Many pagan groups celebrate the “Wheel of the Year” or the cycle of the seasons. The year begins on October 31 then moves through the stillness and introspection of winter, through the new life of spring, through the growth and abundance of summer and, finally, back to the winding down and harvesting of autumn. The equinoxes, where the day and night are balanced, and the solstices, where light rules in the summer and dark in the winter, are celebrated as well as the cross quarter days, celebrations that fall between and equinox and a solstice.
October 31, Samhain
Samhain is a cross quarter day, landing halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. It is a festival in celebration of the beginning of winter. It is also known as Halloween, All Hallow's Eve, Hallow E'en and All Hallows. Samhain is the Celtic New Year and stands between the years, neither old nor new. It is a time between time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. Because of this it is the most magickal night of the year and the best time for doing divination or working with or honoring our ancestors.
Many of the well known Halloween traditions are pagan in origin, bobbing for apples, carving pumpkins (although they used to use gourds or turnips) and trick-or-treating (although it used to be adults, cross dressing, singing songs and getting liquor in exchange). Scarily carved pumpkins set on windowsills or near the house were used to bad spirits or mischievous faeries away. They were also carried by travelers for the same reason. It is also thought they were put out to guide the spirits of the dead back to visit the living.
Samhain is ruled over by the Crone and the Horned God. The colors that symbolize it are very well known, orange and black, orange for dying leaves and fires, black to bring the sun's warmth to you during the winter season.
December 20-23 (21) Yule
Also known as Winter Solstice and Midwinter, Yule shares many Christmas traditions like decorated trees, mistletoe, presents and caroling. All of these are actually pagan in origin. So is the well loved Yule log. Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year and is when the Goddess becomes the Mother again and gives birth to the Sun God and the days start lengthening once again. In fact many pagan dieties that have a birth death rebirth story were born on this day which is one reason it is believed that church officials decided (several centuries after Christ's birth) to celebrate his birth at this time.
The colors associated with the holiday are, of course, red and green, but also black and white. Holly, ivy, and mistletoe, popular decorations of this seasons, all symbolize everlasting life and fertility.
Many pagans choose to stay up all night with candles and fires burning to welcome the new born sun with song. The long dark night is a wonderful time for feasting, singing and telling stories. Others use the evening for dream divination. Since the sun will start growing again this is a wonderful time to start thinking about new projects or to vow to change unhealthy behavior patterns. It is a time of renewal and change.
February 1&2 Imbolc/Candlemas
Imbolc is the pagan Festival of Lights and marks the beginning of spring. As well as being called Imbolc or Candlemas it is also known as Oimelc and Brigit's day and some simply call it Brigit. Ceremonies for Imbolc are centered around light, fire and healing. The Goddess of this day is the young maiden and, in some ways, also the mother. In particular this festival honors the Celtic Goddess Brigit. She is known as the keeper of the holy well and sacred flame. She is also known as a goddess of healing and inspiration. Poetry is especially closely tied to her as are the cow and the snake. The God at this time of year is a growing child, just barely a youth, full of wonder and joy at the simple things like snow ball fights and spider webs.
Imbolc is a time of preparation and initation. This is a time to bless our fields and pray for fertility in the crops we will plant. It is a very good time to plan projects for the upcoming spring and summer months when our activity level picks up. We should take some time to think about our special gifts and things that inspire us.
This festival celebrates upcoming births, of thoughts, projects and people. This would be a very good time to think about planning a family or taking time to honor any pregnant women you know. Imbolc can also be seen as a pagan version of Valentine's Day with more of an emphasis on fun and fertility.
Divination, especially weather divination is particularily appropriate during Imbolc. This is also a very good time to make candles or to purchase and charge them. Brigit's Crosses or Brigit dolls made out of wheat are also common. Rituals involving spiritual cleansing, purification and healing centering on the cleansing, healing power of flame (or a combination of fire and water) are very appropriate.
March 20-23 (21) Vernal Equinox
The Vernal or Spring Equinox is one of only two days each year when the day and night are exactly the same length, the other being the Autumnal Equinox. The Spring Equinox is also known as Lady Day and by the names Eostar, Eostre or Ostara for the Germanic goddess of fertility and spring. In pagan traditions this is the middle of spring, not the beginning of it. It is a time of balance and the start of the half of the year ruled by the sun.
Spring Equinox is one of the spring fertility festivals. It is nine months before Winter Solstice and so in some beliefs it is the time when the young goddess and god unite to start the life that will be brought forth next Yule. It can also be celebrated as the time of their handfasting. The god is met at this time of year as the trickster god, a shapeshifter, as the world around us is changing and we are prodded to lighten up from the winter doldrums
The Spring Equinox is a time to celebrate the balance and harmony of life, the seasons, and night and day. It is also a time to celebrate life overcoming death. The stories of Demeter and Persephone are very fitting. It is the start of the growing season and is a time to honor new life. Wear spring flowers and bright colors, especially green. Bless your seeds and start your gardens. Marvel in the new life growing (or starting to grow) around you.
Traditional celebrations at this time of year are very pagan in origin. Symbols include eggs, rabbits, and flowers. Coloring eggs, either boiled or emptied and setting up egg hunts are a wonderful and fitting activity. There are also many wonderful ways to color eggs naturally if you are interested.
May 1 Beltane
Beltane is a celebration of life, a celebration of creativity, fertility and the Goddess. It is also known as May Day, Walpurgisnacht, and Roodmas. It is especially connected with mothers. It is a time to celebrate our senses and the pleasures that life brings us. Several of the predominant symbols of Beltane revolve around fertility, Maypole celebrations and the Great Rite. Maypole celebrations involve groups dancing around a tall pole interweaving ribbons through the dance. It involves two rings of dancers, normally one male ring and one female ring. The Great Rite is the symbolic union of chalice and athame or actual union of consenting adults symbolizing the union of the God and Goddess. The Goddess of Beltane is the Love Goddess or the Faerie Queen. The God is the Green Man.
Beltane, like Samhain its opposite celebration, is one of the two main pagan celebrations and is a time when the veil between the world is thin. Instead of welcoming and visiting our ancestor spirits like we do on Samhain, Beltane is the time when the Faeries come visit us. Faeries are powerful nature spirits who can be helpful, mischeivious or even harmful. Winning their friendship and aid can be a very special thing.
Since Beltane is dedicated to the Goddess and fertility it is a wonderful time to celebrate the mothers or mother figures in our lives. There is something very special and magical about being able to bring life into this world. More than that to give forth energy to raise and care for children and "mother" those around us when they need it. There are many people who do not have this quality and those who do deserve recognition.
Beltane celebrations often involve bonfires, dancing around the Maypole, flower crowns, leafy masks, etc. It is a time for play and merriment. Parties, music and feasting are all wonderful parts of any Beltane celebration.
June 20-23 (21) Midsummer Night/Summer Equinox
Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, exactly half way through the wheel of the year from the Winter Solstice, the longest night. It is known by many names, Summer Solstice, Midsummer, St. John’s Eve and Litha. For pagan traditions it is the middle of summer, when the sun is at its full strength. The sacrificial death of the God is often celebrated at this Sabbat by many traditions, although some feel it is the time when he is at his strongest before waning to pass over at Samhain for rebirth at Yule. Midsummer is a celebration that centers on the God, the sun, and fire. It is traditionally celebrated with outdoor activity and bonfires. Harvest time is starting and the days will start growing shorter. It is said that faeries abound at Midsummer.
If you follow a tradition that believes the Sun God dies at Summer Solstice, a wicker man is a very fitting addition to your ceremony. A wicker man should be created before the actual ceremony and a pyre built for him to make sacrifice after the ceremony simple. He can be as large or as small as you have room for, a bonfire or just your cauldron (or a bucket), but whatever size he should be made of wood, twigs, straw, leaves or other burnable materials and tied with natural twine or cotton string. Participants can give him their wishes or things they wish to let go of by either tying notes or symbols to him with string or just wishing them into him during the ritual, before he is sacrificed. For those who do not follow the God dying at Midsummer tradition you may still make notes with wishes or things you wish to let go of to burn during the Solstice ceremony.
Just as Beltane is a celebration of the Triple Goddess, Summer Solstice is a celebration of the God, or more particularly, masculine energy. It is a very good time to remember the men in our lives and the masculine energy in ourselves. Take some time to spend with men who mean something to you doing something outdoors if possible. Adding a father’s blessing or men’s blessing to your ceremony is very appropriate.
August 1 Lammas/Lughnassadh
Lammas is a cross quarter day, landing halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. It is a festival in celebration of the beginning of harvest season. Lammas denotes the end of summer and beginning of fall. This day is traditionally celebrated with games, sporting events and the first signs of harvest (as decorations and food). One possibility for decoration and dress is to wear flowers, especially yellow ones to symbolize the sun. It is a festival of bread, and the grain goddesses Ceres and Demeter. It is a time to celebrate strength, fullness of life and good health. Just as some traditions hold the Sun God dies at Summer Solstice, others hold he dies on Lammas.
As all farmers know to bring in the harvest you must cut down the wheat. For something to be created something must be destroyed. For things to live, others must die. Lammas is a celebration of the circle of life. It is a day to honor freedom and fairness and to meditate on your hopes and fears, struggles and choices you need to make.
September 20-23 (21) Autumnal Equinox
During the Autumnal Equinox the day and night are the same length, from now on till the spring equinox the nights will be longer than the days. It is also known by the names Harvest Home and Mabon. It is a celebration of the balance of the wheel of the year. Harvest Home marks a time of rest after work. Historically by this time, most crops would be in so leisure time would increase as the light decreased. Sometimes a wicker man, a symbol of plant and sun energy, is symbolically sacrificed in a fire for this holiday like during Summer Solstice. The message of Fall Equinox is similar to that of Thanksgiving.
The Mother Goddess of Summer becomes the wise Crone at this ceremony. The god is the grain spirit and the god of freedom and the wild things. The world around us provides for beautiful decorations: fall leaves, gourds, dried corn and wheat to name a few. Many people balance eggs on their ends during equinox celebrations.
This is a good time to celebrate the animals in our lives, be they pets or wild neighbors or ones we have only seen on television or at preserves. You could bless your pets, stuffed animals or pictures of animals as part of your ceremony. It is also a very good time to reflect on what you are thankful for, particularly events that have happened in the past year. In addition it is a very good time to meditate on balance and work to bring your life back into equilibrium. It is a time to work hard to harvest projects and goals that we planned and worked for in summer months.