I wrote this for Seattle Weekly, discussing the upcoming Pagan holiday and its themes of ending, purification, and rekindling hope.
Imbolc (pronounced im-bowlk) is a Gaelic word meaning “in the belly,” and for many modern Pagans, Feb. 1 is one of four Greater Sabbats, or grand holy days, marking the seasons. Imbolc (also spelled Imbolg or Immolc) acknowledges the first stirrings of spring, the deep shift away from winter and the return of light and heat to the Northern Hemisphere.
Central to many Imbolc traditions is the Irish Great Goddess Brigid. She oversaw fertility, poetry, smithcraft, and healing, and was a part of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the deities of pre-Christian Ireland. For ancient Celts, she was the ever-changing Earth itself, coming back to life after her winter sleep. Celebrations ranged from raging bonfires and torch processions through the fields and streets of the local village to simple ceremonies, centered around the mother of the house wearing a crown of lit candles as she led her family in ritual.
These rituals focused on purifying their bodies and homes to prepare for spring. All the pine branches or yule trees left over from winter would be burned by Imbolc, or as soon after as possible. The house would be cleaned thoroughly. People honored their ancestors; those who didn’t make it through the season; and the people in their community who shared their skills, like midwives and blacksmiths; after all, it was their know-how that just got everyone through winter. They would rededicate themselves to their beliefs, after having been tested on winter’s underworld journey—knowing what truly served them, and what beliefs they could leave behind.
They would tend to their water wells, renewing their connection to the land and its resources. They would sow the first seeds of the year. They would clearly demarcate the old cycle of growth from the new. And at some point in that process, they’d get loose, weird, rowdy, and lusty to wake up their spiritual fire, their lust for life.
These themes of ending, purification, and rekindling are reflected in ancient and modern festivals around the world. The Chinese New Year happens at this time, a lunar-based holiday ushering in a new annual astrological sign for billions of people. Mardi Gras takes place now too, the last lusty hoorah before the purification of Lent. The fire festival Up Helly Aa in Scotland is an end-of-Yule holiday, where thousands of modern Vikings and Scotsmen set fire to a ship, Viking-funeral style, while carousing all night. The ancient Roman holiday Terminalia, dedicated to the God Terminus, Lord of Boundaries, happens around this time as well. He was seen as the literal edge of the winter and the start of spring.
I’d be remiss not to mention the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, featuring the priests of the Goddess Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Lupa’s priests, wearing nothing but small goatskin thongs, would run through the streets wielding thin hide whips called februa, striking whoever they met. It was, of course, in the interest of the public, to rouse fertility and virility in bed and in life. Married women got extra attention, the priests ensuring fertile wombs with each stroke. Many women would run out into the streets naked when they saw the priests coming, making sure to extend their thighs and backsides so nothing was missed.
So here we are, in the Northern Hemisphere, seeing the final weeks of winter before us. We have an opportunity to burn away those last threads of whatever is clinging to us from last year or last life, an opportunity to look squarely at all that has been handed down to us—our beliefs, our habits, our predetermined outcomes—and question it all. Because we have a responsibility to try to build the very best future we can, we must carefully choose which threads to continue to weave this life with. And we must choose what we are going to plant and tend, what seeds of hope we want to press down into the black, rich soil of reality. What could we harvest this year?