Understanding the Wheel of the Year
Practising a natural religion means, first and foremost, to live it day after day in our actions and in our awareness: this means remaining open to the changes happening around oursleves as season follows season which, in turn, means that we have to learn again to have a natural perception of the flowing of time.
The western dominating culture teaches us to regard time as a linear entity, an arrow flying from past towards future, unidirectional and in costant progress, This is not the only way for us to conceive time: actually, if we give it careful consideration, it is not even a natural or intuitive one. This concept is in fact quite recent, having been formalized by the Greeks, and its widespread use by the general public is even more recent.
What is then the "natural time"? Let's take a look around ourselves: days follow nights, seasons flow quietly in their succession, life and death repeat themselves with ever constant rhytms. The pattern that nature shows us is a circular one or, even better, that ofa spiral.
This pattern can be found in what we call the Wheel of the Year, ie the cycle of sacred holidays that are strewn throughout the year. Naturally different traditions jave different names for the various holidays, and sometimes it happens that some dates differ slightly, but these are really minor dissonances for our examination. For the sake of clarity and ease of use, I will refer here to the names and dates used in the vast majority of wiccan traditions, which are based upon the ancient holidays of the western tradition.
During the year we have eight major sacred days, called Sabbats, and thirteen minor holidays called Esbats, which correspond to the Full Moons. The Sabbats are in turn divided in four "Major" ones (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh) and four "Minor" ones (Yule, Ostara, Litha and Mabon), the latter corresponding to the solstices and equinoxes and being more recent.
The reason for this difference is plain to see if we refer to the attached graph, which helps us to nitce how the year is divided in four clearly separated periods: two of them in which the difference between daylight hours and nighttime hours changes dramatically day after day, and two in which this difference is less dramatic. From the graph we can see how the Major Sabbats are positioned exactly at the beginning and at the end of this times of great variation between day and night: we can therefore say they are natural holidays, which can be recognised intuitively.
On the other hand, the Minor Sabbats need a more precise astronomical observation to be determines and are probably a consequence of the introduction of solar cults.