Imbolc is the first of the fire festivals in the Celtic new year. Situated at 1st/2nd February, we could see it as the cracking-open of the earth now that the light is returning as we move further away from the darkest night of the midwinter solstice.
Very much dedicated to The Lady, at Imbolc, or Candlemas as it has become in the Christian era, we celebrate the birth or rebirth of the Maiden from the darkness, like Persephone. At this time, we start to move away from the time of the Crone, or Cailleach, sometimes known as Cerridwen, towards the time of the Flower-Maiden, Blodeuwedd.
We’re now exactly poised between the solstice and the vernal equinox, when Maiden and Mother share a moment.
It’s a misty time in the southwest of Britain. Sometimes the weak sun allows us to sit outside; but elsewhere, and sometimes here, it can be a harsh time, with the snowdrops and catkins seeming merely a faint promise.
As the word ‘imbolc’, or ‘oimelc’ tells us in its early Irish etymology, the time is ‘milky’, with ewes bearing the the first (white) lambs (those that weren’t born in November). In parts of Scotland, women still offer milky porridge to the ocean at this time of light and water.
Nine months on from Beltane, May 1st, and its old midsummer fertility fires, many children, too, would be born at this time.
Snowdrops are, of course, the perfect symbol of this new life being reborn through the snows of the winter. Here in Devon the catkins are fully out now, dusting the bare hedges with their gold. Snowdrops have been open for a week or two; the first daffodils have appeared; hundreds of periwinkles are studding the hedgerows, hellebore are shaking out their greeny-rose flowerheads – and I picked the first wild garlic on February 1st to make a delicious creamy leek vegan croustade with leeks from our garden and local broccoli as an Imbolc feast.
One of the trees dedicated to the goddess of the late winter/early spring is the blackthorn, whose blossom arrives before the leaves. I haven’t yet seen any blackthorn trees in flower; sometimes the valleys are white with them down here in Devon even in January (hawthorn flowers don’t come till May, as their other name, may blossom, tells us).
Candles’ soft light reminds us of the stirrings of new if delicate life as the returning sun fertilises the waiting earth.
This festival is presided over by Bride (or Brighid, Brig, Brigit), the Lightbringer, one manifestation of the Great Goddess, who gave her name to so many places in Britain (which itself is a variant on her name). She is associated with sacred fire, the fertile earth, poetry, smithcraft and weaving, and healing.
Light the candles and dream new life into incarnation.