Firstly, apologies for the long absence. To keep it short, Winter sucks. Which is why today’s entry makes it all better…or at least starting to be better.
One of my favorite fascinations in life is learning about the rituals that spawned the traditions we now follow around some of our weirder holidays, such as Groundhog Day (February 2 in the U.S.). What in the world possessed our ancestors to start trusting a marmot to forecast the weather, especially when we know darn well that we have 6 more weeks of winter whether the thing sees its shadow or not?
Well, for the Celts, it wasn’t a marmot, it was a badger, and that badger was part of a much more involved celebration of the awakening of the world from its winter hibernation. This was not the full-on outburst of Spring that we think of with the Vernal Equinox in late March, but the stirring and growing of the creatures and buds and bulbs within the Earth, and the incubation of lambs during the breeding season for the sheep our ancestors raised. They called this celebration Imbolc, meaning “in the belly,” and it represented the planet growing toward rebirth within the womb of the Goddess, a process that will bear fruit when Ostara arrives. (Ostara = first day of Spring – does the word sound a little like “Easter” to you? We’ll cover that in another entry later.)
In terms of meteorological mammals, the Celts used a couple of different stories to explain this turning point of the Winter. In one tale, a hag named Cailleach would come out of her Winter home on Imbolc to gather the firewood she’d need to make it through till Spring. If she felt the Winter was going to be long and cold, she would make the day sunny so she could spend all day gathering plenty of wood. If she felt the Winter was already waning, she would keep the day cloudy and stay in bed, knowing she already had enough wood to see her through. Because the Celts didn’t use a hard and fast calendar like we use now, the date of Imbolc was not fixed – it varied literally depending on the weather, and was marked by the blooming of certain plants or the awakening of certain animals as Spring approached. Somewhere along the line, the badger became a symbol for Cailleach, and further down the line, when people with Celtic ancestry relocated to the United States, they adopted the groundhog as their critter of choice and transferred the forecasting duties to the humble woodchuck instead.
In the ancient Celtic tradition, and in the practice of current witches (the in-touch-with-nature kind, not the flying-monkeys and gingerbread-houses kind), Imbolc rituals mostly involve cleaning and candles. This makes good sense to me. Back when the ancient Celts first started marking these observances, it would’ve been natural for them to open up their homes to air them out and clean them thoroughly after having been bolstered inside as tightly as possible to survive the cold winter. Currently, Imbolc involves a thorough cleaning of the home, both physically and spiritually, and the ritual of inviting light back into the home by burning candles in every room on Imbolc Eve.
Another element of Imbolc is the welcoming of Brighid (pronounced “Breed” and known as St. Brighid to some, acquired by the Romans and appropriated into Catholicism). Brighid is associated with fire and fertility – some see her as a reflection of the Threefold Goddess in her first form of the year, the Maiden. She is the Goddess of hearth and home, and as smithwork (metalwork), healing, and crafting are all in her domain, she is a patron saint of poets for her connection to creativity as well. Imbolc traditions for Brighid include leaving food outside to welcome her to your door and making a “bed” (a basket with a blanket within) for her to sleep in at your hearth. Some also make Brighid crosses from wheat or sweetgrass to hang above their doors for protection, and some make “corn dollies” from corn husks to represent her at their altars. She is a part of the Christian observance of Candlemas as well, during which candles are made and blessed for use during the coming year.
I was feeling witchcurious this year (is “witchcurious” a word? I’m making it one now), so I actually performed a few of the rituals I researched for Imbolc to try them on for size. On Imbolc Eve (February 1), I ran the sweeper and wiped down my kitchen counters with a cleaner I made from essential oils (lemon, peppermint, and lavender, a mix meant to energize and cleanse the space), and I lit small tea candles to place in every room of our house, including our tiny pantry, and let them burn for an hour to invite the light back in. The Husband and Son approved of this ritual as they are both also fans of Not Winter. I then made a little bed out of dishcloths for Brighid on my kitchen counter, and I placed a cup filled with salt and bay leaves to represent green plants coming up through snow next to it for ambiance. (This was goofy, but kind of reminded me of things I did with my son when he was little, like leaving cookies out for Santa or leaving flour out to catch a leprechaun’s tracks on St. Patrick’s Day – silly little things that are fun and spark a little everyday magic for me.) There was something very satisfying about this process for me – a formal sweeping out of the old and a cordial invitation for the new and fresh to manifest itself in my little hibernaculum felt good.
This morning, February 2, I took a “cleansing bath” with lavender essential oil and did a brief candle ritual that called upon fire to melt the snow, warm the hearth, bring the light, make new life, purify my household, and invoke inspiration. (Notes: I’m not sure what other kind of bath there is besides “cleansing,” but I suppose it meant spiritually cleansing rather than just physically. Also, I felt a little weird with the spell speaking, to be honest, but meditating in the bath about moving toward creativity and productivity again while watching the candles was relaxing and did help me calm and focus my brain-foggy mind.) Lastly, rather than making a corn dolly, I put my Beanie Baby groundhog (Punxatawn-e Phil) next to the bay leaf cup this morning to celebrate my more traditional Groundhog Day, because I’m just awesome like that.
So…that’s Imbolc, my friends. And for the record, the real Punxatawney Phil and our local Gertie the Groundhog both saw their shadows today, so those six more weeks of Winter on the calendar will indeed continue to be…wintery. At least we’ve got early Spring bulbs and Brighid to visit with until it’s over!
Note: If you are interested in Imbolc, Brighid, or anything else I’ve talked about in this entry, please Google them or look them up on Pinterest – you’ll find a treasure trove of sources that all generally seem to concur. I also found Lisa Chamberlain’s Wicca Wheel of the Year Magic to be fascinating reading.