Fixing the Sabbat Confusion

This past Sunday morning I woke up, a little blurry eyed, but ready to hopefully spend the day split between some much needed shopping (I finally got a video camera, so be ready for some video posts soon) and going to the beach with my hubby. Not to mention Sunday mornings happen to be when the new episodes of Hearts Of Space post to their website and I like to listen to the weekly show while I check email and get ready for the day. So I sat down, signed into HOS and started the program, and then moved on to the somewhat daunting task of getting caught up on emails for all my accounts, balance the bank accounts for the week, and get caught up on board posts at Sacred Mists. But as I log into Twitter and Facebook I start seeing a rash of “HAPPY MABON” posts and people franticly running around trying to plan a ritual for later in the day. So I had to do a double-take and make sure I wasn’t going loony. So I ask myself, “Mabon IS on the 22nd this year, right?” I check my calenders and sure enough the first day of autumn is listed as September 22nd. So what’s going on?

It’s not hard to realize where some of the confusion comes from if you’ve read any books on Wicca these days, especially ones that don’t have a focus on Sabbats and may just mention them in passing or as an obligation. Often a Sabbat like Mabon will be listed as occurring “sometime around September 20th” or “between September 20th and 22nd”. There is often little explanation as to why the date changes or how to know what the correct date of the Sabbat is. Now, I know some will argue that there are variables to celebrating a Sabbat ritual and that there is the “rule of three” out there that as long as you’re a day within the actual Sabbat in either direction you’re OK. I understand, having helped run public circles before, that when you’re doing public ritual you are often at the mercy of timing and schedules. But when we’re talking about personal ritual and personal acknowledgment of a Sabbat, not recognizing it on the correct date is, in my personal opinion, lazy practice.

So let’s talk about the Sabbats in the Wiccan context. Just as a quick mention before we get too far, it’s important to also acknowledge that dates are going to vary based on the hemisphere you are in. For example when I’m celebrating Yule here in the Northern Hemisphere in California, someone who is living in Australia in the Southern Hemisphere will be celebrating Litha. Both will be happening on the same date, however while the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing Winter Solstice the Southern Hemisphere will be experiencing the Summer Solstice. Why will be explained a bit as we go.

There are eight Sabbats, as most are aware; Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, and Mabon. The year is broken down into the Greater Sabbats and the Lesser Sabbats. The Sabbats are also broken down into the Quarter and Cross Quarter Days.

The Greater Sabbats
The follow Sabbats are The Greater Sabbats as well as Cross Quarter Days.

  • Samhain
  • Imbolc
  • Beltane
  • Lughnasadh

The Lesser Sabbats
The following Sabbats are The Lesser Sabbats as well as the Quarter Days.

  • Yule
  • Ostara
  • Litha
  • Mabon

The Greater Sabbats, which in addition are also sometimes called The Fire Festivals, are the celebrations that were honored in agricultural communities in Europe. They are all connected to the planting and harvesting cycles of the earth and, then as well as now, they are connected to the rhythms of the earth and are part of that connection to the land. The Lesser Sabbats focus more around the age and movement of the sun and it’s orbit. Because of this these Lesser Sabbats do not have set dates since they fluctuate based on the actual astronomical events going on. The Greater Sabbats, being agricultural, have set dates that remain the same year after year. This also helps to explain where the idea of Quarter and Cross Quarter Days come from. The astronomical events of the solstices and equinoxes that make up the Lesser Sabbats make the seasonal transitions, or quarters, of the year. The Cross Quarter Days mark celebrations that fall between the Quarter days. For example Samhain, as a Cross Quarter Day falls in-between the Quarter Days of Mabon and Yule.

The Greater Sabbats, in the Northern Hemisphere, have the following fixed dates:

  • Samhain – Oct 31
  • Imbolc – Feb 2
  • Beltane Eve/Beltane – April 30/May 1
  • Lughnasadh – August 1

The Lesser Sabbats, in the Northern Hemisphere, fall on the dates of the actual solstice or equinox. The dates change based on when the actual astronomical event takes place. The solstice happens twice a year when the axis of the earth is either tilted closer to the sun (which happens at the summer solstice) or tiled as far from the sun as it can go (which takes place during the winter solstice). You can remember this a bit by recognizing the word “sol” in “solstice” which means “sun”. When the equinox happens it’s a time of perfect balance for the earth. This happens twice a year when the earth is completely vertical, neither closer or farther from the Sun. We recognize these days at the spring equinox and the autumn equinox. These are the two dates where we acknowledge that the amount of hours of light and dark and exactly equal. You can keep this in mind by remembering that one of the root words for “equinox” is “aequus” which is Latin for “equal”, and that’s what we get on these two days, equal light and dark. So because of these astronomical events, the dates of these events change each year.

Solstice and Equinox Dates for 2009 and 2010

  • Spring Equinox 2009 – March 20
  • Summer Solstice 2009 – June 21
  • Autumn Equinox 2009 – Sept 22
  • Winter Solstice 2009 – Dec 21
  • Spring Equinox 2010 – March 20
  • Summer Solstice 2010 – June 21
  • Autumn Equinox 2010 – Sept 23
  • Winter Solstice 2010 – Dec 21

You’ll notice that all but the autumn equiox will change in the next few years. Between now and 2017 the spring equinox will remain on March 20. The summer solstice will fluctuate between the June 20 and 21 over the next 8 years and the autumn equinox will also fluctuate between September 22 and 23 (never taking place on the 20th) between now and 2017. The winter solstice will take place only twice on December 22 over the next 8 years; every other time through 2017 it will be on December 21. Ah, the movement of the earth.

The best way to keep track every year is to purchase either one of the always wonderful Llewellyn Witches’ Date Book or Wall Calendar, the Llewellyn Magickal Almanac, the 7th House Publishing Seasons of the Witch Date Book or Calendar, or even a good ol’ Farmer’s Almanac. You’d be surprised how much Pagan information you’ll find in the Farmer’s Almanac (it’s really not that surprising, but it seems to surprise many). Either way, have a calendar or date book that shows the seasonal changes and the moon phases and you’ll never miss a Sabbat or Esbat again. And you’ll get them on the right date.

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