Historically a "sabbat"
was a midnight assembly of witches at which they renewed their vows to
Satan, and we've unfortunately adopted it through the myth of the Old
Religion, which was the theoretical target of the historical witch
hunts. (see Murray's Unlikely Theory) It comes
from the same root word as "sabbath", which is a biblical period
of rest, specifically among Jews,1 and I suspect this term
became connected with witches the same way that witch gatherings were
sometimes described as synagogues. (That is to say, witches were frequently
the only thing less popular in a medieval community than Jews.)
The Wheel is not historical. The Sabbats take their names and some of their purposes from a variety of pagan holidays from a variety of cultures - the major Sabbats are more Celtic-based, while the minor Sabbats are more Germanic-based (Anglo / Saxon / Norse). This may explain some of the duplication of significances between adjoining major and minor Sabbats. As the sources are varied and independent, the neatly defined life cycle of God and Goddess throughout the year is a strictly Wiccan concept.
The Wheel is split into two halves for summer and winter, with the divisions occurring at Samhain and Beltaine. The two halves are ruled by a Light God and a Dark God, or the Goddess and God. Generally it is the God who rules winter, which is the period where historical people were more dependent upon hunting for survival, while the Goddess rules summer, which is the time of agriculture. I have seen this assignment reversed, however, as the God in young in winter while being older, wiser, and more mature in summer. I shall keep to the arrangement of God in winter and Goddess in summer.
Some traditions speak
of the Holly and Oak Kings as the two rulers, with the split occurring
at Yule and Litha. These two figures have no other real place in Wiccan
mythology, so their addition when discussing the seasonal year seems to
me to overly complicate things. So far as I can tell, they are in no way
historical, but were suggested by Sir James Frazer, who influenced people
like Margaret Murray and Robert Graves, the
latter of which seems to have fleshed the two kings out.2 For these reasons
I avoid them altogether.
Those unfamiliar with Wicca will almost certainly notice the similarity between Wiccan and Christian holidays. This is because both religions were heavily influenced by the same pagan sources.
Our days start at sundown on the previous day. Therefore, "November 1" is actually the night of October 31 through the day of November 1. Also, the dates given here are only applicable in the northern hemisphere. For the southern hemisphere, Sabbats are generally celebrated 6 months off from the traditional dates.
en) - Major Sabbat
How is it we start the year with a festival revolving around death? Death is necessary for rebirth, and the two frequently happen simultaneously. In many pagan cultures, the new year was celebrated with chaotic festivities bringing on a symbolic end of the world. The Roman Saturnalia is one example.
The Goddess enters her Dark phase as she mourns her son and consort, and the Dark God takes up the rulership of Winter, leading the Wild Hunt of the Fey upon the earth.
was an Irish holiday specifically dedicated to Brigid or Bride, goddess
of creativity, smithing, and healing.
In former days, Eostara was a time of sowing and planting. Today, Eostara is a time for putting plans into motion, sowing the seeds of ideas that may not reach fruition for many months.
The name Eostara is a misnomer. It's named for the goddess Eostre, but her festival wasn't associated with the equinox. In fact, there may never have been a festival called Eostara at all.
The union of Goddess
and God varies by tradition. A few date it as early as Imbolc. Some attribute
it to Eostara, others to Beltaine. Eostara has the benefit of being 9
months prior to Yule, when the Goddess gives birth.
It must be remembered
that even our modern interpretations of these holidays are based on older
holidays celebrated at a time when the year was marked by seasonal changes,
not a calendar on the wall. On the continent, where Eostre was worshipped,
the earth has generally returned to life by the vernal equinox. However,
in Celtic Britain, the ground is still cold in March, and so Beltaine
becomes the great festival of life, when Goddess and God have matured
to unite as one.
1 Longman Dictionary of the English Language. Page 1414.
2 Moonhunter, "The Eightfold Wheel of the Year," http://www.manygods.org.uk/articles/essays/wheel.html (2003).