High days and holy days are one of the most pleasurable aspects of religious and spiritual practices. Festivals can have a variety of purposes, from simple celebrations marking the change of the seasons, to days given over to devotional activities for a particular deity or spirit. As pagans, our religious calendars should reflect our personal devotions and the land we live on. However most pagans and witches follow a series of seasonal rites most commonly known as The Wheel of the Year, a group of eight festivals connected to the British rural calendar.
The origins of the Wheel probably come from Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner’s meetings at Spielplatz naturist club, where they formed the foundations for their interpretations of druidry and witchcraft. Drawing upon Irish and Northern European folklore, they devised an eightfold cycle, based around the dying and resurrecting sun, or sun god. The four festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain are mentioned in the Ulster Cycle, a collection of medieval Irish legends and heroic tales, with the Winter and Summer Solstices being important to the folk of Northern Europe. The Equinoxes seem to have been added to give the Wheel an even, ordered structure, with a festival being celebrated roughly every six weeks.
This is the calendar most pagans follow, regardless of their location, climate and personal devotions. For those living in an area that roughly corresponds with a British agricultural year it will work for them. However for pagans living in Texas, or Malaysia, or Australia, the Wheel won’t work with their landscape. Another consideration is that not all pagans are geared towards a land-based practice (Roman citizens who never stepped outside the city walls were pagans too), and trying to connect to a rural cycle may feel odd to them if they live surrounded by glass, steel and concrete. One way to address this is to craft our own sacred calendars.
When creating a sacred calendar we need to determine what we want to celebrate or honour during the year. The most common theme is seasonal changes, marking the transition of Summer to Winter, or from a dry season to a rainy season. The key is to be in tune with what is going on around us. For example if you live somewhere where it never snows, trying to perform a Winter Solstice ritual full of cold, frosty symbolism would be counter-intuitive. We need to look at the changes in our climate and landscape. Have your harvest rites when the harvest is taking place. When the spring blossoms begin to appear craft a ritual to honour that, and the spirits of the land. If you are a civic pagan and have no real connection to the rural seasons, celebrate events such as the arrival of outdoors theatre in the Summer, or the return to the academic year by honouring deities of learning and study.
As well as the seasons, we can add in various holy days to honour any deities or spirits that we worship. We can draw upon lore for inspiration, such as honouring female ancestral spirits during the Disablot, or create ceremonies as we’re inspired to do so. I follow a calendar of Hellenic holy days, mostly connected to Dionysos, Demeter, Persephone, Haides and Hekate. There are festivals in antiquity that I observe, such as the Lenaia, Anthesteria and Kalamaia, but have also devised new rites around Hallowe’en to honour Haides and Persephone as the Lords of the Dead. There’s no history of these deities being honoured at the end of October, but as the veil is thin at the time, it seemed the perfect time to create a festival honouring Them. If there’s nothing in lore to tell you when to honour a particular deity, look at Their profile for guidance, or do some divination and ask Them directly. Over time you can build up a series of holy days over the year.
As well as celebrating seasonal transitions, many pagans feel drawn to honouring the moon, or at least performing ritual during the new and/or full moon. In Greece the new moon was the end of the month and observed as a day sacred to the gods of the Underworld, especially Hekate. To mark this, the goddess was given a meal of bread, cheese, garlic, onions, eggs, cake and wine, left at a liminal location such as a crossroads, gateway or graveyard. While this isn’t a festival, the simple repetitive devotional act grows in power and meaning when repeated over the months and years. The monthly dates of the full moon can also be used to mark devotional work, either to a lunar deity or as a special day set aside for a deity you worship.
Births, marriages and deaths can also be incorporated into a sacred calendar. As I write this it’s the 23rd anniversary of my father’s death. I keep his image on my ancestor shrine, with some of his personal belongings, along with candles and offerings. Today I lit a special white candle and poured him a glass of whisky. Later I’ll offer tobacco and chocolates and pray that he and my other ancestors watch over our household and keep us well and safe. Again, this isn’t a large festival, but a small devotional act that has become fixed in my sacred calendar.