The Wheel of the Year: the calendar of pagan festivals explained

A Beltane bonfire
Image: Beltane Bonfire at a celebration in West Wales, May 2015 by Stub Mandrel - | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

Aside from the associations with Stonehenge and ‘New Age’ movements, most people would probably confess to knowing little about pagans, or even who they are - modern paganism may refer to several different groups such as Wiccans, heathens, and Celtic neopagans.

So, what are the most important days in the pagan calendar?

Starting in December, eight annual festivals spaced roughly six to seven weeks apart are celebrated by pagans. This cycle is known as the Wheel of the Year.

There are such myriad historical and contemporary variations and semantic complexities when dealing with paganism that a book-length article would be needed to fully cover it. The wheel as described here is broadly what is observed today by modern pagans, chiefly of the UK and Ireland.

Yule

The first of the eight sections of the Wheel of the Year is Yule, (winter solstice, or Midwinter) one of the four ‘lesser sabbats’, or festivals.

It is celebrated on the shortest day of the year, about 21st December.

For many pagans, Yule is a key part of the life cycle of the ‘Child of Promise’, conceived in Ostara and born in the winter solstice as the ‘Sun Child’ who will defeat the powers of darkness in the coming spring, ushering in nature’s triumphant return.

One important site at Yule is Newgrange, Ireland’s grand megalithic monument and ancient resting place of kings. Here, at the solstice, the Sun Child’s birth is represented by the rising sun flooding the inner chamber of the monument with light.

Celtic peoples have celebrated the winter solstice in the British Isles since before the arrival of Christianity, though many Yule traditions flowed into Christmas and there are obvious parallels between the two traditions, such as the exchanging of gifts.

Imbolc

The first day of February is Imbolc. Imbolc celebrates the coming of spring. It is one of the four cross-quarter days (or ‘fire festivals’), and one of the wheel’s four ‘greater sabbats’. The other cross-quarter days are Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.

The etymology of the word ‘Imbolc’ remains undetermined, but it probably comes from the Old Irish word for ‘in the belly’ or ‘in the womb’, referring to pregnant ewes, a precursor to the lambing season.

At Imbolc, the Child of Promise gives light and energy to the nascent year. Signs of the coming spring are beginning to be seen and for pagans, this is a time for personal growth and renewed energy. Spring cleaning and handicrafts are customary around Imbolc.

With roots in the deep Celtic past, Imbolc was traditionally about ushering in a productive farming season and was dedicated to Brigid, the goddess of healing, smithing, and poetry.

Ostara

Spring equinox (or Ostara, from the Saxon goddess) is one of the four ‘lesser sabbats’. It is celebrated around 21st March when the day has roughly an equal amount of sun and darkness. This solar festival is the opposite point on the wheel to Mabon or autumn equinox.

With Imbolc marking the first stirrings of spring, Ostara is about celebrating spring happening in earnest: flowers growing tall, trees blossoming, and crops being sown. As with the Christian Easter, eggs, typically painted, symbolise new life.

Much of the symbolism and tradition here is related to the new life of spring – the mating season for many animals. The God and Goddess couple up and the Child of Promise is conceived. The equality of the day partly represents the duality of the nature of the God – his primaeval sexual instinct versus his conscious thought.

Some modern pagans celebrate the festival by choosing a man and a woman to play the roles of the God and Goddess, acting out the romance.

Beltane

Beltane is one of the four ‘greater sabbats’ and is the traditional Celtic May Eve/May Day celebration and the opposite point on the cycle to Samhain.

Sources vary on its etymology, from belo-tanos (‘bright fire’) to a connection with the Celtic deity Bel. In Irish ‘mí na Bealtaine’ means ‘the month of May’.

Beltane marks the beginning of summer, the time of year when flora and fauna will flourish, celebrated by the decorating of houses and animals with May flowers such as primrose and gorse.

The fertility of the land represents the God’s mature devotion to the Goddess, his transition from animal lust to love and commitment. The maypole and the twirling of ribbons around it represent fertility and the spiral of life.

Traditionally, on May Eve, hilltop herdsmen, driving their livestock out to summer pastures, would force the animals through two large bonfires, protecting the cattle from evil.

Beltane and Samhain are the points in the year where the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest, enabling comingling and communication between the living and the dead.

Midsummer

The summer solstice, or Litha, is one of the four ‘lesser sabbats’ and the high point of the solar year. The God has reached the zenith of his power (the summer solstice being the longest day of the year) and the dawn of the 21st June (or thereabouts) is his crowning glory.

This taking on of power by the God as the Sun King and the end of his youthful days running in the greenwood represents the strength and power of the sun over the summer months, though pagans also remember that the God’s path is downhill now (the shortening of days until Yule).

For modern Druids and many other groups, Stonehenge is the focal point of the summer solstice celebration (which Druids call Alban Heruin, ‘light of the shore’). The entire Stonehenge site is laid out in relation to the winter and summer solstices.

At dawn on the longest day, at Stonehenge, the two stones which are located outside of the main circle, called the Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone (now prone), channel the sun in alignment and the first rays hit the centre of the circle.

Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh (‘gathering of Lugh’, in Irish), or Lammas, is one of the four ‘greater sabbats’ and the first of the year’s harvest festivals, along with Mabon and Samhain. Lammas comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘loaf-mass’. It occurs at the beginning of August.

Opposite on the wheel to Imbolc, at Lammas the God sacrifices himself before the Goddess, her sickle slaying him and his blood spilling onto the land to ensure its continuing fertility in the next Wheel of the Year. The God moves from being the Lord of Light, which he is until Lammas, to the Dark Lord of Death, which he will be throughout the darkening half of the year.

Celtic pagans mark the festival by making corn dollies and Wiccans bake bread in the shape of the God.

Mabon

The autumn equinox, or Mabon, is the second of the wheel’s three harvest festivals. It is the opposite point on the wheel to the spring equinox (Ostara) and is one of the four ‘lesser sabbats’. It is also known as Harvest Home, and to modern Druids as Alban Elued (‘light of the water’).

This falls sometime between 21st and 24th September.

It aligns broadly with traditional European harvest festivals which give thanksgiving and historically celebrate a successful cereal harvest and the filling of food stores for the winter.

If for pagans the spring equinox represents a sexual union, the autumn equinox is a mystical one. Reincarnation and the spiral of life are strong themes too: seed and grain, life and death, womb and tomb. Through understanding these mysteries of nature, the God reaches a state of mystical enlightenment and enters the underworld. Here the God dwells with the Goddess, now the ‘hag’, the queen of the underworld.

Samhain

Though leading Wiccan Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) called this ‘greater sabbat’ Hallowe’en, for many pagans - perhaps wanting to distance themselves from the popular trappings of modern Halloween - it is Samhain.

Samhain is a harvest festival and stretches back to Dark Ages Ireland and possibly into prehistory. It is celebrated from the night of 31st October to the following evening, the ancient Celtic day running from sunset to sunset.

Samhain may come from an Irish word meaning ‘Summer’s End’, and etymologically refers more to the month of November rather than the night of 31st October.

What occurs at Samhain is the opposite to Beltane: the end of summer and the return of cattle from their high summer pastures, received by large bonfires.

Samhain marks the return of winter and a thinning of the veil between this world and the next, a time of chaos.

There is some debate about how Samhain relates to the Christian All Hallows’ Eve/Day, although the former certainly predates the latter. What seems clear at least is that over time these traditions have influenced one another (apple-bobbing, for example, is thought to be a pre-Christian pastime).

Anciently, at Samhain, animals would be sacrificed, fortunes told, and Druids would dress up in animal skins and animal headwear. However, some modern scholars question the extent to which historically this feast related to the dead.

Written by:

by James Brigden