The Atheist Wheel of the Year

The Atheist Wheel of the Year January 3, 2012

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

The Wheel of the Year involves eight solar holidays (the sabbats).  The sabbats include the solar quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes) as well as the solar cross-quarter days intermediate between the quarters.  For theistic Wiccans, these days symbolize events in the life-cycles of the god and goddess.  These days are marked by sabbat rituals.

Atheistic Wiccans, or atheists generally, must reject any theistic aspects of the sabbats.   Of course, atheists are free to use the non-theistic aspects of the sabbats.  The celebration of the sabbats is consistent with atheism (and with the denial of the Wiccan gods).  The sabbats are solar holidays.  Scientific naturalism confirms the structure of the sabbats.  The earth does orbit the sun and the seasons do follow a cyclical pattern.

Atheists can certainly participate in all the life-affirming aspects of the sabbats.  And atheistic Wiccans, or atheists generally, can perform many other rituals or ceremonies on these days.  Many atheistic ceremonies are already being done on these days.  All sabbats involve gatherings and feasts.  And all sabbats symbolize the continued existence of natural life on earth.  As such, they are life-affirming holidays.  The sabbats affirm both the rhythms of human life and the rhythms of the entire earthly ecosystem.  As life-affirming holidiays, they can play positive roles in atheistic communities.

The list below provides information about non-theistic versions of the sabbat holidays.  The sabbat days listed here are for the Northern Hemisphere.  For the Southern Hemisphere, the days appear on the opposite places in the solar calendar.  The solstices and equinoxes are inverted as are the cross-quarter days (for instance, Beltane takes place on 1 February and Imbolc on 1 May).  The agricultural aspects of these holidays (e.g. harvests) are most meaningful for the temperate latitudes (at about 45 degrees).  For those in the tropics, the solar variation is smaller and therefore has less meaning.  Nevertheless, these celebrations can still be done in the tropics.  They should be varied as the participants see fit.

Imbolc (about 1 February).

Imbolc takes place at a time which is often very emotionally difficult; the winter has been grinding on, the cold is at its worst, and the long lack of light leads to depression.  For many, it is the worst point of the year.  It therefore seems fitting to use Imbolc to remember the Dark Ages, when superstition and the sleep of reason bred monsters.  But any recollection of the Dark Ages should have at its end an affirmation of hope.  This is both the hope that reason will triumph over irrationality and the hope that brighter and warmer days will soon triumph over the dark and cold.  It is a time to emphasize the virtues of patience, resolve, and determination.  Darwin Day (12 February) is close to Imbolc and may be celebrated along with it.

Ostara (Spring Equinox; about 21 March).

Since this is a time at which light triumphs over darkness, the American Humanist Association, through its Secular Seasons Project, suggests marking it with a celebration of the Renaissance.  This is the end of the Dark Ages.  This can be celebrated by remembering those who fought for science over religious superstition.  It might be celebrated with some ritual banishment of a priestly figure by a figure symbolizing reason or science.   Obviously, the Spring Equinox is a time of psychological re-vitalization.  This may be ritually recognized in many ways.

Beltane (May Day; about 1 May).

Many non-theistic practices are associated with May Day.  One of the best known and most widely practiced involves erecting and dancing around a Maypole.  Various atheist groups have participated in May Day Parades.  Some atheistic groups celebrate the National Day of Reason on the first Thursday in May.   For atheistic Wiccans, this should be close enough to Beltane to serve as a Beltane ceremony.

Litha (Summer Solstice; about 21 June).

The Summer Solstice is the longest day.  Since the light of the sun traditionally symbolizes reason and truth, the Summer Solstice symbolizes the maximal power of reason and truth.  On the Summer Solstice, it is therefore fitting to celebrate the Enlightenment.  This can be done by perform the Cosmic Walk as a counterpart to the Advent Spiral.  The Summer Solstice is also World Humanist Day, which can be celebrated in many ways.

Lammas (aka Lughnasadh, about 4 August).

Lammas is an initial harvest holiday.  Many neo-pagans mark Lammas with feasts involving the fruits, vegetables, and grains available during the height of the summer.  Since corn is often first harvested around this time, Lammas is often celebrated as a corn festival.  Corn festivals are common and traditional during August throughout the United States.  Atheistic Wiccans and atheists generally can obviously celebrate corn festivals.  Beyond feasting, it is hard to find much recent ritual activity at Lammas.  Since Lammas is the height of summer, it may serve as a time of reflection on accomplishments or a time for the reflection on the coming harvest, which symbolizes the impermanence of all things.

Mabon (Fall Equinox; about 21 September).

An interesting and complex ceremony for the Fall Equinox is performed in Crested Butte, Colorado.  This is the Vinotok ceremony, which is said to originate in Eastern Europe.   This ceremony is also known as Burning the Grump.

The Vinotok ceremony takes place over about one week and involves a large cast of characters – it’s a large-scale festival performed (so it seems) by most of the town.  It might take several pages to describe the elaborate aspects of the Vinotok ceremony.   But here it will be useful to focus on the Green Man and the Grump.  The Green Man symbolizes natural creative power expressed in the botanical vitality of agriculture.  The Fall Equinox is the start of the harvest.  At this time, obviously enough, the crops are grown, the leaves are falling, and thus the Green Man is dying.  To ensure his return in the spring, someone must be sacrificed in his place.  The sacrificial scapegoat is the Grump.

The Grump symbolizes all human negativity.  The Grump is a wooden figure of a man with a hollow interior.  Over the course of the ceremony, people write their complaints and grievances on paper and put them into the Grump.  One might also write down things that hold us in bondage or burdens from which we seek to be relieved (e.g. bad habits, addictions, personal failings, and so on).  The Grump put on trial and found guilty (perhaps the charge is that he holds us back from realizing our highest ideals).  The Grump is then taken to the town square and burned.  This climax of the festival involves considerable partying.  Upon the sacrifice of the Grump, the Green Man returns.

Atheistic Wiccans, as well as atheists generally, ought to be able to perform and enjoy something like this ceremony.  It can function as a powerful psychological purification ritual, in which we seek release from our bonds and burdens.  It is interesting to note the parallels between Burning the Grump and the Burning Man festival held in the Black Rock Desert.  But the significance of Burning Man is a topic for another time.  Burning the Grump resembles the burning ritual described by Buckland (1986: 99-101).  While Buckland puts that burning ritual at Samhain, Mabon seems more appropriate.

Samhain (about 31 October)

Samhain is traditionally a time to remember and honor the dead.  At this time there are many well-established ceremonial structures for dealing with death.  These include the Day of the Dead in Mexico and elsewhere.  One way that some Wiccans honor the dead is through Silent Suppers (Cuhulain, 2011: 96; Sabin, 2011: 171).  A Silent Supper is meal that is served and eaten in silence, with a place at the table set for the dead.  Atheistic Wiccans, or atheists in general, can obviously hold Silent Suppers.  For children, all the usual North American Halloween celebrations and activities can be done.  One of the psychological functions of Halloween is to help children deal with their fears.  It is also a good time to teach children about superstitions.  Children may learn that ghosts or other frightening powers are not real, but merely projections of our own fears.

Yule (Winter Solstice; about 21 December)

Many atheist groups have Winter Solstice activities.  Atheists can certainly perform all the usual Yule practices (setting up a tree, giving gifts to children, and so on).   The mythology of Santa can be used in a positive way.  It is customary to tell young children the Santa myths and to allow or encourage them to believe those myths.  It is also customary to tell older children that Santa is merely an illusion.  Atheists can certainly use these customs to very good ends: all gods and goddesses are like Santa; they are pleasing fictions.

Many Waldorf schools perform a ceremony known as the Advent Spiral.  This ceremony is primarily a ceremony for children, with parents watching.  It involves a large spiral laid on the ground or floor.  The spiral must be large enough for people to walk from its outer end into its center.   Some versions of the Advent Spiral use a double spiral, so that people can walk into the center along one spiral and out of it along the other.  The spiral is laid out with evergreen boughs or perhaps with stones.  Luminariums (small candles in holders) may be set at regular intervals along the spiral.  At the center of the spiral, there is a chair.  The ceremony is performed in darkness.  It starts with a child holding a lighted candle walking into the spiral and sitting on the chair.  Other children are lined up at the outer end of the spiral with unlit candles.  One by one they walk into the center of the spiral, where they light their candles from the central candle.  After the candle is lit, the child walks out of the spiral.  The Advent Spiral symbolizes the growing of the light from the Winter Solstice.  The use of the spiral and the lights is clearly similar to the Cosmic Walk.  This similarity motivates the performance of the Cosmic Walk at the Summer Solstice.

Some (but not all) other posts in this series:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year


Buckland, R. (1986) Complete Book of Witch Craft.  Second Edition Revised and Expanded.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Cuhulain, K. (2011) Pagan Religions: A Handbook for Diversity Training.  Portland, OR: Acorn Guild Press.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice.  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.


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