Historically a “sabbat” was a midnight assembly of witches at which they renewed their vows to Satan, and we’ve unfortunately adopted it through the myth of the Old Religion, which was the theoretical target of the historical witch hunts. It comes from the same root word as “sabbath”, which is a biblical period of rest, specifically among Jews, and I suspect this term became connected with witches the same way that witch gatherings were sometimes described as synagogues. (That is to say, witches were frequently the only thing less popular in a medieval community than Jews.)
The cycle of Wiccan Sabbats is commonly referred to as the Wheel of the Year. Time to us is cyclical, just as we view life as being cyclical. The Sabbats are solar festivals following the solar year, and so their mythology emphasizes the life cycle of the God, whom we associate with the sun.
The Wheel is not historical. The Sabbats take their names and some of their purposes from a variety of pagan holidays from a variety of cultures – the major Sabbats are more Celtic-based, while the minor Sabbats are more Germanic-based (Anglo / Saxon / Norse). This may explain some of the duplication of significances between adjoining major and minor Sabbats As the sources are varied and independent, the neatly defined life cycle of God and Goddess throughout the year is a strictly Wiccan concept.
The Wheel is split into two halves for summer and winter, with the divisions occurring at Samhain and Beltaine. The two halves are ruled by a Light God and a Dark God, or the Goddess and God. Generally it is the God who rules winter, which is the period where historical people were more dependent upon hunting for survival, while the Goddess rules summer, which is the time of agriculture. I have seen this assignment reversed, however, as the God in young in winter while being older, wiser, and more mature in summer. I shall keep to the arrangement of God in winter and Goddess in summer.
Some traditions speak of the Holly and Oak Kings as the two rulers, with the split occurring at Yule and Litha. These two figures have no other real place in Wiccan mythology, so their addition when discussing the seasonal year seems to me to overly complicate things. So far as I can tell, they are in no way historical, but were suggested by Sir James Frazer, who influenced people like Margaret Murray and Robert Graves, the latter of which seems to have fleshed the two kings out. For these reasons I avoid them altogether.
The Wheel is composed of the four equinoxes and solstices as minor Sabbats, and the cross-quarter days as major Sabbats Books frequently list specific dates for the major Sabbats, but there is also an astronomical method, which puts the cross-quarter days more closely in-between the minor Sabbats The strict assignment of major Sabbats to specific days is probably modern. Samhain, for example, was a celebration of the end of the harvest. The harvest wasn’t completed on the same day every year. Some years the crops took longer to mature than others, or fewer hands were available to assist in the harvesting.
Those unfamiliar with Wicca will almost certainly notice the similarity between Wiccan and Christian holidays. This is because both religions were heavily influenced by the same pagan sources.
Our days start at sundown on the previous day. Therefore, “November 1” is actually the night of October 31 through the day of November 1. Also, the dates given here are only applicable in the northern hemisphere. For the southern hemisphere, Sabbats are generally celebrated 6 months off from the traditional dates.
Samhain (sow’ en) – Major Sabbat
15 degrees of Scorpio, or November 1
Wiccan mythology: The death of the God
Samhain is the Wiccan New Year and the Feast of the Dead. It is a time to honor and to say goodbye to loved ones who have passed on, especially if their deaths have occurred within the last year. Samhain is also a time for reflecting upon the last year, making plans for the upcoming one, and especially for banishing weaknesses or other undesired qualities within us.
How is it we start the year with a festival revolving around death? Death is necessary for rebirth, and the two frequently happen simultaneously. In many pagan cultures, the new year was celebrated with chaotic festivities bringing on a symbolic end of the world. The Roman Saturnalia is one example.
The Goddess enters her Dark phase as she mourns her son and consort, and the Dark God takes up the rulership of Winter, leading the Wild Hunt of the Fey upon the earth.
Yule – Minor Sabbat
Also know as Midwinter
Winter solstice (around December 22)
Wiccan mythology: The birth of the God
Yule is a celebration of life emerging from darkness and is honored with the exchange of presents. Evergreens, holly, ivy and mistletoe can be symbolic of the God, still living and green in the dead of winter.
Imbolc (im’ molc) or (im’ bolc) – Major Sabbat
15 degrees of Aquarius, or February 1
Wiccan mythology: Goddess recovers from childbirth, becomes Maiden.
Imbolc is the beginning of Spring. The child God continues to mature, as can be witnessed in the lengthening days, and celebrations frequently center around light. The Crone Goddess of Winter makes way for the Maiden, who has recovered from childbirth and prepares the earth to begin its growth cycle once more. Imbolc is therefore also a holiday of purification, a stripping away of the old in anticipation of the new.
Historically, Imbolc was an Irish holiday specifically dedicated to Brigid or Bride, goddess of creativity, smithing, and healing.
Eostara (os tar’ a) – Minor Sabbat
Vernal equinox (around March 22)
Wiccan mythology: Sexual union of the Goddess and God (sometimes)
Eostara is a celebration of fertility, conception and regeneration as the earth recovers from winter and begins to bloom. It is also a triumph of light over dark as from now until Litha days will be longer than the nights.
In former days, Eostara was a time of sowing and planting. Today, Eostara is a time for putting plans into motion, sowing the seeds of ideas that may not reach fruition for many months.
The name Eostara is a misnomer. It’s named for the goddess Eostre, but her festival wasn’t associated with the equinox. In fact, there may never have been a festival called Eostara at all.
The union of Goddess and God varies by tradition. A few date it as early as Imbolc. Some attribute it to Eostara, others to Beltaine. Eostara has the benefit of being 9 months prior to Yule, when the Goddess gives birth.
Beltaine – Major Sabbat
15 degrees of Taurus, or May 1
Wiccan mythology: Sexual union and/or marriage of the Goddess and God
Beltaine, the start of Summer, is the most important Sabbat after Samhain. It is another fertility celebration, but mostly it is a celebration of joy and life. Named for the Celtic fire god Bel, the lighting of fires is a frequent component of Beltaine events. It’s association with fire also makes Beltaine a holiday of purification.
It must be remembered that even our modern interpretations of these holidays are based on older holidays celebrated at a time when the year was marked by seasonal changes, not a calendar on the wall. On the continent, where Eostre was worshipped, the earth has generally returned to life by the vernal equinox. However, in Celtic Britain, the ground is still cold in March, and so Beltaine becomes the great festival of life, when Goddess and God have matured to unite as one.
On Beltaine, the Light God has matured to the age of rulership and takes over from the Dark God. The pregnant Goddess becomes Mother.
Wiccan weddings are frequently held on or around Beltaine.
Litha – Minor Sabbat
Also known as Midsummer
Summer solstice (around June 22)
Wiccan mythology: Apex of the God’s life
Celebrating the God’s life, Litha is another fire festival. It is a holiday of transition, when the God transforms from young warrior to aging sage. It is a time for rejoicing, but also of introspection, making sure plans are still on track and correcting negative aspects of one’s life.
Litha is a modern name for this Sabbat There is no historical record of the name.
Lughnasadh (loo’ na sah) or (loon’ sah) – Major Sabbat
Also known as Lammas
15 degrees of Leo, or August 1
Wiccan mythology: Aging God
Lughnasadh is the start of Autumn and was the time of the first harvest, and so this is a holiday of fruition and also of preparation for the oncoming winter, as well as the God’s impending death. The Goddess enters her phase as Crone. It is a time of giving thanks for all that we have, all that we will have, and all that others have sacrificed for us.
Mabon – Minor Sabbat
Autumnal equinox (around September 22)
Wiccan mythology: Decline of the God
Mabon was the second harvest, and as such becomes another holiday of thanksgiving. It is also the day when darkness once more overtakes light, and so it is a day of planning, reflection, and the contemplation of mysteries.
While a minor Sabbat, Mabon is named after a Celtic, not Germanic, god who was imprisoned only to return at a later date. The name does not appear to have been historically attributed to any festival.