When February finally arrives, it brings a sliver of hope. Could it be true that the daylight is lasting just a few minutes later? Was that a fresh green shoot I just saw half-buried under last year’s plant detritus? Maybe we really will make it to see another spring! (And where’s that seed catalog anyway?)
Right around now (February 1st or 2nd) is a ‘holiday’ of sorts. It’s no longer much of a deal in the modern world, but back when people depended on healthy crops, and wild plants, for their very survival, this subtle seasonal shift was a real cause of celebration.
The day goes by many names: Imbolc, Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day – and more recently, Groundhog Day. On the Sacred Wheel of the Year, this day falls exactly between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Pagans call it a cross-quarter day. It’s a celebration of the return of the sunlight that nurtures not just the plants, but we humans as well.
(Apologies to readers in the Southern Hemisphere. You may want to just bookmark this to read in August. Your February holiday of course is Lammas – the direct opposite of Imbolc on the Wheel of the Year. You are halfway between summer and fall, and thus feeling the hints of summer’s wane and the time of turning within.)
Although according to our calendar January symbolizes fresh new beginnings, Imbolc is kind of like Mother Nature’s New Year.
For me, Imbolc feels like the ideal time to cultivate and nurture seeds of intention, those ideas that have been sprouting deep in my psyche. I’m lucky enough to live in a region where spring shows tiny hints of springing even this early on. I can smell it in the evening breeze and I can hear it in the chorus of frogs that begin their seasonal songs outside my bedroom window.
You might want to harness this natural energy of the season to cultivate your own intentions. Maybe you’re ready to begin a new healthy habit, maybe you have a project inside you that’s ready to be birthed. Scroll down for some ideas for mini-rituals to affirm your new beginnings.
What’s This About A Groundhog?
In the U.S. and Canada there’s a funny little ritual around a groundhog that marks this day. It started back in the mid-1800’s in Pennsylvania, when some folks decided that a groundhog named Phil could predict how much longer winter would hold the region in its freezing grip.
The idea caught on and towns and villages across the continent celebrate Groundhog Day by gathering around a burrow and checking to see if the resident groundhog will see his shadow when he emerges on February 2nd.
As most of us know, if the groundhog sees his shadow (i.e if the day is clear and sunny), we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If his shadow is obscured by clouds we’ll be blessed with an early spring.
For years I laughed this off as a silly media-hype gimmick. After all, there’s not much else going on between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day so they had to think of something to excite people.
An Ancient Celebration
It turns out, though, that the Groundhog ritual has some deep roots. Just like most of our modern holidays and celebrations, it matches up with a pre-Christian holy day. I don’t think feasting figured too prominently in Imbolc rituals, as people were just hoping their food stores would last until true spring brought its nourishing wild greens. But they honored this day with symbolic shrines, with fires, with seeds, and with water purifications.
In ancient Britain early February marked the time to pay tribute to Brigid, the Celtic goddess of regeneration and abundance. Known as Bride in Scotland, she was the young maiden of Spring, fragile yet growing stronger each day as the sun rekindled its fire, turning scarcity into plenty.
Behind her girlish innocence was the power of a once-great ancestral deity. Brigid means “The Exalted One,” and she was revered as queen and mother goddess of many European tribes.
In keeping with the policy of the early Catholic Church to subsume pagan festivals into Christian feast-days, this cross quarter day celebration became Candlemas, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Others called it St. Brigid’s Day for Ireland’s much-loved saint. (Do you think it was a coincidence that the saint had the same name as the goddess?)
Harking back to Druid times, medieval Irish and Scottish peasants carried an effigy of Brigid from door to door. Young girls dressed in white to represent the saint and handed out a Brigid’s Cross to each household. They used rushes or straw to make these crosses (which looked like symbols of the sun rather than crucifixion replicas). People hung them in their house or stable, to honor the goddess saint and to gain her protection.
Candlemas has long been regarded as a festival of lights. In the dark and gloomy days of February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as members of the congregation carried lighted candles to be blessed by the priest. Ancient Romans also celebrated the approaching spring in February with their own Festival of Lights – burning candles to honor Juno Februata, the virgin mother of Mars.
Today modern pagans celebrate the turning of the Wheel with various rituals – from the most simple and solitary to elaborate gatherings and feasts.
Five Ways to Honor Nature’s New Beginnings
Invite Mother Nature to aid you in realizing your goals and intentions. Lift your mood during the lengthening winter days of early February.
- Bundle up if necessary and head outside for a walk. Keep your eyes peeled for subtle signs of spring’s emergence – maybe it’s a colorful crocus emerging, a tiny bud clinging to a branch, or even a flock of birds heading northward. Maybe you have to invent it. Just know that spring is coming as the fresh air whips some color into your cheeks.
- If you haven’t done this already, clear your house of any greenery and decorations hanging around from the winter holidays. Candlemas is traditionally a day when all the Yuletide decorations were burned in a bonfire.
- Make a commitment to yourself (almost like a New Year’s resolution, but call it a Candlemas commitment.) State that intention to a friend or a loved one. Light a candle to affirm it.
- Clear your space. Clean out the old and make way for the new. Gather up some unwanted possessions and give them away. Dust and polish the areas where you collect meaningful objects.
- Plant something. Tuck some seeds or a bulb into a pot or scatter them in your garden. Affirm your intentions for the new season as you plant.
If this idea of acknowledging the Wheel of the Year – and creating ritual around the changing seasons – appeals to you, dip into some of this suggested reading to learn more history and specifics.
Sacred Celebrations: A Sourcebook, by Glennie Kindred
Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, by Pauline Campanelli
How about you? Does this time of year mean anything to you? Do you have any favorite practices or rituals that celebrate the approaching spring?