The Wheel of the Year is a seasonal cycle of celebrations meant to help people attune to a particular type of energy associated with a particular time of the year.
Almost all religions have some “calendar” that they use to mark important time periods in their faith’s history. Paganism is no different. The Pagan calendar is not so much about marking important events; however, it is about attuning to certain types of energy associated with the seasons.
It’s important to understand that not every Pagan celebrates the “holidays” presented below. Some will celebrate four of them and others all eight. Some will focus only on one or two. It all depends on the tradition one was trained in or the family they were brought up in.
Likewise, different people, groups, and families have their own specific traditions which they engage in on these holidays, and they can vary greatly from person to person.
The main ethical belief in Wicca, and one that many other Pagans tend to follow even if not specifically stated, is the idea that as long as you aren’t harming yourself or another person, do what you will and enjoy.
Let’s take a quick tour around the seasonal celebrations as they have been taught to me.
Halloween/Samhain – October 31st & November 1st
Samhain (saa-wn) is perhaps one of the most important holiday celebrations. For many pagans, it marks the beginning of the New Year. This is especially true if a person is aligned with a witchcraft or Wicca belief system.
This is the time of year to honor those who have passed on from this world. This is done in many ways. One example is speaking with those who have passed. Another example is creating a dinner, whereas a table is set with empty plates for those who can’t be there.
Speaking with the dead typically occurs in one of two ways. In the first, one tells stories about their beloved relatives – honoring their memory. In the second, one engages in mediumship or receiving messages from those who have crossed over.
This is when the veil between worlds is considered thinnest, so the belief is that things like divination, fortunetelling, and mediumship are the easiest and most powerful.
Decorations include Jack-O-Lanterns, pentacle wreaths, ravens, and the color orange. Other décor includes autumn flowers, pine-cones, and of course, pumpkins. Some will put golden-yellow mums in the house.
Cider is a common drink, and many spend time reflecting on the past and processing as they prepare for their new year. Additionally, some also spend time focusing on their weaknesses to purge or overcome them.
Black candles are often light to ward off negativity. Some write their weaknesses on paper and burn the paper, believing this helps to release them.
This is the time of year where most witches will buy a new broom and dedicate it. The broom is most often used to “sweep away” old and harmful energy.
Finally, no discussions of Samhain would be complete without talking about costumes. Many pagans wear costumes, but not in the traditional spirit of Halloween. They choose to wear costumes based on what they hope or want to become in the future. This is a form of sympathetic magick with the idea that if you can embrace what you desire to become in the present and live like that, it will move the energies towards bringing those things into reality.
The mood tends to be one of awe, excitement, and mystery while also having fun. Talking to the dead and getting or giving readings tends to be approached in a much more serious manner.
Yule/Winter Solstice – December 21st – January 1st
Yule (yool) is celebrated differently depending on the things mentioned at the beginning of this article. For some, they celebrate only on December 25th. For others, they celebrate only on the Winter Solstice. For others, they start celebrating on December 21st or the Solstice and celebrate until January 1st.
This holiday is most often celebrated by lighting the Yule log. This Yule log is kept in the home all year after it is light and used to bring added protection into the home.
The traditional Christmas colors of red and green are most often used in décor. Cookies are baked, and wreaths of holly are many times hung.
Bayberry candles are sometimes light to help bring wealth and happiness for the upcoming year. Other traditions include cutting and decorating the Yule Tree, exchanging gifts, and lighting fires and candles to encourage the sun’s swift return.
The mood here is one of hope, and a certain feeling of coziness also often occurs.
Imbolc – February 1st & 2nd
Imbolc (im-blk) began as a celebration to banish winter. Many combine Candlemass and Valentine’s Day celebrations into their Imbolc celebrations, but again, not everyone. Every pagan is different, and it’s important to understand each individual’s traditions.
On the Candlemass side of things, a “Crown of Light” is light to symbolize the hastening and coming of Spring. A crown of light, in this case, is a bunch of white candles in a circle that are light. In some traditions, women or young girls will wear these on the head, and in others, they will be set on the altar or some other place within the environment.
Lavender and white candles are often burned, and the focus of the holiday is on purification and initiation.
This is a great time to restock magick supplies, give to food pantries, and have potluck dinners and celebrations. It’s also a good time to clean the house and change all tablecloths and curtains. This, combined with using the blessed broom from Samhain to sweep away the “dark half” of the year, are purification methods.
Sometimes three ears of fried corn are tied together with spring-colored ribbons and hung outside the house. This is supposed to bring wealth and protection until the Fall Equinox. At that point, they are buried in the garden.
Perhaps of all the traditions, the most amusing and odd centers on giving and getting spankings. This occurs because some pagans combine Lupercalia traditions into Imbolc. Lupercalia was a festival celebrated in early Rome around February 15th.
It is believed on this day that if a man playful spanks a woman – it will help with pregnancy, fertility, and improving her health and well-being. Such a rite traditionally involves a playful chase and a more symbolic spanking (or very light) instead of anything that would actually cause pain. It’s meant to induce laughter and fun and is obviously consensual in nature.
In another even rarer variation, someone will ask their partner to spank them, stating a bad habit they wish to be rid of. As the spanking occurs, the person being spanked repeatedly repeats the bad habit they wish to be rid of. The rationale here is that spankings are considered purifying, and they carry quite a bit more of a “sting” than the previously mentioned playful variation. The idea is the “sting” will be associated with the bad habit, and in the altered state of consciousness that occurs from the pain, the mind will be reprogrammed to associate the bad habit with pain. Again, this is all consensual and is certainly not practiced by the majority of pagans.
The mood tends to be more serious in nature except where noted. Purification is often serious business.
Note: Some of these traditions are celebrated by the general public at other times of the year. For example, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and some Hungary parts, it’s common to spank women on Easter for the same reasons previously mentioned. Likewise, In Norway and in some places that celebrate St. Lucy’s Day (a Christian festival occurring on December 13th), the crown of candles is worn, and candles are light while mass is celebrated.
Ostara/Spring Equinox – March 21st
The Spring Equinox is usually celebrated around March 21st, but as with all equinoxes and solstices, the exact date depends on the astrological and astronomical calendar.
Ostara (oh-star-uh) is a celebration of balance and is most closely associated with Easter. Decorations at this time of the year include light green, lemon yellow, and pink. Eggs are also often colored and placed on the altar. Sweet cakes are traditionally served at dusk, or breakfast is held as the sun rises.
Seeds are planted at this celebration, both actual seeds, and symbolic seeds. Before being planted, they are ritually blessed.
Ostara focuses on “gardening” and growing your planted seeds, as well as starting new projects and tending to them.
The mood for Ostara often returns to hopefulness.
Beltane – May 1st
May 1st is a special day for many Pagans. Beltane (BELL-tane) is traditionally a celebration of love and union.
The colors are red and white, and house decorations might include a large bowl of floating flowers and white floating candles. Additionally, baskets of fresh flowers are usually picked and hung near the front door. Flower petals are often spread around the outside parameter of the home for protection.
This day’s mood should be jovial and very flirty, but obviously without crossing any personal boundaries of others.
The Maypole is usually erected on this day, and males and females both do the Maypole dance to increase fertility and build energy to be used in manifesting desires.
Hopes are consummated by being shared with someone of the opposite gender. This is seen as another method of adding energy to manifestation.
Bonfires are popular, and it is believed that anyone who has the courage to leap over a fire on this day will have a great upcoming season.
Large outdoor parties and gatherings are common for Beltane.
Not as common is a lesser-known tradition where a female chooses a tree in her “crushes” yard and decorates it with ribbons (typically pink and red) to demonstrate both her interest in him and her desire to “claim” him as her own.
Midsummer/Summer Solstice – June 21st
The longest day of the year is called Midsummer and is also known as the Summer Solstice. It occurs around the 21st of June, but as always, the exact date depends on the astrological and astronomical calendars. Sometimes this day is called Litha (lee-tha).
This day is all about the Sun King! It is a celebration of passion and success.
Powerful magick and manifestations can be accomplished on this day, especially when it’s in the name of business, money, or prosperity.
As with Beltane, bonfires are common, and large outdoor parties and gatherings are normal.
Sunflowers are the traditional decoration of the holiday, and altar candles tend to be gold and red. Sometimes a wreath is hung on the door with red and yellow feathers braided with ivy – traditional summer symbols.
Some traditions bring a money tree plant into the home as a symbol of the celebration and preparation for the wealth that is soon coming in the harvest.
Nighttime is when the real action occurs! As the longest day of the year, many use the twilight hours and nighttime to commune with field and forest spirits and faeries.
Traveling, camping and hiking are all common bonding activities – but it must be remembered that the true purpose of this celebration is fertility, health, and love. As such, similar to Beltane, the mood tends to be jovial and flirty, but Midsummer also brings with it a certain mischievousness (associated with the faeries), and pranks and gags are often also engaged in.
Lughnassadh/Lammas – August 1st
Many names are known for the start of the harvest season, but we’ll call it Lammas (LAH-mus). Another name for it is Lughnassadh (LOO-nah-sah).
Fall activities usually begin here and include canning, baking bread, and decorating the house in fall colors by replacing curtains, tablecloths, rugs, etc. Colors are usually yellows and reds, and pots of yellow and red cockscomb are often placed on the altar or home. Some will decorate their altars with the first fruits of their garden as an offering.
This is a time of gratitude and thanksgiving. The mood tends to be aligned with these themes, but competitiveness is also an essential part of the overall mood.
Many will play athletic games, and sports and tests of endurance or strength are also common. The idea is to uphold your family (or personal) honor. According to legend, these games occur because of the god Lughnassadh’s wishes and are meant to please him.
This is also a good time for restocking magical herbs.
Note: To get a better feel for this holiday, think Scottish Highland Games, which also occur around the same time of the year.
Autumn Equinox/Mabon – September 21st-29th
Mabon (MA-bon or MAY-bon) is the second harvest and is associated with corn. As such, cornbread is the traditional food for this time period.
Mabon can run from the Equinox all the way to September 29th, but as always, it depends on who is celebrating and their personal traditions.
Cider is once again a popular drink, and rituals for balance and thanksgiving are common. These rituals may also include clearing the aura, clearing and balancing the chakras, cutting energy cords, and so forth. This is also a great time for empowering stones and crystals.
The colors are traditionally brown, gold, and red, and of course, leaf viewing is common, as is using fallen leaves as decorations around the home.
The mood here is once again more on the cozy side of things, with ample time placed on being with close family or very close friends.
From here we return back to Samhain.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t cover every possible tradition of each of the celebrations, merely a few of them. Much research can be done on the celebrations, and many pagans spend years figuring out their own personal traditions and rituals to use at the various celebrations.