As expected of any new habit, writing for this blog more regularly and with more variety has gotten off to a rough start, I admit. Perhaps I should take more baths, as I seem to get the most blog writing done during that time. [Insert obligatory plug for WitchPlz’s wonderful selection of bath salts here 😉]
Since it’s THORSday again today, I suppose you expect another post about him, but it’s getting redundant and I’m giving him some other devotional activities today.
Instead, I want to write about something that’s been on my mind the past few weeks – Imbolc. Imbolc is a new age holiday originating from the Celtic holiday of i mbolg and St. Brigid’s Day. (Notably one of the Catholic saints provably of pagan origin.) Imbolc was canonized in the 1950s into the invention of a pagan festival cycle with eight, relatively even-spaced holidays known as the “Wheel of the Year” by Gerald Gardner’s founding of Wicca religion. Gardener’s Wheel of the Year is based on agricultural seasons and thus, unlike most other holidays, is rotated by six months in the southern hemisphere to match with their own seasons. It has since become so wide-spread that it is widely practiced even by pagans who do not consider themselves Wiccan. (Kendra and I are not Wiccan.) For those who have nature-based beliefs &/or practices, it is a wonderful way to stay in tune with the cycle of the year. For others, even when the holidays do not personally speak to them, it is a way for even solitary practitioners of less popular pagan religions to participate in festival with the larger pagan community.
Imbolc is what we call a “cross-quarter day”. The quarter days are marked by winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and autumn equinox. Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain are cross-quarter days and mark the half-way points between the quarter days. I can get more in detail about it in another post about all of the Wheel of the Year if you would like, but for now I hope a short and sweet explanation suffices.
Imbolc traditionally is celebrated around Feb 1 for Wiccans in the Northern Hemisphere and Aug 1 for Wiccans in the Southern Hemisphere, though dates change according to personal practice. Astrologically, the earth is 45° along its path from where winter solstice occurred on Feb 4 in the north and Aug 7 in the south. Depending on location, it may mark either the end of winter (where Yule is mid-winter) or it may mark mid-winter (where Yule is the beginning of winter). In the Toronto area, winter is a bit longer than an even quarter of year. Here, Yule or Samhain might be considered the beginning of winter (depending on what weather patterns you consider “definitely winter”) but it can generally be agreed that, in practicality, Imbolc falls less than halfway through the season by at least a couple weeks. And that’s why, for us, we tend to try to celebrate the sabbats with the hemi-global community on their traditional days but will have our personal celebrations whenever feels right. I’ll talk about what it is that we do differently in a moment, but for comparison, let’s talk a little more about i mbolg and St. Brigid’s Day.
In the Celtic areas where i mbolg originates, it was the celebration of the end of winter and beginning of spring. It’s thought that it’s name suggests the fattening of ewes, whether via pregnancy or simply becoming ready for pregnancy. The grass is growing again at this time, and the sheep are eating and regaining fat and preparing to make milk again. That’s why a popular celebration of Imbolc is to make butter and soda bread. (One of these days, I’ll share a recipe.) Another is sheep and grass decoration. Other people may choose to venerate spring &/or fertility gods. If it is right for their area, some people sow seeds at this time. (You can also pre-start your seeds in an indoor greenhouse if you want, but I personally find this method troublesome and prefer direct sowing.) As a transition period, it’s also considered a great time for divination, especially in respect to the coming year or the yield of crops and livestock. Spring cleaning is common. Fire themes are abundant. Imbolc is, in essence, the knowledge that the worst is behind. The winter will likely kill no more this year, health is returning to those who survived.
No matter local seasonal changes, Yule is always on winter solstice, and so by the time of Imbolc, you will always be able to notice the days finally lengthening again. Why then doesn’t Imbolc always fall at midwinter? Because temperature change takes a while. When you put a frying pan on the stove, it isn’t immediately hot, is it? Well in some areas, the frying pan (the ground) has been kept in the freezer until it was put on the stove, and then the stove eye (the sun) was only turned to its lowest setting. In other areas, the the frying pan was kept in a warm oven until it was put on the stove, and then the stove eye was turned to its warmest setting. You can see how this would make the pans heat at different rates.
Pans and stoves aside, even if your midwinter has not come yet, you can glean some of the same meaning from the astronomy happening at the moment. With days getting longer, the hope for returning warmth returns, even if the local climate hasn’t caught on yet. The knowledge that the worst is almost behind you is, in practice, about as good as it actually being behind you. Seeing the victory line can bring the same elation that actually crossing it does, especially when you have full faith in your ability to do so.
For us, January is a month of deep grief. Though for a different reason, we now understand the pain and trauma of the Wolf Moon. Mid-January is my mother-in-law’s birthday, and it is still hard to remember her on her special day with light and levity because in late January of 2017, she was suddenly killed. My wife and I were just settling in for the night, able to enjoy each other’s company as she stayed with me during a long “vacation” in the states (I still had not been able to immigrate to Canada at this time) when she got a call from her brother, frantic and in tears. I still remember holding her in my arms, and though it was not the first time my wife had cried around me, it was the first time I had heard the particular cadence of her deep, agonizing grief. The sound of her crying had changed. She still cries like that sometimes, and every time I’m reminded of why it changed.
The medieval norse used a lunar calendar like many people of their time and level of technology – moon phases are much easier to observe on a daily basis that solar orbit. Unlike many other lunar calendar-users, they did not add a month or week every so often to keep the lunar year aligned with the solar year. Instead, the days between the end of the calendar and the first full moon after Yule (when they marked the beginning of the year) were simply dark days where time was not observed. A true liminal hour, where space and time were separated.
To me, January barely exists. I work, I clean, I eat. But it falls between Yule, our time of companionship in the midst of winter’s threat, and Imbolc, our time of reassurance that the growing season will come again soon. In January, you know the days are growing longer again but its hard to notice yet. The worse winter weather comes, biting at any exposed skin and taking forever to warm yourself up again once you’re inside. In January, we are sad and we are lost.
And, in a way, it helps. It’s hard to make time for grief. With an entirely productive year, when will you allow yourself the catharsis of taking a moment to be still and sad. To wallow in it, just a little. To take the time to recognize what is always there but is usually pushed past to the best of our ability. Imbolc also marks the time to stop wallowing. It tells us, that is enough. You’re allowed to be sad, but seeds need to be sown, ewes need to be fed. You have work to do, a life to continue. While the concept of structuring your grief may sound strange from the outside, it’s a common suggestion of therapists. Take time to be sad. To look at old photos and to tell stories and to cry. But also learn to recognize when it’s time to get up and take care of yourself. To recognize that you have needs which must be met, and only you can meet them. It’s not that we’re not sad and don’t miss her the rest of the year, because that’s absolutely not true. But this structure gives us the strength to pull ourselves together and be the people she would want us to be instead of just the people we became in her absence.
We never celebrated Imbolc before my mother-in-law’s death, and now it’s one of our most important holidays. It keeps us going. It tells us when the dark, timeless days have passed and we can finally get back to work. We begin our spring cleaning and sweep out the inevitable mess that grief brings. In a climate where its easy to believe that winter will last forever, Imbolc has been an extremely valuable reminder that even bad times end.
Of course, I don’t expect the death of loved ones to always take place in January. I don’t share our perspective out of a desire to preach that everyone should practice the same way as us. Instead, I’m attempting to illustrate how deeply personal holidays can — and should — be. Look into the background of the holiday to inform your practice and look to what other people do to inspire your practice, but in the end, look to yourself for your own wants, needs, and desires. Pay attention to what’s going on with your life and how this section of the year makes you feel. Pay attention to your local and personal cycles but also to the new things.
This year, we worked through Imbolc. That’s just the way it is sometimes on the craft faire circuit. We never had time to make bread as has become the new tradition. Instead, around the time of Imbolc we had a spat of high-intensity personal drama. I won’t get into it here because this is not the place, but the point is that it only recently resolved. And so, Kendra and I agreed that we would celebrate late, because this year it was also about the drama, not just the grief. And one thing we intend to do this year is bake braided bread to symbolize the retying of family bonds.
Time moves on, but it also cycles. Things change and things stay the same. My mother-in-law will always have a birthday and a death day, but next year will be the third anniversary, and the year after that will be the fourth, and so on. Some winters will be harsher than others. Some people will make it through, and some will be taken by the wolves. We are able to both remember and to move onward. Let yourself experience deep grief. Let yourself wallow in it for a little while. It’s good and it’s healthy.
And then pick yourself up and clean your fucking house.