Wicca, also known as Witchcraft or the Craft, seeks to reestablish the link to the earth and the cycle of seasons by following what Wiccans call the "Wheel of the Year." Celebrations, known as Sabbats, serve as the spokes of the Wheel, reminding practitioners of humanity's intimate connection to nature. The Lesser Sabbats, tied to the solstices and equinoxes, and the Greater Sabbats, purportedly tied to harvest and livestock cycles, occur approximately every six weeks. Through observance of the Sabbats and Esbats, rituals taking place every new and full moon, witches keep in touch with the progression of the year and nature's rhythms.
The names of the various Sabbats differ from tradition to tradition; this entry lists the most commonly accepted names. These names, the timing of the Sabbats, and most elements of these ritual celebrations draw from the meager evidence of ancient British and Celtic traditions, as well as the few survivals of these ancient practices. However, many contemporary Wiccan witches feel free to improvise, adding to what they know of old traditions. As Wicca ages, its own contemporary traditions gain authority, and Wiccans no longer feel a pressing need to legitimize their rituals by tying them to ancient practices. Even with innovations, the Wheel of the Year and the underlying meaning of each Sabbat generally remain the same. Nonetheless, Wiccans practicing in climates far different from that of the British Isles complain that harvests and seasons in their homeland do not follow the ancient cycles. Wiccans in Australia especially find the ordinary Wheel of the Year difficult to follow. Many Wiccans in these areas seek to fit the Wheel of the Year to the seasons and cycles they actually experience.
The Wiccan year begins with Samhain, or Halloween, considered the holiest of the Sabbats. During Samhain the veil between the worlds is thinnest, allowing for communication between the living and the dead. During Samhain celebrations, witches remember those who died in the preceding year and welcome those due to be born in the coming year. Samhain also serves as a good time for magic involving the banishing of negative elements from one's life and for welcoming new, positive factors. Because of the enhanced communication between worlds, witches claim Samhain night as the most auspicious night of the year for divination.
Yule follows Samhain, taking place on the winter solstice; it celebrates the rebirth of the sun. With the rebirth of the sun, the God is reborn. Yule logs, wassailing, yule trees, mistletoe, and visits from the Holly King make up this festive Sabbat. Wiccans in the United States tend to retain the secular aspects of Christmas, viewing these as pagan holdovers from a pre-Christian Europe. Imbolc, also known as Candlemas or Brigid, a Greater Sabbat, falls on February 2 and celebrates the end of winter and the first signs of spring with a festival of lights. Wiccans teach that through the celebration of this Sabbat they aid the coming of spring and new life. Eostar, or the spring equinox, contains, like Yule, many familiar elements, with eggs and rabbits representing the fertility of the earth. As new life begins in spring, so Eostar marks an auspicious time for new beginnings.
Beltane, taking place on May Eve (April 30), stands at cross-quarters from Samhain, and witches consider this Greater Sabbat almost as important as Samhain. Far from being somber, Beltane celebrates fertility and the marriage of the Goddess and the God. Dancing the Maypole and jumping over the Bel-fire ensure human fecundity in the year that follows. The Maypole represents the phallus, or male fecundity. The festive nature of Beltane celebrations make this Sabbat a popular one.
Litha, or Midsummer, the summer solstice, not only celebrates the height of the sun's power but also remembers the impending death of the God, who is reborn at Yule. Like Beltane, Litha functions as a fertility festival. Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, takes place on August 1 and celebrates the death of the God and the first fruits of harvest. The Sabbat derives its name from the Celtic god Lugh. Just as Imbolc celebrates the first signs of spring, so Lughnasadh commemorates the first signs of fall. Finally, Mabon, the fall equinox, marks the completion of the harvest and the close of the year.
Through observance of the Sabbat, Wiccans not only remember the cycles of seasons but also reenact the story of the Goddess and the God, a mythology central to their religion. The Wheel of the Year orders their religion and their day-to-day lives.
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