Green Wizardries, Celebrating Imbolc, by Maxine Rogers
Here is a reason to celebrate: February third this year is the day the Imbolc season starts. Imbolc is an old Irish Gaelic word meaning ewe’s milk. This is the season the lambs start being born. Mine are not expected until May when it is nice and warm and there is a lot of nice grass for the ewes but that is another story.
Imbolc is all about the spark of life returning to the land: little dandelion seedlings bravely thrusting their leaves up from the cold soil, tiny red flowers promising nuts on the hazel bushes, snowdrops shouldering aside the cold clay to bloom in the frost. That is what Imbolc is all about. It is a season of beginnings, hope and unstoppable life force.
Imbolc is celebrated by a lot of modern Pagans. It is a nice holiday because we also share it with the Christians. They used to call Imbolc, “Camdlemas,” and used to bring out every candle to be used in the church that year to be blessed in a candlelit mass. They saw Imbolc as Christ’s light coming back into the world. The lambs of Imbolc must have reminded them of their Lamb of God. I say they used to celebrate because they have gone all modern and neglect this lovely holiday. Maybe some of them will read this and be inspired by our celebrations.
I am a Druid and we only recently came to celebrate Imbolc and the other three Celtic fire festivals. The modern pagan calendar was made up in the middle of the twentieth century by Ross Nichols, head of a Druid order in Britain, and Gerald Gardner who was one of the creators of the modern Wiccan tradition. The Druids contributed the Solstices and the Equinoxes and the Wiccans the four Fire Festivals and that, dear readers, is how we got the Eight Great festivals of the pagan year.
Imbolc is sacred to the Mother Goddesses and the Irish fire Goddess Brighid in particular. Brighid seems to me to be an awful lot like the Roman Goddess Vesta who was the Goddess of the hearth. Brighid pushes the world to live again and brings back the sun. That is why we make Brighid’s crosses. These are not replicas of torture devices to hang a man on but, rather, equal-armed crosses made of sedge grass that are sun symbols. The crosses are kept by the heart of the home whether that is the fireplace or the kitchen. They are also placed in the stables to protect the livestock.
We also make Brighid dolls by taking a handful of long sedge grass and bending it over in the middle. The top is Brigid’s head and is tied at the neck with twine or yarn. More yarn is tied at her waist and below that, the grasses are spread out to make her skirt. A smaller bundle of sedge is passed through the torso of the doll to make arms. Then, we dress the doll in a cloth cape because Brighid is famous for her encircling, protective cape. The last act of dressing the Brighid is to slip a leaf under her belt to act as her apron. The leaf can come from an oak if you are lucky enough to have one or, because this is the West Coast, we could use a bit of red cedar bark or a salal leaf.
On the night of January 31, the old crosses and dolls from the past year are respectfully burned and replaced with the new ones made of fresh sedge. In Ireland, they call sedge grasses, reeds which causes some confusion.
The British Druids have a lovely ritual with many prayers for fertility and abundance and thanks for all nature gives us. Part of the ceremony involves filling a wide shallow bowl with the waters of life and placing eight candles in the water and lighting them as an offering to Brighid. The candles in the water symbolize the rising light of spring emerging from the creative feminine waters.
The celebrations of Imbolc include the usual feasting with friends. Milk and dairy products figure largely in the feasts as it is the time of ewe’s milk. Seed cakes, cookies and crackers are also served because of their symbolism of the spring planting of seeds and the life to come. All this is washed down with glasses of mead or cider. It is a poor heart that never rejoices!
Other things to do to celebrate the season include planting some seeds with prayers to Brighid that they flourish. Plant seeds in your life. Decide to renew a friendship or make a new friendship. Learn to sing, or play music. Decide to learn a craft. Clean your house and throw out anything that is neither useful nor beautiful. Do a one to three day fast to improve your health. Take a long walk and look for signs of spring. Read or write poems about spring. Have a long bath with candles floating in the water. Start a new garden bed.
It is certainly time to start the onion and leek seeds. They come first every year and a are a very grateful crop on our islands. Last year was my first year growing onions and like my leeks, no pest or insect bothered them. They were quite trouble free and so very tasty. I still have some onions from last summer’s garden and they are as crisp and perfect as they day we hung them on ropes.
We still have a lot of leeks standing proudly in the garden and they are wonderful in soups. It is also a good month to start celery and celeriac plants. I grew some celeriac plants last summer and have just been harvesting them for a very tasty grated salad. The rabbits love their green tops as a treat.
February is the last month you have to finish the pruning of fruit trees and bushes including kiwi and grape vines. Disinfect your tools between each tree!
It is already late if you haven’t obtained all your seeds. I really like the seeds from Sweet Rock Farm on Gabriola Island and buy a lot of seeds from them. Sweet Rock is a small family farm and grow all their seeds organically.