In some ways witchcraft can be seen as a nature based religion. The God is symbolised by the Sun, the Goddess by the Moon - and we celebrate their interplay in nature.
The Craft has eight great festivals or Sabbats, each of which reflect the turning of the seasonal cycle of the God and Goddess.
- We start with Yule, where the God as Sun is reborn from the womb of the Great Mother. This is at Winter Solstice, (December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere) when the sun reaches its furthermost retreat to the South, and the light is but a spark in the darkness. This change is also marked in some traditions as the Holly king becomes the Oak king.
- Next comes Imbolg, February 2nd. This is a celebration of the Goddess as threefold: Maid, Mother and Crone. Lambing season is with us, and the first spring flowers appear. Mythologically we celebrate the moment where Diana restores her virginity each year in a ritual bath; practically, we celebrate the slow returning of life to the earth after the barren darkness of winter with the delicate Snowdrop and first spring flowers.
- The third Sabbat is Spring Equinox, March 21st, the turning of the eight spoked wheel, marking the equal point between the lengthening day and shortening night. The first spring plantings take place and the next year's crop is prepared. This is also a time we celebrate the God Pan and the stirring of the reproductive powers of nature.
- The Sexual drive reaches its peak in the Sabbat of Beltane, May day, which is still celebrated with the Phallic May pole and Morris dancing, Stag dances and Hobby horses of many Folk festivals throughout the UK. Beltane is also a time when the Goddess is celebrated as Queen, and the God as King. Their union in the Greenwood is still celebrated in like manner by many covens.
- Midsummer comes at the Summer Solstice, June 21st. The Sun is crowned King and is at the height of his power. He becomes regent to the Great Mother, who now carries within her the Sun king's son and other self, who will be born at the next Yule. It is also the point the Oak king becomes the Holly king; the Sun begins its decent.
- July 31st is Lammas, the point where the God takes on the first aspects of sacrifice. As John Barleycorn he sacrifices his life so his people may survive the rigours of the winter. Lammas celebrates the first loaf of the harvest, and the return of the God to the dark aspect of the Mother. In reality this is his second encounter with sacrifice: the sexual union of Beltane contains within it the sacrifice of the God's seed to the Great Mother, a reflection of the greater sacrifice he now makes.
- September 21st marks the Autumn Equinox, both a celebration of the second balance point in the year, and a continuation of the celebration of Harvest. We prepare for the coming dark months as we follow the God on his journey towards his second kingship as Lord of Death. This Sabbat is also marked by an act of contemplation that reminds us that death is within life and life in death ("behold the mystery").
- The final Sabbat (if a wheel can be said to have a beginning and end!) is Samhein, October 31st. The God has completed his journey to the underworld, where he has been crowned king. But as Lord of Death he isn't something we fear: he is described as "the comforter", and his realm gives us "peace, rest and reunion with those that have gone before". Witches believe in reincarnation. Death is seen as the other half of life; not something to fear nor something to aspire to, but an aspect of the great cycle to be understood. In the dark and quiet of Samhein, we await the dawning of the shortest day and Solstice, and the next great sweep of the wheel of the seasons.
These 8 great Sabbats celebrate the turning of the year, and each stage is seen as reflecting the interplay of the greater forces of nature. But they are also celebrated as reflections of the internal drama: the labyrinthine journey of the God from Greenwood innocence through sacrifice to self knowledge is a journey we all try to make in understanding our Selves. At each point the Gods are seen in many faces: maid and mother, son and king, Lord of Death and Crone. No phase of life is seen as negative or worth less than the others. All stages in any process are necessary, and all are of equal worth.
It must be said that all of this sounds very dry and boring! But our Goddess also says "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals", so "dance, sing, feast, make music and love all in my praise, for mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and mine also is joy upon the earth." Our festivals embody this "Joi d'vivre", and our rituals are always embued with a sense of referent mirth and accompanied by feasting and amour!