Get ready for Imbolc!


(photo from Floral Designers

Samhain may get all the press, and Beltane may be infamous, but for most pagans who live attuned to the wheel of the year, Imbolc has always been one of the most anticipated days.  Maybe  we are simply holiday starved after a dreary January, staring down an even drearier March, and Imbolc reminds us that spring is on the way. Perhaps we just love the idea of a sparkling red and white altar to inject some pre-valentines color. Whatever the  true motivation, I celebrate Imbolc even as my belief systems become more and more secular, and I recommend it to any person looking for a “second start” to their New Year Resolutions. Fell off the resolution wagon already? Year not turning out to be what you hoped? On February 1, you get another symbolic opportunity for change, for the incubation of grand plans and hopes that will come to fruition by Beltane in May. Yes, this holiday even gives you a due date.

It’s like a sacred day for procrastinators!!

Imbolc, which is celebrated on February 1 (it should be halfway between the winter and spring solstice, some people think it should be on a full moon, use your judgment), has its roots in Celtic and Scottish culture, as it was the day of the goddess (and, later, the saint) Brighid/Brigit. It is worth noting that the biographies of Saint Brigid and the folklore surrounding Brighid of the Tuatha de’ Dannan vary quite a bit, but still have enough in common to become a symbolic archetype for poets, artists, and “fire-keepers”. The Goddess Brighid was the daughter of The Dagda, the “Good God”. She was a fire goddess who was said to have a soft spot for metalworkers, poets, and musicians–anyone who created.  She was also a protector for all mothers (the original creative force) and a healer with access to other worlds. In other words, she embodied the triple goddess principle neo-pagans see show up time and time again as they search through mythology–the maiden huntress who seeks out the new, “virgin” landscape of the soul, the mother who nurtures and sustains life and creativity, and the crone who has journeyed through to the darkness that informs us all and speaks of life’s mysteries.

By contrast, Saint Brigid was a beautiful shepherdess, of somewhat debatable parentage, who left home after refusing to marry and went on to found no less than four abbeys and an art/metalworking school, an unprecedented accomplishment. She was a charismatic and beloved missionary who would travel across Ireland to heal and bless households, and offer food to the poor, which was a particular focus of her missions.  Today, Irish folklore claims that St. Brigid comes to  bless people on her Feast Day, walking from house to house with her companion, a white cow with red-ears. To receive her blessing, you are supposed to leave food out for her (and the cow!), and you can also hang handkerchiefs out for her to imbue with healing powers. At the very least, most Christian families in Ireland create a “St.Brigid’s cross” to hang on the door, to acknowledge her feast day and honor her. If you resonate more with the Christian saint, then her day becomes a day of celebrating leadership, fortitude, dedication to study and the higher pursuits of knowledge, and of poetry and crafting.

Hopefully, if you have read this far, you realize that both women have enough in common to accommodate a wide variety of beliefs, or even no belief at all.  Who says you cannot build an altar to an archetype? If you are intrigued enough to give imbolc a try, here are some ridiculously easy things you can do that won’t scare your significant other (as if you should care):

1. Clean your  place up.  Imbolc is a time when you get clear on what you want–the yule season is over, you’ve shaken off the shock of seeing your family again, and (let’s face it) a lot of us are staying home more often than not.  A spring cleaning is the perfect way to pare down to the essentials and see where you are going. It helps you think, and Imbolc is definitely a thinker’s day. While you are at it, a vehement scrub in the shower couldn’t hurt. Bust out your most “fiery” smelling shower gel.

2. Take care of the small details. Always wanted to paint, but you can’t get it up to head to pearl paint for supplies? Is your sewing machine busted, your library card carrying a debilitating balance that is preventing you from tackling that resolution to finally read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English? Don’t berate yourself, don’t try to force yourself to a practice schedule, but make an effort to get your tools ready to go. Imbolc is a great tine to gather, to take stock. Run some errands over the weekend, cross a lot of little items off your list, and settle in for a night of…

3. Candles!! I hesitate suggesting candles for anything, because I worry about you all and I want no enflamed curtains, burning desk surfaces, or out of control flames of any size.  But, if you triple promise me that you will not fall asleep while they are lit and will keep the flames well away from animals, children, or anything combustible, I’ll tell you that Imbolc is a fire festival that welcomes the return of the light. So let there be light! It makes horrible weather more civilized. Red and white candles are standard, but orange can stand in for red if you like. And, of course, nothing could be simpler or more cost effective than simplle white tealights. Did I tell you to be careful?

4. Cakes and flowers and wine. Imbolc roughly means “in milk”, and it marks the time when ewes would get their milk in, in preparation for those sweet, sweet baby lambs. I am vegan, and think milk is kind of creepy overall, so my version would be soy based, but if you have a favorite recipe for a white cake or an angel food cake, now is a great time to eat it. If you think there is no way you’ll have the energy to clean, run errands, and cook,  you are absolutely right. Bake the cake ahead of time and freeze it. Buy some flowers and symbolically offer them to Brighid. Drink wine–I’d like to be blogger-y and tell you life is too short to drink cheap wine, but life is too short to apologize for something as innocuous as taste. Drink whatever makes you happy.) Try to sit at the table without checking your email or watching TV. Just enjoy your meal, and the beauty of the flowers, and ask yourself what you’d like out of the year. If you think cut flowers are a wasteful expense (they kind of are), I like cutting out red hearts and flowers in construction paper and taping them to anything standing still. You can also cut out images of cows, lambs, or any animals that burrow. All are thematically sound.

5. Lists.  If New Year’s Eve is when you make promises to better yourself that are based on other people’s expectations, Imbolc is the day when you get real, get centered, and figure out what *you* want. I like to think of it as “bottle launch day”, a time to send bottles out and see what comes back. Another way to look at it is spaghetti launch day–throwing it against the wall to see what sticks. Take first steps, put feelers out. Send out as many bottles as you can on Imbolc; throw barrels full of spaghetti. By the spring, you just might have changed your life.

6. Be nice to your animals and community! I have read in various pagan-y sources that it is customary to leave food and drink out for Brighid to earn her favor, but if you have a paranoid fear of giant Ratones running wild the instant you make food accessible, I think the flowers/ pretty pictures will be enough for the goddess. Try to leave some food out for those stray cats having a tough time in the dead of winter, though, or fill up some water for the local birds and squirrels, in her name.  If you have extra cake, tie a red ribbon around it and bring it in to your job, or, better yet, walk it over to someone you think could use it. Remember, you are welcoming the coming spring, but you are still very much in the thick of winter. It is the perfect time to realize that everyone struggles, that everyone needs a hand at different times. The world is tough and cruel, and we take our comforts where we can. Be a giver of light.

If you’ve cleaned and scrubbed and listed and feasted and shared and magazine clipped and you are still in the throes of a seasonal funk, just get drunk and watch Groundhog Day while you eat snowballs in a pair of red panties. Voila! Instant degenerate imbolc,and you’ve sent out the bottles for heart disease and malaise. You are welcome!


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