The procession of holidays Pagans/polytheists refer to as the Wheel of the Year was originally based on the agricultural cycles experienced by various Indo-European peoples. Each of those groups had their own Wheel, based on the crops and/or herds relied upon in their different environments.
That was great for isolated villages and tribes, but eventually we needed something more uniform to meet the needs of the modern Pagan/polytheist community.
To get that, we melded traditional Celtic and Germanic calendars to get the Wheel most commonly used today. Instead of tying it to a specific crop or herd, though, it’s tied to the Gregorian calendar we’re all familiar with. For instance, we celebrate Candlemas/Imbolc on February 2 regardless of whether or not ewes are actually lactating yet.
And that’s ok. The important part is that we honor the same cycles our ancestors did, not that we do it at the same time, or even in the same way.
But surely we can at least agree on a common place to start, right? Right?
The New Year and the Fallow Time
All calendars require a start date, and the Wheel of the Year is no exception. Thing is, we don’t know when the original proto-Indo-Europeans scheduled that. And while the various cultures descending from them mostly recorded dates for the beginning of the year, they were all different from each other!
The Roman new year was originally celebrated in the spring before later being moved to Jan 1. The Zoroastrians and Slavs celebrated it in the spring, too. The Baltic people pinned it specifically to the spring equinox, although they also honored their dead (a common new year’s thing) here and at winter solstice, implying that there might have been some shifting of the date way back whenever.
That sounds pretty cohesive until we realize that, based on linguistics, the Vedic new year was in the autumn. The Celtic new year is there too.
Germanic people went with the winter solstice as the new year, which is close to the eventual Roman January date, but the Greeks blew everyone else off and put their new year in the summer.
It’s all across the map, is what I’m saying.
Back in the day, when my Lady was helping me figure out what the hell I was doing, I inserted a new holiday I called “Origination” into my personal Wheel of the Year (which can still be seen on this post). It took place over a span of nine days prior to the Winter Solstice (symbolizing the nine months of a human pregnancy) and was essentially a time out of time, a cosmic reset button. The energy of the previous year was gone, not to appear until the Winter Solstice.
And you know what? There’s a precedent for that! Mine was just absurdly short.
One of the aspects of these ancient calendars that’s hardest for us modern folks to grasp is that there were periods of time every year not on the calendar. The end of one year and the beginning of the next didn’t happen at the same time. There was a gap.
It even makes sense to do that, if you think like an agricultural people whose lives revolved around agricultural cycles. For them, the entire purpose of a calendar was to track and plan for agricultural processes, like when to plant and when to harvest. Between the last harvest and the next planting they had to stretch their supplies and not freeze to death, but that’s hardly something they needed to schedule. Agriculturally it was a dead time. So they didn’t bother covering it with a calendar.
And really, the exact span of that gap wasn’t something they even could schedule. Fall might linger for longer than usual, delaying that first snow and giving them more time to prepare. Even more critically, planting isn’t possible until the ground thaws. That might happen in a different month from year to year, never mind the same day.
The original Roman calendar ended in December and didn’t start again until March. We know that for certain. I started wondering why those dates, in particular, were important and did some digging. Interestingly enough, Rome’s first frost usually occurs at the beginning of December, and gardeners are assured of frost-free planting conditions by March 15. Coincidence? I think not.
With that in mind I turned my attention to the Celts, to see if they had a similar pattern going on. They don’t have a gap in their calendar I’ve been able to find (which doesn’t mean much since they didn’t write stuff down like the Romans did). However, we know that traditionally they celebrated their new year on October 31. Out of curiosity I checked their planting schedules. Sure enough, Dublin’s first frost happens at the end of October, neatly coinciding with Samhain. After doing some digging I found that Ireland’s native trees (like blackthorn) start greening in mid-February, which is really close to Candlemas, and things are really going by Ostara/end of March.
I’d be willing to bet that the ancient Celtic calendar originally had a gap like the Romans did, between the first frost and the first spring sprouts, between Samhain and say Feb 2. It just wasn’t recorded anywhere because the Celts didn’t really write things down. I’d say it’s even more likely for them because of their focus on the significance of the betweens.
Keeping that in mind, it follows that when they did finally get around to recording this kind of thing and decided to cover the gap (as all the calendars eventually did), they decided to start their new year where the last one ended instead of ending their year where the next one started. That scheduling perfectly follows how they figured their days. The Celts were known for starting things at their ending – for instance, a day began at the previous day’s sunset.
In ancient Rome, the time between harvest and planting was full of festivals honoring the dead and purifying everything for another year. Saturnalia – the Festival of Misrule – occurred during this time too, which is only fitting: the order imposed by the agricultural calendar was gone, and everything went topsy-turvy in the resulting chaos. The Celts and the Norse both believed the same time period allowed greater contact with the Dead, from honoring the Ancestors at Samhain to the Wild Hunt sweeping over the Norse in mid-winter. The gap was a “time out of time”, its very own “betwixt and between” – of course supernatural everything was heightened then.
In honor of this tradition my Wheel of the Year also has a gap, one I call “the Fallow Time”. Using the Roman model and what I’ve extrapolated from the Celts as a guide, the Fallow Time begins when the last leaf falls/at the first frost (pick your poison) and ends with the first thaw/first spring growth. And yes, when that actually happens changes depending on wherever we happen to be at the time. (If you like this idea but live somewhere with super long winters, consider starting your gap the day after Samhain and ending it the day before Candlemas to keep pace with the rest of the Wheel.)
Flexing the start and stop dates of the Fallow Time in a location-dependent way allows us to honor the specific days of the most common Pagan/polytheistic calendar while also honoring the calendars used by our distant ancestors, their dependence on their local environments, and the lives they led that resulted in that gap.
The Energetic Cycle of the Wheel
In modern Pagan/polytheistic practice, celebrations tend to lean towards either literal or symbolic interpretations of the Wheel. Some folks trek out to farms, planting seeds by moonlight and harvesting grains in sunlight. Others enjoy theatrical productions of emerging goddesses and battling kings. My Wheel considers all of these approaches to be metaphors – albeit important and useful ones – and focuses instead on the transition of energy from potential to manifestation and back again.
From the above graphic we can see that Yule is the absolute bottom of the energy cycle, with Midsummer the peak. From the pure potential of Yule energy swells clockwise to cover first the mental/spiritual realm, then the emotional, and then the physical. Since the energy is rising during these stages, the focus is expansive too. Exploring, learning, growth, and development are emphasized.
At Midsummer, as the energy in the world reaches its peak, we enter a time of maximum manifestation. It’s also the “hinge” of the year, because after every peak there’s a corresponding fall.
As the energy level ebbs it moves through the physical, then the emotional, and then the mental/spiritual realms in a reflection of the expansion part of the year. However, as the energy is reflective the perspective we bring to these realms is more reflective, too – appreciating, thanking, and honoring.
Eventually, the energy transitions from manifestation back to potential again and we enter the Fallow Time, a kind of stasis as we wait for the planting cycle to begin anew.
So let’s walk the Wheel, shall we?
The High Days/Sabbats
The New Year: We leave the Fallow Time when the risk of frost is over and the first green shoots of spring appear. The specific date changes depending on your area, so pay attention! This is the official start of the year and is a great time to make personal/household offerings in thanks (this doesn’t feel like a big community-type ritual day for me). For those utilizing them, this is a fab day to light a flame symbolizing that the year has once more begun, as promised by the Winter Solstice (more on that below). If you’re in an area with a long winter, this can be privately celebrated the day before Candlemas to help maintain the progression of the other days.
Candlemas: Finally! It’s officially spring! Time to party, baby! It’s still early spring, mind you, but we’ll take it. The early Celts, from whom we get this specific holiday, celebrated it as the day ewes began to lactate in preparation of spring births. Romans honored it as a shepherd’s holiday, too. This is also when particularly hardy plants can be planted, ones that won’t be adversely affected by potentially late frosts. Since it’s not tied to any specific celestial occurrence it’s entirely likely this holiday was celebrated on different dates by different communities, depending on when the milk actually began flowing.
The energy of the year is beginning to manifest, but it’s only affecting the mental/spiritual levels of life. It’s perfect for initiations, starting the path to learning new skills or knowledge, branching off into a different type of practice, etc. I find it to be a wonderful time to reset my altar, dedicate new altar tools, and welcome new-to-me deities to my practice. It’s also a great time to perform divination about the coming year – a bit similar to Groundhog Day, actually!
Ostara: The second of the planting festivals, Ostara occurs at the vernal/spring equinox and comes to us from the Germanic calendar. In Norse tradition, the holiday is related to the goddess Eostre and is all about fertility. Meanwhile, the Liberalia was celebrated in Rome, also honoring a deity associated with fertility (Liber Pater, similar to Bacchus) as young boys officially became men. Agriculturally, early plantings are already sprouting and the next round of plantings can begin. This is crucially around the time wheat can be planted, which I assume holds true for most of the cereal grains. Also of note here is that chickens are seasonal layers, and often stop laying in darker and colder months. By this time of year they’re back up to speed. Animals are also fully engaged in birthing, from the farms to the forests. The connections between this holiday, eggs, and rabbits makes a lot more sense once we know what was happening in the world at the time!
The swelling energy of the year is still manifesting, and while we’re definitely seeing its effects there’s still a ways to go. For me, Ostara is all about caring for and honoring the home sphere and the people in it. This is the day I sterilize-clean my house, air out my home (yay for it finally being warm enough!), clean and put away all of winter’s thicker duvets and rugs, scrub down the hearth, etc. This even fits in with the tradition of spring cleaning! It’s also the perfect time of year to get back to cutting the lawn or tending our flower beds.
For those oriented more towards attack than defense, this would be an excellent time to begin training in a martial art or with a new weapon, as an extension of the “protecting the home” aspect of things. (I keep planning on doing that, but eh. Maybe this year.) I find that this day is excellent for loyalty oaths between friends that become family, too. Also in that vein, establishing/refining Ancestral devotional practices and welcoming others to my line seems particularly appropriate, as does establishing/refreshing an Ancestor altar.
Beltane: With Beltane we’ve swung back to the Celtic calendar. The Irish considered this day the first of summer. It also coincides with the Roman festival honoring Flora, the goddess of flowers, and Norse people celebrated Walpurgis Night around here too. This is the final planting festival for particularly short-growing or delicate crops, and everything is green and lushly growing. Traditionally the day is associated with sex, too, and I’ve long thought this had something to do with hoping women get pregnant around this time so that the final stages of pregnancy would occur while women would be severely limited activity-wise anyway.
The world’s energy level is still rising, and it can be felt everywhere. For this holiday I like doing all the things that make being “physical” wonderful. Sex is fine, of course, but I also find that massage, dance, good workouts, amazing food and drink, and enjoyable textures are perfectly fitting here too. I also find this a good day to begin a new exercise regimen or start a diet, as both are body-centered.
As Ostara covered the home and family, here the focus shifts to the wider community. I find Beltane a great time to stretch beyond my comfort zones and interact with new people and new groups – just think about all the summery mixers and parties that occur at this time! This is also the perfect day to focus on land spirits. It’s a great time to make a pilgrimage to the source of your local water, for instance, and if possible spend the night outside next to it. If you can’t make it to your local water source, or can’t camp there, find somewhere wild instead. Make offerings and libations in praise of the spirits that nurture and maintain the Land in exchange for their blessings. I also like setting out hummingbird feeders around this time for the same reason.
Midsummer: Midsummer is another Germanic holiday and occurs at the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. This was a wonderful time for our agricultural ancestors, because it was a welcome lull between the rapid-fire planting season and the labor-intensive harvest. This was a fab time for travel, celebrations, faires, community get-togethers, and trade. The Romans celebrated the Vestalia around this time, which honored both the individual hearth fire and the burning fire of Rome itself, connecting the microcosm and the macrocosm on a day of peak energy.
At Midsummer we reach the apex of the year, peak manifestation. We are all connected to each other, across all levels and realms, and this is absolutely a day for major celebrations that works with that. I like to spend the day focused on the kind of world I want to live in. Instead of a ritual I like to do a big picnic, barbeque, or other type of gathering. It’s the exact opposite of Yule – get out, make merry, take a vacation, travel, have a grand feast, sunbathe in the park, etc.
I encourage everyone to pick a pet cause or charity that will help others and volunteer time (as well as donate money if possible) for it. In addition, this is when I purge my excess stuff and donate it to those in need. Mundanely, this is the time of year that most charitable organizations start having real problems meeting needs, since people tend to do most of their volunteering and contributing near the end of the year. I also like to remember, during this time of cookouts and summer vacations, that not everyone is so fortunate, and that the suffering of anyone directly influences my life. We’re all in this together.
Lammas: And we’re back to the Celts for our first harvest festival! Our ancestors depended on cereal grains – barley, wheat, spelt, millet, etc – to feed both themselves and their herds. Lammas is the day celebrating the harvest of those all-important grains. Baking bread and offering the fruits of the fields is such a traditional part of celebrating this critical time of year that Christians adopted the name of the day (Lammas – loaf-mass) for their own celebrations. The Romans celebrated the Neptunalia around this time, too, an archaic holiday honoring the seas and connected with a bull sacrifice that might have an older PIE origin.
The year’s ebbing energy is felt as it recedes back towards potential again. Lammas mirrors Beltane, focusing on the same areas of life, except instead of looking out we’re looking in. Lammas is all about embracing and honoring the physical that we already have. Another awesome thing to do here is put out a bird feeder, nuts for squirrels, or other things as an offering of thanks to the local land spirits. We began new relationships at Beltane – this is the time to value, honor, and nurture the relationships already established. Personally, I like to treat my local land spirits to something special here, like imported wines and cheeses, and share a lovely picnic with them. This is also a great time to throw neighborhood or community parties, as acknowledgment and thanks.
Mabon: For the autumnal/fall equinox we return to the Germanic calendar and the second of our harvest festivals! As Lammas celebrated the harvest of grains, Mabon celebrates the harvest of fruits. Over a long winter with limited sunshine, the vitamins in fruits became vitally important to our ancestor’s health and well-being. Mabon’s also often called the Pagan Thanksgiving – we’re far enough into the harvest season that we can afford to throw one more big party before having to conserve our supplies for the coming winter. The Romans celebrated the Ludi Romani around this time, the chief Roman games honoring Jupiter as the head of the Gods.
Again, as the energy continues to recede this holiday is a reflection of Ostara, and it too is a holiday of hearth and home. I like to share a big feast with those who are nearest and dearest to me, visit if possible, hang out, and give small tokens of appreciation. Having final visits with distant folks is great here, too – soon winter will be upon us and travel will be severely curtailed. This is a great time to check the gutter and roof before winter, change out the summer wardrobe for the winter wardrobe, pick up any necessary winter supplies, pull out the thicker comforters, and spend some time with budgets. It’s also a good time to check over whatever you’ve stored food-wise for the upcoming winter and hit any remaining farmer’s markets to fill in holes.
Samhain: The traditional end of the Celtic year, Samhain is also the last of the three harvest festivals. This is the “harvest of blood” – the slaughter of both game and farm animals to feed the people. Animals are as fattened up and big as they’re going to get before winter, so now it’s time to either kill them or commit to feeding them over the winter. Romans celebrated the October Horse festival on October 15, which honored the end of both the agricultural year and the military campaigning season. (It’s interestingly also the only Roman sacrifice of a horse out of the entire calendar.) Celts are said to have honored their Dead on Samhain (although I do wonder if they, like the Romans, originally spread these honorings out over their Fallow Time and ended up piling them all together when they covered the calendar gap), and the Norse honored their Ancestors around this time, too.
Energetically Samhain is the holiday of the year’s receding energy and mirrors Candlemas. Like Candlemas, it’s a more spiritual/mental holiday. As we’ve already seen this is a day to honor the Ancestors. Divination is traditional here too, but in solidarity with the reflective nature of the energy at this time of year the best divination is that which looks within and back instead of without and ahead. It’s also a fantastic day to prepare our altars for the coming winter and honor the elders in our various traditions, or the mentors on our spiritual path. More practically, this is our final chance to make winter preparations.
Year’s End/Entering the Fallow Time: Samhain is the last official holiday of the year, but not the last day of it. That is the day the trees in our area have shed the last of their leaves and we have our first frost. This is the time to make personal/household offerings and libations in praise of another year gone and in hopes that your preparations for the coming winter were sufficient. If using one, this is the time to extinguish the flame lit at the New Year, to show another year has gone and the energy of the agricultural year has gone with it.
Yule: Yule is the only High Day that happens during the Fallow Time, and is the mirror image of Midsummer. All of the heat and abundance of summer has fled, and we’re in the depths of a chilly season that deprives us of, if nothing else, the freedom to lounge in the sun. For our agriculturally-based ancestors this was a time of both rest and worry. They stayed home, safe and warm. They told stories, and made things, and slept. They watched the days get shorter and shorter while the nights got ever-longer. It was cold, and it was dangerous to go too far from home. Exposure was a real concern, as were hungry animals. The land was barren. Food was scarce, and our ancestors saw their stores depleting with every meal they cooked. There was always the niggling question of “did we store enough to make it?”. Once-flowing waters were frozen and the winds were cutting. It was a scary time.
The dawn of the Winter Solstice doesn’t substantially change any of that. What it does do, however, is offer hope. It reassures us that it won’t always be like this, that once again the air will warm and waters will flow and the ground will produce bounty. It promises light and heat and life at a time when the whole world seems dark and cold and dead. The Solstice is a gift. It’s no surprise that so many different cultures give gifts at this time of year to reflect that, and use lights and candles to honor it!
I like to hold an overnight vigil on the Longest Night and use the time to explore the dark unknown. What areas of my life are legitimate weak points I need to work on, and how do I do that? What “weaknesses” are self-imposed, and why? What are my legitimate strengths, and do I use them effectively? What vulnerabilities do I try to cover with arrogance and bravado? What can I find hidden in my inner darkness, and how can I make that a tool instead of a stumbling block? It is a ruthless exercise of self-examination, and even when spent with others the night is quiet and reflective.
I enjoy watching the sun rise on the morning of the Solstice, using the time to relax a bit and exist in the moment. I then make offerings and libations to both thank the Powers/Kindreds for helping us survive this far into the Fallow season and to encourage the coming year to get here already!
In the Roman calendar the Fallow Time was full of purification rituals, each with specific focus areas. While we don’t need to follow all of that, I think including purification into this time of year simply makes sense – particularly something small/private at Year’s End for ourselves and our homes, at the Winter Solstice for the larger community, and another small/private affair at Year’s Beginning to prepare ourselves and our homes for the coming spring.
And so the Wheel goes round and round, until the first shoots of spring appear and the next year begins!
Note: This post was last overhauled on 8/25/2017.