Understanding the ancient European festivals of the Solar Calendar helps to ground us within the wheel of the year. These festivals were all based on the changing relationship between the Earth and the Sun throughout the year. It is psychologically anchoring and steadying to observe the changes in the seasons and understand how the traditions of these festivals were honoured, and how that related to everyday life. It helps us move forward mindfully into the next season. Now is the time of Imbolc, when in the Northern Hemisphere, the land begins to warm up, the first flowers show in the woods, and the first lambs are born.
Imbolc is a traditional Celtic fire festival and the Celtic New Year, celebrated around February 2.
Early February has long been a holiday in many cultures: in ancient Ireland it was Imbolc and Brigid’s Day, in the Mediterranean and later in all of Europe, Candlemas and St. Bridget’s Day. In the US, Feb 2 is Groundhog Day, a celebration of the lengthening days causing small furry creatures to poke their noses out of their hibernation holes and sniff the warming air. The Chinese and Tibetan New Years also occur in this time period, usually falling somewhere in the late January, early February window.
At this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, the land, refreshed from the resting period of winter and purified by frosts, is getting ready for cultivation, for the renewal of the agricultural year. This is a moment of quickening, as the spark of life reappears, coming up from its deep underground slumber.
The Imbolc window lasts for around a week, and is a good time for inner work and for focused meditation about the coming year.
IMBOLC: RITUALS AND SIGNIFICANCE
The Celts celebrated the beginning of February with bonfires and feasts, believing that the year begins when the Sun reaches the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, (15 degrees of Aquarius), marking the return of warmth and light and fertility in the Northern Hemisphere. Although often cited as occurring on February 2, the exact time of Imbolc is a day or two later, and in 2013 Imbolc falls on February 3, at 6:20 pm GMT.
Like the other cross-quarter days (the festivals that fall midway between the solstices and equinoxes), Imbolc was a fire festival and a major holyday in the Celtic calendar. It was the festival of the lactation of the ewes: the word Imbolc is Gaelic for “in the belly” and referred to the pregnant ewes. Sheep were crucial providers of both food and clothing and the arrival of lambs was a time for celebration.
The specific areas of dedication at Imbolc, associated with Brigid, the Irish virgin goddess, were virgins, healing, and poets. Imbolc is a virginal time: everything is new, purified by winter and becoming ready for impregnation, the sowing of the seed. The cleansing aspect of Imbolc (see more on this below) aids healing. And the ancients prayed to Brigid as people do to Mary: for healing and protection. It’s not clear how the association with poetry fits in here, but I’m guessing that it’s because poetry is the purest of the creative forms and needs no tools other than the voice. (Extemporaneous poetry was the most highly esteemed of the Bardic arts, requiring purity of mind and clarity of intent in order to allow the voice of the divine to enter through the channel of the poet.)
Brigid/Brigit, also known as Brighid, Bride, Brighde, or Bridget, was a major goddess in the ancient Celtic pantheon. She was adopted by the early Christian Church as St Bridget and frequently associated with the Virgin Mary. She was sometimes a midwife to Mary and at other times conflated with her, as in medieval Ireland where she was known as Mary of the Gael and revered as a muse to poets. The Christians adopted the holiday of St. Brigit’s Day/Imbolc and called it Candlemas, integrating the old practice of lighting new candles on this day as symbolic of the new light, the new year, the new impetus for creativity. It is still the day of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, as February 2 is forty days since December 25, the birthday of Jesus.
If you are ever in London, I recommend a visit to St. Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, one of the oldest churches in the city. There is an ancient crypt underground that you can visit and meditate in. Seven churches have been built on the site over the past two thousand years: this is an ancient place of worship, and has an palpable, deep, earth energy, very nourishing and feminine. Due to the proximity of the first printing press and the subsequent growth of the print trade, St Bride’s has long been associated with printing and journalism, and has a side-chapel with an altar dedicated to journalists imprisoned or killed in their line of work.
Here’s a version of St Bride’s song, given to me by an Irish friend.
St Bride’s song
I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them.
I especially love the line, “I long to give away jars full of love”. What a beautiful image!
CELEBRATING IMBOLC TODAY
Simple things to do to honor Imbolc include praying to St Brigid, lighting new candles throughout the house, wearing new clothes, and making lists of intentions for the coming season. If you want to have a feast, the dish of choice is roast lamb. But don’t forget that Imbolc is also a good time for a detox or fast, as the watchwords for this phase are purification and cleansing.
The purity of the Imbolc symbolism is very much part of the newness of the year. Life is refreshed by cleansing, by letting go. This is a time to release attachment to past pain, to let go of whatever out-dated stories about yourself and your life you are hanging onto, to allow the healing of forgiveness and acceptance to soothe old injuries of heart and soul.
It is an excellent time to review what has and has not already been achieved, and to assess which of your dreams you still want to pursue and which ones you might as well let go of.
It’s a potent time to clear away past disappointments, to let go of old ideas about yourself, and step fully into the present. And on the mundane and physical level, it’s a great time to clear out and give away all that stuff you no longer need.
Happy Imbolc to you!
copyright Lara Owen 2003-2013 All rights reserved