February 1 & 2 fall mid-way between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. The most ancient of cultures would have noticed this as a good time to have celebration and ritual. It is the downhill side of winter survival, a time of hope for the future, yet also a time of weariness of winter hardships. People were ready to celebration, to begin preparing for the coming planting season, to honor those who could assure them a successful harvest, and to rejoice in the returning light. It’s a time to clean out the ‘cob webs’ of winter.
In Celtic tradition this mid-winter time is celebrated with the Imbolc Festival on February 1. The first written reference to Imbolc dates to the 10th or 11th Centuries in the writings of Irish monks. How extensively it was celebrated throughout the Celtic world no one knows for sure, but ancient Celtic architecture emphasizing alignment with the sun at this midway time in its cycle indicates celebrations go back much further. The Gaelic word Imbolc means “in milk” or ” in the belly”. Foods and beverages made with milk (especially ewe’s milk, as it is the time of lambing, thus fresh milk was available from the ewes) would be prepared, and milk beverages would be used to bless agriculture implements, such as a plow, and poured on orchard trees for fertility in the coming growing season. Homes would be blessed and candles lit.
In Ireland, the day is celebrated as the festival of St. Bridget and blends ancient Celtic traditions with newer Christian traditions. St. Bridget herself seems to bridge the Celtic world, as her predecessor was the Celtic goddess, Brighid. Brighid (whose name has many spellings) represents light in many forms – candles, fire and Sun. Foods symbolic of the sun (see below about foods) would be part of the festivities. There is still debate as to who was real and who was mythical, the saint or the goddess. There are certainly overlaps in what each of them represents in their particular spiritual tradition – who they protect, and what their role is in handing out blessings. You can read delightful stories of both. I’ll go with the idea that both were real, and stories and tales down through the ages made them both mythical. I’m always ready to embrace a belief in a strong, benevolent woman who did good things and hands out blessings! I’m sure it is more than coincidence that Brighid and St Bridget have the same name, and both are seen as the personification of light returning and new life. Most Christian holidays follow in the footsteps of, and use many of the same symbols as, pre-Christian holy-days, it was the best way for people to incorporate the old with the new.
February 2 is Candlemas, celebrating the 40th day after the birth of Jesus, the first day his mother could take him to the temple. At the time of Jesus’ birth women had to wait 40 days after giving birth before entering a temple, a period of time they were considered ‘unclean’. On the fortieth day Mary could enter the temple with her baby and have him blessed, so the day is often called “the Presentation of Christ”, or the “Blessing of Christ”. This celebration is observed in many Christian churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. During Candlemas the candles that will be used in the church throughout the year are blessed. It is also a time of celebrating light, and of purification.
There are many versions of these celebrations, many traditions and interpretations. In reading about them, what appeals to me is the preparation for spring planting and the new cycle of life, as well as receiving the blessing of returning light.
It might be a challenge to celebrate hope and light, or seem irrelevant to do so at this time of such darkness and decline in the world, especially here in the United States. But perhaps that is even more reason to do so. Create your own ritual for blessing your home, fruit trees if you have them, and perhaps your garden. Lights candles, inside, outside, and do whatever “purification” and cleaning out you feel inclined to do in your physical environment, make it your place of refuge from the darkness. Make some special foods (food ideas below). Allow yourself to feel blessed by Brigid, either in her Celtic form or Christian manifestation. St Brigid is associated not only with spring and fertility, but also healing, poetry and smithcraft. Write a poem, plant some primroses, sow some early seeds. Let your spirit and your mind take a break and celebrate the light. It is here, we just have to let it in.
And if all else fails to arouse hope in you…there’s always Mr. Groundhog, the ‘ancient’ American seer of weather! There are no “executive orders” for canceling the coming of spring, so embrace it.
See below for foods and recipe.
For fabulous, fancier recipes for celebrating Imbolc , I recommend one of my favorite blogs: Gather.