The Eight Great American Sabbats

The Eight Great American Sabbats August 28, 2012

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 (actually you aren’t supposed to wear white after Labor Day).

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.)

Image by imging, courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image by imging, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.)

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