Like many others within the pagan communities, I recognise and honour the special times of the year for reflection and celebration, known as the Wheel of the Year. Interestingly many festivals and sacred days across religions and spiritualities often coincide within date and similar themes to the eight Sabbats that are celebrated by many pagans and those who follow Earth-based spiritual pathways. Christianity and other religions have many celebrations and festivals that coincide with the Wheel of the Year, including Samhain/All Soul’s Eve, Yule/Christmas, Imbolc/Candlemas, Oestara/Easter and Madron/Harvest festival. Indeed these festivals even share key elements, for example, Samhain on the 31st October and All Soul’s Eve on November 1st are special times dedicated to remembering and honouring our ancestors and those who have passed before us; Yule around 21st-22nd December focuses on family gatherings, good will, and of the birth of the light returning to the the earth like Christmas on 25th December; Oestra and Easter in April both celebrate the rebirth of the land, and of the fertility and fruitfulness of Spring. There are many, many more coinciding themes that can be found in sacred or holy days between different cultures and beliefs- just consider how many individuals celebrate their own recognised holidays with feasting, community and family gatherings and light in the form of candles, bonfires, and fireworks!
The Wheel of the Year is a celebration of Sabbats, marking the changes, shifts and cycles of energy within the year. The Wheel of the Year follows the natural rhythm of the seasons in Nature and incorporates elements of the planetary, solar and lunar cycles as well as agricultural influences and traditional customs.
In the past, before the inventions of digital watches, mechanical clocks, sand hourglasses and sundials the people of the lands would look to their environment to plan important events such as the cultivation of the fields and community celebrations and feasts. Our ancestors studied the skies, the position of the planets, and their local environment to mark the seasons. Elements of seasons such as hibernating or migrating animals, dying or blooming foliage, weather patterns, tides, and balance of daylight and darkness can be seen as signs of the transitional energies of nature.
Before the theories and discoveries of modern science, a lot of the environmental changes were explained through legends of gods and goddesses. Nature spirits were revered by many cultures throughout history; traditions in the East, Europe, Africa, America, the UK and all parts the world each have their own deities who would be honoured and given offerings in order to give thanks for the year’s bounty and to ask for blessings for protection and good health the following year.
By reflecting on themes that coincide with the changes occurring in our surrounding environment, one can observe the balance of light and dark, cause and effect, birth, death, and re-birth that the seasons bring. In opening our awareness to Nature we can reflect on the natural cycles and recognise the “seasons” that are present in our own lives, becoming reconnected with the rhythms of the Earth.
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
― Ray Cummings
Some prefer to use the ancient system of watching for natural signs to date the festivals. But in today’s busy modern world with hectic schedules between home and work, family commitments and studies it is often easier to plan celebrations and rituals using a calendar; there is generally a 3 day window in which to celebrate the Sabbats.
In modern paganism the festivals (or Sabbats) of the Wheel of the Year include solar events (solstices and equinoxes) as well as fire festivals from Celtic and Nordic cultures.
The solar festival celebrations happen on the day of the astronomical event taking place:
– December 21/22…Yule, Winter Solstice; days are short, nights are long
– June 21/22…Litha, Summer Solstice; days are long, nights are short
The periods of balance between day and night are also celebrated in the Wheel:
– March 21/22… Eostre, Spring Equinox
– September 21/22…Mabon, Autumn Equinox
The fire festivals are a special time when bonfires are lit and great feasts were prepared within communities during the past. These times mark important points during the agricultural cycle as well as nature:
–February 1/2…Imbolc, ground thawing for ploughing and seed sowing, snowdrops appear
– May 1/2…Beltane, seedlings growing, crops ripening, May blossoms grow
– August 1/2…Lammas, harvesting and bounty, grain and corn
– October 31…Samhain, land resting, feast of the ancestors
The Sabbats are considered by some as more of a time of celebration and honouring the God and Goddess, than a time for magical workings that serve ourselves; generally spell craft corresponds with the lunar cycles, while the Sabbat days are focused more about inner-reflection and giving thanks to the deities of the season. In times of past it was common for many cultures to give offerings such as seasonal vegetables or dedicating songs, poetry and art to honour the gods and goddesses in order to ensure blessings for a successful harvest and good health for the following year.
We can use traditional customs within our practices and adapt them to suit our individual pathways in order to build a personal connection with Nature and the energies of the seasons. In our modern times, we can plan our projects and goals in line with the seasons; at Spring the first signs of life return to land as tiny seeds start to grow where we can take the first steps to acting on our ideas; during Summer time Nature is at its peak we can enjoy the work we have done so far as hopefully our goals are well on the way to frustration; at Autumn the time of the harvest when crops are gathered from the fields we can reap the benefits of our hard work and give thanks for the bounty in our lives; during Winter the land rests so we can also take time out between projects to recuperate.
The energies of the elements shift within the seasons- Spring is governed by the winds of Air, Summer is ruled by the Fire of the sun, Autumn is the time of the rains of Water, and all things return to Earth during Winter. The changes within Nature can inspire us to change ourselves, recognising our own needs through self-nurturing, realising our potential through growth, and understanding for change. One could harness the changing energies of the elements to focus and reflect on specific areas in life such as our communication and ideas during Spring/Air, passions and celebrating during Summer/Fire, emotions and relationships during Autumn/Water and physical health and material needs during Winter/Earth.
The seasons are also linked with masculine and feminine energies which are often honoured through various forms and deities. Different cultures and spiritual paths will have their own pantheons which they may prefer to honour at the Sabbats, and some festivals are historically associated with particular deities. In Wicca and other branches of paganism the God and Goddess are each honoured in their triple aspects as each makes a transition through each season; the Goddess changes from Maiden in early Spring to Mother in mid-Spring to Crone in Autumn, and the God changes from Hunter in early Spring to Father in Summer to Sage during Autumn.
The Wheel of the Year is not something simply to be marked on a calendar, it is a cycle of changing experiences within Nature, a continuous pattern of birth, life, death and rebirth.
Nowadays we tend to spend so much time indoors with our comforts of central heating and electric lights and double glazed windows surrounded by electronic entertainment, that a lot of us have lost touch with our connections to Mother Earth as we spend so much time boxed inside offices, schools or houses. Urban environments and cities have built up over time which can make it hard for those who do not live in the countryside to experience the seasonal changes; this is why our city green spaces, wildlife and nature reserves, suburban parks, woodland and heaths are so precious.
As the Wheel turns notice how your local area changes with the seasons; what plants and trees are in bloom or wilting? What fruits and vegetables are ripe; is it planting or harvest time? Are animals are migrating, hibernating or raising their young? Do you notice the balance of day and night? How are the energies of the Elements changing? What are the signs of your favourite time of year?