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.)