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In Neopaganism, the Wheel of the Year is the natural cycle of the seasons, commemorated by the eight Sabbats.
Because one tenet of Neopaganism is that all of nature is cyclical, the passing of time is also seen as a cycle, a wheel which turns and turns. The course of birth, life, decline, and death that we see in our human lives is echoed in the seasons. The eight Sabbats are religious holidays that celebrate the passing of the year.
Each Sabbat also symbolizes a time in the life of the God, who is born from the Goddess, grows to full manhood, mates with her, and reigns as king during the summer. He then declines and dies, rising anew the next year.
The Sabbats, with the traditional dates of their celebrations, are:
- Midwinter/Yule, on the winter solstice
- Imbolc, on February 2 and the preceding eve
- Ostara, on the spring equinox
- Beltane/Beltaine/May Day on May 1 and the preceding eve
- Midsummer/Litha, on the summer solstice
- Lughnasadh, on August 1 and the preceding eve
- Mabon, on the autumn equinox
- Samhain, on the eve of October 31
Neopagans in the southern hemisphere usually celebrate the Sabbats on the opposite dates of the year (6 months apart from the northern dates), in order to follow the cycle of seasons where they live; i.e. an Australian Neopagan would celebrate Samhain on May 1, when a Canadian Neopagan would be celebrating Beltane.
There are similarities between many Christian holidays and the Sabbats that predated them in northern Europe. It was not at all uncommon for Christian missionaries and priests to adapt local Pagan practices for Christian use. For example, many pagans claim that Christmas is today celebrated on December 25 because that was once the date of the winter solstice and hence the date for the celebration of Saturnalia, a Mediterranean pagan festival that has been claimed to be connected to Yule. There are however alternative explanations for this date, including the belief in the ancient world that people would die on the same day of the year as their conception; since the date of Jesus's death was known to be approximately at the spring equinox, the date for celebrating his birth was set at the winter solstice. It is likely that the dates of festivals were set by the early church for a number of reasons, including but not exclusively the need to compete with existing pagan festivals. However it needs to be realised that these dates were set in the Mediterranean region, whereas the Sabbats that Neopaganism celebrates mostly originate in northern Europe.