The Wheel of the Year is the annual Pagan calendar marked by 8 holy days or festivals. The calendar is tied to the natural cycles of seasons, bringing us back into rhythm with Mama Gaia. The Wheel of the Year is also called the Wheel of Life. Read on to discover what each festival is about!
What is the Wheel of the Year? Where does it come from? What are the pagan holy days or festivals? Our article “What is the Wheel of the Year” will tell you everything you need to know!
- Celebrated on 1 May (South Hem) / 31 October (North Hem)
- Grand Sabbat
- Beginning of Winter, Final Harvest
- “Samhain” is Gaelic (pronounced SOW-en or SOH-een) and means “Summer’s end”.
- Also known as the Festival of the Dead / All Souls Day / Old Hallows Eve / Witches New Year
The Wheel of the Year begins with Samhain on 1 May, Old Hallows Eve, which is celebrated past midnight to welcome in the New Year. Samhain is one of the major festivals of the Wheel of the Year, for many Pagans the most important festival of all. It is the third and final harvest for the year and time for feasting. In some places it was known as the Festival of the Dead.
Traditionally, livestock that wouldn’t survive the winter would be slaughtered on this day. Some would go to the great feast, while the rest would be prepared for the winter store. Here, the antlered God was recognized, giving thanks for His sacrifice and honouring the gift of life in death, and the cyclical nature of life.
In the mythological cycle, the God, as Sun King, is sacrificed back to the land with the seed until the Winter Solstice, and the Goddess, now as Crone, mourns Him until His rebirth at Yule.
At Samhain, the veil between the worlds is very thin. We take this time to honour the Spirit world, the spirits of our ancestors and passed loved ones. We mark a goodbye to the year past, and the lives that have passed before us. Traditionally a place would be set at the feast table for our loved ones no longer with us.
The last of the pumpkins and squash would be brought in from the fields, making for bright orange and yellow decorations. In some cultures, people would dress up as visiting spirits and go knocking on each other’s doors, alternatively giving each other frights and shares of their harvest bounty.
Celebrated on 31 October in the Northern Hemisphere, Samhain traditions, celebrating the last harvest of the season and honouring the ancestors, became “All Saints Day” under the Christian church, later changing to “All-Hallows Eve” and finally ‘Halloween’ in modern day.
- Celebrated on 20-23 June
- Lesser Sabbat
- Midwinter Solstice
- “Yule” comes from the Germanic “Lul” meaning “Wheel”, or Norse “Jul”, representing the God Odin
- Also known as Yuletide / Yulefest / Winter Solstice
Yule is the Midwinter Solstice, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. We are now moving towards the end of Winter, as the days will begin to grow longer and warmer now. The sun “stops” (literal meaning of “solstice”) in its apparent northward travel across the sky, and begins to journey back towards us.
In the mythological cycle, the Son (the solstice sun / Sun God) is reborn from the Goddess, now as Mother. Evergreen wreaths, holly and mistletoe were hung and pine trees decorated festively. A Yule log was traditionally burned on the hearth. A feast marks the day and gifts are exchanged.
Celebrated between 21-25 December in the Northern Hemisphere, the themes of the Mother giving birth to the son, the decorated tree, yule log and wreaths were all ‘adopted’ into what is now celebrated as Christmas (combined with Imbolc, Candlemas). This process of ‘adoption’ to become ‘Christmastide’ was a process called “Christianised reformulation”.
“Interpretatio christiana (Latin for Christian interpretation, also Christian reinterpretation) is the adaptation of non-Christian elements of culture or historical facts to the worldview of Christianity“ – Wikipedia; “Winter Solstice/Yule”. Vancouver Island University. 21 December 2019. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
- Celebrated on 1 May
- Grand Sabbat
- First signs of Spring
- “Imbolc” comes from the proto Celtic “embibolgon” meaning “budding”
- Also known as Candlemas / Festival of Lights / St Brigid’s Day / Imbolg
On 1 August, we celebrate Imbolc, the Festival of Lights. Imbolc is a festival of renewal and of purification for the coming revival of life. Winter herbs and flowers poke their heads up and show green promise if we know where to look. The buds of trees begin to swell on warmer days, birds make mating sounds. Early Spring lambs are born.
In the mythological cycle, it is the day on which the Triple Goddess, in Her phase as the aged Crone, visits the sacred well and comes away the Maiden.
Imbolc was also traditionally the great festival and honouring of Brigid (Brighid, Bride, Brigit), so loved as a pagan Goddess that her worship was woven into the Christian church as Saint Bridget. She is a Goddess of healing, poetry and smithcraft. A Goddess of Fire, of the Sun and of the Hearth. She brings fertility to the land and its people and is closely connected to midwives and new-born babies. She is the Triple Goddess, but at Imbolc she is in her Maiden aspect.
Imbolc is a time of spring cleaning house and hearth, and spiritually cleansing and clearing to prepare for the new cycle. We light candles to encourage the Sun to bring on the approaching Spring. Thus the Festival is also referred to as Candlemas.
- Celebrated 20-23 September
- Lesser Sabbat
- Spring Equinox
- Ostara comes from the Germanic word “Ost” which means “East”, relating to dawn & the renewal of life. Both Ostara and Eostre are Germanic names of the Maiden Goddess as Lady of the Dawn.
- Also known as Spring Day / Eostre
The Spring Equinox reaches us between 20 and 23 September, known as Ostara or Eostre. At this point in the Wheel of the Year, we celebrate new life bursting out from Winter’s slumber. The Earth is warming and many plants respond to the longer days. Seeds fallen to earth in the autumn now awaken. Farmers sow their fields. All life “springs” forth in joyous renewal.
In the mythological cycle, the seed is planted in the Mother so that, nine months later, She may give birth again to the God (Sun) at the Winter Solstice. The light half of the year begins, the days are longer than the nights. Flowers, eggs and baby animals all represented the theme of new life and were used for traditional decoration. The Rabbit, the ancient symbol of the Moon, represents the Earth’s renewed fertility.
The festival of Ostara / Eostre has become Easter.
- Celebrated on 31 October
- Grand Sabbat
- Start of Summer
- The word “Beltane” comes from the Gaelic “La Bealteinne” which refers to the sacred balefires which were traditionally lit in honour of the God Bel, or Belenos.
- Also known as May Day / Bealtaine / Cétamain
On 31 October we celebrate Beltane, the Great Festival of Life. The earth is at the height of fertility and it is a time for great merry-making (and baby-making). Spring has truly sprung and there is a great abundance and renewal of life. In the life of the Earth our Mother, plants send forth their pollen, animals mate or bring forth young, and, in the words of the poet, “young men’s fancies turn to thoughts of love”.
Green plants and other fresh foods are reintroduced into winter diets of salt meat and stored grains. Bodies respond to better nutrition and look beyond the bare survival of winter, to the production of new lives.
In the mythological cycle, the Mother looks upon Her Son, now grown into manhood, and loves Him, and in Him, all Her creation. In Her Maiden phase, the Goddess unites in love with the God to bring forth the bounty of the new season.
Beltane is traditionally celebrated with a great feast and a huge bonfire, maypole dancing, flower crowns and hand fastenings.
- Celebrated on 20-23 December
- Lesser Sabbat
- Summer Solstice
- Litha (pronounced “LIH-tha”) means ‘fair winds’ or ‘light bringer’ (etymology unclear)
- Also known as Midsummer / Summer Solstice / Midsommar
Between 20 and 23 December we reach the peak of summer, Litha. This is the time of the greatest abundance of life and food for the entire Wheel of the Year. The Summer Solstice marks the longest day and shortest night of the year.
Gold, yellow and orange colours decorate the festivities, along with plenty of Summer flowers. Traditionally people stayed up all night on Midsummer’s Eve to welcome and watch the sunrise. Bonfires were lit to honour the fullness of the Sun. People danced around the fires and leap through them. Blazing herbs from the sacred bonfire were used to bless the animals (as well as chase off pests and parasites). Coals from the Midsummer fire were scattered on fields to ensure a good harvest.
In the mythological cycle, the Sun (God) is at the height of His power, and the Father pours His energy and love into the Earth. Traditionally, the Oak King or Green Man was honoured. In this moment, we know, however, that every day hereafter will begin to shorten as the dark half of the year approaches.
- Celebrated on 2 February
- Grand Sabbat
- Start of Autumn, the First Harvest
- The word “Lammas” evolved from Anglo Saxon “hlāfmæsse” (“hlāf” meaning “loaf” and “mæssse” meaning “mass”)
- Also known as Lughnassadh / Loaf Mass Day
On 2 February we reach Lammas and this is the celebration of the first harvest for the year – grain. The Sun still warms the Earth, but, since the solstice, it has turned again towards the south, and each day it shines less than it did the day before. Those who are wise see the coming autumn. Lammas is filled with mythological symbolism.
The Father, whose energies have ripened the grain, now offers Himself for the good of his children. In His persona as Lugh the Sun God, or John Barleycorn, He gladly sacrifices His life that His body, the grain, may be transformed into the bread that will sustain life until the next year, when the cycle begins again.
Another name for Lammas is Lughnassadh, which comes from the Gaelic “La Lughnassadh” meaning “marriage of Lugh”. Lugh is the Celtic God of the Sun, and also of the vegetation and fields. The marriage is the harvest, as crops are reaped. Once the last crop is cut, Lugh is symbolically married to the Crone Goddess of the Dead.
This festival on the Wheel of the Year is specifically a celebration of the life-affirming transformation that follows willing sacrifice. It is the essence of the mystery and the cycle of life that the Father, who dies with the grain, will return again in the spring from that dead grain. “All that falls shall rise again”. The festival was traditionally marked with a feast of breads, corn, wheat & barley beer.
- Celebrated 20-23 March
- Lesser Sabbat
- Autumn Equinox, Second Harvest
- The name “Mabon” comes from the Celtic God “Maponos”, who died every year to be reborn in the Spring.
- Also known as Fall Equinox / Wine Harvest / Harvest of First Fruits
The Autumn Equinox, between 20 and 23 March is celebrated as Mabon. Chilly mornings herald the coming of winter. The Sun is seen to be waning now as the height of his power begins to fade. On the equinox, night and day are again of equal length and in perfect equilibrium – dark and light, masculine and feminine, inner and outer, in balance. This is the start of the dark half of the year, when nights are longer than days. Traditionally, everyone would now strive to bring everything useful under shelter for winter.
In the mythological cycle, the Goddess is radiant as Harvest Queen. The Father, as the Wine God, again sacrifices His life for His children in the fruit that nourishes and is the seed of new plants.
The second harvest, another flourish of gifts, is the late-ripening foods, especially fruit and nuts, which put all their goodness into the future before succumbing to winter dormancy. Perennial herbs are harvested for the final time this year. It is time to make wine and cider, which will warm winter bellies as humans wait out the cold beside their hearths.
So Mabon is a celebration and also a time of rest after the labour of harvest. In terms of life path it is the moment of reaping what you have sown, time to look at the hopes and aspirations of Imbolc and Ostara and reflect on how they have manifested. It is time to complete projects, to clear out and let go that which is no longer wanted or needed as we prepare for descent, so that the winter can offer a time for reflection and peace.
And it is time to plant seeds of new ideas and hopes which will lie dormant but nourished in the dark, until the return of Spring….
Mabon marks the end of the Wheel of the Year, which turns again to start a new year at Samhain.