Celebrating Sabbat in the Southern Hemisphere

Followers of Neo-Pagan and Wiccan traditions span the globe. Since religious restrictions have loosened in contemporary times, many more people are free to pursue the spiritual paths that deeply resonate with their true selves. As Wicca and Neo-Paganism spreads worldwide, there are unique challenges a practitioner may face, especially if that practitioner is located in the southern hemisphere. We’ll take a look at why this is the case and propose a few solutions and tips that will help facilitate your practice if you live below the equator.

There are usually eight days in the Wiccan year that are celebrated as holidays, known as Sabbats. For various reasons we will go into below, these days are connected to traditions that tap into the power of seasonal and celestial changes. There are also Esbats, which are holy days based on the passage of the Moon. As Wicca and Neo-Paganism are not top-down authoritarian religions, the observation of an Esbat generally, but not always, revolves around lunar cycles. This observation typically takes place on full moons, new moons, and quarter moons. Esbat can be used to refer to any observation that does not take place on a Sabbat.

Is there a problem with celebrating a Sabbat in the southern hemisphere? No, but there are complications to take into account. In many traditions related to Wicca and Neo-Paganism, a particular emphasis is placed on the positioning of heavenly bodies and the changing of the seasons. Some days are marked by the solstices and the equinoxes. There are two of each: spring and fall have an equinox, and summer and winter have a solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the summer solstice is the longest day of the year. The catch is: the dates associated with the winter solstice and the summer solstice commonly refer to the northern hemisphere, as the southern hemisphere’s seasons are opposite to that of the northern hemisphere’s.

The Earth’s rotational axis is at an angle of about 23.5 degrees. This means that, as the Earth travels through space throughout the calendar year, one hemisphere of the Earth is tilted towards the sun, while the other tilts away, thus offsetting the hemispheres by about six months. This tilt is also why observers in the North and South Poles pretty much only have two seasons: half a year of summer day and half a year of winter night!

What does this have to do with our Pagans or Wiccans living south of the equator? While these seasonal differences might not matter much to practitioners living in the north, complications arise from the geographical origins of these beautiful traditions. Wicca and many Neo-Pagan traditions were generally derived from practices developed in the north, such as Europe and America pre-colonization. If you follow one of these disciplines in the southern hemisphere, you may find yourself having to finagle your chosen system to adequately account for the seasonal differences relative to your location.

To emphasize, many of these systems were developed with agriculture in mind, and so it does not make sense to celebrate your Harvest Moon (the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox) if you’re south of the equator and in the midst of spring! The autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere occurs in September, but it takes place in March in the southern hemisphere.

There are a few options to consider so that you can tailor-fit your observation of a Sabbat.

The first is to offset everything in your tradition by about six months. As mentioned above, instead of celebrating your Harvest Moon at the September equinox, pick the full moon closest to the March equinox to celebrate it.

According to the Wheel of the Year, we generally observe eight Sabbat days: Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain, and Yule. If you are a fledgling practitioner, you may recognize some of these merely by their association with the Christian mainstream holidays.

The days of Sabbat are as follows:

Imbolc – 1st of February: Heralds the first day of spring. Sometimes called Candlemas.

Ostara – 19th–22nd of March: The summer/vernal equinox. A three-day celebration of the balance between light and dark.

Beltane – 1st of May: Historically, Beltane was celebrated as the first day of summer in Ireland, also called May Day (although this may not have quite the same effect if celebrated in the southern hemisphere for reasons explicated below).

Litha – 19th–23rd of June: The summer solstice, also called Midsummer. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year.

Lughnasadh – 1st of August: A harvest festival. Neo-Pagans might celebrate the Celtic deity Lugh on this day, though Wiccans may not necessarily do so. Either way, this is a day to honor the importance of fertility, harvest, and gratitude for the bounty of life.

Mabon – 21st–24th of September: The autumnal equinox celebrated by modern Pagans and Wiccans as an occasion of thanksgiving, as well as the necessity of sharing. Observers will also mentally prepare themselves for the coming winter.

Samhain – 31st of October: Known popularly as Halloween, Samhain is an occasion to honor and celebrate the lives of those who have crossed from life to death. Depending on the tradition, spirits of the deceased may be invited to take part in the activities alongside the living. Wheel of the Year-wise, it’s the counterpart to Beltane, as both light and dark are balanced.

Yule – 20th–23rd of December: Also known as Midwinter, Yule has played an important role in many European traditions, ranging from the ancient Romans to various Germanic peoples. Sacrifices are made, offerings burnt, and gifts passed from one hand to another as observers note the necessity of camaraderie and kinship during the darkest day of the year.

Some Wiccans in the southern hemisphere offset these dates by roughly six months to account for the seasonal difference; that way, they aren’t celebrating Midwinter in the midst of summer and vice versa.

This offsetting is a good idea because it means that Wiccans and Pagans in the southern hemisphere would celebrate Beltane at the same time that their counterparts in the northern hemisphere would be celebrating Samhain (and hence why it does not make sense to celebrate Beltane as May Day if you’ve swapped the dates). These are astronomical events, and so it makes sense to tailor your celebration based on the length of day/night, as well as the full moons that land closest to your hemisphere’s relevant solstice or equinox and the first days of the particular seasons.

Another potential approach to celebrating a Sabbat would be to look at traditions that arose locally. When European settlers colonized distant lands, they brought with them their conventional naming patterns for lunar cycles. Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples in the southern hemisphere have radically different mythologies and theologies. So it may not make very much sense in some contexts to import European naming conventions.

Seeking out events in the area in which you live may bear fruit. Indigenous people will most likely have their own names for moon phases in your locality, though one always wants to take care when handling religions and symbols of a culture that one is seeking access to.

Similarly, moon naming conventions also run into this issue. Using the term Wolf Moon in the southern hemisphere doesn’t quite track. The wolf par excellence, the gray wolf, hails from the northern hemisphere, not the southern. Considering the gray wolf is tightly associated for many with the word ‘wolf,’ it might be a good idea to look into other moon naming conventions that more accurately represent the environmental and ecological goings-on of your local or regional area.

Celebrating some activities may be more difficult or at least require more creativity in some southern hemisphere locations. It is customary to celebrate Midsummer with bonfires, but Total Fire Bans are not uncommon in countries like Australia. If you are celebrating Midsummer during a fire ban, consider crafting representations of fire or engaging in a ritual activity or creative act associated with the element of fire. If this seems obvious to Pagans and Wiccans that live in Australia, visiting Pagans and Wiccans may not be aware of these specific circumstances that can impact their practice.

Ultimately, the individual Wiccan or Pagan in the southern hemisphere need not feel left out by the naming conventions and traditional interpretation of the Wheel of the Year. There are several tools in your toolkit to ensure that you can celebrate a Sabbat in a manner that affords the turning seasons the reverence and respect that they deserve. Whether it’s adopting local customs or adjusting the Wheel of the Year by offsetting the Sabbat holidays by six months, one of the many beautiful things about following a path of Nature is Nature’s cyclical symmetry on this planet we call home.