Yule draws near, and it's easy to lose focus on what we're really celebrating this time of year. Yule is a time to slow down, spend extra time with family, and thank the gods and goddesses for the good things our year brought us.
Bake some cookies, make some easy holiday decorations with your children, read an extra book, or find a nearby organization where you can volunteer and make a difference in someone else's life. Connect with our earth and your community to truly live your values.
A sabbat is a fancy-pants word for holiday. In pagan culture, there are eight of them annually, and they’re based on seasonal or agricultural benchmarks. These sabbats make up what we call the Wheel of the Year. Here’s a summary of what they mark, and easy, modern, practical ways to celebrate them.
As a general rule, pagans use what’s available in nature at the time to celebrate each sabbat. Sabbat meals focus on what’s ripe in the fields or on the trees. Pagans decorate with the flowers or plants that are in bloom. I encourage you to explore your own ways to celebrate each turning of the Wheel of the Year. There is no wrong way to celebrate as long as there is love in your heart while you do it.
Yule (Winter Solstice)
Around Dec. 22. This marks the longest night of the year, and brings the promise of longer, warmer days to come. Ancient pagans celebrated Yule as the rebirth of the sun. The earth is cold, often frozen, and very little if anything is growing. We huddle inside with our families, and grow these bonds during winter. We focus on rebirth and renewal, and plan and set goals for the coming year. We also give thanks for making it this far into the barren season.
As Yule marks the promise of longer days ahead, we often celebrate with light (candles, fires, or colored lights on a tree – sound familiar?). The colors are festive: Red, green gold, silver, white, yellow, orange, and black. It’s a time for merry-making, feasts, and gifts. Meats, baked goods, and spices play a larger role at Yule since fruits and veggies are in short supply. Baking holiday cookies and breads is a good way to connect with the season; share them with your neighbors to more deeply connect with your community. Light candles, and add cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg to warm cider. Maybe make a list of things you’d like to improve on in the coming year (this is where New Years Resolutions originated). Plan a family feast, and discuss your plans for the coming year while a fire roars nearby. Snuggle up with the kids and read a nice, warm story together with hot chocolate.
(pronounced IHM-ohlk; the “b” is silent) Usually Feb. 1. It probably means either “sheep’s milk” or “in the belly.” It marks the time when the sheep were just starting to give milk. The days are a little longer, the earth is warming slightly, and the soil is readying itself for another season of life. It’s a very feminine sabbat, when we focus on fertility, life-giving, and new beginnings. Fire and purification are also components of Imbolc. Often the Gaelic goddess Brighid is honored. We celebrate our family and ready ourselves for the upcoming plantings.
Imbolc is often celebrated with candles or fire (it’s still really cold in February!). Sheep’s milk cheese (or any cheese, really) and herbed or whole-grain breads made with milk are front and center on the table, along with any of the first flowers that might be blooming, as well as candles. It’s a time to cleanse and purify your home, and prepare your garden for planting. Try a cheese platter with new or interesting cheeses, or have children plant flower or veggie seeds in an indoor window box. The colors are white (think snow and milk), pink, red, light green, and brown.
Ostara (Spring Equinox)
Usually on March 21. Ostara sounds like another holiday often celebrated in early Spring. It probably comes from the name of an old Germanic goddess Oestre or Eastre, which means “to shine in the East,” just as the sun does earlier and brighter this time of year. It’s a celebration of rebirth, a new cycle of life for our earth. It’s also a time of heightened fertility. We celebrate the spring flowers, and we sow of the crops that will provide our community nourishment over the barren winter months. Animals are mating, and the warm weather tempts lovers to spend some extra time together out in nature.
As you can guess, eggs play an important role during Ostara. Maybe the most obvious symbol of fertility, it’s why we hide Easter eggs today. That’s how bunnies, very prolific breeders, became associated with Ostara. Ducklings, some of the first animal babies seen in the spring, are another Easter staple. Coloring and hiding eggs right alongside the Christians is perfectly acceptable way to celebrate. The colors of Ostara are the colors you see outside – pink, green, orange, yellow, purple, and pastels. Fertilizing your garden, and then lovingly planting it out, are maybe the most practical yet magical things you can do to observe Ostara. Spring ham and lamb are on the table, as are the late winter veggies – asparagus, onions, and potatoes, as well as seeded bread. And of course eggs. Bright spring flowers in pinks, greens, and yellows are abundant, and perfect for bringing inside. Have the kids plant summer flowers outside, or put up a birdhouse. A pretty wreath for your front door with bright or pastel flowers would be lovely.
Usually May 1. This is the official beginning of summer for Pagans. Crops have been planted, cattle and farm animals have had their babies, and the earth is ready to rock and roll. It’s a celebration of a successful sowing, and an opportunity to ask the gods and goddesses for blessings. Bonfires are lit in celebration and for luck, and women and children perform dances with flowers and colored ribbons, often around trees or poles, as a symbol of fertility, and an overture to the gods and goddesses for a successful harvest.
We’re really into summer now, so the more time we can spend outside in nature the better. Our colors are bright spring colors – green, red, pink, yellow, purple, blue. Flowers are in full bloom, some veggies are already ready for the picking, and the days last longer. Make flower crowns with kiddos, and try some edible flowers on salads (nasturtiums, rose petals, or herbs). Even set up a Maypole and have the neighborhood kids dance around it (a tall bamboo stake from a nursery and some colored crepe paper from a craft store are easy). If it’s feasible, light a campfire and dance around it at night. Enjoy the first summer veggies, and bring sweets into the picture. Fruit pastries or chocolate goodies are good choices. Also try hot, spicy foods like peppers, curries, or hot sauces – rev up that passion this time of year!
Litha (Summer Solstice)
Around June 21. Litha is midsummer, when we’re about to make our first harvest, when the sun is the highest in the sky and stays with us the longest of the year. The Sun God is front and center today, and so fire plays a big role. Bonfires and torches adorned our ancestors’ villages. For fun, they’d leap over the fires for luck. We’re giving thanks for a (hopefully) bountiful harvest, spending as much time as possible outside in the elements, and sharing our bounty. There is also the recognition that darkness is coming, and that our rich, vibrant season is dying down.
Our colors are red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Bonfires or campfires are a great idea, if practical. Have some neighborhood friends over for a barbecue. Take a hike, or go camping. Definitely spend as much time outside as you can, even though it’s hot. Run through a sprinkler or go swimming. Give thanks for your good fortune, and enjoy the intensity of the heat and the sun, as Winter Is Coming.
(pronounced LAH-mahs and loo-NAH-suh), usually Aug. 1. The name Lammas comes from “loaf-mass,” a celebration of the grain harvest. Lughnasadh comes from the god Lugh, the Celtic Sun God. I call it Lammas because it’s easier to spell and say. On Lammas, we’re about to perform our main harvest of the season. We’re giving thanks to the Goddess Mother and the Sun and Grain Gods for a bountiful crop, storing our surplus for the coming months, sharing with friends and neighbors, and honoring the summer that was. We’re meditating on mistakes we made this year and ways we’d like to be better for next year. It’s a time of thanks, of introspection, and of preparation. It’s probably the least-celebrated sabbat in Pagan culture.
Grain is paramount during Lammas. Bake whole-grain bread or pastries to share with neighbors. Make a corn dolly out of husks. Incorporate all the other summer goodies into your baking – my favorite recipes are squash bread and blackberry cobbler. The colors of Lammas are fall colors – red, orange, yellow, brown and green. Fresh-picked fruit and veggies, as well as honey, are welcome at Lammas. Grapes (and wine) are a nice touch, too.
Mabon (Autumn Equinox)
Usually on Sept. 21. Days and nights are equal, temperatures are lower, leaves are falling, and fruit and veggies are withering. We perform our final harvest, honor the changing seasons, and prepare for winter. Sharing our bounty with neighbors is good form. It’s a time of great thanks for the harvest, for our health, and for our family. We reflect on the changes we hoped to make back during Yule, and on the balance between dark and light. Interestingly, no one really knows where the name came from.
On Mabon, find some balance. Meditate, take a walk, get in touch – physically – with nature to help balance your system. Give thanks for what you have in your life, and reflect on ways you’ve improved this year. Hold a food drive, or donate old clothes. Pick some apples (only as many as you will use), and bake a pie. Honor the darkness – maybe take a walk after the sunset, or meditate in a dark room. Have a glass of wine (never a bad idea). Our colors are earthy and autumnal – maroon, russet, gold, brown, and dark green. A pretty front-door wrath with corn, gourds, and dried leaves is a nice touch.
(pronounced “SAH-win”). Usually Oct. 31. Yep, that’s also Halloween. Samhain occurs at the end of harvest, when the leaves have fallen, crops die back, the days are noticeably shorter, and temperatures drop. On Samhain, pagans celebrate the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It marks the beginning of winter. We honor those who have died, and we connect with our ancestors. The veil between the living and the spirit realm is said to be the thinnest on Samhain, which facilitates this living/spirit connection. It’s also a time to look inward, to focus on improving yourself, and to spend time with family.
Celebrating Samhain can be as simple as decorating for Halloween. The colors are earthy: browns, oranges, red, purples, black. Thank the earth for what it’s produced over the summer. If you’d like to go deeper, have a feast that celebrates your family’s rich ethnic heritage, with recipes and ingredients from those cultures. Put up photos of loved ones who have passed. Tell stories about them. More practically, do a thorough yard cleaning of all the dried branches, vines, and weeds. Harvest anything remaining, and either prepare for your winter garden or put your beds to sleep for the winter. Prune plants, and nourish them for the coming winter. Think of a way you can grow over the winter – is there a habit you’d like to give up? A skill you’d like to hone? A relationship to repair or strengthen? This is a terrific time to focus on your personal growth. The coming months will provide plenty of down time in which to focus on that growth.