Every year for the past ten years, I have celebrated Imbolc, the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
At Imbolc, we begin to sense and anticipate the return of the light and the coming rebirth of the earth. As Cait Johnson and Maaura D. Shaw write in Celebrating the Great Mother: A Handbook of Earth Honoring Activities for Parents and Children, “Imbolc celebrates the first stirring of the seeds, deep within the womb of the earth. Though the ground may be covered with snow, there is a new freshness in the air, and a sense of possibility, a softly humming energy in the earth.”
Imbolc is thought to mean “in the belly,” which some say refers to the quickening of Mother Earth. Imbolc is also know by some as Oimelc, which means”ewe’s milk;” once of the things traditionally celebrated at this season was the birth of the lambs and the lactating of the ewes.
Imbolc, as I celebrate it, is first and foremost a time for clearing out the old- getting rid of anything unneeded or unwanted. It is also a time to prepare for the future, to begin to plant the literal and figurative seeds for the things in our lives we hope to tend to and grow in the season ahead. It is this time of year, rather than at the start of the calendar year, that I begin to set intentions and resolutions for the months ahead, because I find that the rebirth that is happening in the natural world supports the new beginnings I hope to bring into my life.
I have developed a set of practices that I follow each year at this time, which can be done by anyone, even people living in an urban environment where the signs of the spring may not be as apparent. They are based on traditional practices that I’ve researched as well as some more contemporary rituals developed by neo-pagans and others interested in marking the changing of the seasons in a deliberate and spiritually-oriented way.
Preparation for Imbolc:
In the weeks leading up to Imbolc, I do a thorough spring cleaning. I deep clean and organize everything in my apartment, focusing on getting rid of anything that I no longer need. This practice relates, for me, to the yogic yama known as aparigraha, or non-hoarding, which relates to limiting our desire for possessions to that which we truly need and giving away anything that is unnecessary to us. I also take care of any outstanding tasks, like paying bills, finishing projects that I started but never completed, and repairing things I own that are broken. That way, I can begin the second half of winter with a sense of lightness and possibility, knowing that I don’t have anything undone or unresolved hanging over me. When I’m doing my Imbolc cleaning, I hang a handmade straw broom on my door, a tradition I learned about from reading about the history of Imbolc.
I also often do some sort of ritual bodily purification I especially like to go to the Russian bathhouses in Brooklyn and spend an afternoon in the steam rooms and saunas. I also often do a kitchari fast, a castor oil, and/or an oil scrub. This year, I have a salt scrub ready that I’ve made myself, and I also ordered the Rosehip and Fir sugar scrub from La Abeja Herbs.
I also always try to spend some time alone in the weeks leading up to Imbolc, so I can have the time to reflect on the fall and winter and to begin thinking about my hopes and aspirations for the spring season. This time might include taking walks, writing in a journal, or meditating.
Imbolc Eve: I always have a gathering of friends on or around Imbolc Eve. At this celebration, which usually begins at dusk, we turn off all the electric lights and light candles, open all the windows to let the stagnant energy out and the new energy in, and burn sage or palo santo. This year, I also have smudge sticks to burn that I made myself this fall with fresh herbs and dried. We also read poetry and play music, both for inspiration and also because Imbolc was traditionally also a celebration of the Celtic goddess Brigid, goddess of poetry. Interestingly, I recently learned that there is also a Hindu celebration at this time of year that celebrates both the onset of spring and the goddess Saraswati, who is the goddess of art, music, and culture.
After the music and poetry, we write things that we want to let go of on pieces of paper and burn them in a fire. People are invited to talk about what they are burning, or to share what they let go of in previous years and how it changed their lives. Then we distribute seeds, which people are encouraged to imbue with their hopes and intentions for the season ahead and then plant. We also distribute pieces of ribbon which are to be left outside in the light of the full moon, brought in before daybreak, and hung on the doorknob for luck and protection in the year ahead. Traditionally, the foods eaten on Imbolc eve were dairy-based. Since I’m a vegan, I usually just prepare some traditional Irish bread and a root vegetable soup.
Imbolc Morning: On the morning of Imbolc, we rise before dawn and go to a wooded area in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where we watch the sunrise. We also beat the ground with a stick to wake the earth up from its winter slumber, we pour (vegan) milk on the earth as an offering, and we look for signs of spring. This year I might even use breast milk, because I can and because it would feel like an especially genuine offering. Then, we have a big breakfast.
Some good references about Imbolc include Seasons of the Witch by Gail Duff, Kindling the Celtic Spirit by Mara Freeman, and Celebrating the Great Mother by Cait Johnson and Maura D. Shaw.