Introduction to the Sabbats by Edain McCoy
The solar festivals known as as the sabbats (from the greek sabatu, meaning "to rest") are the pivotal points om which the Witches' wheel of the year turns. These ancient celebrations mark not only the change of seasons, but the cycles of the agricultural year as well.
Because crops and animals could not be relied on to follow precise patterns in relation to the solar year, the dates of the festivals once varried widely. For example, Samhain would be observed after the last of the harvest was in, and Beltane would be celebrated when the cattle were ready to be taken to their summer pastures. When humans stopped living solely agrarian lifestyles, astrological correspondences marked the dates of the sabbats. Today the dates are largely fixed along these lines, though some Craft traditions may varry them by a day or two
Samhain (October 31) is the celtic new year, both a begining and an ending point on the ever-turning wheel. At this time the third and final harvest of the year is celebrated, a yield that ensures that life will continue throughout the harsh winter ahead. But as life is celebrated, so is death. Witches traditionally believe Samhain to be a time when the veil sperating the world of the living from that of the dead (the Otherworld) is parted, and the ancestors may join in the festivities. Popular Samhain activities include communication with the dead, divinations to see what the new year holds, and the hosting of the "dumb supper," a feats for both the living and the spirits of the dead that is held in complete silence. The modern festival of Halloween has its roots in Samhain. The popular children's custom of trick-or-treat stems from an Old English practice in which children went door to door begging "soul cakes" to feed the wandering spirits.
Yule is celebrated on the winter solstice, and is an observance of the turning of the solar yar from wanning to waxing. This is the most importaint sabbat in the Teutonic traditions, the word Yule coming from the Old Norse jul, meaning "wheel." Some mythology teaches that the Sun is the newborn son of the Goddess, others that that the Sun is the wintertime Crone who has turned into Her Virgin form again. The Christmas practices of venerating lighted trees and burning the Yule log-both symbolic of the divine gift of fire to humanity-all come from European Pagan customs. It is also customary on the sabbat to greet the rising Sun on the day it starts to grow strong once again, and to reenact the battle between deities who represent both the dark and light halves of the year. At this time the deities od light will emerge victorious.
Imbolc, also called Imbolg or Oimelc (February 1 or 2), is also known as Candlemas because of the tradition of lighting a profusion of candles to symbolize the growing warmth of the waxing Sun. In terms of the agricultural year, this as the time when the ewes began lactating, hence the translation of of Oimelc as "ewe's milk." At this time man Witches honor the young Goddess as the waiting bride of the Sun God. Others see her as being the Sun itslf coming to bring spring to the earth. Traditional practices on Imbolic are the wearing of candle-studded headdresses by women, divinations to see how much longer winter will last, and the destruction of harvest icons such as the Grain Dolly, an effigy of a female woven from grain cut down in the fall.
Ostara, celebrated at the spring equinox, is named for Eostre, a Teutonic Goddesss of fertility. Ostara is a time of balance, in which the powers of dark and light are equal, and from which light will emerge triumphant. As the earth warms it begins to grow green again. All around us is the image of fertility. Crops can be planted, animals awaken from their winter hibernation and mate, and the young Goddess and God are having their own sexual awakening, becoming aware of the allure of one another.
Many customs that were adopted into the easter celebration are rooted on Ostara, including the coloring of eggs, which are symbolic of the Sun, fertility, and eternal life. On this sabbat it is customary in many Witches' covens to host a noisy ritual to stir mother earth to wakefulness.
Beltane (may 1) celebrates the sacred marriage of the Goddess and God, from whose union will be born the autumn harvest. Almost ever Beltane custom in some way symbolizes this marriage. The practice of filling May baskets with symbols of fertility, such as eggs or nuts, is representative of their joining. The custom custom of weaving the May pole with long strands of of colored ribbon is another. The pole represents the phallus of the God, which peneytrates the ribbons that make up the birth canal of the Goddess. This act also symbolizes the transformation of the virgin Goddess into her mother form
Litha is celebrated at the summer solstice, and marks yet another major turning point in the solar year At this time the Sun is honored at its peak of ptency, though from this point until Yule the year will be on the wane. Some traditions see the Sun as the God, fierce and powerful, others see it as the mother Goddess warming herself-the mother earth who is pregnant with the coming harvest. It is customary at Litha to begin gathering summer herbs to dry for wintertime use, and to reenact battles between deities who represent both the dark and light halves of the year. At Litha the deities of darkness emerg victorious, and the Sun begins to weaken.
Lammas (august 1) is a celebration of the first harvest, particularly of grain products. The word Lammas is Old English for "loaf mass,"and even today breads play a central role in the Lammas feast. Though the Celts saw this sabbat as the beginning of their autumn, today we enjoy this festival as the wanning of the summer in which the first fruits of the harvest are redily available.
The Irish called Lammas by the name Lughnasdh, after their sun/sacrificial God Lugh. This has been translated as "Lugh's wedding." In Celtic terms this means that Lugh became wedded to the land-the Goddess-in a sacred marriage. As the grain is cut down, so is Lugh, symbolically sacrificed so that his people may continue to live.
The last Sabbat of the year, Mabon, is named for the Welsh God who is called the "great son." This festival is celebrated at the atumn equinox and marks the second of the three harvests. Apple and berry harvesting, cemetary visitations, and wine makng are a central feature of this observance. In Welsh mythology, Mabon was stolen from his mother when he was three days old and taken to live in the dark underworld until rescued in the spring. The myth underscores the fact that after this night of balance, darkness emerges triumphant over the light, and will remain so intil Ostara.