As commercial holidays begin to encroach on us seasons early, as can be evidenced by Halloween candy being set out in stores in August and Christmas decorations taking the stage before Halloween is even over, it’s important that we as witches continue to honor the natural cycles of the seasons and their celebrations as they come and go.
The Wheel of the Year refers to the seasons coming and going in their natural progression – beginning in Spring and ending in Winter.
In this article, we will talk in-depth about the wheel of the year, what it is, how it works, and the different celebrations and energies.
How Does the Wheel of the Year Work?
Each season is ushered in by the Earth itself through either an Equinox – in Spring and Autumn – or a Solstice, in Summer and Winter, and each season kicks off with one of the Cardinal zodiac signs: Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn.
Each season also brings with it two ‘sabbats’, holy festivities based heavily on folk traditions of pagans from the British isles, which have been passed down as general pagan festivals in contemporary witchcraft.
Though it is important to remember that different cultures would have practiced different holidays than the sabbats we will discuss here, many disparate cultures celebrated similar festivities due to the passing of the seasons, lunar, and solar phases.
Many of these pagan festivities were grandfathered in as Christian holidays during the Christianization of Europe and would be recognized by many who celebrate the Christianized versions derived from these much older pagan traditions.
Equinoxes are when daytime and nighttime are of approximately equal duration all over the planet. The sun is residing more or less directly over the equator, and appears to rise exactly due east, and set exactly due west, so that both day and night last for 12 hours.
Because of factors like the Moon causing the earth’s orbit to vary from a perfect ellipse and atmospheric refraction, they aren’t exactly equal, but close enough.
The holidays celebrated on the Equinoxes are Ostara at the Vernal Equinox, and Mabon at the Autumn Equinox.
Solstices are when the sun is either at its highest or lowest declination and appears to stand still in the sky before reversing direction. The Solstices mark the longest day or night of the year, and usher in a time of either more night or more day, depending on the Solstice. The holidays celebrated on the Solstices are Litha at the Summer Solstice and Yule at the Winter Solstice.
Beginning of Each Season
The Equinoxes and Solstices mark the beginning of each of the seasons and are usually around the time when the changes the seasons bring can begin to be seen and felt in the deciduous world.
These days, because of the climate crisis, the seasons take on a different look and feel than some of us might remember from the past, but it is still important that we honor the witchcraft seasons properly as they come.
Without knowing what the future will bring, honoring the Wheel of the Year is a way to connect us more deeply to the Earth and her cycles.
Seasons and Energies of the Wheel of the Year
Let’s take a look at the traditional four seasons and the energies they bring to us during the Wheel of the Year.
But First, a Caveat
In the Northern Hemisphere, the March equinox is the vernal equinox bringing in Spring, while in the Southern hemisphere, it is the autumnal equinox bringing Autumn. For the sake of clarity, this article will be speaking from a Northern Hemispheric perspective.
Below an overview of the four seasons and sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.
The Vernal, or Spring, Equinox falls on the 20th of March and marks the beginning of Spring. Spring signifies the return of life to the Earth, when trees begin to grow new leaves, flowers begin to bloom, and the weather begins to get warmer.
The beginning of Spring is often marked by rain, which, along with the days beginning to lengthen, encourages new life to bloom out of the darkness of Winter.
Spring begins with Aries season, which also begins the zodiacal year. Aries represents the sudden burst of life and energy from the earth, like a newborn baby screaming its presence into the world. This is the time when the colors of spring begin to announce themselves.
Spring is also characterized by its association with fertility. The soil is rich and there is plenty of plant life for animals to nourish themselves with, which is why many mammals that mate during fall or winter give birth in the spring, or in the case of denning animals, see their first glimpse of life outside the den in spring.
This is a natural process, built into the Earth’s cycles and those who live upon it, so that everyone can benefit from the bounty of life brought forth by Spring.
Animals’ offspring are more likely to survive when there is an abundance of food, so well-fed plants lead to well-fed prey, which lead to well-fed predators, who are the axis upon which the wellbeing of a landscape’s ecology turns. The Wheel of the Year is inextricably tied to the Cycle of Life.
Because of the life-giving and renewing energy of Spring, this is the time to work smaller-scale spells of manifestation.
Planting the seeds of your intentions using the energy of Spring, and tending them faithfully, can bring what you want to fruition, just like planting a seed in the soil can bloom a beautiful flower.
The Spring sabbats are Ostara and Beltane. Ostara celebrates the balance of light and dark brought by the Spring Equinox, and can be seen as a pagan analog to Easter along with Beltane, which celebrates the abundance and fertility of the world in later Spring.
It is one of the sabbats associated with a ‘thinning’ between this world and the Spirit world, along with its opposite, Samhain. Beltane signifies the bringing forth of life – in secular traditions, it is known as May Day.
The Summer Solstice falls on or around the 21st of June and marks the beginning of Summer. Summer is an embodiment of life, after birth. The sun is at its peak, and the animals that were born during spring are growing and thriving, just as the plants that bloomed in spring are.
As the peak of summer approaches, all the fire and passion of these hotter months can sometimes press down on us in an uncomfortable or oppressive way.
Heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes all come with the warm air of Summer. It’s a time for play as well as work. The crops of Spring must be tended during the Summer.
Even now, the summer months are when children get their longest break from school. This is because in the old days, they were needed at home to help with the harvest, and it’s a tradition that has endured through industrialization.
Cancer season, associated with the ocean and her tides, begins summer, and indeed, Summer is the time of year when most people flock to the ocean, to cool off, play in the waves, relax, and feel the healing presence of the salt air.
We can think of summer beach trips as a pilgrimage of sorts – our human bodies feel the pull of the wellspring of all life during the hottest of months, as they have for centuries.
Summertime is the time to continue manifesting goals and intentions using the energy available of fire and passion and creativity. This is a great time to release your inner child and play and create, just for yourself.
The sabbat celebrated on the Summer Solstice is Litha, or Midsummer. Litha is a celebration of the Sun and its light providing divine inspiration and is still celebrated by modern druids to this day, frequently at Stonehenge.
Lughnasadh, or Lammas, the late Summer sabbat, marks the beginning of the harvest season and is celebrated by baking a figure of a god in bread and eating it as thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest.
The Autumnal Equinox falls on the 22nd or 23rd of September and marks the beginning of Autumn. The beginning of the darkening of the year, Autumn is when the leaves of the trees begin to change their colors and ultimately fall.
The bounty of spring and summer is being harvested, to keep us warm and fed throughout the winter, and everything that can’t be harvested, put up, or preserved becomes the mulch that next year’s crop will grow from ((at least, in the natural order of things, before industrialization created year-round work).
There is often a melancholy nostalgia to Autumn, especially in places where the changing of the seasons are more evident. The carefree days of Spring and Summer are memories, and the Cycle of Life is turning towards death.
The days are getting shorter and colder, and we begin to turn inwards. Animals begin to hoard resources as well, to prepare for leaner months ahead. It is a busy time, preceding rest and hibernation.
Libra season starts Autumn off with a reminder of the balance between life and death and light and dark as we continue to soak up the warmth of the sun, while nights become progressively chillier.
Eventually, the warmth of the sun fades too. Fall is one of the more aesthetically pleasing times of the year, especially for witches, and Libra is all about aesthetics.
One of the most important witch’s holidays occurs in the midst of Autumn: Samhain, a liminal time where the membrane between this world and the world of spirits is at its thinnest when we are said to be able to communicate with the spirits of loved ones who have passed on.
The opposite of its Spring counterpart, Beltane, this is a perfect time to practice Shadow Work and work to resolve traumas. This is also the time to plant new intentions of goals for the long term, whose fruits will come into bloom in the Spring and Summer months.
The Autumnal Equinox is celebrated with Mabon, a second thanksgiving of the harvest season which focuses on sharing the fruits of the harvest.
Mabon was actually coined in 1970 after Mabon ap Modron, a figure from Welsh mythology who was a member of King Arthur’s court and a divine pair along with his mother, Modron, who may have been an early prototype of Morgana Le Fay.
The Winter Solstice falls on or around the 21st of December and marks the beginning of Winter. Now the Earth moves into a dormant state, with no new growing or production being asked of us.
Winter is a time of death and sleep, when we finally rest after the toil of the harvest season, and the fruits of our harvests support us when nothing new grows. It is a time of gathering with your loved ones before the fire, telling stories, and dreaming.
Of course, now that we work year-round and for the most part dwell in houses that keep us warm and safe from the icy touch of Winter’s hand, we have lost much of our connection with this yearly cycle.
Many people develop Seasonal Affective Disorder in Winter, from the loss of the light, and also because our bodies and spirits remember that Winter is a time of slowness and rest, while our society demands we continue the same level of productivity as we have the rest of the year.
Without the much-needed rest that Winter is meant to provide, we grow exhausted from the daily toil that we were not meant for.
Many animals hibernate in Winter, moving into a state called torpor where they decrease the energy going to most of their body systems and use what they were able to gather or store during Winter – whether it be from fattening up during late Summer, like bears, or from the hoard of food that they gathered in Autumn, like squirrels and chipmunks – to sustain them.
Their heartbeats slow, they breathe more deeply and slowly, and their brain activity slows almost to a halt.
Capricorn season starts Winter off – a time of seriousness, storytelling, and tradition-keeping. Capricorn is concerned with legacy and keeping the things that work running smoothly.
Rather than representing a work ethic that plugs along no matter what, as we have come to know it today, Capricorn energy is meant to represent the practices that keep us warm throughout Winter – chopping wood, gathering water.
Tradition is important because it has kept our ancestors alive through Winter. It is also the time we gather at Yule to tell stories and feast with family by the fire, remembering times before when things weren’t so hard.
However, Winter brings with it the promise of Spring. Many of the male gods in world religions are ‘reborn’ in the dead of Winter.
Seeds can’t grow unless they go through a dormant phase, and as late Winter comes and the light begins to grow again, the Earth is slowly gathering its energy, with seeds beginning to sprout underground and the sap rising in the trees.
This is celebrated with Imbolc, the sabbath that celebrates that the cold, dark winter days are nearly over and that spring is just ahead of us.
Many hibernating animals give birth in the Winter, and spend the time slowly nurturing their young, cuddled sleepy and close and warm, dreaming of Spring.
This is the time to develop a strong will and personal drive – other Capricorn qualities – in order to make it through and manifest your desires in Spring.
Though Winter is a busy time for us now with jobs and holidays, it is good practice to leave plenty of time for rest and rejuvenation, so that we can receive Spring’s bounty and reset the Wheel of the Year with our full selves.
How to Use the Wheel of the Year
Despite the fact that our societies seem to have a disregard for the Wheel of the Year, it continues to turn whether we observe it, or not.
One of the best things we can do for ourselves, as witches or anyone wishing to return to a land-based spirituality practice, is to honor the Wheel of the Year as it turns and honor the natural cycles within us that are intrinsically tied to the Earth and her seasons.
As the Wheel of the Year turns, try to incorporate seasonally-appropriate activities into your daily practice. Open yourself to the new in Spring, balance work and play in Summer, collect and keep busy in Autumn while welcoming introspection, and rest and recharge in Winter.
When you begin to work with the Earth as she turns and you move through your own cycles of life, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much more in tune you feel, and continue to honor the Wheel of the Year throughout your own life cycle as it ebbs and flows.