As with most aspects of Witchcraft the sabbats, or assemblies at which Witches meet on certain days of the year, have been distorted by Christianity. Most of these distortions evolved out of the witch-hunts which occurred during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The sabbats were depicted as meetings where obscene behavior occurred such as worshipping and copulating with the Devil after a session of dancing, merry making and feasting on a fowl, animal or unbaptized babies.
However, the origins of the sabbats seem to be a mixture of rites that still exist, such as the great Druidic festivals of Beltane (observed April 30) and Samhain (observed October 31), and the entrenched idea that heretics held obscene rituals. Possibly the sabbats also are related to the Bacchanalian and Saturnalian rites observed by the Greeks and Romans. The term sabbat is from the Old French and is partially derived from the Hebrew Shabbath, "to rest," which pertains to the seventh day of the week as designated by the Ten Commandments in the Bible as a day devoted to rest and worship.
Some historians theorized that the derogative connotation of sabbat as it was applied to heretics and witches was possibly Anti-Semitic since Jews also were classified as heretics. Another term which was synonymously used with sabbat was the synagogues in which heretics and sometimes witches supposedly met. Sabbat was more prominently used in continental Europe where the witch-hunts were more fierce than it was in England. There is no record of a witch sabbat in England prior to 1620, except for the mention of the term in the Lancaster witch trails of 1612.
The term was first introduced in an Inquisition trail at Toulouse, France in 1335. It along with Sabbath did not appear regularly until the mid-15th century. Once it made its appearance in trails it quickly assumed common usage. The times and locations that the sabbats were held were quickly and definitely fixed too. They were said to be held at night in remote locations such as mountains, caves, and deep forest areas. The Brocken in the Harz Mountains of Germany was the best known place for holding sabbats. There, one of the greatest feasts was said to occur on Walpurgisnacht (Beltane), April 30.
The witches’ modes of transportation to the sabbats were quite imaginary. Witches were said to have flew through the night either on the backs of demons that had metempsychosed into animals, or astride of broomsticks. The witches themselves sometimes changed into animals and were accompanied by their familiars. They were said to fly home before daybreak.
The sabbat nights varied. Some witches said to have attended weekly sabbats while others said the only went once or twice a year.
Sabbats of modern Witchcraft:
Sabbats observed by Witches in traditions and solitary Witches of modern Witchcraft and neo-Paganism are not diabolical and have nothing to do with the Devil or demoniacal worship. Usually they are considered to be eight seasonal holy days of the year which correspond to the former pagan seasonal festivals.
The rites celebrated at the sabbats are centered in nature. They contain the ancient pagan customs of Europe and the British Isles, especially the Celtic traditions, and newer elements of the modern Craft and neo-Paganism. The central worship is of the Goddess, the Horned God, and Nature which give the participants amble opportunity to give thanks for the bounties of the Earth.
Not all traditions, however, celebrate the eight sabbats, but only observe those important to their history and customs. They observe the sabbats in their own way, some skyclad, or nude, while others in traditional or ceremonial dress, while others create new practices. The sabbats of Beltane and Samhain are the most universally observed.
The Greater sabbats and their observation dates are: Oimelc (also Imbolc, Imbolg), February 2; Beltane (also Beltaine, Walpurgisnacht ), April 30; Lughnasadh (also Lammas), July 31; and Samhain, October 31. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes: winter solstice, December 22; spring equinox (Ostara), March 21; summer solstice, June 21; and autumn equinox, September 21.
Winter solstice: December 22. The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year. It is when the Goddess awakes to find that she is pregnant with the Sun God. The rituals for both the summer and winter solstices are designed to help change the course of the sum. The winter solstice has been Christianized as Yule or Christmas.
Oimelc: February 2. A winter purification and Fire Festival, often called the Feast of Lights, Imbolc or Imbolg (pronounced ‘im mol g"). which means "in the belly" and signifies the growing of life in the womb of Mother Earth. It celebrates Brigid (Brigit), the Irish Celtic goddess of fire, fertility, crops, livestock, wisdom, poetry, and household arts. Oimelc brings the first signs of life in the darkness of the Earth. The Goddess prepares for the birth of the Sun God. This sabbat has been named Candlemas in Christianity, also called St. Brigid’s Day. It is celebrated by candlelight processionals and commemorates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Eastern Church) or the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Western Church). Oimelc, also, corresponds with Ground Hog Day, the popular litmus test for the arrival of spring.
Spring equinox: March 21. A solar festival, in which day and night, and the forces of male and female, are equally balanced. This is the first day of spring, which marks the birth of the infant Sun God and makes way for the lushness of summer. Dionysian rites are performed. The Christianizing of this sabbat is Easter.
Beltane: April 30. One of the great Celtic solar festivals, celebrated in ancient times with bonfires. Beltane rites celebrate birth, fertility and the blossoming of all life, as personified by the union of the Goddess and the Sun God, also known in Christianized lore as King Winter and Queen May. The celebrants jump over broomsticks and dance around maypoles, both are fertility symbols. The sabbat begins at moonrise on Beltane Eve. Supposedly it is bad luck to be out late that night because witches and fairies roam the countryside in great numbers and conduct wild revelries. Beltane bonfires are believed to bring fertility to crops, homes and livestock. People dance deosil, or clockwise, around the fires or creep between the fires for protection against illness. Cattle are driven through the fires for protection against disease. Ancient Druids lit bonfires on hills and uttered incantations. When Beltane was Christianized by the Church, the pagan rites were replaced with church services and processionals in the fields, where the priests lit the fires.This festival also is known as Walburgisnacht.
Summer solstice: June 21. A solar festival which was almost universally celebrated; and, especially in Europe. In the European tradition, the night before was Midsummer’s Eve; a time for great magic , especially for love charms. Certain herbs were picked at midnight to bring protection against lightning, fire, witchcraft, disease and ill fortune. Witches and fairies roam on Midsummer’s Eve, as they do at Beltane; there is a bit of madness in the air. Great bonfires are lit to help change the course of the sun in the sky, the rites resemble those of Beltane. Burning wheels are rolled down hills, and burning disks are thrown at the sun. The zenith of the power of the Sun God is manifested in the flourishing of crops and livestock. The sabbat was Christianized to St. John’s Day (for John the Baptist).
Lughnasadh: July 31. A great festival of games and dance, named in honor of the Irish Celtic solar god Lugh. The word Lughnasadh is related to words meaning "to give in marriage" and once was associated with marriage contracts. Nine moths away is the next Beltane, the birth of summer and life. According to medieval legend, the festival celebrates Lugh’s marriage to "the Sovranty of Ireland," the goddess Eriu. A hag, Eriu is transformed into a beauty who personifies the land of Ireland. First harvests are made, along with thanksgivings and rites to ensure the bounty of the crops for the coming year. To ensure this same purpose, some traditions observe, as a sacrifice, the death of the Sacred King. In old pagan customs, the blood of a cock would be scattered over the fields.
Lammas, from Old English terms for "loaf" and "mass," is a Christianized name for an old Saxon fruit-and-grain festival designated by the early English church. The holiday celebrated the ripening of apples and winter wheat, the latter of which, according to tradition, was made into loaves and blessed in the church. Lammas Day also was a day to settle accounts. In Scotland, tenant farmers took their first grain harvests to their landlords on August 1 to pay the rent.
Autumn equinox: September 21. Once again, day and night, and male and female forces are equally balanced. This is the time for the second harvests. Traditionally, the Eleusinian mysteries are observed in rites and dramas. The mysteries concern the myth of Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone), and of the attainment of immortality through the adoration of them.
Samhain: October 31. An ancient Celtic festival which celebrates the beginning of winter, marked by death, and the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Samhain means "end of summer." The Druids, in ancient Ireland, once sacrificed to their deities by burning victims in wickerwork gages. All other fires were to be extinguished and lighted again from the sacrificial fire. This custom still continues in Ireland and Scotland, all fires in homes are extinguished and lighted again from bonfires, but without sacrificial victims. Samhain marks the third harvests and the storage of provisions for winter. The veil between the worlds of the living and dead is the thinnest during this time making communications easier. Souls of the dead can come into the land of the living. Samhain is a time for eliminating weaknesses, when pagan once slaughtered weak animals that were thought not to be able to survive the winter.
This custom resulted in the modern practice by some who wanted to get rid of their weaknesses of writing them on a piece of paper and dropping them into a fire. Some baked cakes to be offered for the souls of the dead. Samhain was Christianized into All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. The modern custom or trick-and-treating may have originated from an old Irish peasant custom of going door-to-door to collect money, breadcake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples and other foods in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill. Apples are included in many rites, especially as ingredients in brews. Dunking for apples may have been a divinatory practice.