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Holidays + Culture

Welcoming the light: Imbolc (and riffs on the theme…)


I’ve started to think of February 1st as my own personal New Year’s. Historically, it’s a very important date, associated with the first signs of spring, the growing light, purification and new beginnings. The pre-Christian Celts in Ireland and Scotland celebrated Imbolc on this day, honoring the goddess Brigid (goddess of learning, healing, fertility, smithing, domesticated animals and representing the light half of the year) and marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The celebration was considered the first day of spring, and was focused around the beginning of the lambing and milking season for ewes, and the sowing of the fields.

Later, with the arrival of Christianity, the festival was changed to St. Brigid’s Day to honor the Saint of the same name, who is now considered to be the patroness saint of Ireland. (As often happened, the characteristics of the pagan deity seem to have been transferred over to the saint.) Traditions were born to welcome Brigid into the home, bringing the energy of spring and the growing light. One tradition that continues today is the creation of St. Brigid’s Crosses, made from reeds or straw and hung on the door or in the house to offer protection from fire, lightning, evil spirits and hunger. Another vestige: spring cleaning, as a form of purification of the home.

In other parts of the world, Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd. While there are a lot of technical religious additions, the overarching spirit of the celebration is the same: purification (in this case of the Virgin Mary), and a celebration of the growing light (sometimes referring to Jesus as “the light”), by blessing the candles. The ancient Romans also celebrated this time with the month-long Februalia festival of purification and purging.

The American tradition of Groundhog’s Day is thought to be based on the German celebration of Candlemas. Originally, the candles that were blessed and distributed on the holiday were used to predict how long and hard the winter would be. It was the Germans, apparently who were the ones to figure out that if it was sunny on Candlemas, the weather was likely to stay colder for longer, and they looked to the ever-adorable hedgehog to cast the determining shadow. When Germans began to relocate to Pennsylvania, the groundhog served as a stand-in (since we are notably and unfortunately lacking in hedgehogs in these parts). Thus, Groundhog’s Day was born.

In my own life, February feels like the month where I can really get started on all the plans I laid in January. I find I spend the month of January resting, recovering from the holidays and catching up on all the little things, from polishing the silver to cleaning out my inbox. I make my yearly plan, I organize, and then in February I can begin. So here I am, on a sunny and unseasonably cold Feburary 1st, getting ready to start, welcoming the light and the energy of spring.



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