"Up rose the wild old winter-king, And shook his beard of snow; 'I hear the first young hard-bell ring, 'Tis time for me to go! Northward o'er the icy rocks, Northward o'er the sea, My daughter comes with sunny locks: This land's too warm for me!'" - Charles Godfrey Leland
The world rolls on, and Midwinter falls behind us. Now the days grow longer, and the cold begins to melt away. The first flowers appear in the grasses; the first fruits, in the trees and vines. In fits and starts and subtle signs, life comes back to the world.
For our ancestors - living off their dwindling stores since the last harvest - this was a time of cautious hope. They’d survived through the frozen death of last year, and the end was almost in sight. Spring was finally stirring, waiting to be born.
In the belly.
The Old Irish word for that phrase was i mbolg, and it captured the spirit of the time. The ewes were heavy with the Spring lambs right about now, new life waiting in the belly. A similar word for this time, oimelc, translated literally as "ewe's milk" from the start of the lactation that came with those births.
From both those words come the name of this coming Sabbat, the celebration of the first stirrings of Spring.
Read on . . .
"The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within." - William C. Bryant
Imbolc is one of the four major Celtic fire festivals, the second of Celtic year (after Samhain, back in October), falling between Midwinter and the Spring Equinox. Generally, it was observed on the first or second of February, though in some cases, the Celts observed it on the closest full moon. Some old references had it celebrated on the 12th - but that kind of variation is par for the course with agrarian festivals, since nature doesn't always work on a strict schedule.
It was a festival of the return of the sun, a celebration of the light and warmth and life about to come back with the Spring. It was marked with bonfires where they could be lit; with candles, where the wet dregs of Winter made that impossible.
Imbolc was an important festival of the hearth, and of purification for the new cycle of life just beginning. It was a celebration of both the home and of fresh starts. It is one of only two festivals where the rising sun lines up with the passage tomb in the Mound of the Hostages, at the sacred Hill of Tara (the other was Samhain, the end of the old year).
“I’d sit with the men, the women of God, There by the lake of beer, We’d be drinking good health forever, And every drop would be a prayer.” – Saint Brigid’s Prayer
Imbolc honored the Celtic goddess (and later Christan saint) Brigid, a goddess of light and transformation. Brigid was associated with the returning sun, as well as with the joys of hearth and home. Clothes were set out for her to bless as she walked the earth on Imbolc Eve, and the ashes of the Imbolc fires were searched for signs she had passed by.
The young maids of a town or village made a corn dolly in her honor on Imbolc Eve, and gathered together to sit with it all through the night, as the young men visited to pay their respects. The next morning, the girls would carry it around to every home, where it was welcomed as warmly as the returning Spring.
"The groundhog is like most other prophets; it delivers its prediction and then disappears." - Bill Vaughn
As a beginning, Imbolc was an important time for predictions - and the most important prediction for our ancestors, thin and ragged from surviving the Winter, was when Spring would come. The Cailleach - the hag - was supposed to gather firewood for the rest of Winter on Imbolc - and if she intended to make it a long Winter, she would make Imbolc sunny and pleasant for her gathering. If the weather on Imbolc was lousy, on the other hand, it meant she was sleeping in, and Winter would be short.
Other traditions around Europe at this time included watching the Winter dens of serpents and badgers. If they left around now, it meant a short Winter. We preserve that tradition in our own upcoming Groundhog Day, where the little varmint will peek out of his hole and tell us whether Winter will stay or go.
"Loud are the thunder drums in the tents of the mountains. / Oh, long, long / Have we eaten chia seeds / and dried deer's flesh of the summer killing.
We are tired of our huts / and the smoky smell of our clothing. / We are sick with the desire for the sun / And the grass on the mountain." - Paiute Late Winter Song
But the recognition of the fading Winter wasn’t restricted to the Celts. This was the time for the festival of the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut, mother of the gods who swallowed the sun each night and birthed it again in the morning. In China, this coming moon - first of the new year - was the Lantern Moon, and was a celebration of the returning light.
The Japanese held their own celebration of Winter's end about this time, casting out devils and wishing for good fortune. The festival of Apollo - associated with light and the sun - falls about this time, as does the Anthesteria, a festival of Dionysus celebrating the maturing of last year’s wines and the return of Spring - and, like the Japanese, the ancient Greeks used the festival to cast evil spirits - Keres - from their homes.
Tu B’Shevat - the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat - falls somewhere around here each year, and marks the “New Year of Trees”, when the first fruits appear in Israel. In Christendom, Imbolc was transfigured into the light and purification celebration of Candlemas (and the now-canonized Brigid). Candlemas is associated with the small white flower called a snowdrop, which blooms in February. Chrisitian legend says an angel created them from snow as a sign to Adam and Eve that Winter gives way to Spring, after they were expelled from Eden.
My own chosen god, the Roman pastoral god Faunus, has a festival at this time called the Lupercalia, which also involved purification, fertility and the banishing of evil. A festival of the Roman goddess Juno, as Juno Februata, falls right around Imbolc, and is also a festival of purification and renewal. And when the Romans named the months of our calendar, that idea of purification - februum ("expiation") - gave us the name of this month.
"In choosing colors...follow nature's lead." - John Saladino
For an Imbolc altar, appropriate colors are white (for snow, and milk, and light) or red (the returning sun) or even green (for the new life on the way), or any combination of these. Altar decorations could include Spring flowers (particularly the aforementioned snowdrops), seeds or bulbs (naked or in pots) and, of course, every candle you can find. Since ewes and lambs figured so prominently in the old Celtic festival, you can add them as well. Celtic designs of any kind would connect your ritual to its heritage.
Since Imbolc traditionally honored Brigid, you can include her symbols as well. She was connected to sacred wells and springs, so water, particularly in cauldrons or chalices, can be part of your altar setup. A corn dolly is a good idea as well. As Brigid was a goddess of poetry, poems could make a nice addition to your ritual. You could even make a Brigid's Crown for a centerpiece.
"There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies." - Winston Churchill quotes
As a major Sabbat, my coven makes a pot-luck of Imbolc. The most appropriate foods, of course, are dairy, or make heavy use of dairy ingredients. Nuts and seeds are also in line with the Sabbat, as are seasonal fruits and vegetables. And - if you're a carnivore - there's always lamb. . .
Hearty Winter stews are still a good choice, like a good Mulligatawny. Breads and cakes work for Imbolc dinner, including Liebkuchen (honey cakes) and Pannekoeken (German pancakes). If you picked rose hips in the fall and started a batch, you can have rose-hip wine for Imbolc, as well.
"One swallow does not make a spring." - Aristotle
Imbolc was, as I said, a time of cautious hope. Winter is not completely gone (and depending on what the Cailleach/Punxsutawney Phil say, may be with us a while yet), but we're at least seeing it grab its coat and fiddle for its keys. Spring isn't quite here, but we now see the clear evidence that it's on its way.
So we take this time, while Spring's orchestra is warming up, to purify ourselves and our homes, to air out what's been shut up all Winter, and start preparing ourselves for the work that will come with the Spring . . . for the birthing of what still waits in the belly.