Even if you consider yourself to not be involved with Paganism, you’re probably already celebrating a couple of Pagan Sabbats and are not even aware of it. Ever check to see if the Groundhog saw his shadow? Do you take your kids trick or treating? Are you someone’s secret Santa at work? Many of the Sabbats of Paganism have seeped their way into modern times as holidays and festivals that you would never consider had their roots set firmly in the ancient spiritual arts of Paganism. Don’t worry. You don’t have to be a Pagan to continue to celebrate these traditions in your life. And even to a nonbeliever they can display true power.
When we are pressed for an answer on our religious beliefs, my wife and I often let people know that we consider ourselves to be light Neopagans. Like many in the South, we were raised by our families as Southern Baptists. We don’t belong to any Wicca or Neodruidism group. In fact, we’re not even sure that exists here in rural South Carolina. But we observe the eight Sabbats and the wheel of the year in our marriage and we believe that to be just another way for us to tune ourselves into the machinations of the universe itself. Most of our friends who attend our seasonal celebrations have no idea they’re enjoying a Pagan Sabbat and for the most part we like to keep it that way. They just think we throw awesome dinner parties.
A Sabbat is merely a Pagan version of a Sabbath or day of religious observance. And instead of happening every Saturday or Sunday as it does in most religions, the Pagan Sabbats are based on the cycles of the Sun and Moon and the seasons they produce. There are eight Sabbats spread throughout the year which set the dates for these Pagan festivals. That makes them pretty easy to remember. Four of them occur on our solstices. These are called the lesser Sabbats. The other four happen in between and are referred to as greater Sabbats. These eight dates make up what is called the Wheel of the Year and that’s a pretty big deal in Paganism, Druidism and Wicca.
The Wheel of the Year
An eight-spoked diagram built to depict the Sabbats is often referred to as the Wheel of the Year. While I like to think of it in terms of our actual calendar year, this cycle doesn’t start in January. Instead it begins with Samhain, the Sabbat that has come to be known as Halloween for most of us. If you were a fan of 1980s punk rock, this is the name used by singer Glenn Danzig for his occult metal band that followed the Misfits breakup and before he changed that name again to simply Danzig. Looking for a quick video rundown on the Wheel of the Year on YouTube, I was able to find this great video by Laura Daligan of the Witchcraft Diaries blog where she explains it. Its her Wiccan perspective on the Wheel of the Year and if you’ve never heard this term I suggest you take a quick look at it.
The first Sabbat of the year should be no stranger to Punxsutawney Phil as it falls on February 2nd. This Pagan Sabbat has a lot more in common with Groundhog Day than you might think, as both deal with the upcoming end of Winter. Phil of course comes out to check his shadow to let us know when the cold dreary season will pass. Imbolc stands as a yearly reminder that this season is coming to a close. It deals with preparation for the upcoming planting season and the ushering in of fertility. It is a time to ready oneself for the arrival of Spring. It is also considered a great time for the practice of magic, especially concerning love spells, since its just a few weeks shy of Valentine’s Day.
Ostara marks the arrival of Spring and lands squarely on the vernal equinox of March 21st. This Sabbat deals with the arrival of fertility, the warming of the lands and the reemergence of plant and animal life. It shares its symbolism of the egg with another Spring holiday you might have been known to observe called Easter. Pagans often set up an Ostara shrine to increase fertility. Many Pagans have adopted the sharing of dyed eggs and chocolate bunnies due to Ostara’s proximity to the Holiday with the marshmallow peeps.
The longest day of the year is the date to hold an annual Litha gathering. Also known to some as Midsummer, Litha occurs yearly during the Summer solstice on June 21st. Hosting an annual backyard barbecue believe it or not is a perfectly reasonable way to honor Litha. This Sabbat is to celebrate the Sun and its dominance in our lives during the warmest of seasons. Some celebrate this Sabbat by setting a hilltop fire ablaze to honor the space between the Earth and the heavens above. It is a time to reflect upon the blessing of the Sun’s radiant energy and what that has bestowed upon you and your family. Hang out by the pool and soak up some rays to enjoy yourself during Litha. That’s what this one is for.
Held on August 1st and also sometimes called Lammas, this greater Sabbat is held to mark the beginning of the harvest season. It is an opportunity to bless this upcoming harvest and to express thankfulness for the blessing of the Earth. It is time to reap what you have sown, literally and metaphorically. Lughnasadh is named for the Celtic god Lugh. He was considered a Sun god so it comes as no surprise that his festival is held during the warmest of Summer months. One way to celebrate Lughnasadh is to hold a bread sacrifice ritual. This comes from the tradition of harvesting the first grains of the season. My wife and I like to bake fresh bread to serve at our annual Lughnasadh party as a shout out to Lugh and to share the Sun’s blessing with our guests.
Falling on the autumnal equinox September 21st, Mabon marks the middle of the harvest period. And although it occurs much earlier during the year, it is the Pagan equivalent to our American holiday we know as Thanksgiving. Mabon is the so called second harvest. This concept of second harvest is celebrated by many cultures and the world. In Germany, you might attend Oktoberfest. And Mabon often deals with the harvesting of materials used in the making of alcohol. Ancient Greeks had a similar festival known as Oschophoria which dealt with the harvesting of grapes to make wine. Regardless of how you choose to celebrate Mabon, it should be a time for your reflection of thanks. We often gather a small group of our closest friends and offer a small feast for the passing of Mabon and a great deal of drinks are served.
This Sabbat is held every year as the harvest season comes to a close on October 31st. It should come as no surprise that it is the Sabbat that deals with the cycle of death and rebirth in modern Paganism. Our holiday Halloween is held on the same day as this Sabbat. Also the Day of the Dead falls within a day or two of Samhain each year. To celebrate this holiday, you should reflect on those who have come before you and honor anyone you have lost in your life in the year that has passed. It is a time to express thankfulness to the universe for all that it has given you as well. Samhain is personally my very favorite Sabbat. As a kid, I absolutely loved Halloween. I personally think this is the most important of the eight Sabbats as it marks the beginning of the calendar. Its probably also the easiest of the Sabbats to invite your non-believing friends to enjoy a Pagan ritual.
Ever throw a yule log on the fireplace at Christmas? You probably never knew you were celebrating a Pagan Sabbat. The eighth annual Sabbat occurs on December 21st, the longest day of the year and Winter solstice. Almost every major religion shares this similar time of year for celebration, the gathering of family and religious reflection. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all have their origins in this day of Yule. This Sabbat is a celebration of light and the return of the sun to the Earth. Observe Yule by lighting a couple of candles, decorating the house with strings of lights or hosting a party with a huge bonfire. Just leave those Christmas carols at home.
What’s your favorite Pagan Sabbat? How do you and your friends choose to celebrate it? Let me know how you mark the passing of the Wheel of the Year and what it means to you in your life. I wish you all a happy Lughnasadh this weekend.