You may be asking yourself, “Wasn’t Imbolc yesterday?” Well, yes and no. Nature-based faiths and practices tend to be looser about dates and duration than Christian holidays are, so Imbolc is celebrated equally on February 1 and February 2. The Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and is considered the time when life begins to return to the land. It is also the holy day of Brigid, the goddess of fire, healing, and poetry, so celebrations often include candles and firelight, along with storytelling, poetry, and music. Interestingly, the Christian feast day of St. Brigid is February 1, and Candlemas—the annual blessing of the church’s candles—is February 2.*
So, then, in several traditions, this is the point in the year when we celebrate the return of the light as the days begin to grow noticeably longer. In fact, Imbolc translates as “in the belly” in Gaelic. This is a time of gestation, as winter prepares to birth us from the darkness of the womb-like cave into the light of springtime.
Speaking of darkness, light, and spring, this is also Groundhog Day, when we in the United States pay close attention to the behavior of those hibernating rodents. If we think the groundhog has seen his shadow when he peers outside, we say there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If it’s a cloudy day and we think he has not seen his shadow, we say there will be an early spring. Of course, given that this is the midpoint of winter, there will always be 6 more weeks of winter, regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil or any other groundhog sees. Nonetheless, we put great store in what the groundhog sees as he emerges from hibernation. We are awaiting news that the sun is coming back to stay, and the long nights will soon be behind us.
For those of us interested in Power Animals and the wisdom they offer, as a hibernating animal, the groundhog represents the ability to die (retreating from life for the winter) without dying. Instead, it enters a dreamlike state much like a shamanic journey, making it a powerful animal indeed. Groundhogs also build intricate underground structures with countless entry and exit points that confound predators, a sign of great cunning. And as many frustrated gardeners can attest, groundhogs are thorough and resourceful in getting what they want. If we are to look to an animal to tell us what our community’s future holds (such as when we should begin planting, a subject of great interest for those who live in harmony with nature), then the groundhog seems like a trustworthy choice.
This year, Imbolc and Groundhog Day coincide with the full moon. The full moon is a time for release and renewal, when our ability to see all of ourselves and the world around us, both good and bad, is heightened. We also just experienced a lunar eclipse—an auspicious opportunity for clearing away that which no longer serves us and making way for new energy and opportunities. The energy of the full moon and the eclipse linger for days, so this is a good time to think deeply about what we are ready to shed as we look toward the light.
What are you celebrating as we see the sun growing in its power? What is your soul whispering that you are ready to release? Now is the time to listen to the still, small voice within for guidance.
*Many Christian holidays are timed to coincide with earth-based or pagan holidays, which may have helped make conversion less jolting in the early days of the church. Candlemas coincides with the commemoration of Mary’s purification at the temple after giving birth to Jesus. The church’s decision to say Mary’s purification ritual (which is usually performed 33 days after a male baby’s circumcision) occurred at the beginning of February may have been influenced by the fact that it dovetails nicely with setting the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice at the end of December. (Some historians believe he was more likely born in the spring or early autumn, based on shepherding practices of the day and the timing of astronomical events that might have been described as a bright star in the sky.)
The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of winter and the longest night of the year. In the northeastern United States, there will be approximately 9 hours of daylight, in contrast to the roughly 15 hours of daylight at the Summer Solstice. The long nights of winter darkness are frequently associated with sadness in our culture, but if we choose, we can reframe them as an opportunity for creation.
Many animals hibernate during the cold winter months, emerging in the spring with their new babies. Bats, bears, raccoons, and woodchucks all withdraw for long winter sleeps, but unlike other hibernating mammals, bears give birth in the winter. Their slumber is interrupted—but not ended—by labor. Cubs nurse from their mothers inside the den for the first 3 months of their lives. When their mothers awaken, they venture out into the world together.
The winter holiday of Yule, which usually begins on the solstice, is recognized with feast and drink, and decorating with evergreen boughs, mistletoe, holly, and ivy. Traditionally, everyone comes together to celebrate, making the dark nights warm with fellowship and cheer, and with the burning of Yule logs. Thus, those dark winter nights are an important time for creating community.
The story of Mary giving birth to Jesus in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, can be viewed as a story of danger—she traveled far and was denied shelter in a sturdier structure at a time of great physical vulnerability for her and her baby. It can also be seen as a story of comfort and joy, in which Mary was kept warm and companioned by fellow creatures who accepted her in their midst, and later attended by people of high and low birth who celebrated her baby as the culmination of all that is possible.
Chanukah, which has just ended, is a festival to celebrate the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem following a revolt against leaders who had outlawed the Jewish faith. In one telling of the story of Chanukah, there was only one night’s worth of sacred oil to light the menorah in the temple, but it lasted for a full eight nights, until the oil supply could be replenished. Those long nights of darkness were lit by divine miracle.
Winter is now here, and it is yours to do with as you wish. You may celebrate with light and the company of your community. Or you may choose to withdraw into the quiet darkness to rest, or give birth to something new, or even to be reborn yourself.
However you decide to spend your winter, may the long nights bring forth your heart’s desire.
As the sun sinks on this Autumn Equinox, when we begin transitioning from sun-drenched days to longer nights, it is striking how many faiths celebrate holidays at the same times of year. The Jewish and Islamic calendars both mark the beginning of their new year in the autumn, and this year they begin on the same day. The Hindu festival of Navratri has begun, too, celebrating the divine feminine in the form of the goddess Durga, who battled demons of Ego to restore order in the universe.
In the Wiccan tradition and other neopagan paths, the Autumn Equinox may be referred to as Mabon, the harvest festival, when we complete projects and express gratitude for abundance in our lives. In the Native American tradition of the Medicine Wheel, the Autumn Equinox is when we step into the West Lodge. In the West, we give thanks as we reap the bounty of our work throughout the year, and we prepare to step out of the light and into the darkness of the cave, where we can rest and be restored. As I was taught it, the West is associated with the color black and the element of earth. One of the Power Animals associated with the West is Bear, who spends the autumn preparing for the long winter in the cave, and who gives us a warm, soft place to rest, and who also protects us fiercely when that is needed. We connect deeply with Mother Earth during this season, thanking her for giving us shelter and nourishment.
I offer this prayer in honor of all who recognize the power of the equinox on the earth, and in the traditions that our many human tribes follow.
Divine Mystery, we thank you for bringing our labors to fruition.
We thank you for this opportunity to complete one phase of our lives and begin anew.
We thank you for the protection of the cave, the rest we find in the dark of night.
We are the fruits of our ancestors’ labors, and we thank them, too.
May the universe embrace us as we draw close to the firelight, preparing to slumber and dream.
We offer this prayer on behalf of all those we love, and on behalf of those who have no one to pray for them by name.