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the wheel of the year

What is the Wheel of the Year?

The wheel of the year is an ancient Celtic calendar based on festivals that celebrated our connection with nature. The calendar revolves around eight festivals, from Imbolc to Yule – each one signaling a shift in the season, weather, and the natural world around us. 

On these dates, the beginning and end of the seasons are celebrated, such as the equinoxes and the solstices. This calendar is currently used by neo-pagans; although it’s very common to associate the wheel of the year with Wicca, since it relates this myth to the cycle of growth, maturation, and death of the God, it’s actually a calendar widely used by pagans in general, whether they believe in other pantheons, or even without following a specific religion.

The sole purpose of this calendar is to connect with nature and its cycles, so no pantheon or religion is needed to celebrate the wheel of the year. Celebrating these seasonal shifts with festivities is intended to help us to connect with the spirit of our ancestors, a connection that leads directly to Mother Earth more than to any deity.

This calendar is relatively new, as there isn’t enough information about some of these celebrations, or even their names since oral tradition prevailed in those times. This calendar tries to approximate the traditions practiced by the Gaelic and Germanic peoples.

The Celts had four great festivals: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh, these are called the “major sabbats”, which are celebrated at the midpoint between each solstice and equinox. Although for the Gaelic peoples these four celebrations existed, they corresponded more than anything to the farmers, since the ranchers saw the year divided into two: half-light and half-dark.

the wheel of the year

About these celebrations:

There’s evidence in a discovery made in France, where a calendar attributed to the Celts was found in Coligny, called Coligny Calendar. Since then, we have known these four festivals, whose purpose is to indicate the holidays and the change of season. 

Later the Celts included the solstices in their festivities, a tradition that the Saxons brought with them, but actually the tradition of celebrating the solstices and equinoxes is inherited from the Germanic peoples. These celebrations are called the “lesser sabbats”, and each of the eight festivals is celebrated roughly every month and a half, or every six and a half weeks and makes up what we now refer to as the Wheel of the Year. 

The eight main celebrations (or festivals) that make up the Wheel of the Year.

4 Cross-Quarter (fire) festivals:

And 4 Quarter-Point (solar) festivals:

  • Ostara  – Spring Equinox (20th – 23rd March)
  • Litha – Summer Solstice (20th – 23rd June)
  • Mabon – Autumn Equinox (20th – 23rd September)
  • Yule – Winter Solstice (20th – 23rd December)

1) Yule

the wheel of the year

Winter solstice.  – It’s a time when winter has already taken complete possession of nature, it’s celebrated between family and friends indoors; stories are told and family games are played.

One of the most widespread traditions is the burning of the Yule log, eating roasts, and feasting on the freshly collected harvest.

The Yule festivities were celebrated from the winter solstice for two weeks, until January 6th of our calendar.

On this solstice it’s said that King Holly has reigned for six months, ruling over the dark phase of the year; however, King Oak has revived and returns to kill his brother, so he begins to rule from this date.

This holiday celebrates the birth of the sun: despite the fact that the earth is plunged in the middle of winter, the sun has reached its lowest point and will begin to be reborn little by little. The solstice is the point where the sun stops falling and threatens winter with its strengthening.

Some sources indicate that Yule is the first festival of the Wheel of the Year, others indicate that it’s Samhain. In the Coligny Calendar, the first month is Samonios, where they celebrate Samhain. The festivities usually lasted for three days: one before the date, the same day as the date, and the next day. Technically, the Celtic New Year’s Eve is Samhain; although the first days of the “Celtic New Year” are celebrated in this festivity, Yule is the first holiday to be celebrated once the new cycle has begun, when the darkest days has arrived but the sun has born again.

  • Colors: Red, Green, and Gold
  • Plants & Herbs: Pine, Fir, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg, and Oak Leaves. Basically, anything that is in season during this time.
  • Incense for Yule: Cedar, Frankincense, Cinnamon, and Pine
  • Crystals: Bloodstone, Emerald, Citrine, and Clear Quartz
  • Food & Drink: Mulled Wine, Hot Cider, Seasonal Soups and Nuts

2) Imbolc or Candlemas

rewilding for women

Imbolc comes from Imbolg, which means “in the navel”. This festival symbolizes the “womb” of Mother Earth from which the first signs of spring begin to emerge; it’s when the life of the countryside, the trees, and the flowers is awakening. Likewise, lactating animals begin to give birth to the calves gestated in Beltane last year, so on this date, the milk of the sheep and cows is used, both for human consumption and in offerings.

This sabbat is associated with light, but not necessarily with heat; candles and bonfires are lit to symbolically strengthen the sun, to help it enter strongly into the approaching spring.

Little by little the darkness is fading, the thaw takes place, and the sun begins to gain a little more presence in nature. This, for our ancestors, was crucial because it was the critical moment in which either you had enough food to survive the remainder of winter, or you just didn’t, so the idea of the regrowth of abundance in Mother Earth was cause for celebration by the groups trying to survive the terrible winter.

This holiday, in line with the celebration of light, purification is practiced, since the time of the dead, winter sadness and laziness are fading. The Celts honored Brigid, for being the goddess of fire, also related to raising livestock and home, but she’s also a goddess of blacksmithing, an important faculty on this date that prepared the necessary tools to work in the spring.

Bonfires, candles, and elements of fire and light were used to honor her on this holiday.

  • Colors: Pink, White, and Light Green
  • Plants & Herbs: Blackberry, Chamomile, Cinnamon, Snowdrops, and Witch Hazel
  • Incense for Imbolc: Vanilla, Lily, Jasmine, and Chamomile
  • Crystals: Amethyst, Turquoise, Citrine, and Bloodstone
  • Food & Drink: Sunflower and Pumpkin Seeds, Seeded Bread, Oats, and Poppy Seed Cakes 

Resources for Celebrating Imbolc:

  1. CELEBRATE SPRING WITH NATURE ACTIVITIES FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
  2. EDIBLE LILACS: 7 DELICIOUS SPRING RECIPES
  3. WILD VIOLET HONEY – NECTAR OF THE SPRING GODS
  4. SYRUP OF VIOLETS: THE PERFECT ODE TO SPRING
  5. AN OFFERING FOR THE GODDESS OF SPRING: LAVENDER AND LEMON SHORTBREAD
  6. What is Witch Hazel For? Make Your Own Useful Extract

3) Ostara

how to celebrate beltane

Spring equinox. ostara is another word for the first day of Spring. It’s also commonly referred to as the vernal or spring equinox.

Ostara is a day of perfect balance when the sun can be seen directly above the earth’s equator. It is the time when light and dark are completely equal before the scales are tipped in light’s favor.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, our daylight hours will continue to lengthen until the summer solstice in June. I simply swoon at the idea of longer, sunnier days where I can do more gardening or spend more time outdoors… don’t you?

The entry of spring into nature and the fertility of the earth are celebrated.  On this spoke of the Wheel of the Year, the first outdoor festivities begin to be celebrated, taking advantage of the good weather and the fruits that can be collected in the first moments of this season.

Formerly, the Hieros Gamos was celebrated, where a man and a woman had a sacred marriage representing a male deity and a female deity; they could perform intercourse, or “the great rite”, in a real or symbolic way, but it was performed to represent the fertility and fecundation of the earth.

Ostara takes its name from the Germanic goddess of spring, Eostre/Ostara. She was traditionally honored and celebrated during the month of April with feasts and celebrations similar to today’s Easter celebrations. These celebrations focused on fertility, new beginnings, and rebirth… all the things associated with springtime.  She generally appears with a rabbit, an animal strongly related to this goddess due to its great reproductive capacity; this animal is also associated with lust. 

The equinoxes are a moment of natural balance, and they are also moments of great psychic sensitivity since the portals between the visible world and the invisible world are quite close.

  • Colors: Predominantly Pastel Shades of Pink, Green, Yellow and also White
  • Plants & Herbs:  Meadowsweet, Cleavers, Clover, Lemongrass, Spearmint, and Catnip, Daffodils, Crocus, Tulips & Snowdrops
  • Incense for Ostara: Rose, Strawberry, Sandalwood, Jasmine, Violet and Narcissus
  • Crystals: Aquamarine, Amethyst, Rose Quartz 
  • Food & Drink: Eggs, Kale, Spinach, Lettuce, Seeds and Light Breads, Honey

Resources for Planning an Ostara Celebration:

  1. AN OSTARA CELEBRATION – A DAY OF PERFECT BALANCE
  2. LEMON & HERB CAULIFLOWER
  3. CELEBRATE SPRING WITH NATURE ACTIVITIES FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
  4. EDIBLE LILACS: 7 DELICIOUS SPRING RECIPES
  5. WILD VIOLET HONEY – NECTAR OF THE SPRING GODS
  6. SYRUP OF VIOLETS: THE PERFECT ODE TO SPRING
  7. AN OFFERING FOR THE GODDESS OF SPRING: LAVENDER AND LEMON SHORTBREADOn this

4) Beltane

ancestral foods

Traditionally celebrated by Celtic neo-pagans to acknowledge the midpoint between spring and summer, this period marks the planting time and is recognized as a  time of peak fertility. We are now halfway between the Spring Equinox & the Summer Solstice.

Beltane comes from the Gaelic word that translates into “bright fire”. In fact, Beltane celebrations are often marked with bonfires as a symbol of protection. These fire rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops, and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. 

However, the Celts weren’t the only cultures to celebrate Beltane.  There were many other earth-based cultures that had Spring festivals and celebrations to mark this time of great fertility for Mother Earth. So no matter which earth-based culture was celebrating this period, they all had one thing in common… they saw this fertile time as an incredibly joyful, festive time. It is a time for coming together, to celebrate life.

We celebrate Beltane as a way of honoring nature’s incredible fertile energy and as a way to connect with our natural world on a deeper, more meaningful level. I truly believe that by recognizing and celebrating the little shifts in Earth’s natural rhythms, we can become more attuned to nature and feel more grounded in our everyday lives because of it. 

Nature has an amazing ability to reproduce itself and in such a stunning & beautiful way. It’s important to honor this power that nature holds – a power that we, as humans, also hold. So, when the Earth is bursting with fertile energy, is a powerful time to acknowledge & celebrate the fertility inherent in all life. Beltane is a time to celebrate all the pleasures of being alive.

Banquets were often held in the open air; in some northern areas winter went later, so spring was late and Beltane was celebrated as the first open-door holiday. The banquets were prepared with the fresh fruits and plants of the time. The tradition of “the queen of May” comes from this pagan festival in which a young woman was chosen to represent the goddess of nature. Here was worshiped Belenus or Bel, a god of fire. 

One of the traditional rites of this festival consisted of jumping over a bonfire to attract a partner, purifying oneself, or attracting luck. The cattle were also used to pass between two bonfires to ensure good milk production and to purify the cattle. 

This holiday is closely related to o The similarities lie, as mentioned before, in that the Celts had four great festivals, and later the solstices were included, but not the equinoxes (like Ostara). Sacrificial intercourse and Hieros Gamos were also performed on this holiday.

  • Colors: Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow
  • Plants & Herbs: Daffodil, Hawthorne, Dandelion, Meadowsweet, Paprika, Primrose, Oak, and Rose
  • Incense for Beltane: Rose, Frankincense, Ylang-Ylang, Peach, and Vanilla
  • Crystals: Emerald, Sunstone, Beryl, Malachite and Rose Quartz
  • Food & Drink: Wine, Sweet Breads, Elderflower, Oats and Cakes

Resources for Celebrating Beltane:

  1. HOW TO CELEBRATE BELTANE: FEASTS, FIRES & FULL AWAKENING

  2.  WILD MUSHROOM & FORAGED GREENS QUICHE
  3. Check Out More Articles on Connecting to Nature through Seasonal Celebrations.

5) Litha

celebrate the seasons

The summer solstice, also known as estival solstice or midsummer, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt toward the Sun. In the northern hemisphere, this happens between June 20th and 22nd. During this time, the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and is the day with the longest period of daylight. 

Since prehistory, the summer solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures and has been marked by midsummer celebrations, festivals, and rituals.

Litha is traditionally celebrated with fire and bonfires. It was a time of vigor, of energy, nature is in the middle of summer and the days are warm, so the fullness of nature is celebrated. 

In the legend of King Oak and King Holly, the brothers fighting to rule, King Oak has ruled for the past six months after defeating his brother; however, on this date he returns to fight and kill his brother. King Holly wins, symbolically representing that the sun reaches its zenith, but it falls again and gradually weakens. This is the turning point of nature where the days are pleasant, but the arrival of winter and the next entry of the dark side of the year are kept in perspective.

Among the celebrations carried out around these dates, is preserved the practice of setting a wooden wheel on fire, representing the sun, and dropping it down a hill, thus symbolizing its decline. Games were also played, especially for young people to drain the energy they possessed at this time; these were even times of frequent fights, since the men were in full bloom of vigor.

Resources for Celebrating Litha:

  1. 5 MAGICAL SUMMER SOLSTICE HERBS FOR MIDSUMMER CELEBRATIONS
  2. ELDERFLOWER WINE: THE DELICIOUS ESSENCE OF SUMMER

6) Lughnasadh or Lammas

the wheel of the year

This holiday is the one most linked to the harvest and agricultural work. Here the fruits received from the first harvest were appreciated, it was a moment of fullness, gratitude, and enjoyment of the goods of the land, but also hard work, as they prepared for a season of work in the fields.

The agricultural societies were fully aware that after this fullness, the cold days would begin, so they prepared by collecting what they had harvested, and sowing what they will harvest in the coming months.

In other societies, people who learned to hunt prepared for winter hunts. Games were played to demonstrate the skills of the young, to see who was more prepared to start hunting, and also for adults to enjoy watching these games.

Marriages could also be celebrated, as a symbol of the maturing of love relationships begun in Beltane, and it was also a time of pilgrimage to holy places.

It was celebrated with plates of cereals, fruits, and vegetables. The preparation not only consisted of the collection and sowing of the harvest, but people also began to be aware that this moment of fullness and work was the gateway that led to the cold and dark days of the year, although for now still the warmth and light.

Lugh was commemorated, a god of light and fire, who was said to be well versed in all arts and to do everything wonderfully. Lugh was a young man who defeated King Balor in battle, leaving him blind; in some versions he’s his father, in others his grandfather, but the symbolism associated with this Irish myth is that the young man trained in all arts and talents defeats the already weakened old man. It’s symbolically the renewal of the cycle.

  • Colors: Green, Gold, Light Brown and Yellow
  • Plants & Herbs: Grains, Heather, Basil, Blackthorne, Clover, and Ivy
  • Incense for Lughnasad: Sandalwood, Mint, Rose, and Frankincense
  • Crystals: Citrine, Golden Topaz, Amber, Tiger’s Eye, and Peridot
  • Food & Drink: Bread, Oats, Honey, Corn, and Apples

Resources for Celebrating Lughnasadh:

  1. 20 INSPIRING FALL ACTIVITIES TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE SEASON
  2. HOW TO MAKE WAXED LEAVES FOR FALL CRAFTS
  3. WILD HARVESTING – 5 EASY TO FIND FALL EDIBLES
  4. PUMPKIN SPICE MOON MILK RECIPE – THE PERFECT DRINK FOR FALL
  5. 20 HARDIEST COLD WEATHER CROPS TO GROW IN FALL AND WINTER
  6. WHAT IS WITCH HAZEL FOR? MAKE YOUR OWN USEFUL EXTRACT
  7. AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES: AN AMAZING SUPERFOOD

7) Mabon

samhain celebration

Autumn equinox.  At this time the harvest has been harvested, it’s a time when the light begins to weaken and the darkness gains ground.

The Autumn Equinox on the Wheel of the Year is a time for celebration and reflection. As harvest seasons come to an end, we’re thankful that nature’s spirit can still be felt in the air even after the growing season ends. 

The Fall Equinox is a representation of harvest seasons, a time of thankfulness and joy, as well as a time of bequeathing and melancholy. Now is the time when day and night are perfectly balanced, and similarly, we ponder over the stability and flow of our lives.

For the most part, the Autumnal Equinox as an astronomical phenomenon is associated with the concepts of equity, balance, accountability, honesty, and real friendship.

The autumn Equinox commemorates the Goddess’ passage into the Underworld. Hence, we witness the decay of nature’s spirit and the approach of winter as a result of her absence.

The harvest is gathered, but the people are also gathered within themselves, they go a little into their own darkness. For some animals, this is a time of energy and reproduction, but others prepare to hibernate. Hunters are now mentally prepared for the upcoming hunting season and start their preparations. 

Nature goes to rest; summer days, full of energy and joviality, have now passed to a moment of rest and balance between wakefulness and sleep of nature.  Again, the boundary between the visible and the invisible world becomes blurred.

As in Samhain, this festival is associated with the collection of the second harvest and with the gratitude for it; also, the similarity of the preparation for hunting. The same case occurs as in Ostara: the Celts already had these festivals very equivalent to Ostara (with Beltane) and Mabon (with Samhain); it’s worth mentioning again that the celebration of the equinoxes belonged entirely to the Germanic peoples, since the equinoxes were never introduced in Celtic Britain.

  • Colors: Brown, Gold, Yellow and Orange
  • Plants & Herbs: Sage, Rosemary, Chamomile and Marigold
  • Incense for Mabon: Sage, Pine, Cinnamon, Apple and Frankincense
  • Crystals: Citrine, Amber, Quartz, Sapphire and Lapis Lazuli
  • Food & Drink: Rye Bread, Apples, Wine, Potatoes, Nuts and Fresh Meat

Resources for Celebrating Mabon:

  1. Celebrating Mabon With Herbs & Ancient Traditions
  2. 20 INSPIRING FALL ACTIVITIES TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE SEASON
  3. HOW TO MAKE WAXED LEAVES FOR FALL CRAFTS
  4. WILD HARVESTING – 5 EASY TO FIND FALL EDIBLES
  5. PUMPKIN SPICE MOON MILK RECIPE – THE PERFECT DRINK FOR FALL
  6. 20 HARDIEST COLD WEATHER CROPS TO GROW IN FALL AND WINTER
  7. WHAT IS WITCH HAZEL FOR? MAKE YOUR OWN USEFUL EXTRACT
  8. AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES: AN AMAZING SUPERFOOD

8) Samhain

the wheel of the year

Known also as Halloween, All Soul’s Day, and All Saint’s Day, some believe Samhain to be the most important Celtic festival. 

The Gaelic word means “end of summer” and it was the celebration of New Year’s Eve for the Celts, where the beginning of the darkest stage of the year began. November 1st, where all the saints were commemorated, was also the start of the new year, but also the last spoke on the Wheel of the Year. 

This celebration consisted of several festivities that lasted for a week. On these dates, it was celebrated that the ancestors came from beyond to visit their relatives, and the Druids were the ones who communicated with them.

It’s a date associated with the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, hunting, and venerating the dead, but not from pain, but from respect and celebration.

Death was usually faced with courage and optimism; and just as in Beltane, as this date is strongly linked to death, and death to sexuality, it was also a time when people gave free rein to their sexual desire, as a way to vindicate life in front of death.

The remaining cattle were also sacrificed if they couldn’t survive the winter or the people couldn’t feed them during the winter. They were sacrificed and offered to the gods, to the spirits, and were part of the banquets with the food of the harvest.

Here the harvest had already been stored and saved definitively. There was a belief that if you collected the harvest after this date, you would be punished or the harvest would be in poor condition and cause disease. Everything had to be already prepared for winter.

Another of the most common celebrations that have lasted to this day is the “silent dinner”, in which chairs are left available and plates of food are placed on the table, as an invitation to the deceased who pass by. After that, the dishes were taken out of the house, so that any spirit that was passing could take advantage of the food.

  • Colors: Orange, Black, Gold, Purple, and Silver
  • Plants & Herbs: Calendula, Rosemary, Garlic, Nutmeg, and Sage
  • Incense for Samhain: Sage, Frankincense, Mint, Cinnamon, and Myrrh
  • Crystals: Clear Quartz, Obsidian, Smokey Quartz, Bloodstone, and Onyx
  • Food & Drink: Meat, Potatoes, Parsnips, Pumpkin, Apples, Spiced Wine and Cider

Resources for Celebrating Samhain:

  1. 6 IDEAS FOR HOSTING THE PERFECT SAMHAIN CELEBRATION
  2. Recipe For Soul Cakes: An Offering to Our Ancestors
  3. 20 INSPIRING FALL ACTIVITIES TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE SEASON
  4. HOW TO MAKE WAXED LEAVES FOR FALL CRAFTS
  5. WILD HARVESTING – 5 EASY TO FIND FALL EDIBLES
  6. PUMPKIN SPICE MOON MILK RECIPE – THE PERFECT DRINK FOR FALL
  7. 20 HARDIEST COLD WEATHER CROPS TO GROW IN FALL AND WINTER
  8. WHAT IS WITCH HAZEL FOR? MAKE YOUR OWN USEFUL EXTRACT
  9. AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES: AN AMAZING SUPERFOOD

Bibliography

Clover-Jones, M. (2000). Manual de la bruja moderna. Barcelona: Editorial Ambar.

Farrar, J. & S. (2005). La biblia de las brujas, Tomo I. Madrid: Equipo difusor del libro.

Shallcrass, P. (2000). El sendero del druida. Barcelona: editorial de Vecchi.

Yáñez Solana, M. (2006). Los celtas. From: Pelendonia.net http://www.pelendonia.net/biblioteca/PDF/Los_celtas_M.YanezSolana.pdf