If you’re new to Paganism, witchcraft or spirituality, you might wonder, “What’s the Wheel of the Year and how do you celebrate it?” From the depths of the winter solstice to the thinning of the veil at Samhain, the Wheel of the Year connects to the seasonal cycle of the natural world with celebrations dispersed throughout the year.
The Wheel of the Year is the yearly cycle of Pagan celebrations, including the winter and summer solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes, and 4 major festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain. The cycle begins with the winter solstice –also known as Yule– in December and ends with Samhain in October. The festivals are evenly spaced in 6.5-7 week intervals throughout the year and align with peaks and valleys in the earth’s rotation around the sun and changing seasons.
When you hear the words Pagan or witchcraft, your brain might flash to pentagrams, archaic rituals, and dancing skyclad in the moonlight. In reality, Paganism is a way of describing early, nature-based religions, which are still practiced in some forms today.
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What is Paganism?
Paganism describes spiritual activities outside of other organized religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Pagans don’t follow a uniform set of guidelines for their practice, though there are shared themes in both historical and modern Paganism.
Pagans often worship nature and may worship multiple deities or focus only on the goddess–a distinct departure from many single-deity religions whose gods are typically male.
Historically, ‘Pagan’ was used to describe non-Christians or people who worshiped more than one god. It may be derived from the Latin word, ‘Paganus,’ which was used to describe the “civilian” peoples that Romans encountered when conquering new parts of the world. Paganus may also have been used in a derogatory sense to describe ignorant, rural villagers. Either way, the terms Pagan or Paganism weren’t often used positively by Christians or Romans alike.
Early Christians used Paganism to describe non-Christian or polytheistic worship throughout Europe from the Celts in Ireland to Hellenic Pagans in Greece. Thanks to pop culture, Celtic or Germanic Pagan rituals and practices may be the most well-known today. Books, comics, and films have incorporated Pagan elements like Stonehenge, Beltane and Samhain festivals, and the Norse or Greek pantheons, making them more well-known outside of Pagan circles.
Modern Pagans can be found around the world. Paganism may include Wiccans, neo-druids, neo-Pagans, and other groups. Many Pagans worship nature with celebrations and festivals throughout the year. The Wheel of the Year is the yearly cycle many Pagans follow, though there are no rules stating these celebrations must be observed. Pagans can decide individually on their activities and rituals, though many continue to use the Wheel of the Year to guide their practice.
How Many Festivals Make Up The Wheel of the Year?
The Wheel of the Year typically includes eight festivals, starting with Yule in December, followed by Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnassadh, and Mabon, and ending with Samhain in October. In modern Paganism, these eight festivals are generally agreed upon as the major celebrations in the Wheel of the Year.
Historically, the number and celebration names may vary as different Pagan groups focused solely on some festivals over others. Celts, for example, focused on the fire festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain over other celebrations.
What Festivals Make Up The Wheel Of The Year?
Celebrated on the shortest day of the year in December, Yule is the first festival in the Wheel of the Year. It is also known as the Winter Solstice or Midwinter and is celebrated on December 21 or 22. Pagans often celebrate the balance of light and darkness, and Yule falls on the longest night before days begin to lengthen again.
Yule celebrations may also give thanks for the return or renewal of the sun. Activities include gift-giving and decorating trees or dressing homes with evergreens like mistletoe or holly, which may sound familiar to people who celebrate Christmas. Many Pagan traditions were later adopted by Christianity, and in some cases, their roots in Paganism may not be known.
Celebrated on the first of February, Imbolc is the first fire festival of the year. Celebrations focus on preparing for spring, and it is often associated with fertility. It was also traditionally important for farmers preparing for sheep to give birth, so it may also be considered a shepherd’s holiday.
Imbolc is often celebrated with offerings of milk, creating doll-like effigies from wheat, reeds, or cornhusks, and lighting bonfires. These are symbols associated with the Celtic fertility goddess, Brigid.
Ostara is also known as the Spring Equinox and happens on March 20 or 21. The name Ostara is derived from the goddess of spring, Eostre, from Germanic pantheons. Eostre is also the inspiration for Easter, the Christian spring celebration. The focus of Ostara celebrations is on life after winter and celebrating the return of spring.
Fertility is another aspect present in Ostara celebrations. During this time of year, spring plantings may be beginning. Planting seeds may be one tradition practiced by modern Pagans during Ostara. Other symbols include hares, eggs, budding flowers, and green, growing things.
Beltane is held on the first day of May. It is the second of the four fire festivals, so bonfires are an important tradition, symbolizing purification and fertility. Historically, the Celts would use Beltane bonfires to bless their cattle before they were sent to pasture. Household hearths also were often relit with fire from Beltane. Dancing around a Beltane bonfire is a fertility ritual for many Pagans historically and today.
Beltane is one of the more well-known Pagan holidays, as its rituals have been adopted by multiple cultures often under other names. You’ll find maypoles at many Pagan and non-Pagan spring celebrations. In both modern and historical practices, dancers wind ribbons around a pole or tree in celebration of spring and fertility. At these celebrations, people may wear flowers or create baskets of goodies to give to someone in need.
Like Yule, Litha focuses on the balance of light and darkness. It is the longest day of the year and the peak of the sun’s dominance. Litha is also known as Midsummer or the Summer Solstice and falls on June 20 or 21. The following days grow shorter as power shifts towards darkness with longer and longer nights until the balance shifts again at Yule. This shift in power is represented in the Pagan myth of the Oak King and Holly King.
At Litha, they battle for dominance before the Holly King, representing winter, gains the upper hand and rules the land until Yule when the Oak King, representing summer, takes over. Oak and holly are symbols often associated with Litha.
Litha celebrations often include bonfires, though it is not one of the four Celtic fire festivals. Jumping over a bonfire on Litha is considered good luck, though not recommended for obvious safety reasons. Modern Pagans may celebrate Litha with meditation, indoor or outdoor fires, flowers, and food.
Lughnasadh is celebrated on August 1. It is the third fire festival and the first harvest festival of the year. This celebration is named for the Celtic warrior god, Lugh. Feasting, athletic competitions, and ritual sacrifices of bulls to ensure a good harvest were historical practices associated with Lughnasadh.
Lughnasadh is an important celebration for agriculture as it occurs before grain is ready to harvest. Often harvests would not begin until after Lughnasadh to ensure optimal yields. Baking bread and eating newly harvested foods to celebrate is a tradition continued by many modern Pagans. They may also create altars with grains, apples, and other foods and decorate their homes with hand-crafted items and decorations to honor Lugh, who was also known as the god of craftsmanship.
Mabon falls upon the autumnal equinox when light and darkness are equal. Mabon is celebrated on September 22 or 23. The name ‘Mabon’ may be derived from Mabon ap Modron, a Welsh deity, who is often associated with tales of great hunts in mythology and folklore.
Mabon is a celebration focused on successfully completing the harvest and giving thanks for having crops to survive winter. The focus on thanksgiving during this time of year is noted in several cultures. Hosting feasts and gatherings is common during Mabon. Apples and cornucopias or altars filled with grain and fruits are common symbols associated with Mabon.
Samhain occurs on October 31 and is the last of four fire festivals and the end of the Wheel of the Year. It is considered the last harvest festival and start of winter. Samhain is a well-known celebration worldwide as people participate in similar holidays like Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls Day.
Pagans, and people of many faiths around the world, consider Samhain a time when the barrier between the world of the living and dead is the thinnest. Celebrations often include tributes to ancestors and family members who have died, along with celebrations, bonfires, and feasting. Like the other fall festivals, the fruits from the harvest are included in Samhain celebrations and on altars to feed spirits who drift through the veils between worlds.
|Pagan Festival||Date||Holiday Name||Themes & Traditions||Symbols||Themes & Traditions|
|Yule||December 21 or 22||Winter Solstice, Yule, Midwinter,|
Lesser Sabbat (Wicca)
|Evergreens, Decoration Trees Or Homes||Rebirth Of Solar God|
Greater Sabbat (Wicca),
Fire Festival (Celt)
|Spring Cleaning And Preparation, Purification||Shepherds And Lambs,|
Doll Effigies Made Of Straw, Reeds, Or Cornhusks,
Offerings Of Milk
|Brigid, Celtic Goddess Of Fertility|
|Ostara||March 19, 20, or 21||Spring Equinox, Hilaria (Roman),|
Alban Eilir (Modern Druid),
Lesser Sabbat (Wicca)
|New Beginnings, Life After Winter, Light And Dark In Balance||Planting Seeds,|
|Eostre, Germanic Goddess Of Spring|
|Beltane||May 1||May Day,|
Greater Sabbat (Wicca),
Fire Festival (Celt),
Walpurgis Night (Germanic)
|Maypole, Flowers, Queen Of May, Youth, Growth, Light, Fertility||Bonfires,|
|Belanus, Celtic Sun God,|
Flora, Roman Goddess Of Flowers
|Litha||June 20 Or 21||Summer Solstice, Midsummer,|
Alban Hefin (Druid),
Lesser Sabbat (Wicca)
|Longest Day Of The Year, Height Of Sun’s Power, Inspiration, Enlightenment||Sun,|
|Sun Gods, Holly King,|
Greater Sabbat (Wicca),
Fire Festival (Celtic)
|Beginning Of The Harvest, Giving Thanks, Baking And Breaking Bread||Bonfires,|
|Lugh, Celtic Warrior God|
|Mabon||September 21 or 22||Fall Or Autumn Equinox,|
Alban Elfed (Modern Druid),
Lesser Sabbat (Wicca)
|Giving Thanks, Preparing For Winter||Apples|
|Mabon Ap Modron, Welsh God|
Greater Sabbat (Wicca),
Fire Festival (Celt)
|Tributes To Ancestors, Spirits Of The Dead, Darkness,|
End Of The Year And Start Of Winter
Altars To Ancestors And The Dead,
Apples, Pumpkins And Other Fall Fruits
|Crom Cruach, Celtic Deity/Figure|
What Are The Different Types Of Paganism?
The term ‘Celtic’ refers to the cultures, languages, and peoples found in six regions in northwestern Europe: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, and Brittany.
Celtic Pagans focused primarily on the four fire festivals: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. These names are Celtic in origin. Specific practices, traditions and beliefs vary by region, but celebrating the changing seasons and using fire to represent purification and fertility is a common thread between them.
Slavic Paganism originates from northeastern Europe and focuses on changes in the natural world, expressed through the conflict between two gods: Veles, god of the earth, cattle, and the underworld and Perun, god of thunder, storms, rain, and fertility. Their cyclical struggle represents the changing seasons, which are often accompanied by storms and severe weather.
Some Slavic Pagans also believe in a world tree with three planes of existence: the celestial plane where Perun and other deities live, a middle plane where humans dwell, and the underworld where Veles may be found. The number three is a powerful number in Slavic Paganism, as reflected in their world tree and three-headed gods, symbols, and idols.
The term ‘Germanic’ doesn’t refer only to modern-day Germany but includes part of northern Europe and Scandinavia. Germanic Paganism may draw upon elements from Celtic and Norse mythology, folklore, and Pagan practices. Pagans may also be called heathens in this region.
One commonality between different Germanic Pagans is the importance of trees both symbolically and in rituals. Norse mythology also includes a world tree–Yggdrasil–with nine realms. Germanic Pagan rituals are often conducted in tree groves, and trees or poles may have been used to represent the world tree. While little is known about Germanic festivals, Germanic Pagans likely held celebrations in February and December and may have had a spring or summer festival too. Communal feasts, ritual drinking, sacrifice, and divination are featured in their celebrations.
Hellenic Pagans worship the Greek pantheon, which includes Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Apollo and other gods and goddesses. Hellenic Pagans may include the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire in their rituals. However, there are no specific rules on how or who to worship. Hellenic Paganism is based on the idea of reciprocity–you give something because you get something from these deities’ involvement directly in your life. You might make a sacrifice to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, for a successful harvest, or Hera, goddess of marriage and family, after the birth of a child.
Much like ancient Greece, Rome was a polytheistic society that worshiped a pantheon of gods. Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Pluto are just a few of the deities on the Roman pantheon. As Christianity was introduced and became a primary religion in Rome, the term Pagan was applied to people who worshiped more than one god. The term was later used by the Roman military to describe peasants and civilians in newly conquered lands.
In many ways, Pagans, Wiccans, and druids have many things in common. All worship or focus on nature and the cycle of the seasons. However, there are some distinct differences.
Wiccans are Pagans that focus on two deities: the god and goddess. The goddess has three aspects–maid, mother, and crone–that are closely associated with and celebrated during the moon cycles. The Horned God is closely associated with sun cycles and Wheel of the Year celebrations. In Wicca, the eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year are known as greater sabbats (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain) and lesser sabbats (Yule, Ostara, Litha, and Mabon).
Historically, druids were religious leaders in Celtic cultures. Neo-druids are less organized and don’t follow one set of rules or rituals. Neo-druids also follow the Wheel of the Year and celebrate the eight festivals. Druids may be polytheistic, but their primary focus is nature, not deities. Some druid groups–or groves–may call to the quarters (North, South, East, West) during their rituals. All druids worship nature, which often involves spending time alone in natural spaces to connect spiritually. However, many druids keep their practice private.
How Did Christianity Impact The Wheel Of The Year?
Christianity did not impact the Wheel of the Year. The festivals included in the Wheel of the Year have roots in Pagan culture, especially Celtic Paganism. The rituals, symbols, and celebrations associated with the festivals in the Wheel of the Year pre-date Christianity. These Pagan festivals were grounded in the essential parts of life–season, nature, sun, light, darkness, planting, harvest, birth and death–and were often associated with multiple gods from various pantheons. However, Christianity may have borrowed some symbols and celebrations from Paganism. This is why we see similarities between Yule and Christmas, Imbolc and Candlemas, and Ostara and Easter.
There is also speculation that some Christian figures may have been borrowed from Pagan deities. For example, Christians may have adopted the goddess Brigid as Saint Brigid. The Catholic Church references historical accounts of an Irish woman named Brigid as the Saint. However, St. Brigid’s feast day falls on February 1, which is also Imbolc, a celebration associated with Brigid the Goddess. St. Brigid celebrations also involve doll effigies and historical references to bonfires.
How Many People Still Practice Paganism?
An estimated 1 million Americans, or .04% of the U.S. population, identified as Wiccan or Pagan, according to the Pew Research Center. Other surveys show continued growth in the number of respondents identifying as Wiccan or Pagan during the early to mid-2000s. Paganism is growing worldwide, but getting specific numbers is difficult due to the private nature of some Pagans and the variety of practices that exist. Fear of judgment may also make it less likely that some Pagans will disclose their personal beliefs.
Luckily, the practice of Wicca, Druidry, and Paganism doesn’t require disclosure. Many practitioners choose to practice privately, observing the Wheel of the Year and selecting the rituals and celebrations that are the most meaningful to them. The decline of populations participating in organized religion, and the increased presence of witchcraft and Paganism in pop culture may make it easier to practice more openly in the future.
While the eight festivals that form the Wheel of the Year were historically community-wide celebrations, the symbols and rituals can be used for private practice too. Whether you seek out a Pagan community or practice privately, the Wheel of the Year can guide your spiritual journey with meaningful rituals and symbols that have endured time, prejudice, and absorption by other organized religions. Use these eight festivals to connect with nature, the changing seasons, darkness and light, and the ebb and flow of the natural world.