When it comes to sabbats, I've always wrestled with them. Always. Back when I was still a brand new Wiccan, some of the sabbats never made any real sense to me. Now that I'm a sciencsy, Earthy branded witch with no belief in deity, this hasn't changed.
It always struck me odd that while we had esbats for the full moon and certain other rites for the new moon (if you were really devout about it), they were always considered secondary to the sabbats. And, the sabbats were devoted to the sun. It's not that I think that devotionals to the sun and it's yearly phases isn't a good thing, it just struck me as odd that the moon was considered important, yet ignored unless you were really devout enough to remember the esbats.
Spring Equinox made sense to me. It's definitely a light sabbat. The emphasis being on the fact that the day and night cycles are equal, and life is beginning to bloom again after being dormant all winter long.
Summer solstice made sense, as well. The time when the day cycle is longer than the night cycle and is at it's longest. Days are hot, summer is in full swing, life is milling about.
Autumn equinox is easy to explain. Day and night cycles are again even, however, the night cycle is over taking day cycle and life will begin to die and go dormant again. It's time to harvest the fruits of our growing season (which, where I'm from originally begins in March and ends in September) and put away our stores to last us through the cold, dark winter.
Winter solstice is when the day cycle is at it's lowest and shortest. Night rules us for a time. It is cold, dark, and a lot of times, depressing. But, we do have a reason to celebrate. The sun will gather it's strength once again.
So, what of the other 4 sabbats? What do they really represent for us atheistic types? Not much, frankly, if taken the way the mainstream takes them. In my opinion, they are just halfway points between, what I would consider, major sabbats. It made no sense to me as a Wiccan when they called the solstices and equinoxes minor sabbats. Peculiar. I see it the exact opposite in terms of solar sabbats.
I've always seen the other 4 sabbats as "dark". I had no real attachment to them for years. Most of them involve the dark in some way. The older holidays they're based on have dark tendencies, as well.
Let's take Imbolc. This one was a major pain in the rump for me. In no where I have lived has this ever been the very dawning of spring. I don't associate it with fertility in any way, though I know it's supposed to be associated with that. I do consider it a fire sabbat, but I don't equate fire with fertility, I associate it with darkness.
This year, Imbolc is going to feature an almost full moon. One that will likely be ignored unless you do esbats. Here in the coven of me, myself and I, we are more comfortable with Imbolc representing a Dark sabbat, and having a darker theme. Imbolc still features longer night cycles and colder weather and I think we should really pay attention to the night, here. There's a (nearly) full moon to light this sky this Imbolc, let's celebrate the night, shall we? The moon is a prominent feature of the night.
"How?", you ask? Well, for me it will be partaking in things with darker themes. Foods, beverages and incenses which are all a part of my sabbats and have been for eons. Chocolate, in my opinion, is a dark food, associated with dark things. Same with things like, cherries, dark colored berries (blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries) and pumpkins. Also cinnamon, to me, a spice for darker days. It doesn't really make much sense for bright, sunny things.
How about Beltane? I will refer to this as May Eve and that's because I really do think it's a rather dusky sabbat. Indeed, the Great Rite is usually performed on this sabbat, and that's usually done at night. Most sex is. This is a darker, more serious sabbat.....in my opinion. Look up Beltane on Google images and look at the number of fire festivals going on that day. It's a very "night related" day.
This year, May Eve will also feature an almost full moon. People's emotions and impulses will be riding high for many reasons. If that doesn't scream Dark sabbat, I don't know what does.
Lammas. Oh, Lammas, I struggled to reconcile you for the longest time. First of the harvests, but nothing much "solar related" going on for this sabbat. What foods are most prominent for Lammas? Bread, blackberries, root veggies. All darker foods in my opinion.
The story of Lammas is that it's the celebration of the harvest of the first grains of the season in the name of the Goddess. The God (represented by the sun) puts all it's energy into the crops to ensure life while the Goddess in her Mother aspect prepares to enter her Crone aspect. The God loses his strength and the days grow shorter.
Sure sounds pretty damned dark to me.
Celebration of the coming dark, losing the warmth of the sun for a time, things dying or withering. Lammas is a dark sabbat. Lammas will have an almost full moon (but, waning this time instead of waxing), as well. It seems only fitting to give the dark it's due.
Everything about Samhain is dark. Everything. It's the day the veil between the living and the dead is thin enough for the dead to join us for a night of festivities. There is nothing "solar" about that. It's visiting dark themes and celebrating dark festivities. I've never had a problem with Samhain, it's the witch's new year and always made sense. Samhain is the only night where a mostly full moon isn't a feature, but I think what will be there is enough.
Maybe I've had it all wrong for years. Maybe it's always been about celebrating light and dark evenly. Perhaps someone could point out there I've been wrong there? In any case, I'm fired up about Imbolc, probably for the first time EVER.