Imbolc: Rekindling hope in deep winter | Lifestyle

High holidays that are spaced fairly evenly throughout the year seem to appear just when you need them the most. I love all the holidays in the pagan wheel of the year, but Imbolc holds a special place in my heart.

Imbolc is celebrated on February first and marks the midpoint between the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and the spring equinox, when day and night are of equal length. The arrival of Imbolc reminds me that no matter how cold and quiet it is outside, we are halfway to the start of spring.

For our ancestors, the time around Imbolc was the rekindling of hope for the growing season to come. The word Imbolc comes to us from old Gaelic: i mbolc, meaning “in the belly.” It is thought to reference the pregnancy of ewes. Lambs are some of the first babies to be born in springtime. The swelling bellies of the pregnant ewes were cause for celebration — winter was on the way out, and milk was available once more, a vital source of calories at that time. Hope was growing deep in the heart of winter.

Our modern world shelters us from the hardest parts of the seasons. We do not need to rely on candles for light in the evening, nor do our lives hinge on food supplies in the same way. However, we can still feel the echo of the struggle of deep winter. The cold and darkness trigger depression for many people. Outdoor activities are less accessible when there’s a layer of ice to break through. The bright merriment of the winter holidays are behind us and can leave a feeling of emptiness in their wake. Imbolc offers us a moment to pause, a moment to look up and notice that the days are again getting longer. There’s more light, even if it’s shining on snow. We truly are making our way toward the other side of the dark season.

Celebrations for Imbolc center around purification and preparation. The first signs of life and light remind us of all the activities to come. In older days, the holiday was celebrated by cleaning the house. Then, holy wells and springs were visited to collect healing waters. Strips of fabric were tied into the trees nearby as prayers and offerings. The gathered water was used to bless the home, family, livestock, and land.

Brigid, the Celtic goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry, is celebrated at Imbolc. Offerings are made to her to ensure good fortune and health. One of my favorite traditions focuses on Brigid’s association with fire. In that tradition, a candle is carried through the house while singing or speaking a prayer to Brigid. Some people go so far as to light candles in each room, symbolically spreading the light and hope of the coming spring to each part of their dwelling.

The festival of Imbolc was historically a time of weather divination. People would observe to see whether badgers left their dens on Imbolc. We see the echo of this custom in our own Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, shifting the role of the badger to a groundhog. Poor weather and no sunlight on Imbolc predicts a short winter. Good weather and bright sun heralds a longer one.

As with all holidays of the old world, the specific day of celebration varied a bit. I think of the pagan high holidays as seasons rather than specific feast days. If opening to light and hope speak to you at this time, the energy of Imbolc is with us all this month. One way to weave the thread of our ancestors into our modern world is to echo their practices. You could engage in a little spring cleaning. You might gather some snow and melt it in a bowl, then use that water to draw words and symbols of blessing inside your home. If you’re near the Grotto in Emmitsburg, you could even visit a holy spring and gather water there. You could make a special dinner. Imbolc feasts usually include fresh baked bread, dairy products like butter and sheep’s milk cheese, and sturdy root vegetables like potatoes and onions.

More than anything, celebrating Imbolc connects us to the thread of hope. It reminds us that no matter how cold the night, no winter lasts forever. Imbolc sings to us of the promise of the coming spring. It reminds us that it’s time to start shaking off some of the deep sleep of winter so we can be ready when the air grows warm once more.

I wish you a blessed Imbolc. May the preparations you make now herald a joyous spring to come.

Irene Glasse is president of the Frederick Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, offering events, rituals, classes and workshops to a large, vibrant community, including Frederick’s Pagan Pride Day. She is a pagan religious professional and serves communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic region as a minister, teacher, musician and community organizer.






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