Category Archives: Imbolc

The Bridge: Winter to Spring

Even in our contemporary, mostly urban, not so agrarian age, as distanced as we’ve become from nature and its rhythms, still, we have a pretty good understanding of the seasons. We know about solstices, we know about equinoxes, we know when spring has come and summer, fall, and winter. But we have, in general, lost touch with some handy units of measure: the cross quarter days. The cross quarter days mark the approximate halfway point between solstice and equinox. If we think of the year as a clock, and if we place the December solstice at 12 and the June solstice at 6, and if we place the March equinox at 3 and the September equinox at 9… well, we can divide things a little further and place the four cross quarter days at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30.

Traditionally, the cross quarter days are marked by holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter; life was descending below the earth. As February begins, we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marked by St. Brigid’s Day on the 1st and on the 2nd, Candlemas and Groundhog Day. This period marks the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure (it was 28 below zero at my aunt’s house in Illinois just last night)… but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February. St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of the month. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives.

If you’ve been holding on to Christmas, this is the time to let it go. In some traditions, tonight marks the end of the Christmas season. Indeed, it is considered bad luck to have any remnants of Christmas greenery in the house beyond Candlemas Eve, which also comes this first night of February. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” Spring may be coming as we find ourselves forty days past midwinter, but the darkness of those darkest nights still closely lingers, and that light is still a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. Follow that with a meal of crepes (a European Candlemas tradition) or tamales and hot chocolate (the tradition in Mexico). One of the finest songs for this day and for those who follow these ways is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Candlemas is an old weather marker, too. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. And while Candlemas itself is not paid much attention these days here in the States, this remnant of the day remains in our tradition of Groundhog Day.

The photo above is of St. Brigid’s Well at Cullion, County Westmeath, in Ireland. The cross above the name is a St. Brigid’s Cross, and it is traditional on her day to fashion crosses in this shape from reeds. Photograph by Laineylee [2015, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons].


The Bridge

No matter what happens in our lives––times of sadness, times of joy––our planet continues to do what it does: spin on its axis and orbit the sun. These are the celestial mechanics of a universe ruled by gravity. The spinning causes our passing days and nights and the orbiting, our seasons, and today, thanks to that constant progression around the sun, we find ourselves just about midway between the midwinter solstice of December and the spring equinox of March.

As a halfway point in the seasonal round it is known as a cross-quarter day, one that in Celtic tradition is called Imbolc: the start, in traditional reckoning of time, of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The Church gave the day to St. Brigid, or St. Brigit, but me, I like the Brigid version because it looks more like “bridge,” which is what Brigid does: she bridges us from one perspective to the next, from winter to spring’s first stirrings. It will, for sure, be a long while before winter loses its grip, but Brigid gives us the assurance that it will happen, for nothing stays the same in the Earth’s daily migration along its path. Winter will give way to spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, winter to spring again. “The only thing that stays the same is change,” say the Waterboys in an old song of theirs, and they are right.

It is traditional for St. Brigid’s Day to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds (this is what you see in today’s photograph, above), as well as to leave an oat cake and butter on a windowsill in your home. This, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and bless all who live there. Brigid bridges us also to Candlemas, which comes tomorrow, and tonight, being Candlemas Eve, marks the true and official end of the Christmas season. If there still remain vestiges of yuletide greenery in your home, this is the night to remove them. And so tonight return to nature what is hers––the rosemary, bays, mistletoe, holly, ivy, all––if for no other reason than that soon enough, the earth itself will once again be erupting in green.

Image: St. Brigid’s Cross by Liscannorman [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons.


Shine All Around Us by Day and by Night


It’s the Second of February: Groundhog Day in the United States. It’s a day that every school kid knows, which is impressive for a traditional weather marker day, for there are scores of traditional weather marker days throughout the year… but this is the one that has endured. It all centers on one groundhog in a town in Pennsylvania, and it relates to the story of Imbolc that began yesterday, for there begins the underground stirrings of this old Earth, awakening from long dark winter. As the earth awakens, so does Punxsutawney Phil. Should he emerge from his underground burrow this morning to see his shadow, it will mean forty days more of winter. No shadow? An early spring. This relates to centuries-old weather lore for this day, like this:

If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day,
The half of the winter’s not yet away.

Today, at Candlemas, churches will be blessing the candles they will use the year long. But at home there are traditions we can follow that are more akin to the central core of this time of year, with its focus on the coming of spring. Spring comes because the sun is returning––we have reached, in the Northern Hemisphere, the halfway point between the darkness of the winter solstice and the balance of the spring equinox. One of the easiest and most enjoyable customs for Candlemas is this: At sunset, we light every lamp in the house. And hey, I know we’re busy people… so if it’s well after sunset before your whole family is gathered in the house, then so be it, do it then. There is something fun and wacky and maybe even a little decadent about doing this, though, and so we run around the house turning on every light, lighting every candle, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And in this simple act, you’ve connected to a custom that goes back through the ages.

Dinner, if you want to continue following old customs, might be crepes, which is a European tradition. In Mexico, tamales and hot chocolate are customary. (Hot chocolate with dinner? That’s pretty decadent, too.) The point is, no matter what, to celebrate the fact that light is returning, for it is: once we pass that point of equinox in March, daylight will begin taking over night once again.

Candlemas begins as the day that Mary went to the temple for the rite of purification, which is a Jewish custom: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. And so here we are, forty days past Christmas. Tonight is the night to take down the Christmas decorations, should you still have them up. And so we pack up what is left, save it for next midwinter, and we return the Christmas greenery to nature, returning the gifts we borrowed for the Yuletide season. Leaving things longer than tonight invites bad luck (and also puts us out of step with the seasonal round of the year).

But we rarely leave one holiday completely as we jump to the next; usually they are connected, like steps along a footbridge. Yesterday St. Brigid bridged us from winter to spring, and so today with Candlemas we find ourselves at the opposite side of a bridge that began with Christmas. Mary went to the temple carrying her infant son forty days after his birth and it was there at the temple that she met the elders Anna and Simeon. The elders, wise and all-seeing, recognized the child immediately as the light of the world. This is the story basis for Candlemas, for the blessing of candles this day, and the connexion between the story and the celestial events that bring us closer to spring. And so here is my favorite music for Candlemas: It’s an old hymn called “Jesus, the Light of the World,” recorded by one of my favorite ensembles, the Boston Camerata. It’s from their album An American Christmas. I think of it as more a Candlemas song than a Christmas song, and it’s a fine song to sing or hum as you light all those lamps in the house and a fine album to play as the last vestiges of Christmas are stored away for yet another year.

As for Punxsutawney Phil, this morning he did not see his shadow. Spring will come early, they say.


Image: “Alte Frau mit Knaben bei Kerzenlicht” (Old Woman with Boys by Candlelight), attributed to Johann Georg Trautmann. Oil on wood, 17th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Tagged , , ,