Understanding the Sabbats
In order to understand the Sabbats, you need to know a little bit about astronomy.
Every year on planet Earth, there are two equinox days (around June 21 and December 22). They are six months apart. One-fourth of the year (91 days) after each equinox day is a solstice day. The two solstices are six months apart. Thus, the two equinoxes and the two solstices divide the year neatly into fourths. Solstices and equinoxes are astronomical events, and have to do with the earth's relationship to the sun. They have absolutely nothing to do with tradition.
These four days, called the quarter days, mark the beginnings of the four seasons. This isn't Paganism. It's astronomy.
About halfway between each pair of adjoining quarter days is a cross-quarter day (we are now dividing the year into EIGHTHS). Even though these do not fall on astronomically-defined days, they are (traditionally) considered more important than the quarter days, since the ancient Celts "began" their four seasons six weeks earlier than the actual beginning date(s). Some Pagans celebrate only the four Sabbats that fall on the "cross-quarter" days.
There is also some authority for the idea that the Celts celebrated only two "seasons," summer and winter, with summer beginning on May 1 and winter beginning on October 31.
These four QUARTER days plus the four CROSS-QUARTER days are the eight Pagan sabbats. Because there are about 46 days from one Sabbat to the next, we can diagram a "Wheel of the Year" (the "New Year's Day" is Samhain, October 31).
In the Southern Hemisphere, the Sabbats and the seasons are reversed (since December is a hot month, and July is cold). The dates shown here will apply only to my own particular half of the planet.
Remember that the starting point of the "regular" calendar year is arbitrary; there's nothing special, astronomically, about the day we refer to as January 1. The Pagan year starts with Samhain (prounounced SOW'EN), which is a cross-quarter day.
Here are some traditions concerning the eight Sabbats: [pendragon]
Samhain (October 31) ~ The Celtic New Year
Ancient cultures were agrarian, not industrial. Samhain marked the third (and final) harvest; there would be no more crops again until spring. The people were involved in the very serious business of preparing for the long, cold winter. This was the time when farmers had to determine which of their cattle (a) were strong enough to survive the winter (there would be no more grazing for the next few months, and the only food for the livestock would be the limited amounts of hay that had been put away in the barn), and which cattle (b) would be slaughtered and eaten. They ate lots of vegetables in the spring and summer; they ate lots of meat in the fall and winter. Remember that there were no refrigerators, no electricity, and no supermarkets.
Samhain [which means "Summer's End"] was associated with death.
Samhain is the festival that honors our departed loved ones (the ancestors), and it is the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is the thinnest. It was believed that the dead actually walked among the living on this night, which is why people dressed up as skeletons and ghosts, so that they wouldn't "stand out" and would make the spirits feel at home. Most Pagans, if they acknowledge or celebrate only one Sabbat, celebrate Samhain.
At Samhain, the Sun God, having died at Mabon (September 23) and having returned to the womb of the Great Mother, grows strong and awaits his rebirth at Yule. This begins the time of the greatest darkness, the time of the Crone, the ancient Queen of Death. In the natural world, life is decaying into death, returning nutrients to the soil that will bring life again in spring.
Other names for Samhain: Sambain, Samhein, Samain, Samonios, Samhuinn, Samfhuin, La Samon, Shadowfest, All Hallow's Eve, Martinmas, Hallowmas, Blood Harvest, Calan Gaeaf, Third Harvest, November Eve, Ancestor Night, Nos Galon Gaeof, Hallowtide (and, of course, "Halloween" [Hallowe'en]).
Yule (around December 21)
On the longest night of the year, the Great Mother gives birth to the Sun God. Some witches observe a "longest night vigil" (as if they were sitting at the bedside of a friend who was in labor) followed by a daybreak celebration of the Sun's rebirth. Or they rise just before dawn and light a single candle.
For six months, the nights have been getting longer and longer, and the days have been getting shorter and shorter. It is said that some cultures believed that if they didn't perform a certain ritual on Yule, the days would continue to get shorter, until one day the sun simply wouldn't rise at all!
In Dallas, Texas, the longest day (with the most daylight hours) is 14 hours 17 minutes; the shortest day is 10 hours 2 minutes (a difference of 4.25 hours of sunshine!).
Other names for Yule: Saturnalia, Midwinter, Alban Arthan, Finn's Eve, Feast of Sola Invicta [the invincible sun], Modranect, Modranecht, Modresnacht, Mother Night (and, of course, "Christmas").
Imbolc (February 1)
Pronounced "IMBULK" or "IMMOLG," depending on whose books you read. Imbolc means "in the belly;" this may be a reference to the promise of spring, OR it could be a reference to the fact that the Celts may have "started" their seasons six weeks before the actual beginning of the season (in other words, they thought of Imbolc as the beginning of spring). The Sun Child (born at Yule) plays happily, becoming stronger each day as he grows toward manhood and the days get longer and longer. The Great Mother, however, is growing younger and younger with each passing day.
Other names for Imbolc: Imbolg, Candlemas, Feimbolc, Feast of Ormelc, Oimelc, Feast of Pan, Brigit, Feast of Brigid, Anagantios, Festival of Milk, Festival of Waxing Light, Nos Gwyl Fair.
Ostara (around March 21)
The words "Easter" and "estrogen" are derived from the name of this Sabbat. It is a spring planting festival that celebrates the return of fertility to the land, and thus its symbol is an egg. The Sun Child is now an adolescent; because the Great Mother Goddess has been growing younger and younger ever since December 21, they are now the same age (Ostara is an equinox day), and she welcomes his embrace. They conceive a child who will be born at the next Winter Solstice (Yule). It is a chaotic, sensual time.
Other names for Ostara: Yster, Alban Eilir, Eostre, Bacchanalia, Lady Day, Gwyl Canol Gwenwynol (and, of course, "Easter").
Beltane (April 30)
"Beltane" means "bright fire." It involves the lighting of bonfires and the winding of the May Pole. Traditionally, this is the Sabbat when the Great Rite (which involves sexual intercourse) is celebrated.
The cattle had been penned up all winter (no reason to let them graze, since there hadn't been any any grass growing), and this was the day when they were first let out to wander the meadows. Two bonfires would be lit, and the cattle would be driven between them (not too easy to do, since cattle are afraid of fire). This ritual was believed to "purify" the cattle and make them fertile during the spring.
Other names for Beltane: Beltine, Beltaine, Bealtine, Bealtaine, Belotinia, Walpurgisnacht, Cyntefyn, May Eve, Roodmas, Roodmass, Cethsamhain, Nos Galon-Mai.
Litha (around June 21)
It was believed that whatever one dreamed on this night would come true (thus the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night's Dream). On this longest day of the year, the Sun God is at the peak of his power.
Astronomically speaking, Litha is the first day of summer. In some cultures, the ancient calendars showed summer beginning on May 1 and ending on August 1. Thus June 21 was, to them, "midsummer."
Other names for Litha: Alba Helfin, Midsummer, Vestalia, Whitsuntide, Gwyl Canol Haf.
Lughnassadh (August 1)
A festival of firstfruits (the first harvest). It is associated with the baking of bread. The days are becoming shorter and shorter as the Sun God's power wanes.
In ancient Ireland, sporting competitions were held to celebrate the beginning of harvest.
Other cultures have "first harvest" festivals. The Jewish feast of Pentecost is the feast of firstfruits. There was a ritual where the high priest would ceremonially cut the first grain in the field and wave it to Yahweh in a "wave offering."
Other names for Lughnassadh: Lammas, Loaf-Mass, Lammas-Tide, Ceresalia, Elembiuos, First Harvest, Lad Day, Lugh Samhioldanach, Nos Calon Awst.
Mabon (around September 21)
Festival of the Second Harvest. Sometimes called the Witches' Thanksgiving. Named for Mabon, the son of Modron, who is a hunter god. According to tradition, this is when the old Sun God, who was born last Yule, dies. The Great Mother is pregnant with the new Sun God, who will be born in three months.
Other names for Mabon: Alban Elfed, Festival of Dionysus, Second Harvest, Wine Harvest, Harvest Home, Gwyl Canol Hydref, Harvest Home, Harvestide.