All Wiccan rituals tend to follow the same structure starting and ending the same. What differentiates one day of power from the others is the time of year and the meaning of the ceremony, as well as the intent of the ritual. Wiccan Sabbats are very much like modern holidays, but include spiritual overtones. Actually, the basis for the majority of Christian holidays are on the seasonal observations of the earth-based religions. The Wheel of the Year contains eight sabbats.
The four greater sabbats are Samhain, Imbolg, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. The four lesser sabbats are observed on the equinoxes and cross-quarters: Yule (Winter Solstice), Ostara (Spring Equinox), Litha or Mid-Summer (Summer Solstice), and Mabon (Fall Equinox).
Yule Sabbat: the Messianic Kyriat – Christmas and Winter Solstice: December 22
The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year. The traditional folk meaning of Yule is that the Goddess awakens to find that she is pregnant with the Solar God. The intent of the rituals for both the summer and winter solstices are to help change the course of the Sun, which directly affected the crops, the growing seasons, and the healthy rhythms of the human body. With the aid of the Sun, the symbol of the Young Solar God, the farmers have reassurance of a vibrant spring and the blessings of the plentiful harvests in autumn.
The Roman Catholic Church then Christianized the Winter Solstice or Yule as Christmas, or Christ Mass. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus at Yule, regardless of the possibility that the spring or the summer months may be more accurate. The Catholic Church held special ceremonies to take the place of Yule for the former earth-based religions now encompassed by the established church.
The season of winter has been the time observed for the birth of the young Solar God in many cultures for thousands of years. Keeping the Yule custom, the Roman Catholic Church assigned Jesus’ birth to the schedule of the birth of the Young God as in the Pagan cultures.
Yule and Christmas have always been associated with the spirit of giving, just as The Magi, or the Magicians, came bearing gifts to the Christ child. The Winter Holy Days of Power are symbolic of the joy of giving to others for centuries, regardless of the culture. Customs vary all over the world with the childhood celebrations of the Holy King, Old Saint Nick, Mother Berhta, and Santa Claus.
The colors affiliated with Winter Solstice, Yule, and Christmas are red, green, white, and gold. It is easy to guess the herbs and plants associated with Yule because the tradition has carried on to our modern Christmas celebrations.
The herbs associated with Yule are holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Yule herbs used as incense associated with Yule are frankincense and myrrh. The odors of cinnamon and nutmeg are just as common today to the celebration of Christmas as thousands of years ago with the celebration of Yule, or even just a few hundred years ago in Europe before the colonization of the States.
The symbol of decorating a small potted evergreen at Yule/Christmas has been tradition since early Pagan celebrations. Other symbols include topping the Yule trees with the Triple Moon, which is the symbol of the Maiden, Mother and the Crone aspects of the Goddess. After the Christianization of Yule, the star topped the tree. This affiliation with Christ is symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, ironically the pentacle of the five elements. Angels also became part of the Roman Catholic adaptation of Yule as symbols of the celestial messengers crowning the evergreen tree. Many ChristoWiccans feel the use of the Star atop of the tree, lends a dual purpose to this hybrid path of Jesus and the Mother.
Colonial and Early American Christmas used the decorations of Mother Nature. Apples, oranges, lemons, and pineapples adorn doors and boughs, just as they did in the pre-Christian Europe. Holly, mistletoe, pinecones, and evergreens are wonderful seasonal decorations not only for the home, but also for the altar. This is the season for the burning of the Yule Log.
Imbolg, Oimelc, Britannia, or Candlemas: February 1st and/or 2nd
This celebratory ritual is a winter festival of purification and fire, often-called “the Feast of Lights,” Imbolc or Imbolg (pronounced “em bowl gee”). The term Imbolg means “in the belly” referring to ewe’s milk, which marks the time pregnant ewes began lactation. It also signifies the growing of life in the womb of Mother Earth, as Imbolg brings the first signs of returning life in the darkness of winter.
Bridantia is the Celtic holy celebration honoring the Goddess Brigid. She was the Irish-Celtic goddess of fire, fertility, crops, livestock, wisdom, poetry, and household arts. Now known as Sainte Brigit, the Roman Catholic Church absorbed the Celtic Goddess of Brigid. The Goddess Brigid was very popular among the Irish and while practitioners of the Old Religion took on the new All Male Christian Trinity of the Catholic Church, they refused to give up their beloved Goddess Brigid. As opposed to loosing the entire country of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church granted the Goddess sainthood. The festivals of the Triple Goddess Brigid become celebrations in the form of a mass on St. Brigit’s Day.
When the Roman Catholic Church Christianized this sabbat, it was re-named as Candlemas. Celebrated by candlelight, processionals and commemorates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Eastern Church) or the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Western Church). It is also traditional to light every candle in the house to honor God after dusk.
The uncomfortable aspect of Candlemas is the treatment of the mothers at the time of the birth of Christ. In the times B.C.E., the birth process for the mother (Mary included) was considered unclean and the mother was not allowed to return to the temple until she was deemed purified and cleansed by the Church authorities. This approach to humanity is quite the opposite of the Pagan respect for birth and all forms of life, considering the entire birthing process to be of the One Spirit, natural and beautiful.
Imbolg also corresponds with Ground Hog’s Day, the popular litmus test for the arrival of spring, deriving from the original use of hedgehogs in Europe. Intended to predict the coming of spring, this is a weather divination ritual. It is humorously ironic that the American’s seriously observe this Pagan ritual of practical magick without giving it a second thought.
The colors affiliated with Imbolg and Candlemas: White, Yellow, and Pink. The symbols affiliated with Imbolg and Candlemas: Candles, Burrowing Animals (such as the Ground Hog), Grain Dolly, and Sun Wheels.
Ostara, the Vernal or Spring Equinox Spring Kyriat: March 21
Ostara or Spring Equinox is a solar festival, in which day and night, and the forces of male and female, are equally balanced. As with Mabon, the emphasis is on balance of all things: male and female, light and dark, and for Christians – the death and resurrection – the symbol of death and rebirth. This is the first day of spring, which marks the adolescence of the Sun God and makes way for the lushness of summer. Ostara was the name of the Virgin Goddess of Spring in Ancient Germany. It immediately follows another Christianized Pagan festival, renamed as St. Patrick’s Day observed on March 17.
Easter is the Christianization of the fertility celebration of Ostara. The symbols affiliated with this Sabbat and Holiday: eggs more than any other symbol celebrate Ostara. The word Easter came from the Teutons, which was closer in pronunciation as Eostre. This is a time of birth and renewal of all things. The eggs are also associated with the female body in terms of procreation; it is easy to see in this association in the root of the word such as estrogen.
The Easter Bunny had it origins with the legend of the Germanic Goddess Eostre. The small field rabbit wished with all its heart to please this Goddess. As a show of his devotion, he decorated the sacred eggs with bright colors and intricate patterns and then humbly presented them to his beloved Goddess. She was so pleased with the bunny’s beautiful work, that she wished all of humankind to join in and share her joy! Since that day, the Eostre (Easter) rabbit has gone throughout out the world carrying out her wishes, and delivering little decorated gifts of life.
Other celebrations include spring festivals of wine as the Greeks observed Spring Equinox as Dionysia, after the Greek wine-god Dionysus or his Roman counterpart Bacchus; this marks the making of the year’s new wine made from the grape harvest of last autumn. Wine can be added to the Christian ritual of Ostara by references to Jesus and the Wedding at Cana, when He turned the water into wine.
The colors affiliated with Ostara: pastels, yellow, pink, and greens.
Beltane: April 30 or May 1
Beltane, which falls on April 30 or May 1, is the festival that joins the male and female principles of The All to produce an abundance of nature. Beltane falls on the opposite side of Samhain on the Wheel of the Year. These two Sabbats are often considered the two most important rituals of the year, as they mark the beginning and the end of the great seasons: summer and winter.
The ritual of Beltane is the symbolic uniting of the two as twin halves of a whole; take care to carry out this ceremony of cosmic procreation with dignity and respect to all of the members in the Circle. The Celestial Couple are the GodPair, the dual reflections of The Almighty, the One, the All – the creative Spirit behind the essence of the universe. The Celestial Bride and The Celestial Bridegroom are Our Heavenly Mother and Our Heavenly Father, incapable of separation.
Beltane is one of the greatest Celtic solar festivals, celebrated in ancient times with bonfires; the bonfires mark the occasion so greatly that some Wiccans call all Circle fires “balefires” throughout the year. The rites celebrate birth, fertility, and the blossoming of all life, as personified by the union of the Goddess and the Sun God, also known in Christianized lore as King Winter and Queen May. Folk traditions show celebrants jumping over broomsticks, (a fertility, or matrimonial symbol) and dancing around maypoles.
The sabbat begins at moonrise on Beltane Eve. Supposedly, it is bad luck to be out late that night because witches and fairies roam the countryside in great numbers and conduct wild revelries. Practitioners of the Old Religion believe the bonfires of Beltane brought fertility and prosperity to crops, homes, and livestock. It did indeed, because scattering the ashes from the Beltane fires over the fields acted as a fertilizer by enriching the soil. People dance deosil, or clockwise, around the fires or creep between the fires for protection against illness. At one time, farmers drove their cattle through the fires for protection against disease by burning parasites from the raw hide of the animal. Ancient Druids lit bonfires on hills and uttered incantations.
Church services and processionals in the fields replaced the pagan rites when the Church Christianized the sabbat of Beltane. The priests then lit the ceremonial fires.
The symbols affiliated with Beltane are eggs, spring flowers, and the May Pole. Beltane is a time for butter churns, weaving flowered necklaces, head crowns or hats known as chaplets and weaving baskets: this weaving symbolizes taking two materials and intertwining them to create a third.
The colors affiliated with Beltane are red, green, white, and yellow.
Mid-Summer, Summer Solstice or The Baptismal Kyriat: June 21
Litha or Midsummer is a solar festival, which is almost universally celebrated. In the European tradition, the night before was Midsummer’s Eve was a time for great magick, especially for love charms. It is customary to pick certain herbs at midnight to bring protection against lightning, fire, witchcraft, disease, and ill fortune. Witches and fairies roam on Midsummer’s Eve, as they do at Beltane; there is a bit of madness in the air. Great bonfires are lit to help change the course of the Sun in the sky; the rites resemble those of Beltane. Burning wheels are rolled down hills, and burning disks are thrown at the sun. The zenith of the power of the Sun God manifests in the flourishing of crops and livestock.
The Roman Catholic Church Christianized the Sabbat of Midsummer to St. John’s Day in honor of John the Baptist. The colors affiliated with Litha: gold, green, and blue. The symbols associated with Summer Solstice are: Fire, Sun, the blooming of the Mistletoe, and Sun Wheels.
Lammas or Lughnasadh: July 31 or August 1
Lughnasadh is the first of the three great harvest celebrations of the Old Country: the Grain Harvest at Lughnasadh, the Harvest of Fruits at Mabon, and the Harvest of Game at Samhain. The first harvest marks the beginning of the waning half of the year and represents a time to put back the bounty of the harvest for the lean months of winter approaching.
The sabbat observes the great festival of games and dance, named in honor of the Irish Celtic solar god Lugh. The word Lughnasadh relates to the words meaning, “to give in marriage” and once was associated with marriage contracts. Nine months away is the next Beltane, the birth of summer and life. In medieval legend, this festival celebrates Lugh’s marriage to the Goddess Eriu, “the Sovereignty of Ireland.” According to this lore, a hag named Eriu is transformed into a beauty that personifies the land of Ireland. Beginning with the first harvest, a series of celebrations and thanksgiving rites are held to ensure the continued bounty of the crops for the coming year. Lughnasadh or Lammas is also known as the Festival of Green Corn, Ceresalia, Elembiuos, and the Feast of Cardenas.
Lammas, from Old English terms for “loaf” and “mass,” is a Christianized name for an old Saxon fruit-and-grain festival designated by the early English church. The holiday celebrates the ripening of apples and winter wheat, the latter of which, according to tradition, is made into loaves and blessed in the church. Lammas Day also was a day to settle accounts. In Scotland, tenant farmers took their first grain harvests to their property owners (land barons) on August 1 to pay the rent.
The colors affiliated with Lammas: Red, Yellow, Gold, Green, and Orange.
Mabon, Autumn Equinox or The Feast Kyriat: September 21
The Wheel of the Year turns once again; day and night, and male and female forces are equally balanced. Mabon occurs on the Autumn Equinox, which falls on or around September 21. This is the time for the second harvest. Mabon is the completion of the harvest, which began at Lammas.
This is the Traditional Wiccan Thanksgiving Feast. It was brought from Europe to America with the Pilgrims and however Christianized it may have seemed, its roots run deep to this Celebration of Mabon. Before the era of modern timekeeping, the peasants of Europe celebrated Mabon on September 25. Technology now allows us to calculate the exact day of the autumnal equinox.
At the time of the Autumn Equinox, the sun enters the Zodiac sign of Libra, perfectly symbolized by the balanced scales. It is no wonder that “Michaelmas,” a feast in honor of the Archangel Michael, was chosen to represent this day of balance, as Michael is most often depicted with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other!
We celebrate The Feast Kyriat of Jesus Christ as he fed the ten thousand with five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish. The Miracle of this grand feast can fall on the American holiday of Thanksgiving or the traditional holiday of Mabon. This holiday is for celebrating the prosperity of the year’s hard work; one does not have to be farmer to harvest a bountiful financial crop.
Staying with the themes of the Second Fall Harvest, the association with the Festival of Bacchus, the Greek of Wine and good cheer, has a welcome place for the Christian Wiccan. There is plenty reason to recognize our own Laughing Jesus, celebrating with Wine and Cheer at the Wedding at Cana.
The colors affiliated with Mabon are brown, orange, violet, maroon, and gold. The Symbols affiliated with Mabon include grapes, wine and garlands, gourds cornucopia, Indian corn, and sun wheels. It is also known as the time of the Festival of Dionysus, Feast of Avalon, Alban Eifed, and the Horn of Plenty, the Cornucopia. This is the time of rest as Nature declines, preparing itself for winter.
Samhain, Halloween, or Hallowmas: October 31
Samhain (pronounced “sow-wen”) is an ancient Celtic festival that celebrates the end of the Wheel of the Year, marked by the death of the Solar God, and the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Samhain formally indicates the end of summer; Samhain literally means “summer’s end.” The Druids, in ancient Ireland, once sacrificed to their deities by burning victims in wicker cages. In those ancient times, all other fires were extinguished and re-lit from the sacrificial fire. This custom continues in Ireland and Scotland, all fires in homes today; practitioners extinguish and re-light their fires from the main bonfires, but now safely and without sacrificial victims.
Samhain marks the third harvest and the storage of provisions for winter. On this night of the year, the veil between the worlds of the living and dead is the thinnest. Souls of the dead can come into the land of the living. It is during this time that Wiccans of all traditions find it easier to communicate with their deceased loved ones. As an offering of respect and remembrance, some Wiccans bake cakes for the souls of the dead.
Samhain is a time for eliminating weaknesses, when farmers once slaughtered the weak animals of the herd that may not to be able to survive the winter. This custom has evolved into the modern practice of ridding oneself of unwanted habits and weaknesses. The Rite of Paper and Fire transpires by writing the undesirable qualities on a piece of paper and dropping them into a fire. Symbolically, as the paper burns and disappears, so do the weaknesses of the individual.
All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween is the Christianized name for the Sabbat ritual of Samhain. The modern custom of trick-and-treating may have originated from an old Irish peasant custom of going door-to-door to collect money, bread cake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples and other foods in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. Apples are included in many rites, especially as ingredients in brews. Dunking for apples may have been a divinatory practice.
The colors affiliated with Samhain and Halloween are orange, black, and red. The symbols affiliated with Samhain and Halloween: carved pumpkins or jack-o’-lanterns, costumes of the dead (both ghastly and celestial), corn stalks, and bales of hay.