The word Pagan comes from late Middle English and is derived from the Latin "paganus"  meaning ‘villager' or 'rustic’.  This word was used as a derogatory term to describe people in small remote places who had not enrolled in the 'new' Christian religion and continued to practice the pre-Christian religious festivals which later became known as Paganism.

Wicca is a modern Pagan religion, developed in England during the first half of the 20th century, and introduced to the public in 1954 by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner who was seeking to revive the ancient religion that had been almost completely eradicated by the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Wicca draws upon a diverse set of ancient Pagan motifs for its theological structure and ritual practices, but not all Pagans are Wiccan.

Modern Pagans and Wiccans share a belief in the 'wheel of the year' and mark certain points within the cycle with festivals or 'sabbats'.
The Sabbats are comprised of four “solar holidays” - two Solstices and two Equinoxes that mark the earth’s annual journey around the sun and four “Earth Festivals,” which occur in February, May, August and October. This latter set of Sabbats mark the “cross-quarter days” between the solar points. For example, Beltane, usually celebrated on May 1, falls roughly halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.

The Wheel of the Year

Samhain - 31st October (pronounced Sow-in):

The Wheel of the Year is seen to begin at Samhain, also known as Hallowe'en or All Hallows Eve. The word Samhain comes from the old Irish and is thought by many to translate as “Summer’s end”, a time when herbs are dried for winter storage, fruits and vegetables are canned and preserved, and root vegetables are dug up and stored so they may nourish through the cold months. 

This is the Celtic New Year, when the veil between the worlds of life and death stands open. Samhain is a festival of the dead when Pagans remember those who have gone before and celebrate death as a part of life.

Yule - 21st December (archaic form Geola, pronounced Yula):

Yule, or Winter Solstice, is a fire festival and a time for celebrating the return of the light. The significance of the Winter Solstice has been recognised for thousands of years, ever since human beings first observed the ever-changing patterns of sunrise and sunset over the course of the seasons. The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Persians all held festivals at this time, many of which celebrated the birth of one or more gods. Consequently the leaders of the early Christian church decided that this was a good time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, since one of their strategies for winning converts was to align their holidays with already-existing pagan festivals. The name 'Yule' actually comes from the pre-Christian festivities of Germanic tribes and is believed to have been handed down from the ancient Norse, 'Jul'.

Imbolc - 2nd February:

Imbolc, also known as Candlemas, celebrates the coming end of Winter and the beginning of the growing cycle in the Northern Hemisphere. The long, cold months are nearly over, and the first stirrings of Spring can be witnessed in the blooming of daffodils and crocuses, and the slow emergence of animals from their hibernation. Although snow may continue to cover the ground in many regions, the bleakest part of the cold season is now behind us. This cross-quarter day—midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox—is a welcome milestone for many who eagerly await the warmer months.

Ostara (Spring or Vernal Equinox) - 21st March:

A time when night and day are of equal length.  Though it’s typically celebrated on March 21st, the exact moment of the Equinox varies from year to year. This is due to a slight misalignment between the Gregorian calendar and the actual rate of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. For this reason, a date range of March 19-22 is often cited in sources on the Wheel of the Year.

The promise of greener, warmer, more bountiful times is becoming apparent as buds and blossoms emerge from the trees and shrubs, bees return to begin the pollination cycle and fields of grass wake up from their winter slumber. This is a time of innocence as the end of Winter finally becomes a reality and being outdoors is pleasant again.

Beltane - 1st May:

Celebrated on May 1st, Beltane marks the transition point from Spring to Summer. This is a heady time of lust, passion and fertility, marking the return of vitality to both the Earth and the Sun. Blossoms on the trees are giving way to robust leaf growth, young animals are growing into maturity, and the daylight continues to lengthen and strengthen as we move toward the full power of Summer.  Love and commitment are themes of this Sabbat, along with abundance and creativity. Handfastings, or Pagan wedding ceremonies, are traditionally held at Beltane. 

Litha - 21st June:

The Summer Solstice is the longest day and shortest night of the year, marking the pinnacle of the Sun’s power to fuel the growing season. From here on out, the Sun will set a little earlier each night until Yule, so we recognise and give thanks for its warmth.
Though it’s typically celebrated on June 21st, the exact moment of the Summer Solstice varies from year to year. This is due to a slight misalignment between the Gregorian calendar and the actual rate of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun.  For this reason, a date range of June 20-22 is often cited in sources on the Wheel of the Year.

Lughnasadh - 1st August (pronounced Loo-nassa):

Lughnasadh, or Lammas, marks the beginning of the harvest season. Though it’s often the hottest part of the Summer, this is also the moment when the first hints of Autumn are perceptible - the first grains are ready to be harvested, the trees begin dropping their fruits, and the ever-shortening daylight becomes more apparent with each sunset. This grain from the first harvest is used to bake the first bread from the year’s crop, which in earlier times would then be taken to a church and laid on the altar to be blessed. This custom is a good example of how Pagan religions and Christianity were able to coexist and even commingle for a time. The name “Lammas” actually comes from this tradition, taken from an old Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning “loaf mass.”

Mabon - 21 September (pronounced MAY-bon):

Just like Ostara on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, at the autumnal equinox the days and nights are of equal length and although temperatures may still be warm during the day, summer has truly come to an end. The leaves on deciduous trees have begun to change colour and fall to the ground and there is a chill in the evening air. The days were longer than the nights until this moment but after this the nights will begin their reign. As with Ostara the theme of balance is highlighted here, reminding us that everything is temporary, that no season lasts forever, and that neither dark nor light ever overpowers the other for long.