The Eight Great American Sabbats

Labor Day has always kind of represented the end of summer. While we all know that’s not literally true, it’s become an accepted part of the American dialogue. “Summer vacations” are always nestled in-between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and for some reason I’ve never understood, it becomes OK to wear white again when the calendar turns to September. While most Americans skip Mabon and Lughnassa, there is a very definite Wheel of the Year approach to American Holidays (official and unofficial). While most aren’t officially called sabbats on any calendar, we do celebrate Eight Great American Sabbaths nonetheless. (To all of my readers outside the United States I apologize in advance for the America-centeredness of this article.)

My Labor Day won’t be spent at the beach, I’ll be seeing the Old 97′s instead.

Even when a holiday comes wrapped in patriotic or religious swaddling clothes seasonal trappings abound. Most of our “holiday decorations” are simply representations of the Earth’s natural cycles. As a nation we decorate with snow at Christmas, and plastic green grass at Easter. Labor Day might be about unions, but we celebrate with summer barbecues and back to school sales. It’s a weekend to mark the passing of summer and the beginnings of autumn. As we celebrate one Great American Sabbat this weekend, let’s look at how mundania celebrates the Wheel of the Year.

Halloween: I’m always amused when Halloween is discarded in favor of a “Harvest Festival” by Evangelical Christians. Halloween began as a harvest festival, thanks for returning it to its roots. Sure, Halloween is a celebration of fear and one hell of a party, but it’s also about apples, pumpkins, and corn. Halloween is high autumn; with falling leaves, frosty mornings, and longer nights.

Thanksgiving: I used to make the joke that “Thanksgiving would be celebrated at Mabon if the Pilgrims had been better farmers” and while that’s an over-simplification, it still remains true. Thanksgiving is the harvest festival that we should have had back in September, but better late than never. It also marks the turn of the mundane calendar to winter, and has been turned into an air-raid siren encouraging all Americans to go shopping.

Christmas: Christians can moan all they want about how the holiday is about Jesus, but they were wrong 1600 years ago and they are wrong now. Christmas is a celebration of the winter solstice and winter in general. The ancient, Saturnalia-like party roots also remain; how many of us go to Holiday Parties in December and January? Christmas has been a secular holiday for a very long time, which is why many Pagans (like myself) still unwrap presents on December 25 (and also because with everything else closed, what else am I supposed to do?). Sadly, Christmas is the only holiday that celebrates winter in America, and we do it at the very beginning of the season.

(Holiday 3.2 New Year’s Eve: When I ran this list by my wife she disagreed with me that New Year’s Eve should be looked at as an extension of the Christmas season. It’s a week after Christmas, and many of the decorations are still essentially the same . . . . besides Saturnalia was an extended period, and then there’s the whole 12 Days of Christmas thing.)

Super Bowl Sunday: I expect many of you to disagree with this one, but you’d be wrong. The Super Bowl is watched by over 100 million Americans, making it one of our country’s most shared activities. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that more Americans watch the Super Bowl than participate in some holidays.) We also spend over 10 billion dollars while watching and preparing for it, and that doesn’t include all the money lost in casinos. Super Bowl Sunday marks the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. There’s a reason the first ads for Summer movies air during the Super Bowl. The Big Game is not just about the game either, it’s an occasion for parties, drinking, and celebrating rock and roll during the half-time show.

(Runner-up Valentine’s Day: Tough call here between the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, but V-Day is such a private and intimate holiday that it’s too fundamentally different from the other seven on this list to deserve a place on it. Most of our American Sabbats tend to be communal holidays, shared with friends and loved ones, at least that’s the expectation. I don’t see a whole lot of Valentine’s Day Parties happening. My wife, of course, disagreed.)

Easter: Much like Christmas, many people want Easter to be religious, but it’s become America’s Spring Sabbat. Chocolate Bunnies, plastic grass, marshmallow chickens, none of them have anything to do with Jesus. People decorate their homes with Spring Flowers and hunt for eggs outdoors when the weather cooperates, it’s a holiday about Spring. For those that add a religious component, good for you, but it’s become more about the awakening Earth than anything else.

Memorial Day: No offense intended towards our veterans (my Grandfather served in the Air Force and my Dad was a Marine), but the real meaning behind Memorial Day often gets lost. For many, Memorial Day marks the start of summer, the end of school, and the end of non-rerun television. People hit the beach or the pool for the first time and fire up the grill. Mercifully there are still a few parades honoring our veterans, but that’s become only a small part of the holiday. (Edit: And as was pointed out to me in the comments section, Memorial Day is for our fallen soldiers while Veterans Day is for veterans. That often gets mixed up, with Veterans Day sometimes overlooked as a result. Thanks John!)

Independence Day (Fourth of July): The Fourth of July remains a celebration of America’s birthday, but it’s also a summer festival. Where would we be as a country without being able to celebrate blowing things up and spitting watermelon seeds? Just a few weeks after the summer solstice, Independence Day is America’s Midsummer sabbat.

Labor Day: When I bother to point out why we celebrate Labor Day to my conservative friends they tend to accuse me of being a socialist. In their minds, Labor Day is all about the end of summer with none of its original trappings. While I do tend to reflect on organized labor over the long weekend, in many ways it does signify the end of one season and the start of another.

I think people have always been drawn to seasonal celebrations, and that’s as true today as it was three thousand years ago. I think we like to make our holidays about more than the change of the seasons (as a Pagan I know I do this too), but reminders of the Turn of the Wheel remains ever-present. While many of the Great American Sabbats don’t coincide with our Pagan ones, they serve as important markers on our yearly journey around the sun to many people, including me.

(This post was almost called The American Wheel of the Year, among other things. I settled on American Sabbats after seeing Yeshe Rabbit use the turn of phrase on Facebook. It fits perfectly. What didn’t fit in this article was my horrible home-drawn Wheel of the Year graphic.)

Becoming a High Priestess
How the Claim of Being Old Saved Modern Paganism
The Right and Wrong of Imbolc
Let’s Talk About Us! (Not Them)
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Ywen DragonEye

    I have to say that Thanksgiving is probably my favorite American holiday – I love that it was a coming together of indigenous and Christian faiths, both grateful for the bounty given by their respective dieties. But I hate that it is overshadowed by Christmas. We really should put more effort into giving thanks before the greed of Christmas sets in.

  • Nicole Parsons Platania

    I like the explanation for opening gifts on December 25th. My daughter has asked me several times “We still celebrate Christmas right?”, because to her Christmas=presents. Yes, dear, we’re Pagan not anti-presents!

  • John Mirassou

    Just one little note. The real meaning of memorial day gets lost for more reasons than you list. Veteran’s Day is the day for celebrating veterans. Memorial Day is for remembering the soldiers who died on the way to becoming veterans.

  • Angus McMahan

    Excellent stuff, Jason. Love it!

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I feel I have to disagree with the ‘not religious’ argument for certain festivals.

    If you don’t want Christmas to be about Christ, don’t call it Christmas. Same as Halloween. Easter is slightly trickier, due to the blatant stealing of the term. However, it is still the most important festival of the Christian calendar.

    I am not suggesting that people don’t celebrate. I am just suggesting that they celebrate with understanding.

    I (and my immediate family) do not celebrate the Christian festivals simply because we are not Christian. The boys get their annual gifts at Samhain (a more traditional, and appropriate, time of year to receive gifts, to my mind.)

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Just one small correction–I think you’ve got the “white” and “Labor Day” thing backwards–you don’t wear white after Labor Day is the rule I’ve usually heard. White is a summer color, apparently; but, far from being some fashionista pedantry, it sort of makes sense, because when the year starts to turn and it’s darker and colder, and thus often more likely to rain, wearing white makes less sense because it’s more likely to get dirty. A gray pair of slacks can still look reasonably good after being pelted with a drift of wet fallen leaves in a gust of wind; a white pair, or a white skirt, not so much…

    (The thing that set this in my mind was a good friend of mine at college, out in New York, who got yelled at by someone in NYC because she was wearing white shoes after Labor Day, and she’d never encountered that rule before…plus, she grew up in L.A., and I don’t think the climate there has as drastic a shift as other parts of the country, NYC included.)

  • Henry Buchy

    there is an august tradition, although it is more localised than national,they do happen pretty much across the country the Corn Boil and antique shows.
    Both have always reminded me of celebrating the native grain as it were and ‘teltown’ fairs.

  • celestineangel

    Hello, I’m new. I think starting a tradition of Valentine’s Day parties would be a good use of my time. :D Any excuse for a party!

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Look up ‘Lupercalia’.

  • MB Tankersley

    Wonderfully written. Before it became an actual book several years following the event, I wrote an American pagan ritual for a Texas Religious Freedom Circle held in Waco, Texas, of all places. Not only did we have Lady Liberty & Uncle Sam as our called goddess & god, we also had Coca-cola & apple pie as our wine & cakes. The center of the ritual was to call upon our individual icons of The American dream to rise to protect religious freedom in our state.

    I feel what you are saying about the “American Sabbats” & have absolutely no objection to your use of that terminology. You might add the date of any Marvel movie release to that calendar, as I certainly consider that a holy day.

    • Jason Mankey

      I’m with you on the Marvel movies (and The Hobbit, and Batman).

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        And Dredd.

  • Brian Michael Shea

    It also has to do with the light refracting/absorbing qualities of light/white clothing vs dark clothing. Have you ever stood out in the summer sun wearing black or navy blue? It get’s pretty hot doesn’t it? White, not so much. And vice versa in the cold months, the dark colors will absorb the heat from the weak sun. Fabrics also play a part, with cotton and linen being cool, breathable fabrics good for the hot weather of summer, while wool and heavy, thick fabrics obviously for the colder months. However that “No White Past Labor Day” no longer applies to any fashionista. Almost anything goes is the rule nowadays. As an aside, white and black are not actually colors.

  • Brian Michael Shea

    I totally agree!