We have arrived at one of those times of the year when we can observe the blending of traditional western culture with newer western culture. First we have the ancient Celtic practices. Secondly there are the ancient Roman aspects. Thirdly, we have Christian and modern interpretations about this time of year.
Last night, my friend Ann said she was getting ready to celebrate Imbolc, a major event in the Wiccan religion, in the Northern Hemisphere. She explained that Imbolc has its roots in ancient Celtic beliefs. The Celts celebrated the fading away of wintertime into the eventual arrival of springtime on the night of what is now February 1st into the 2nd.
Ann says, it helps to remember that the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar’s Julian calendar was in wide use across Europe when the culture surrounding the Celtic holiday collided with Christianity. So, the first months of each cultures’ years pretty much coincided with each other. In Ancient Rome, Caesar’s calendar ended in Februarius (February) and began anew in Martius (March).
Here is where we see the intersection of religions and secular culture. The Wiccans and Pagans celebrate the last weeks of winter and anticipate the impending arrival of spring. The name Imbolc refers to the Old Irish word for sheep’s milk. The ancient Celts knew that when ewes began lactating, spring was on its way.
Imbolc is also known as Brigid’s Day. The goddess of fertility was reborn on this day from the old crone of winter to become the tender maiden of spring. Brigid is the goddess of light, regeneration, and livestock. One way the ancients celebrated Brigid was by lighting candles.
With the arrival of Christianity, the church canonized Brigid as Saint Brigid. The day also coincides with the celebration of Candlemas. Before the invention of electric lights and furnaces, candles provided light and some warmth in people’s homes and buildings. Candles also served the spiritual purpose of symbolizing the “light” that their savior brought to Earth.
On Candlemas, people brought candles to church to be blessed. During the ritual, the priest blessed the candles then redistributed them to the congregation. When used in the home, the longevity of the candles represented the length and severity of the remainder of wintertime.
So, how is my friend Ann celebrating Imbolc? She explains that a thanksgiving feast, minus the turkey, will be on the menu. There will be a warm, hearty meal served with traditional homemade crusty whole-grain bread. She will have spiced wine for the adults and juice for the kids. There will also be one fresh, crispy salad to represent the coming of spring. Of course there will be cheese and yogurt to represent ewe’s milk. It will all be served on the dining table graced with several white candles.
Ann’s main departure from tradition will be the time of the meal. Work and school requirements had to be accounted for. So instead of a big heavy meal on the evening of February 1st, the extended family will celebrate Imbolc during the noon meal today.
My friend says that while Imbolc is mostly a group celebration, individuals are also encouraged to make it a special private time of their own. It’s a time to contemplate the coming year making plans for home and career. It can be thought of as a time to set goals in motion. In this way, it is similar to our secular New Year’s Day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Imbolc and Candlemas are similar to the modern celebration of Groundhog Day. Whether or not “Punxsutawney Phil” sees his shadow indicates the length and severity of the rest of winter.