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A Pagan's Blog

Meditations on Imbolc

This weekend many Pagans will celebrate Imbolc, or Brigid.  

Imbolc is one of the less  emphasized Sabbats in our Wheel of the Year.  We are emerging from the regular frantic holiday season, combining Yule with Christmas, Hanukkah,  and Kwanza and finally, New Year.  The decorations have been put away and across our lives have returned to some semblance of their normal routine.  This is as true for Pagans as anybody else.

I suspect this is why of all the Sabbats, Imbolc seems to me the least invested with ritual significance.

It may also be because so much of its symbolism no longer fits where we live.  Our cross-quarter Sabbats are connected with the Celtic agricultural year, and as Samhain is the beginning of that part of the year where life is at its thinnest, so Imbolc marks its small return.  In pre-Christian Celtic lands this was when the ewes were first milked.  The return of new life was a Big Thing in pre-industrial climes.  


But today sheep are few in most places, and February is the depth of winter with nary a sign that summer is coming except for increasing daylight.

One way of dealing with this disconnect is to emphasize the Cetic Goddess Brigid.  A Goddess of healing and poetry, smithcraft and the arts, She is certainly most worthy of honor.  I will never forget my encounter with Her.  But I find it interesting that none of our other Sabbats are so closely linked to a specific deity.  Perhaps She fills in for the lack of fit between Imbolc for the Celts, and for us.  

To my mind, ideally our Wheel of the Year will ultimately be harmonized with the Wheel as it turns where we dwell.  Here in northern California, the Celtic symbolism for Imbolc, if not quite the specific  practice, works.  The sour grass and wild mustard is bursting into bloom with their exuberant yellow flowers.  But the floral gardens of our spring are yet to appear.  Normally rains would be abundant and cold, though not so far in this drought year.  Life is stirring, but not a lot.


But up north of the Adirondacks in New York, where I lived for some years, the snow still lies thickly upon the ground.  It can fall into May.  Still, the deeper symbolism is not totally absent.  The light is returning, and the days are noticeably longer.  That is why it is symbolically appropriate that Imbolc is celebrated with candles rather than more substantial fires.

Does this fit in Florida?

We have become a world-wide practice.  Gardnerian circles, my own tradition, are celebrated in the most unexpected places.  And in the broader NeoPagan tradition, we are everywhere.  

As Pagans who find the Sacred in the rhythms of life and nature, we have the challenge to honor both what is universal, as symbolized in our Solar Sabbats where, except for hemispheric reversals, the patterns are everywhere, and the more particular rhythms of our own place.  To see the universal in the specific.  Only in this way can we truly connect with the powers around us rather than living our practice mostly in our heads,

I am curious who among my readers has tried to address this tension between the universal and the specific in their own celebrations, and how they have done so.

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posted January 31, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Imbolc is very important to celebrate this year for me. The symbolic reassurance that the long season of cold and darkness is passing is very necessary right now. A third of my Circle is newly unemployed and afraid. I suspect this may well be the case with many other Circles out there. It is a good time to come together and light a candle against the night and to give one another the strength to stand.
So I suppose you would say that I treat the universal as a metaphor for the specific.

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posted January 31, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Around here, the early promise of spring has been shadowed somewhat by an impending freeze. The sheep are certainly out there, and hopefully well coated in wool! The landscape local to any one person may not reflect the actual festivals as they pass, but their importance is in reminding us of the changes in the natural world so easily missed from within our centrally heated and air conditioned cages. I shall celebrate Imbolc sat out with a few snowdrops. If your landscape has a different idea, may it yet be equally blessed. Good to see a new Pagan blog, by the way.

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posted January 31, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I believe that no matter where you live, there is an energetic shift that can be sensed, AND seen in Nature, at the halfway point between a Solstice and Equinox or an Equinox and a Solstice. The cross-quarter points, 15 degrees of the fixed signs, have been considered by ancient and modern astrologers to be power points in the Zodiac surpassed only by the Solstices and Equinoxes themselves, or zero degrees of the Cardinal signs. Though the classic cross-quarter points are considered agriculturally-based, they are so close to the precise astronomical midpoints that I see the agricultural symbolism as an overlay on the cosmic energies.
Gus, I’ve spent some time in the Adirondacks, and I know that even in the northern realms, though snow is on the ground, the sap begins rising in the maples in February, which is when maple syrup production usually begins. Hens respond to the lengthening days by laying more eggs. Even in the tropics, one can sense a certain shift in the weather patterns. I think that the universal truth is the shift of energy. As for the specific, as Pagans, it is our joy, and perhaps — if you will forgive me using a bad word — our responsibility to discover how Nature responds to the shift in energy in our own location.
Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina – a place I am blessed to call home now – the maples are beginning to flower, my hens are laying more and more eggs, and my spring flower bulbs are beginning to peek above the soil surface. Here, we can have snow into April, and it will be in the low teens tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll light a fire when I wake. But Spring is here. I know it, because the land tells me.
Bright blessings,

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posted January 31, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Since lactation is an inner process, as is pregnancy as a whole, it follows that Imbolc is about a sort of inner growing fertility rather than the passionate generative power of a holiday like Beltane.
Generally I’m more into externalish sort of workings as opposed to inner work, but it seems in keeping with the spirit of the holiday to ask questions about which parts of ourselves we’ve left unused, which potentials we’ve left untapped that we could use to reinvent ourselves or rejuvenate our lives.
At least, this is the rationale I’m using. I don’t have any animals on hand who haven’t been spayed/neutered, so observing their breeding is right out, and we just got the most snow our area has had at a time since… well, at least a few years ago. The light is growing, but I’ve had to turn the lactation into a very distant metaphor from what it used to be.
It’s a sign of a change that is beginning, of a change that will soon be visible, unignorable, and indelible.
For some in my circle, recent political changes are undoubtedly following the same pattern: we can see the first pebbles of the avalanche, we can see the preparation for renewal, but the avalanche and the birth are not quite upon us yet.

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Mama Kelly

posted January 31, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Imbolc was the first group ritual I attended and a year later it was the time of year which marked my first degree initiation. As a result for me Imbolc is about renewing my connection to my path and my Gods.

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posted January 31, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Greetings from Binghamton, NY!
Much of the Celtic symbolism of the “standard” Pagan holidays never really worked for me. Nevertheless, the 8 holidays evenly spaced through the year is an elegant framework from which to actually notice what is going on in the different seasons wherever one lives. As a newbie Wiccan in the early ’90s, the rhythm of the holidays brought the cycles of the year into a clear focus that I had never experienced before, and helped me connect with “the Spirit of the Place”. Though I have shifted my spiritual practice more to Hellenic Paganism and Chaos Magick, I find that the same turning of the Wheel provides a very meaningful backdrop to my life even though I don’t celebrate the Wiccan holidays the way I used to.
Diotima is right that the sap will rise soon in our local maples. I have also noticed that Imbolc is the coldest time of the year here, just as Lughnasadh is the warmest. But also: vernal witchhazel starts to bloom, great horned owls nest and lay eggs, dark-eyed juncos are visiting from up north, gray squirrels are mating, chickadees pair up and hunt for nesting areas (though they don’t begin laying until April), rhododendrons roll their leaves up tight on cold days, and buds on trees like serviceberry have noticeably swelled since the fall. These changes aren’t as obvious as those during the warm half of the year, but they are there.

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posted February 1, 2009 at 8:25 am

Merry Meet from Arizona, Gus! It’s wonderful (and much overdue) to see a Pagan blogger on this site…especially one with such an interesting background. I really liked your piece on IMBOLC…it will resonate with a lot of us. I’ve lived in the colder climes (Chicago, for one), and now live in the desert, where the early changes of season can also be felt, in their own way.
Oh, and sometime…if you’re looking for a topic for this blog…I would be very interested to hear more about your “encounter” with Brigid. It intrigued me. BB, Charma

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posted February 1, 2009 at 8:29 am

I’ve always seen the message of Imbolc, and the nearby Groundhog Day, to be one of hope. The Goddess is saying, “Look, We know it’s February, but spring is coming, trust Me on this.” Yule is the darkest night of the year, but it’s not the coldest depth of winter. February is winter’s true icy heart. It’s also true, though, that while winter is the most dangerous time, especially for a pre-industrial civilization, it’s half over now. If you made it to Imbolc, chances are, you’ll live to see the spring. This is something to celebrate. Today we have Groundhog Day, with its good natured humorous fatalism (6 more weeks of winter vs. spring in only a month and a half) and 2 weeks from now, Valentine’s Day, a celebration of romantic love and rank consumerism rivaling that of Christmas itself.

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Skye Andavarroi

posted February 1, 2009 at 8:44 am

Imbolc for me has always been a time for introspection and new growth. It was when i first declared myself in my faith and dedicated my self to the Goddess. The reminder that new life and new growth is beginning again even when the externals one can see might still be those of sleep and rest and snow and ice as we have been blanketed with in my area,is a pertinent and timely reminder to not give up hope and to look within for the changes you want to see coming. I was always taught by my hyper responsible parents to be the change, be a part of the solution not the problem and for me Brigid reminds me to take that which inspires me and use it to create something beautiful and good even as Her smiths or her poets take the basic elements and create something beautiful or useful.

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Gaarik Daruth

posted February 1, 2009 at 11:07 am

Imbolc, for me, is a time to remember that there is work yet to be done. In the Norse practice, I hear it often called “Charming of the Plow”, and this has added to my understanding of the rite and the season (I work mostly Celtoi-Norse, venerating each at different times of the year). In my own practice, Imbolc is a time of preparation and joy, the fact that snows still blow but alternate with mild days and breezes (this is in Colorado), and while it is still cold in the area, life is easier to deal with than in December with below-zero temperatures and thirteen inches of snow every morning. Winter is only half-over, but the sun returning is making it more mild and even than bitter. It is a proof, to me, that spring is not far away. Therefore, the work of spring is also not far away, and needs to be addressed. We may not live in an agricultural society, but I and mine have found other ways to represent new life – in our jobs, in our relationships, and in our own motivations. We bless our tools for gardening at this time, and our ambitions for the coming spring. We reflect on what has not worked, and what we hope to achieve.

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posted February 1, 2009 at 11:17 am

To answer one of your questions … I think the Imbolc I knew and loved up north still works in South Florida, but for a definitive answer I’ll need to get back with you in a couple of years.
I recently moved from NYC to Miami, and am just beginning to work out how a lifetime of holy days practiced in a distinctly four-season climate needs to adapt to suit the semi-tropics. I was delighted to discover that I could still feel the wonderful energy of Samhain here, sans falling leaves and other obvious hints that the year was winding down. And while we celebrated the Winter Solstice this year on a warm, breezy beach watching the sun come up (something that would have required hardcore commitment to the point of mild masochism up north for me), the energy of a new cycle starting was the same here — the wheel turns, the light will return, the energy begins to open up again rather than spiral inwards.
I’ve had hibiscus and ginger and all manner of flowers blooming riotously in my garden since Yule, but over the last few days I’ve felt a distinct shift coming on — the light is different, the days are longer, energies are beginning to gather force.
Some things no longer work — for example our local tomatoes are ready to be picked in January and the growing season all but shuts down in the deep summer so I’m not sure yet how my harvest celebrations will need to morph to suit what’s happening here — I suspect I will need to develop celebrations that commemorate the rainy season and the tropical storm season.
I’m enjoying the more subtle shifts here, and especially the need and opportunity to pay close attention and reexamine and reinvigorate the celebrations and symbols that had become hard-coded in my practice. It’ll take a few years of watching the seasons unfold to figure out a way to really celebrate this place, but I can’t even begin to express how happy I was to discover that there are seasons here — I was worried that the holy days that I’d celebrated for three decades now were going to be completely irrelevant. I’m very open to adapting my practice to suit the place, but I’d have truly mourned a complete loss of the things I’ve celebrated for so long.

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posted February 1, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I don’t celebrate Imbolc, but I do a personalized family sabbat at mid-February. It has some aspects of the Roman Lupercalia, but also some Nordic characteristics. It marks the official “sick of winter” with the burning of the harvest doll created the fall before—she/he goes as a messenger to request the return of warmth! This year, a borrowed horse plow will be ritually blessed and a great bonfire lit to warm our bodies and spirits.

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Patrick McCleary

posted February 1, 2009 at 6:22 pm

In my family’s tradition we see this time of the year as a time when the Earth, as the Maiden, still sleeps and the Sun King wanders the Earth to find the key to waking the sleeping Maiden.
For us this explains why the Earth isn’t getting any warmer and is still in the sleep of Winter.

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David Pollard

posted February 1, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Imbolc in Texas is variable. Some years, if January has been mild, pear trees are already starting to bud out. Other years we are busy slipping around in freezing rain.
Either way, Imbolc can (at least down here) be considered your ‘final warning’ before Spring hits. If you had projects that needed doing before Spring – the time to act is now, because by the time the Equinox has arrive the bluebonnets will be knee-high and resplendent.
Even farther from the NW European model, for those of us in the SouthWest the Summer Equinox is not the “oh, let’s frolic in the summer’s warmth” kinda holiday. Rather, it’s more along the lines of “let’s go crawl under a rock so we don’t fry” and call on the blessings of the goddess Freona. In some ways, it takes the dire aspects usually attributed to Samhain – as this is the season where dozens to hundreds of Mexican nationals die of exposure each year attempting to enter the US. (Perhaps by childhood spent torn between Palm Springs, CA and Lubbock, TX are shown here…)

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posted February 2, 2009 at 1:39 pm

South Florida is unique in that we have two seasons: Hurricane and Tourist (though this year has seen a particularly long cold winter with uncharacteristic lows).
I’ve lived here my whole life and it’s interesting tweaking my practice to better suit my environment. Imbolc for me is spring cleaning and spiritual cleaning. I’m also very much in tune with the ocean (being surrounded by it on three sides and all) and this being the time of the year when the ocean is at its’ coldest and quietest but will soon be growing turbulent (hello hurricanes) I tend to get a little reflective on what’s to come and focus my ritual work in the same direction.
I don’t follow a Celtic path so much so it seems strange to me to suddenly grab a Goddess and pay homage when I don’t really work with her the whole rest of the year. It seems more natural to work with my usual sea/ocean deities and keep my work on my usual path. Oh! And of course the usual frenzy of mating has started so there will be lots of new birds, insects, reptiles and such swarming about. Nothing like a baby Ibis honking in your front yard to make it feel like the beginnings of Spring. :)

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Karl Bonner

posted January 28, 2014 at 12:53 am

I find Imbolc to be very important in the Pacific Northwest due to its marking the end of the darkest quarter of the year. Usually the month of February is drier, sunnier and fewer stagnant-air inversions than November-January, and also warmer than December and January most years.

My Imbolc weather divinations often revolve around whether a warm dry “ridge” will move overhead the 2nd half of February or very early March when the sun is strong enough to warm the lowlands and prevent inversions – giving us a “false spring.” Except this year due to drought, I’m rooting for cold and wet and wintry conditions for February and early March – we need our rain and mountain snow!!!

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