The wheel of the year is turning. It may feel like these depths of winter are long and never-ending, like time has skidded to a slow stop on the ice. But below the ice in the dark earth, the green things are beginning to stir. Seeds are shifting in their sleep. The Earth is swinging around, the northern hemisphere is turning her face just slightly to flirt with the Sun. We get an extra minute of sunlight each day. Imbolc is almost here.
What's Imbolc, you ask? It's an ancient holiday, observed in Celtic tradition on the 1st or 2nd of February, to mark the midway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. These midway-points are called "cross-quarter days" or "fire festivals." The others are Beltane (the 1st of May, or May Day), Lughnasadh (August 1st, marking the first harvest), and Samhain (November 1st, the precursor to Halloween). As you can see, these holidays persist to some extent in contemporary culture, having survived and mutated through Roman invasions and the proliferation of Christianity.
Imbolc is the time when the dairy animals are born, and the milk of their mothers flows back into our lives. Milk to nourish your inspiration, motivation, and will to carry out your plans. Perhaps you feel your body and mind readying to wake up, stretch, rub the sleep of winter from your eyes, and march into the year ahead.
Imbolc is the time the Celts honored their Goddess Brigid, by weaving green rushes into "crosses" in her name, and hanging them over doorways to protect those living therein.
Though we talk about Brigid as a single figure today (the Goddess was later subsumed by the Saint, who was an actual person), the root of her name means "exalted female spirit," and she may be a collection of many different Goddesses referred to as one. For this reason I like to think of her as an embodiment of the divine feminine, with many "faces" or sides to her personality, and variations to her story. In short, a complicated woman. (Aren't we all)?
She has been called on to protect women, children, livestock, and warriors. She's also a healer, and an artist. A teacher of and muse to the bards, who sing, write poetry and keep history, and to the craftsmen who work with their hands. She was and is worshipped at springs. Imagine nourishing spring waters flowing up from the dark cold earth, a perfect metaphor for this time of year, as we're climbing out of the darkness of Winter Solstice towards the blooming flowers of Spring Equinox.
Brigid is connected to both water and fire, and this "fire festival" was later turned into the Christian holiday of Candlemas. Saint Brigid is said to have been one of 20 maidens responsible for keeping the Sacred Flame of Kildare, Ireland, burning. On the night that it was her turn to tend the flame, she never let it go out, and it burned long after her death from the 6th to the 13th century.
Though we're often told that seasons don't officially begin until their corresponding Solstice or Equinox, I've always felt like those days actually mark the peak of a season. Cross-quarter days seem to be more true beginnings. Living at a latitude of 37 degrees North, my observations of the natural world bear this out. The days noticeably lengthen again at Imbolc. In some places, the first glimpses of green might reappear, revealed by melting snow. It's no accident that Imbolc is also the day a certain groundhog pops out of his hole to tell us how near spring is.
So take heart dear reader. If blooming flowers, skirts, sandals, and the exuberance of warm weather feel a million lightyears away, remember that this moment is a beginning. If you're having a slow start to your year, rubbing up against obstacles, the energy of birth and creation is just around the corner. The waters of Brigid's wells are here for you, take this moment to enjoy them.
Ideas For Celebrating Imbolc
Visit a spring
Or any living body of water near you. Rivers, streams, lakes, ponds. Leave an offering while you're there, of food (safe for animals to consume, no chocolate), a meaningful natural object, or a poem read aloud. Collect some water to bring back to your home. You can use it for something special, like sprouting seeds, watering a beloved houseplant, or taking an herbal bath (see below for instructions). Or you can place it in a bowl just outside your home, as a blessing and offering to the place.
To honor Brigid and the returning of the Sun. One tradition involves placing one lit candle in each window of your home at sundown, even if you only leave them lit for a few moments. If you're not in possession of any candles, any flame will do! You could light a match, and speak aloud one gratitude and one intention for the year to come as it burns down.
Eat dairy, or spicy foods
Dairy honors the birth of baby sheep, goats, and cows at this time of year, and the beginning of a new cycle. Spicy foods represent the returning warmth and sunlight.
Write down your vision
It's a beginning! Take this opportunity to get clear about your purpose and your intentions for the coming warm season. What would you like to see happen in the next nine months? What goals do you want to accomplish by the time we dip back into darkness? Think not only of your professional life, but of your relationships, spirituality, and personal life as well. Writing these visions down is planting the seeds you hope to grow to fruition.
Take an herbal bath
Place two handfuls of assorted herbs into a half gallon jar, and fill the jar with boiled water. (Perhaps you can boil water you brought back from your visit to a wild source). My favorite herbs for this purpose include: Rose petals, Calendula, Nettles, Chamomile, Lavender, Lemonbalm, Yarrow, Mugwort, and Seaweeds, but please be creative and use anything you know won't irritate your skin.
Steep the herbs for at least 15 minutes, then pour the liquid through a fine strainer into your full bathtub. If you don't have a bathtub, you can strain the liquid into a bowl, let it cool to an appropriate temperature, and pour it over your head and body in the shower. Your skin, hair, mucous membranes, and nervous system will all love the special treatment!
Happy Imbolc my Loves.
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