You may not know that this Friday, February 1, is Imbolc. It’s an unobtrusive little holiday that could slip right by unnoticed, but it is one of eight sabbats in the Wheel of the Year. “Imbolc” (pronounced “IM-bulk”) means something like “in the belly” and is a beautifully precise “cross quarter day” situated right between the Winter Solstice in December and the Spring Equinox in March. Associated with Brigid, the Gaelic goddess who, in part, represents the power that brings us from the dark and cold of winter into the warmth and light of spring, it’s a day to first feel the stir.
While we still have plenty of winter left to go, you may have noticed that the sun now sets as late as 5:13pm. It was setting at 4:29 only a few weeks ago. While some of us first struggled to adapt to the harsh season, many of us finally embraced the wintertime directive to snuggle up, eat warm food, be motionless inside pockets of light and warmth. It’s a mild shock, then, to realize the light is longer, the air sneaking toward warmer, the serpents and badgers already peeking out of their dens. According to legend, this is the time when Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. 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 wood. If Imbolc is a day of foul weather, that means the Cailleach is asleep and winter almost over.
Friday is looking sunny at the moment, so we’d best not get ahead of ourselves. But whether we have four weeks to go or six, taking a moment to appreciate the very middle of winter, to me, honors that singular beauty at its height, right at the chilliest, sparest, dead-quiet of the season. It also gently whispers a promise: spring is coming. The very idea of spring prompts an expectant longing for signs and symbols: fire, food, divination, omens. Lighting candles, lots of candles, feels a fond encouragement of warmth and light, a patient nod to the increasing power of the sun over the coming months. The groundhog gives us something to wish for as we interpret what his shadow foretells. It’s a time of preparation: cleansing and purification are important, with “spring cleaning” creating the clean slates and blank canvases that invite abundance.
Now, what’s ahead is no mystery. Barring any disaster, we can reasonably expect that the snowdrops will bloom, followed by the daffodils. The daylight will expand, temperature and precipitation will infuriate everyone by constantly changing, everyone will compare notes on how this spring compares to last until we’re all busy finding sun hats and eating outdoors. Then summer will gradually wane. We’ll pry air-conditioners out of our drafty apartment windows while fall vegetables flood the market.
But back to the beginning: How magical that first tap on the shoulder reminding us we’re doing this whole thing over, from scratch. Imbolc marks, for me, the silent, invisible shift, the first movement, like when the leaf first stirs or the fetus forms. Imbolc is also a celebration of fertility, reproduction and the young, and other symbols include seeds and milk, germinating life, everything to come, invisible but forceful. Imbolc is pregnant, and if the baby-bump is not yet visible, we’ve still got to furnish the nursery! We all know how this story goes. We all know life’s insatiable drive to expand.
My favorite part of this day is its connection to the goddess Brigid. (Or Saint Brigid: the Christianization of the holiday is called “Brigid’s Day”). Brigid is the patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts, crafts and livestock. She is the goddess of wisdom, excellence, intelligence, eloquence, craftsmanship, healing ability and skill in warfare. She’s got everything we’re going to need for this ride around the sun.
So while the luxurious excess and fierce will-to-survive of the Yuletide feel so merry, they mean hardly anything to me without the balancing joy of the tidy-up, the clear-out, the dedication of the empty vessel. Because by now, we’re pretty sure we’re going to make it. I feel affirmed to clear my head, to rest with my inner-goddess, my artist/innovator within, and set intentions, forecast potential, purify, initiate and dedicate, make lists of lists! What needs to be gotten rid of? How might I sharpen my tools? As I stand up and stretch, I realize that, yes, the cycle is repetitive, but each turn of the wheel one more chance to perfect the movement.
How might one honor Imbolc? Traditional decorations include candles, brass, bells, wool, straw, and flowers white and yellow. If you can find one, hang a Brigid’s Cross (see image above). Traditional foods include bread, milk, eggs, cheese and seeds. We can also clean the house, wash the sheets, bathe, light candles, and fire up our ovens for quiche, custard or poppyseed muffins. Our prayers of dedication should include, in addition to whatever else, a commitment to growth and fruition, a promise to allow a space for what’s to come, and gratitude for one more chance to take the ride. Happy Imbolc to you and yours!
Brooklyn Herborium has a few specific products highly appropriate for a time of purification and initiation. These are about both cleansing and strengthening the terrain so that healthy new growth can flourish: