Musings on ImbolcFor me, Imbolc is perhaps the most challenging of the 'traditional' neo-pagan festival dates. It was originally explained to me as a festival to mark and celebrate the beginning of spring, which makes perfect sense in the British isles, but certainly does not hold true in most regions of Canada. Nope, Imbolc as the beginning of spring simply did not resonate with me. Nor did its association with milk. Maybe in Britain lambs were being born the milking season was beginning, but in Canada?
Originally I simply discarded Imbolc. My wheel of the year is strongly tied with natural cycles and Imbolc didn't fit. (Actually I didn't quite discard Imbolc, I effectively moved it. Instead of celebrating the beginning of spring on the first of February, I celebrate it at the vernal equinox. Of course, some of the 'traditional' neo-pagan associations with Ostara don't work for me on the spring equinox, but that is post for a different day.)
Over time, however, I found Imbolc creeping into my worldview: Not as a festival of spring, but as a festival of light. After Yule, the days get longer. At first the lengthening of the days is barely perceptible to me. Dusk still comes too early and dawn not early enough. However toward the end of January I begin to notice the sun. I notice that it is 5pm and it is still light outside. I notice the quality of the light changing. I notice that dawn is not breaking, but has arrived when I wake up in the morning. And it feels good. The lengthening of the days, the return of the sun... now there is a reason to celebrate! My great Canadian home may still be covered with a thick blanket of snow, but the sun is back baby, and he's going to shine. His rays are warm and soon that blanket of snow will be replaced by fresh mud, then green grass and then the colourful dancing heads of meadow flowers. It's not spring yet. It's still decidedly winter. But it is getting warmer and the light is getting stronger.
The other dimension to this time of the year is the celebration of winter. Most winter festivals in this part of Canada take place at the end of January and beginning of February. The explanations are varied and usually centre on get rid of the winter, but a celebration of winter makes sense to me too. Winter is a season. In fact, I'd venture to say that it is perhaps 'the' season that most of us Canadians are preoccupied with. We seem to spend a huge amount of time preparing for winter, dealing with winter, and then wishing winter away. We celebrate spring. We celebrate summer and autumn. Why not celebrate winter? Winter is part of the wheel of the year, even if we rather wish it wasn't quite so long or quite so cold. So slowly, Imbolc as a celebration of winter started to creep into my worldview.
Today I celebrate 'Imbolc' by encouraging the return of the sun. I sing, I dance, I drum. I make fiery food (usually a bright yellow curry). I bake to bring warmth into the house. I burn candles. I make candles. I celebrate winter. I enjoy the beauty of the snow. I go outside and play, making snow angels, and snowmen and catching snowflakes on my tongue. This is 'Imbolc' to me. But then, it's not really Imbolc is it? At least, not what most neo-pagans would associate with Imbolc.
So what do I call this festival? What do I call this time of the year that I celebrate? I am always tempted to call it Candlemas because of my association of the season with candles and light; but that doesn't really fit, because I'm not really celebrating Candlemas, a festival representing the purification of the Virgin Mary following the birth of Christ as I understand it, either. I could call it the "Festival of Light,' but I associate that epithet with the Hindu festival of Diwali held in the fall. Imbolc is also known as Brigid's Day, in honour of the goddess Brigid or Saint Brighid, in some traditions. However Brighid currently doesn't figure into my celebrations at this time of the year, so that doesn't make any sense for my celebration either. I briefly considered calling it Midwinter; but that name is associated with the winter solstice. Technically, it also means 'the beginning of winter,' so that wouldn't quite fit either. So I continue to call my festival Imbolc.
Like most of my seasonal festivals or sabbats, 'Imbolc' isn't tied to a particular date. It's a flow. It's a transitional time that marks the turning of the wheel. When I start to notice the days getting longer, I say 'Imbolc' is beginning. My mood changes and I get joyful. I want to celebrate the return of the sun. I want to cook and bake. I want to go outside and play. Eventually (schedule permitting), I take a few hours or a day to 'officially celebrate' Imbolc. When does the period of 'Imbolc' end for me? I'm not sure. Imbolc simply flows into the beginning of spring. By celebrating the return of the sun, I find myself more 'awake' and able to focus on 'wrapping up the old,' like doing my income tax and finishing other projects, and 'preparing for the new." This is my preoccupation for that liminal time between Imbolc and Spring. The Spring arrives and I celebrate the end of winter and the turning of the seasons to Spring.