Looking into Imbolc

One thing I’d like to do this year is become more consistent with observing each of the holidays of the Neopagan Wheel of the Year, and exploring what each one means for me personally. I realize the Wheel of the Year is a modern invention, and back in pre-Christian times each village celebrated different holidays at different times of year, but modern people aren’t so isolated anymore. I think that the ritual calendar becoming “standardized” like this is fine, a natural consequence of this greater degree of connection. I also just like having eight seasonal holidays spaced evenly over the year. It’s a good way to force myself to pay attention to the cycles of nature.

In Wicca, as I understand it, each holiday is supposed to be equal in importance, but in practice that’s usually not the case. In my practice, based on Germanic culture, I have a hierarchy of holidays, with the solstices, Yule and Midsummer, being the most important, followed by the equinoxes, and then the “cross-quarter days”. Since Beltane and Samhain are the most important holidays to Wiccans and people who follow more of a Celtic tradition, those end up being more important to me than the other two cross-quarters, since most of my friends are of that tradition, so there are lots of things to do around that time of year. That leaves Imbolc and Lammas last, which get somewhat neglected by me most years.

My neglect may be due to the fact that Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid. She seems to be the most popular deity among most of my friends. I even have a friend who’s made pilgrimage to Ireland to visit Kildare. Back when I was a beginner pagan, I participated in Imbolc rituals, making Brigid’s Crosses and putting little corn dollies in little beds and so on. It was fun to participate, but it never resulted in a connection with the goddess like I have with Odin, or any of the other Germanic deities I worship. I do have a Brigid’s Cross on my mantle now, given to me by one of my Brigid-worshipping friends as a housewarming gift, but that’s about it. How does this time of year between Yule and Easter fit into my own personal practice? Can I have Imbolc without Brigid?

I think I should have some sort of observance between Yule and Easter. Here in Central Texas, Yule really is the beginning of winter. Our coldest time of the year comes afterward, in January and early February. By late February things are already starting to feel like spring, and our average last frost date is in early March. By April, if you don’t have your tomatoes planted yet, you’re late, and by May, it’s already starting to get hot.

Therefore, it makes sense to have some sort of seasonal observance when winter is not quite over, but it’s not quite spring yet. How then should I celebrate this time of year? I have a few Asatru 101 type books in my collection that go over the heathen holy days. Let’s see what they have to say on the subject.

In Exploring the Northern Tradition, Galina Krasskova gives eight holidays that correspond to the standard Neopagan Wheel of the Year. She says February corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon month of Solmonath, which she translates to “sun month.” She says it’s the month for “Charming of the Plough”, where “the land was blessed and offerings made (usually bread and pastry) to ready it for planting in the months to come. Ploughs and field implements would also be blessed, a ritual that survived into the Christian era.” She adds that since today most heathens no longer live off the land, this holiday is a time to bless whatever you use in your work, “including laptops, cars, and business ledgers… a time to honor our ability not only to support ourselves by right means, but also the means by which we leave a mark on the world. It’s a time to celebrate the renewal of the creative spark – in the land and in our minds and hearts.”

In A Book of Troth, Edred Thorsson calls the February holiday “The Great Blessing of Disting” and says it’s held around February 14 rather than February 2. However, despite the name he gives the holiday, he only briefly mentions the Dises (female ancestors), and then goes on to say that, “this tide is really most holy to the goddess Freya and the god Vali. Freya is very pronounced in her erotic aspect at this time, and blessings designed to bring out this quality are right to do during this tide. Also, it is the right time to do the Blessing of Vali, the god of vengeance, and thus of rebirth.”

He then gives a liturgy for the Blessing of Vali, with no more mention of the Dises or Freya. Vali is the son of Odin and Rind, who avenged the death of Baldur by killing Hodur. Personally, I think it’s a bit silly for him to have anything to do with Valentine’s Day, based solely on a slight similarity in the name.

If one really wants a pagan alternative to Valentine’s Day, the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, which happens at around the same time, seems a much better candidate. The Roman god Cupid still appears on modern Valentine’s Day cards and decorations (though in a much more cutesy form). Even if that turns out to have no real historical connection, I still see more justification for Neopagans of a Mediterranean tradition to attempt to paganize Valentine’s Day. If heathens do want to celebrate Valentine’s Day, then surely Freya is a better choice of deity to honor than Vali.

While Thorsson and Krasskova both put their own personal spin on the holidays in their books, in Essential Asatru, Diana Paxson goes for completeness, listing every single holiday she can find that’s celebrated by some heathen group or another. For the time between Yule and Easter, she lists Thorrablot (in late January), Charming of the Plow (Feb. 2), Disting (Feb. 2 or 14), and the Feast of Vali (Feb. 14). Thorrablot is a holiday celebrated in Iceland in honor of “Old Man Winter”, but American groups that celebrate it do it in honor of Thor, probably just because of the similarity in the name. For Charming of the Plow she says, “Offerings are made to Mother Earth and the first furrow is cut. Feast of Barri, celebrating the marriage of Freyr and Gerd. Plant seeds indoors for later transplanting.” Disting is a time to honor the female ancestors if they aren’t honored at some other time in the year, and she agrees with me that the Feast of Vali just has to do with a similarity of his name to Valentine.

None of these books have much historical background information. That’s not their purpose. These are books about how heathen groups celebrate holidays today. However, in my book collection, I do have a copy of The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. I got Stations of the Sun because I wanted some solid historical background on the Wheel of the Year. I’m not a strict Reconstructionist by any means, but I am curious to know where people come up with some of this stuff.

In the chapter titled “Speeding the Plow”, Hutton says the plowing season started right after the Christmas season and lasted into March. The first Monday after Twelfth Night became known as “Plough Monday” to mark the beginning of the plow season. Churches would light “plough lights”, and plows would be brought to church to bless them. This was accompanied by partying, feasting, mischief, even a trick-or-treat type custom where Plough Boys would beg for money and threaten to plow up your yard if you refuse to give it to them! There would be plays and dramas, fancy costumes, and in general something that sounds like a fun time! In typical Hutton fashion, he reminds readers that there is no evidence that plow blessings are a pre-Christian custom.

The next chapter, “Brigid’s Night”, goes into detail about Imbolc and veneration of St. Brigid. Hutton is fairly certain that this holiday is indeed pre-Christian, and St. Brigid really is based on a pagan goddess. However, he also states that celebration of Imbolc has always been an Irish thing, found only in Ireland and places with lots of Irish immigrants, and not even found among other Celtic-speaking peoples. Instead, on February 2 everyone else celebrated Candlemas, The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is the subject of the next chapter. This was a time when candles were brought to churches to be blessed and purified, until Protestants decided the custom was too magical.

Again, he says evidence is thin that this is a pre-Christian holiday. He says that Bede claimed February was called Sol-monath by the Anglo-Saxons, which he translates as “cake month” (not “Sun Month” like Galina Krasskova) and they offered cakes to their deities. He also mentions that the pagan Romans considered February a month of purification in preparation for the New Year.

Finally, in his chapter on Valentine’s Day, Hutton says that Chaucer wrote that birds choose their mates on the feast of St. Valentine. Hutton says this make seasonal sense in Britain, where Valentine’s Day falls around the time when birds are starting to build their nests and sing. He then goes on to describe a lot of other interesting customs associated with Valentine’s Day, again with no real pagan connection, but the thing about the birds stood out to me.

This reminds me of one more early February custom that none of my books have mentioned, but it’s the one I grew up with. What about Groundhog Day? I did some internet searching and found out that Groundhog Day comes from an old Pennsylvania Dutch custom, which means it’s likely to be a survival of an older German custom. Observing wild animals, whether it’s birds starting to make their nests, or hibernating mammals emerging from their burrows, makes sense if you’re looking for signs of spring. This sounds like a custom that has a lot of promise for adapting to a modern pagan’s own climate. I just wish I had more information on it, but Hutton concentrates on Britain only, and most Asatru groups concentrate on Iceland or on the Anglo-Saxons, not Continental Germans.

 

So what can I put together from all this? It looks like I have several elements for a good holiday celebration.

Blessing the Plow and Getting Back to Work:
A strict Reconstructionist, after reading Hutton, would probably decide that a plow blessing is an “inauthentic” practice for pagans and heathens today, but I’m not so strict. I don’t think we should be so quick to rule out a custom just because it might not be pre-Christian. I’m more interested in whether it’s in a “pagan spirit”. What does blessing a plow specifically have to do with Jesus? Not anything I can tell. It’s a holiday all about the natural cycles of the land. January and February was time to start plowing the fields in England, so the churches, in their roles as community centers, would hold plow blessings. That makes sense no matter what deity you’re worshipping.

Therefore something related to the garden needs to be incorporated. I don’t have a plow, but I do have a garden and garden tools. Where I live, in Central Texas, one can actually have something growing in their vegetable garden all year long (except for possibly in August!), so the idea of breaking ground when the soil has finally thawed doesn’t quite resonate as well here. However, February is still a transition period, but it’s a transition from growing things like kale and lettuce to planting tomatoes and squash. It still might be a good time to bless the garden tools (and maybe give them a good cleaning and sharpening while I’m at it), blessing the garden, and doing some sort of ritual for a bountiful spring/summer growing season, making offerings of cakes to the deities and land spirits.

Krasskova mentioned that since most Heathens don’t live off the land anymore, it’s a time to bless the tools of your work. Personally, I think it’s a darn shame that heathens, pagans, and just people in general are so removed from the cycles of the land. I think that everyone, even if you don’t have a farm or garden, should make some acknowledgement of the agricultural cycles. After all, that’s still where you get all your food, whether you appreciate it or not.

However, it also might be a good time to bless the tools of your work, whatever it might be, even if you are doing a computer blessing. Most people have the Christmas season off, so now it’s time to get back to work. Since I’m a professor, I have a long winter break, and the spring semester is just starting. This would be a good time to ask for blessings for the coming semester.

Candles and Light:
Like most Neopagans, I use a lot of candles. In fact, I’m low on candles right now and need to order some more. I prefer to use beeswax candles, rather than ones made from petroleum products, even though they’re more expensive. According to Hutton, candles figured prominently in both Plough Monday celebrations and Candlemas. I don’t think most modern people realize how important candles were to people who lived in the days before electric lights. Candles used to be very expensive, made of either tallow or beeswax. Tallow was saved from the drippings from cooking meat, so made a cheaper but nasty candle that smelled like burning meat. Beeswax candles burn cleanly and sweetly, but were so expensive that usually only the church could afford them. But it was either that, or sit around in the dark, so candles were a big deal. It makes a lot of sense to have a holiday that’s all about them. A good modern Candlemas ritual might incorporate something like turning off all your electronics and using only candles to light your house for one evening. That would be a good reminder of how privileged we are having easily accessible light.

Purification and Milk:
The theme of purification is also found in Candlemas and Imbolc. Hutton says that the Old Irish words for milk and milking were related to an Into-European root for “purification”, and the word for the holiday of Imbolc also has something to do with milk. I think that milk, in addition to cakes, would make a good offering in the ritual, and some sort of purification ritual should be done as well.

Observation of Wild Animals:
Groundhog Day is based on customs where hibernating animals were observed waking up, which signaled that it’s almost spring. This looks like a great opportunity to adapt this holiday to one’s local climate. What signs do the wild animals where you live give you that spring is on the way? Most people pay absolutely no attention to wild animals. They probably can’t even name five birds that live in their area or recognize them or their songs. This should change, especially for people who follow a nature-based religion.
We don’t have a lot of hibernating animals here in Texas, at least not ones that are very noticeable. Some Texas towns have tried to replace Punxsutawney Phil with a native animal, like a prairie dog or an armadillo. The problem is that neither of those animals hibernates, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to celebrate them coming out of their burrows in spring.

My solution is to look to the birds, and celebrate Mockingbird Day. While our state bird lives here year-round and does a little bit of singing year-round, in early February they really get serious about it. When I was in graduate school I remember walking across campus on a warm day, hearing bird after bird singing his heart out, interrupted by occasional dive-bombs after passing students or other birds who got too close to their new nests. Another option would be to incorporate some sort of native plant that blooms around that time of year. I’ve chosen Texas Mountain Laurel, a small native tree which blooms in early spring with great big clusters of sweet-smelling purple flowers.

I hope this idea encourages pagans in other ecosystems to pay more attention to their local wildlife and plant life. Maybe where you live there’s some animal emerging from hibernation, or a bird migrating back from their winter homes, or some plant leafing out or blooming, that you can use as your cue that spring is on the way.

 

I think these themes can be incorporated into a good holiday. While Yule is a liminal time between the old year and the new, Imbolc is firmly in the New Year, when winter is starting to release its hold and spring is coming. This leads nicely into Easter, where spring is bursting out in full bloom. Certainly seems like a good time to celebrate!

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One thought on “Looking into Imbolc

  1. Hi Amanda! I’ve just discovered your blog. I’m loving your writing style, your voice, and your thoughts. Excellent ideas to ass to a February holiday for Heathens! I always notice the birds returning with throats full of competing songs. The squirrels get much more active. Rabbits come back out of hiding. This all depends on the snow and cold retreating. I’m in central Illinois. I’m sure you’ll see more comments from me as time allows. What a wonderful surprise to find you!!!

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