The Wheel of the Year

In the Intuitive Plant Medicine course I have just begun, they talk about the Wheel of the Year and about starting to pay attention to cycles and how you feel during them. There are a few cycles we could pay attention to—like moon cycles (every 28 days), months (12 of them), seasons (4 of them, at least if you live where I do in the Northeast). Interestingly, I remembered something similar in a magazine called Taproots I had subscribed to a few years ago and to which I recently re-subscribed. This magazine is not one you read and throw away. Or even read and pass along without wanting it back. Because it is a reference of interesting articles, recipes, and arts and crafts. It is beautiful, with featured artists and writers, and there are no advertisements, just beautiful content with every turn of the page. Anyhow, I didn’t pay as much attention to that article from years ago (Connecting to the Rhythms of the Natural World, Issue 43) when I was reading it, but here it came to the front of my mind as I contemplated the Wheel of the Year. [Note: Taproot Magazine is no longer being produced.]

I started looking up information online and in reference books about this Wheel. I want to learn this deeper, I truly do, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to learn it, I must experience it. So, I’ll give you a quick overview, and then maybe come back in the future with more information. After I’ve started paying attention to the Wheel’s celebrations and honoring those times in my own ways (which, in the beginning, may just be recognizing them as the year progresses).

The Wheel of the Year is a pagan calendar. It is used by modern pagans, but its origins were tied to life itself—survival. We live in a time when we are insulated from the harshness of living with the seasons, where you had to grow and harvest enough food to tide you over to a time when you could grow and gather food again. So those of us paying attention to the Wheel of the Year in modern times can celebrate the seasons, but I doubt I will ever know the Wheel of the Year the way my ancestors did. Unless civilization as we know it collapses, I suppose. But, I digress.

I’m pretty sure my ancestors did know the Wheel of the Year, because it was used by the Celtic people. They celebrated 8 Sabbats (or Holidays). Four greater ones that fall on the Equinoxes and Solstices, all tied to the Sun (and called Fire Festivals). And four lesser ones (called Cross-Quarter Festivals) that fall at the midway points between the greater Sabbats. And, as I go through them, you will recognize just how much this wheel and its celebrations have been brought into our modern lives and religions.

Note: the Wheel of the Year south of the equator is a little different because of their seasons being flipped from ours. But at this point, my mind is only trying to wrap itself around the Wheel of my ancestors who are all people of the north—English, Scottish, Norse, and Polish.

Samhain

October 31 eve – November 1

Samhain, pronounced sah-win, is considered the beginning of the Celtic year. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe this is one of the things I’ll learn as I go along. It falls midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The veil between this world and the otherworld is believed to be thin during this time, allowing you to connect with the dead. Which makes it not surprising that it falls on modern-day Halloween and the Day of the Dead (which runs from Nov 1-2). In agricultural terms, Samhain marks the end of harvest time and entrance into the darkest time of the year. My preferred way to celebrate Halloween (and now, Samhain) is to decorate with pumpkins and autumn leaves rather than ghosts and goblins. But I have a friend who loves Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), where families create altars to honor their ancestors, and I think I would like to add this remembrance into my observance of this holiday.

Winter Solstice (Yule)

Typically December 21st, but Yule is celebrated for 12 days

Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year, which is typically December 21st but, depending on the year, can fall between December 20th and 23rd. Yule, on the other hand, is a 12-day long celebration. In Celtic times, a Yule log was burned for 12 days. And it wasn’t just a little log. It was a big tree trunk that was moved into the fire in the hearth little by little. (I can’t remember where I heard that, probably on a podcast, but I just found this article that verifies that I did, indeed, remember that correctly.) Yule is also a time when greenery is brought inside for decorations. And Yule must be where the 12 days of Christmas I’ve always heard of but never quite understood beside the fact that it was sung about, came from. A lot of Christian holidays were created to replace the Pagan ones, and were celebrated in similar ways to convert people to the new interpretation of the holiday. I’m kind of on board to adding in some of the traditions of the original holidays to celebrate the way my ancestors did. I think I’ll start with this on my table.

Imbolc

Jan 21 – Feb 1

I know very little about this Sabbat, except that it occurs midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is a time of year when people begin to anticipate the return of spring, with life beginning to stir in hidden places but not yet seen above ground. In my own life, I am still enjoying the slower days of winter at this time, where knitting, studying, and time inside by a nice fire are highlights of the season for me.

Spring Equinox (Ostara)

March 20-23

The word Easter is derived from Oestre or Eastre, who is a goddess of spring (as in springing up from the ground, I believe), as is the word Ostara. The Spring Equinox is also called the Vernal Equinox, and occurs when the sun is directly above the equator, passing from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern one, and day and night are of equal length. Ostara is a time to celebrate the resurrection of life after death, as life begins to emerge from the ground. You can see how Easter came to fall on this day. For me, when I think of this time of year, I think of the smell of the earth returning as it thaws.

Beltane

April 30 – May 1

Midway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice lies Beltane. You may have noticed that it falls on what we now call May Day. And, yes, the Maypole was part of the celebration of this holiday—a time of fertility. It also was a time to plant seeds and light a communion fire, from which all hearths would be re-lit. I love the sense of community in these old-time celebrations. We have a little neighbor who (anonymously) drops off a May basket at our house each year. I adore that ritual which brings us together, even though I only let her mom know how much I liked the flowers, so she doesn’t think she was caught leaving the basket (she never was, I just figured out it was her by asking her mom). We are brought together in spirit by her thoughtfulness and my appreciation.

Summer Solstice (Litha)

June 20-22

As I write this, we are approaching the Summer Solstice. So, this may be the time I begin developing my own observances of this Sabbat—although I won’t be staying up all night to welcome the sunrise, one of the typical celebrations. I just don’t have that in this older version of me. The Summer Solstice celebrates the longest day of the year. I love that it brings so much light into our lives. It is a high-energy, active time of year. I think I’ll start celebrating this day by creating a bouquet of all the flowers blooming around me in my yard and gardens.

Lammas / Lughnasadh

July 31 – Aug 1

I’ve more often heard this Sabbat called Lughnasadh (which is pronounced loo-na-sah) than Lammas. It marks the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. It is also the beginning of harvest season, a time of gathering and feasting. Our modern-day Thanksgiving is derived from this holiday, even though it happens at a different time of year. I can only imagine how wonderful it must have felt taking in the abundance of food, knowing that you had food to preserve to to sustain your life through the dark winter season. I’m not sure what I’ll do to celebrate this season, but I have started growing more storage crops like winter squashes, so I think that honors the spirit of this day nicely. As an interesting aside, Fruitlands (now a museum) in Harvard, MA, was an experiment of living off the land. However, they were farming without animals, even animal labor, only part of the land was arable, and they arrived on the land a month after planting should have begun. Fruitlands was ultimately a failed experiment (truthfully, I think it was because of the limitations of its founders, who were big on thinking, not as much on doing). Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of writer Louisa May Alcott, was one of the founders, who really didn’t seem that able of a man, from what I’ve read. But, after visiting Fruitlands and knowing this story, it makes me appreciate how much these celebrations (which also included worship of the gods of the land) meant to the people. Failure for them, meant death.

Autumnal Equinox (Mabon)

September 20-23

And now, the sun crosses the equator back into the southern hemisphere. We are in the midst of harvest season, and ancient people would have known whether or not they were going to have enough food to last them through the winter. We take our food for granted, it comes to us so easily. As I ponder that, I feel like this Sabbat would be a good time to celebrate local, seasonal food.


Okay that’s it for this version of the Wheel of the Year. There are Gods and Goddesses tied to the Wheel of the Year that, again, is beyond my scope of knowledge and thus, this article. But I hope that you found this informative. If you want to dive a little deeper, I found this article the most interesting of all the online ones I came across, and I’ll be using it to consider some ways to honor the earth during these holidays.

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