I love beginnings. “Imbolc” is the day we begin to move toward spring. It’s a shy little holiday that could slip right by unnoticed, but Wiccans celebrate it as one of the eight “Sabbats” in their Wheel of the Year. It marks the halfway point between Yule (winter solstice) and Ostara (spring equinox), and is a celebration of fire and light and the return of life. Now, this may be about the warmest winter ever here in NYC, but I still love to think about the silent, invisible shift, the first hint of warmth, like when the leaf first stirs or the fetus forms.
The term “Imbolc” (pronounced “IM-bulk”) comes from Old Irish and means “in the belly,” or “ewe’s milk.” The holiday is a celebration of fertility, reproduction and the young, and it’s associated with the goddess Brigid. The festival, also called “Brigid’s Day” in the Gaelic tradition, is linked with Brigid in her role as a fertility goddess. Christians observe it as the “Feast day of Saint Brigid,” and Saint Brigid is thought to be a Christianization of the goddess.
Brigid represents the light half of the year. She is considered the patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, livestock, and the arrival of early spring. She is the goddess of wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship, healing ability and skill in warfare. Whether seen as goddess or saint, she’s associated with the home and hearth and is a favorite of both Polytheists and Catholics.
Imbolc holiday celebrations typically include hearthfires, special foods, divination or watching for omens. Fire and purification are important: lighting candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun over the coming months. Spring cleaning is important too, to open up a space for what’s to come.
Sick of winter? Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather divination. There’s an old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers come out of their winter dens, and it’s a likely forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day. Imbolc is also believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last longer, she’ll make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. So if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. (Today is looking rather bright and sunny. Bad sign!)
I’m a sucker for seasons and cycles. Many Sabbat practices that originated as agricultural festivals thousands of years ago have found their way into Western religions, so many people have continued these traditions if only half-consciously: “Candlemas” is a Christian holiday also celebrated on February 2. It celebrates the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; and also the Virgin Mary’s purification. The original beliefs and practices focus on the earth’s seasons and the natural cycles of the world, and they stress reverence for nature and belief in ecological principles. Neopagans usually celebrate Imbolc in February in the Northern Hemisphere and in August in the Southern Hemisphere, at the astronomical midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is usually on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th of February.
Imbolc 2016 is today! It’s a great day to clean the house, de-clutter your life to create space for the goddess, for new seeds to take root and grow. You can also make a talisman: Weave a “Brigid’s cross” from straw (should you have any on hand), and hang it on the door. Lacking straw, just light candles and take a bath. Make some music and a meal. Use spring-evoking foods, like lamb, eggs, seeds and dairy.
Then turn your appreciation to the gradually lengthening days, to winter’s subtle sweetness with the first tentative hints of spring, to the invisible new life just beginning to awaken. And meet me back here for Ostara, on March 20th.
Happy Imbolc, Witches!