cycle of life, death and rebirth. The changes that occur throughout one turning of the wheel – one year – can most easily be seen in nature, especially trees and flowering plants.
The wheel is made up of eight sabbats, or holy days, including two solstices, two equinoxes and four “cross quarter” days. During Wicca’s formative years, the equinoxes and solstices, also known as the solar festivals or the “lesser” sabbats were usually celebrated on the nearest full moon date. This didn’t change until the late fifties, and it wasn’t until these sabbats were afforded the same importance and ceremony of the cross quarter days that the Wheel of the Year as we know it came to be.
It’s important to remember that sabbat days are to celebrate a seasonal time of the year that lasts for several weeks as it fades and overlaps with the next season.
Though most pagans follow the Wheel Of The Year, not all paths and traditions do. Some only observe some parts of it, some others follow the seasons through an altogether different way.
Below is an explanation of the Wheel Of The Year for those of us in Australia, followed by description of what each festival is and means.
Samhain April 30th – May 1st Mid Winter (Yule) June 22nd Imbolc August 1st Spring Equinox (Ostara) Sept 22nd Beltaine (Walpurgis) October 31st Summer Solstice (Litha) Dec 22nd Lughnasadh (Lammas) February 2nd Autumn Equinox (Mabon) March 22nd
May 1st (approx.)
Also known as: Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, November Eve, Hallowmas
Samhain (pronounced “Sow-in”) was an ancient Irish-Celtic celebration, though records on just how it was celebrated are patchy: most “halloween” traditions we associate with it only date back as far as the Christian era.
While modern pagandom largely considers this a season for the dead, there are no historical records to suggest that this was originally the case. Mythologically speaking, Samhain was a night of the thinning of the veils between worlds and of powerful magic: according to the myths, this was when enchanted gifts and boons were given, spells – including love spells – were cast, fates were met, heroes died, magical and malevolent creatures walked the earth and attacked castles and keeps. From this alone, it is easy to see why this was a holiday to be feared during ancient times.
The connection of Samhain with spirits and the dead wasn’t until Sir James Frazer and The Golden Bough in the 1890s. Because of Samhain occurring so close to All Souls’ Day, Frazer wrote of the ancient festival being watched over by “the souls of the departed hovering unseen”.
Some think of Samhain as the “Celtic New Year”, but there is very little evidence that this was the case.In some areas, Samhain was a time for the meeting of tribes or clans and the making of laws. Samhain customs such as bobbing for apples were often used for divinatory purposes – usually to find one’s true love.
Many modern witches and Pagans use Samhain season as a time to remember the dead, especially those who have passed over the last twelve months. At the same time, Samhain is sometimes still treated as the harvest celebration it was in days gone by: a time for bringing in the last of the crops and for hunkering down as the days keep darkening and winter sets in. It has also become tradition for some in recent decades to do workings and rituals connected to the myth of Persephone and Demeter at Samhain.
Mid Winter (Yule)
June 21st (approx.)
This is the longest, often the darkest, night of the year. After the autumn equinox, days get shorter and nights get longer, culminating in the solstice in June (or December for our friends in the Northern Hemisphere). After the solstice, the light slowly begins to return and the daylit periods will get a little longer each day for the next six months.
The winter solstice has been marked with celebrations of some kind for centuries. In the Northern Hemisphere many customs associated with it have been adopted into secular and Christian new year and Christmas traditions.
Many witches call the Winter Solstice Yule, which works well as Yule (or Jol, or Jul, or Julmonat) is a traditional holiday season in Germany and Scandinavia and the origins of some of the most well-known midwinter customs.
Midwinter is often seen by modern witches as the rebirth of the sun. Modern Yule and midwinter festivals involve light and fire in many cases: lots of glowing candles and lanterns, bonfires, etc to combat the long darkness.
Also known as: Candlemas, Brighid, February Eve
Relatively little is known from the ancient Irish festival of Imbolc, after which modern Pagan and witch celebrations are named. We do know that they took place in early February in Ireland, in areas where this date would have been the beginning of spring.
One thing we do know is that the goddess Brighid was connected in some way. Or a goddess Brighid: several Brighids were venerated throughout the British Isles, and it’s unclear whether she was a universal deity or more localised to smaller areas.
What we can be sure about is that it was the Brigid who was canonised (made into a saint) by the Catholic church was a goddess and not a real person. No historical records exist that point to a living Brigid, and the remaining myths about her are higgledy-piggledy and fragmented in places, presenting a Saint Brighid who, if she were a living person, would have had to have lived for centuries.
Many of the symbols and customs that we as modern Pagans associate with Imbolc and the goddess Brighid – like Brighid’s crosses, or building a bed for her in ritual – actually come from early Christian traditions and celebrations for Saint Brigid.
While they sometimes share a similar date and the name was used by many witches in the 1950s and 1960s, Candlemas is actually a different holiday altogether: it is a Catholic tradition which owes its origins at least in part to similar ceremonies held in ancient Greece.
In areas where Imbolc occurs at the beginning of Spring, rituals and altars feature the first flowers of the season (where I live these are jonquils and snowdrops). In some places, it is still quite cold and wintry by Imbolc, with no signs of spring at all yet. Modern Imbolc traditions in these areas sometimes include bringing fresh snow inside. Many also celebrate the return of the light, which is why candles feature so prominently in rituals for this season. Some witches like to use this time of year to do some spring cleaning: cleaning, repairing or replacing working tools; replenishing altar supplies; cleaning and cleansing ritual spaces, etc.
September 21st (approx.)
Also known as: Ostara, Eostre
After Yule, the days begin to grow longer. By the spring equinox – a precise moment in time on a specific day when the sun is perfectly lined up with the earth’s equator – day and night are more or less equal. Many witches and Pagans call the season around this day Ostara and celebrate balance, life, fertility and springtime.
In Paganism and witchcraft, the name Ostara was first coined and used for the Spring Equinox by poet and witch Aidan Kelly in 1974. Until a few decades ago it was mostly used only by American witches and authors, although as the community has become more global and more Pagans from further afield consume these authors’ content, it has become more widely used around the world. That said, some witches do still prefer to use pre-1970s names like Vernal Equinox and Spring Equinox.
In his work De Temporum Ratione (Latin: “The Reckoning of Time”), Bede wrote about the Germanic holiday season Eosturmonath (“Eastern month”), which he claimed was named after an ancient goddess named Eostre.
But there’s a problem here. This goddess – who Bede claimed was also known as Eastre, Eastro and Ostra, depending on region and dialect – seems to only have been written about by Bede. No mention of her or her worship exists in any other written history or mythology, and as time goes on and more research is done, it’s looking more and more like Bede might have made her up, embellishing on the name Eosturmonath.
Many of the “ancient” symbols of Ostara/the equinox were not associated with the goddess or celebration until the mid-1800s: things like hares, eggs, chicks, etc were never mentioned by Bede or by Grimm. The earliest mention was actually a fairly offhanded comment made by Adolf Holzmann in 1874: “probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara”. As with the identity of the goddess Ostara, this one innocent quote was picked up and used by several authors, who were cited by other authors, and so on and so on, until it appeared as “fact” in many of the pagan and witch books you might have on your shelf right now.
Regardless of where they came from or how ancient (and therefore somehow better) they’re seen to be, modern symbols of Ostara and the spring equinox include painted or fresh eggs, fresh spring flowers, hares/rabbits and baby animals. Some modern witches use this season for both magical and mundane spring cleaning, rites of abundance/fertility/growth, returning to the outdoors after the winter cold, gardening, “small-c craft” such as egg painting, flower crown making, flower pressing, and divination for the year ahead.
October 31 (approx.)
Also known as: Walpurgis Night, May Day, May Eve
Beltane (sometimes spelled Beltain, Beltaine, Bealtene, Beltin and so on) was historically an Irish celebration/fire festival that later spread throughout the British isles. It’s likely that the name comes from the Irish word bel, meaning “bright” or fortunate. Some have tried to attribute it to certain deities, but these links are tenuous at best and no historical evidence exists to support them.
These celebrations often involved big bonfires and using fire/smoke for protection. In some areas farmers would pass their livestock through the smoke of the fires to protect them from evil.
A similar thing was happening in Germany on Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) at around the same time of year (the end of April in the Northern Hemisphere). Named after the Christian Saint Walpurga (710–778), who helped Christianise Germany, Walpurgis Night was thought to be an especially active night for witches in some parts of Germany. So great was the presence of Witches on that particular evening that the night was also known as Hexennacht, or “Witches’ Night.” Scared Christians built bonfires to keep the Witches away and invoked Saint Walpurga to protect them. Due to the distance between Germany and Ireland, it’s unlikely that Beltane and Walpurgis Night are directly related, though.
Beltane as we know it in modern witchcraft and Paganism is derived mostly from the English celebration May Day, a celebration from which we get traditions such as maypoles, may queens, jack-in-the-green, green men, etc. Traditional May Day celebrations involved fun, frivolity, games to celebrate the start of the English summer. Blooming flowers were often used as seasonal decorations. In modern Paganism, many consider Beltane to be a celebration of life and fertility. Celebrations sometimes include an enactment of the young Horned God courting the maiden Goddess, though the idea of a “chase” is slowly falling out of favour as the community and our values change. Maypoles, morris dancing, bonfires are also a part of many rituals.
December 21st (approx.)
Also known as: Litha, Summer Solstice, St John’s Night
The solstice may not be the middle of the calendar summer in all places, but many witches view Beltane as the beginning of the Summer season, the Solstice as the middle and Lammas as the first harvest and Summer’s end
Throughout the centuries, many records exist of people across Europe building huge bonfires to celebrate midsummer, or St John’s Night: the birthday of John the Baptist. In some northern countries, this was considered the chief celebration of the year.Fires were lit to just to honour the sun on its strongest day, but in celebration of its magical powers – including the power to keep the “fair folk” at bay. The smoke from midsummer fires was considered by some to have protective properties, and with this in mind bonfires were built alongside crops and orchards. In some areas these protective fires were seperate from the “main” bonfires and contained animal bones.
Midsummer has long been connected to the fey, partly because of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was among the first works to present the fey as anything other than malevolent and wicked, and certainly the most popular.
Modern Pagan midsummer celebrations sometimes include offerings and acknowledgements of the fey, Oak/Holly king rituals, bonfires (or at least representations of fire in Australia where we have fire restrictions all summer), prayers and offerings to solar deities, solar wheels/discs, etc. Some also like to do divination for the year ahead on this auspicious date.
Also known as: Lughnasa, Lammas, Loaf-mass, First Fruits, First Harvest
Historically, the ancient Irish festival of Lughnasadh took place at sundown on the 31st of July, with festivities running into the next day. Lammas was an Anglo-Saxon festival that took place at around the same time of year. It’s not clear whether the two were related.
Lammas later became a festival in the Catholic church, where it was sometimes called loaf-mass. It was a celebration of grain harvests and the loaves of bread that came from them. It was usually celebrated on the first of August, although some witches observe the second of August, which is the date given in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Some witches observe the two holidays separately.
In Ireland and Scotland, Lammas marks the beginning of the grain harvest, which has long been a cause for celebration. In medieval times, this was a time of year to pay rent, elect officials, hold fairs and open public lands. Remnants of this exist in Britain and North America with the tradition of August State and county fairs.
Lughnasadh in Ireland was not really a fire festival in the same way that Beltane and Samhain were. While some modern witches and Pagans associate Lughnasadh with the god Lugh and make him a focal point for their celebrations, although it’s unclear whether he was worshipped as a solar deity by the Celts.
Lammas in modern Paganism is still often associated with bread and grain harvests. Some traditions include making corn dollies, which are generally seen as representing the Goddess in her role as the Earth Mother. Rituals around this time of year often honour the harvest in its many forms, and is sometimes localised to specific harvests relevant to that area. In central Victoria, lavender harvest festivals are a common event on the secular calendar at this time. Some groups and individuals celebrate their own harvests and incorporate the sharing, cooking and eating of homegrown produce into Lammas rituals. Others celebrate metaphorical “harvests”: schemes coming to fruition, the achievement of goals, important transitions, etc.
March 21st (approx.)
Also known as: Mabon, Harvest Home, Halig
There are no records of specific autumn equinox celebrations held in ancient times, but there is evidence in several different countries of harvest festivals held roughly at this time of year.
The old English festival Harvest Home was one such festival that occurred in the autumn season (though it was not related to the equinox), once a community’s major grain harvest was complete. Celebrations included feasting and alcoholic drink, and sometimes the giving of gifts. In some areas, the last sheaf gathered was given a form and a name.
Mabon is a name coined by Aidan Kelly. It has been in use – mostly in North America – since the 1970s. The name comes from the Welsh mythological figure Mabon ap Modron, who appears in some Arthurian myths and in the Welsh collection of literature known as The Mabinogion (which dates from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, though the corpus most likely existed long before that as oral lore). In the myths, Mabon is most certainly a very minor figure and is not associated with the equinox or the harvest in any real way. He generally appears as a young man, and some scholars have connected him to the Celtic Maponus, who was a god of youth and was often conflated with the Roman god Apollo.
Many modern witches and Pagans treat the autumn equinox as a second harvest festival. As with Lammas, what constitutes a harvest is often localised or personalised, and varies from area to area: in areas where there are no grain crops grown, witches might celebrate the local apple harvest, etc. In recent times, some witches have also done rituals and offerings dedicated to Persephone. Many Americans treat the holiday as being synonymous with thanksgiving.