Wheel of the YearThe Pagan seasonal cycle is often called the Wheel of the Year. Almost all Pagans celebrate a cycle of eight festivals, which are spaced every six or seven weeks through the year and divide the wheel into eight segments.
Four of the festivals have Celtic origins and are known by their Celtic names, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
The other four are points in the solar calendar. These are Spring and Autumn Equinox (when the length of the day is exactly equal to the night), Summer and Winter Solstice (longest and shortest days of the year). Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge act as gigantic solar calendars which marked the solstices and equinoxes and show that solar festivals have been significant dates for hundreds of thousands of years.
(The seasonal differences between the hemispheres mean solar festivals are celebrated opposite different dates in the southern hemisphere.)
Spring EquinoxFind this year's date in the multifaith calendar
Spring Equinox celebrates the renewed life of the Earth that comes with the Spring. It is a solar festival, celebrated when the length of the day and the night are equal (this happens twice a year, at Spring and Autumn Equinox).
This turn in the seasons has been celebrated by cultures throughout history who held festivals for their gods and goddesses at this time of year. Aphrodite from Cyprus, Hathor from Egypt and Ostara of Scandinavia. The Celts continued the tradition with festivities at this time of year.
Today, Pagans continue to celebrate the coming of Spring. They attribute the changes that are going on in the world to an increase in the powers of their God and Goddess (the personifications of the great force that is at work in the world). At the time of Spring Equinox the God and the Goddess are ofter portrayed as The Green Man and Mother Earth. The Green Man is said to be born of Mother Earth in the depths of winter and to live through the rest of the year until he dies at Samhain.
To celebrate Spring Equinox some Pagans carry out particular rituals. For instance a woman and a man are chosen to act out the roles of Spring God and Goddess, playing out courtship and symbolically planting seeds. Egg races, egg hunts, egg eating and egg painting are also traditional activities at this time of year.
Summer SolsticeFind the date for Summer Solstice 2012 in the multifaith calendar
Solstice, or Litha means a stopping or standing still of the sun. It is the longest day of the year and the time when the sun is at its maximum elevation.
As the sun spirals its longest dance,
As nature shows bounty and fertility
Let all things live with loving intent
And to fulfill their truest destiny
Wiccan blessing for Summer
Like other religious groups, Pagans are in awe of the incredible strength of the sun and the divine powers that create life. For Pagans this spoke in the Wheel of the Year is a significant point. The Goddess took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility. For some Pagans the Summer Solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess and see their union as the force that creates the harvest's fruits.
This is a time to celebrate growth and life but for Pagans, who see balance in the world and are deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons it is also time to acknowledge that the sun will now begin to decline once more towards winter.
Summer Solstice ritualsWhen celebrating midsummer, Pagans draw on diverse traditions. In England thousands of Pagans and non-Pagans go to places of ancient religious sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury to see the sun rising on the first morning of summer.
Summer Solstice at StonehengeRevellers typically gather at Stonehenge, the ancient stone circle in Wiltshire, to see the sun rise. The Heel Stone and Slaughter Stone, set outside the main circle, align with the rising sun.
Local Summer Solstice celebrationsIn addition to the large events at major sites such as Stonehenge, many more Pagans hold small ceremonies in open spaces, everywhere from gardens to woodlands.
In this clip the Sunday Programme follows the Oak and Feather Grove, a Druid group whose members come from across Lancashire, as they visit a stone circle at Turton Heights near Bolton to celebrate the Summer Solstice.
Midsummer dayMidsummer day is marked around the time of the summer solstice but should not be confused with it. European celebrations of Midsummer take place on a day between 21st June and 24th June, depending on regional traditions. In the United Kingdom Midsummer day takes place on 24th June, the feast of St John the Baptist.
Autumn EquinoxFind this year's date in the multifaith calendar
Autumn Equinox (also known as Mabon or Harvest Home) is celebrated when day and night are of equal duration before the descent into increasing darkness and is the final festival of the season of harvest.
In nature, the activity of the summer months slows down to the hibernation for the winter. For many Pagans, now is time to reflect on the past season.
It is also a time to recoginse that the balance of the year has changed, the wheel has turned and summer is now over.
Astrologers will recognise this as the date the sun enters the sign of Libra - the Scales of Balance.
Winter SolsticeFind this year's date in the multifaith calendar
The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule) is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world.
Ancient people were hunters and spent most of their time outdoors. The seasons and weather played a very important part in their lives. Because of this many ancient people had a great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale.
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
It was also the Druids who began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
Many of these customs are still followed today. They have been incorporated into the Christian and secular celebrations of Christmas.