It’s pre-spring, the second half of winter, the season of nothing-happening, when it’s mostly grey and rainy or cold.
For me, this was always a blank time of the year until I discovered, through researching British neo-paganism, Imbolc, the festival that lies halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is celebrated at the beginning of February.
Imbolc, which – depending on your etymology – means ‘in the
belly’, ‘to wash oneself’ (in the sense of ritual cleansing) or ‘ewes’ milk’, marks the beginning of the growing and breeding season. It comes at the time when the first lambs are born or gestating in the womb, prompting the flow of milk in the ewes.
One of the four Celtic seasonal festivals, it is traditionally celebrated with fire to represent the return of the sun to the northern half of the earth and – in the manner of many ancient religions – to symbolise purification.
Like all the old festivals, Imbolc is rich in myth and story. Celtic tradition tells of Brigid, multi-faceted goddess of healing, light, poetry and smithing – the ‘bright goddess’ associated with the element of fire. Contemporary Wicca and the modern goddess movement dramatise this as the transformation of the Hag or Crone into the Maiden or goddess of spring. It’s the personification of the epic struggle which had life-and-death implications for our ancestors – would Spring conquer Winter before the food ran out?
Some say that Brigid becomes Christianised as a saint, part of the wider appropriation of Imbolc as Candelmas which marks the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus.
But, in a useful reminder of how little we know about the origins of religious festivals and what our ancestors did and thought, Jason Mankey denies this as Candlemas goes back to Ancient Greece, where Imbolc was not celebrated.
Personally I think that, while it’s important not to make false historical claims particularly if they form the basis for present theological arguments, the details of what and how the people of the past marked the transition of winter-into-spring don’t much matter. Amidst all the overlapping myths and customs of Imbolc, there’s one thing we can be sure of: until recently, life – and survival – was closely linked to the changing of the seasons, making the arrival of February significant.
And even for us modern humans, reassurance that winter is on its way out still comes as a blessed relief.