Many people get a little confused about how the Sabbats fit together. There’s a good reason for this, which is that different traditions use different ways to connect and join them.
Let’s start with the commonly used names and dates.
Samhain is considered the end of the old year. Some traditions consider it also the beginning of the new year, while others consider the time between Samhain and Yule to be a fallow time, with Yule as the beginning of the new year with the return of the light.
Four of the dates are easy to determine: the solstices and the equinoxes are celebrated when those astronomical events occur. (I’ve given the dates below as ‘around [month] 22nd.’ - the solstice or equinox can fall anywhere between the 20th and the 23rd in a given year.)
Any good calendar will probably tell you, or the US Naval Oceanography Portal has an excellent set of pages that talk about astronomical events. You can find their page on the solstices and equinoxes here with all dates through 2020, and their astronomical applications index has links to other interesting resources.
The other four Sabbats come from Celtic tradition. Originally, they were probably celebrated as specific seasonal markers showed up (buds on the trees, lambing season, etc.) but these days, people commonly celebrate on what have become traditional dates (listed below). Some people celebrate on the day that the sun is in the 15th degree of the relevant sign (for example, Samhain is celebrated when the sun reaches the 15th degree of Scorpio, which is usually November 6th, 7th, or 8th. Here’s one way to calculate it.)
For people in the southern hemisphere: Many people choose to reverse the Sabbats, so that they fall in the logical seasons. Thus, when the northern hemisphere is celebrating Samhain, people in the southern hemisphere will be celebrating Beltane. Among other reasons, this means that you have the longest day on the day with the most daylight, and so on.
A brief overview:
Below, I’ve listed the Sabbats, their most common dates, and a few sentences about each one. (Later in this article, I’ll talk more about different ways to connect each Sabbat.) Some groups use different names, though I’ve included the most commonly used ones here.
Yule (yool) Midwinter, or Winter Solstice : around December 22nd
The return of the light and the spark of hope in the darkness. A time to make a choice about a particular goal or desire for the coming cycle. In many traditions, this is the birth of the Son King.
Imbolc (IM-bolc or IM-olc): February 2nd.
The end of winter, and the planting of the seeds for spring. It’s obviously a bit too early for actual planting in Minnesota, but we can begin to lay the foundation for the work we want to do this year. Traditionally associated with Brigid. Milk and cream are common foods.
Ostara (o-STAR-ah) : Around March 22nd.
The spring has started to arrive in earnest, and we put more energy and attention into nurturing our plans and goals, seeing them take shape and begin to grow on their own. The God grows from childhood into young adulthood. Eggs are common here.
Beltaine (BEL-tayn) or Lady Day: May 1st.
This is often seen as the celebration of the love and fertility of the God and Goddess. The abundance of life and of the connections between different parts of our world. Early fruits are common here.
Litha (LITH-ah), Midsummer, or Summer Solstice: around June 22nd.
The height of summer, the pause in the middle of the work of growing. We pause to reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as well as to celebrate together. Sometimes seen as the wedding of God and Goddess.
Lammas (LAH-mass) or Lughnassadh (loo-NASS-ah: August 2nd.
The harvest of the grains. One of the possible times of the harvest and sacrifice of the God in some traditions. We often focus on the sacrifices we need to make to reach our goals. Traditionally associated with the god Lugh. Bread is a common celebratory food.
Mabon (MAH-bon or MAY-bon), Harvest Home, or Fall Equinox: around September 22nd.
The time to focus more on what we’re harvesting and celebrate hard work to our goals. Is our harvest what we wanted? Another possible time for the sacrifice of the God. Later fall foods are common feast foods here.
Samhain (SOW-in, most commonly): October 31st.
This generally focuses on our ancestors and our beloved dead. Many groups consider the time between Samhain and Yule to be one of deep reflection and introspection.
Types of connections:
Different traditions – and different people – will pick different sets of connections between Sabbats to focus on. Sometimes this is based on the tradition, sometimes on the focus of the group, sometimes on the geography or seasons of the place the person is working. It’s okay to try out some variations over time and see what works for you. Below, I’ve talked about some of the most common options.
Each Sabbat focuses on a part of the agricultural year. You plant in the spring, nurture the crops through the summer, harvest, and then rest and reflect during the winter.
This model is easy to connect with the world around you. However, it can be challenging to connect with an agricultural cycle in our daily lives, and the cycles commonly discussed work best for climates like northern Europe and the British Isles. If you live in Texas or California, or any other place with a different climate, you’ll need to make some significant adjustments.
- Yule: planning for the coming year
- Imbolc: planting the first seeds or starting plants indoors.
- Ostara: getting ready for planting
- Beltane: greening of the trees, planting, blessing the crops to make them fertile
- Litha: A pause to celebrate the work of planting.
- Lammas: Harvest of the grains, the first fruits
- Mabon: Second harvest – vegetables, roots, etc.
- Samhain : Third harvest, culling of the herds for the winter, stocking for winter.
God and Goddess:
In this set of connections, the God is born, grows up, becomes the lover of the eternal Goddess, and gives his life for the harvest. She moves through the year from maiden to lover to crone to mother.
- Yule: the God is born, the Goddess is mother.
- Imbolc: the God is a young child, the Goddess is mother.
- Ostara: the God is a young adult (pre-teen, often.) The Goddess is seen as a maiden
- Beltane: the God and Goddess are late teens, early twenties: they are lovers.
- Litha: the God and Goddess share a commitment to love (marriage, mature affection)
- Lammas: the God may be sacrificed here. Otherwise, they bless the harvest through work.
- Mabon: the other common choice for the sacrifice of the God. The Goddess mourns and becomes the crone.
- Samhain : the God is Lord of the Underworld, the Goddess rests for the new cycle.
Oak and Holly Kings:
A variation on the God and Goddess cycle is the Oak and Holly King cycle. In this myth, the Oak King rules with the Goddess for half the year, while the Holly King rules with her for the other half the year. At the midpoints, they fight and change places.
Some traditions have the battle at the equinoxes (March and September) when the new ruling King is rising in power. Others have them at the solstices (June and December) when the new ruling King is at the height of their power. Either way, the Oak King is at his height in June, and the Holly King in December.
Cycle of transformation:
Some traditions look at the Sabbats as a cycle of self-transformation, taking a cue from the agricultural cycle, but not as tied to actual agricultural acts. Maria Kay Simms’ book The Witch’s Circle has a thorough explanation.
The basic idea is that you pick an idea or goal for your life in the coming cycle at Yule, develop it into the spring, and then work towards harvesting it in the fall. Goals work best when they’re some sort of wide-ranging change in your life: better balance between your commitments, deeper understanding of yourself, spending more time with family or a creative project, etc.
- Yule: the first idea: pick something to focus on in the coming year
- Imbolc: reflect on that idea: what might you want to do to make it real?
- Ostara: making the first concrete steps towards creating that change.
- Beltane: looking at how to breathe life, joy, and passion into that change
- Litha: a pause to reflect: do you need to take a different route to your goal? Adjust anything?
- Lammas: first harvest of your goals – how are you doing? How much remains?
- Mabon: further harvest: by now you should see the results you wanted.
- Samhain : honor what has gone before, seek wisdom from the ancestors, rest before Yule.
Ritual by Ritual:
One other option is to do rituals where each Sabbat stands at least somewhat on its own: in this case, people will work with specific deities, myths, or stories that suit their needs for that Sabbat (possibly in keeping with a pattern like the self-transformation model above.) This can be a very meaningful way to deepen understanding of the season, but it’s important to be careful you aren’t treating the Gods or their stories lightly.
Mike Nichols has a website (and a book) all about the Sabbats with lots of detailed information.
Judy Harrow has two pages about Sabbats that are of interest: a general introduction, and then a page for the season between each Sabbat(since the Sabbats are a point in time that mark a much longer transition.)
Many introductory books also have material about the Sabbats. Besides In the Witch’s Circle by Maria Kay Simms (mentioned above), RitualCraft (by Amber K and Azrael K) has excellent ritual ideas for Sabbats.
You might also be interested in:
- What is ritual?
- How do we do ritual?
- What’s a circle for, anyway?
- Ritual food and drink and seasonal food options
- An example of planning a ritual
[last edited January 8, 2011]