In modern Neo-Paganism, the sabbats are the eight great festivals of the sacred year. The sabbats follow the ancient festival days that were common throughout Europe, though different cultures poured variant meanings into their celebrations. Over the centuries, as Christianity became the dominant form in the West, ancient pagan worship sites were replaced with churches and the festival days integrated into the Christian liturgical calendar. Many of these older pagan festivals survived in secularized form and many of the practices were reinterpreted by Christians, especially the Yule (winter solstice) practices that became part of the celebration of Christmas.
The eight sabbats are defined by the principal points in the changing relationship of the Sun and the Earth over the year. These points are measured by the easily observable point of the sun's daily emergence on the eastern horizon. Through the spring, as the days grow longer, the sun appears to rise at a point slightly further north each day and then as the days reach their longest, it appears to pause and then start moving south. As the shortest day of the year is reached, it again pauses and starts north. The points of the pauses (the solstices), and half way between them, when the length of the day and night are equal (the equinoxes, formed four easily marked points in the years. They, and the four additional points halfway between them that mark points in the planting and harvest process, became the eight evenly spaced holidays of the ancient world.
During the Middle Ages, the ancient Pagan practices were invoked to supply content with the new understanding of Witchcraft as Satanism advocated by the Inquisition. The sabbats were identified as a time for Witches to gather to worship His Infernal Majesty. That mythology survived in the secularized celebration of Halloween.
In the 1950s, Gerald B. Gardner introduced his modern reconstruction of Witchcraft which drew on ancient Pagan practices mixed with elements of Asian beliefs and practices. It was a nature oriented religion in which the worship of the Goddess was central. Integral to the new Witchcraft were the ancient eight festivals that became times of gathering for the emerging Pagan community. In the Wiccan faith, the years begin on the evening of October 31, Samhein. This day culminated the harvest season, and heralds the coming of winter, a period of waiting until the planting can begin a new food production cycle. It is also a night in which the veil between the living and the dead is thin and communication with spirits is facilitated. It is a time to remember the dead and complete relationships with them.
Seven other sabbats follow:
Yule (December 21)
Imbolc or Candlemas (Feb 1)
Beltane (May 1)
Summer solstice Lamas (August 1)
These festivals marked important events in agricultural communities, though most modern Pagans are urban dwellers. In the rituals, while some recognition of their past significance is still noted, the sabbats have been reinterpreted as occasions for personal magic and reformation and the veneration of the deities.
As distinct from the eight major Sabbats, witchcraft covens also hold a bi-monthly esbat at each new and full moon. These are the coven's regular meetings for its ongoing magical work and group worship.
(See also litanies of the sabbat)
Ravenwolf, Silver. To Ride a Silver Broomstick: New Generation Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.
Valiente, Doreen. The ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.