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Northern Hemisphere: February 1st or 2nd
Southern Hemisphere: August 1st or 2nd
Pronounced: IM-bulk, IM-molg, or imb-OLC
Themes: quickening, hope, renewal, fertility, purification, hearth & home, return of the light
Also known as: Brigid’s Day, Oimelc, Feast of Torches, Feast of Pan, Lupercalia, Snowdrop Festival, Feast of the Waxing Light
Although the Spring Equinox is our modern designation for the official beginning of spring, it was Imbolc that traditionally heralded the end of winter in the pagan world.
As the mid-point of the traditional dark half of the year, which begins with Samhain and ends at Beltane, Imbolc marks the time when the grip of winter begins to soften and the Earth starts to come back to life. For people who live in northern climates, where snow and ice dominate the landscape, this is truly a celebration of hope and possibility, as the light grows stronger each day, and subtle signs of the coming of spring begin to emerge.
The days are noticeably lengthening now, as the Sun God’s power begins to grow. Among different Wiccan traditions he is described variously as an infant nursing at the Goddess’ breast and as a young boy making his way toward maturity. Either way, he is a waxing presence in the sky, higher and more visible with each passing day.
The Goddess, in the form of the Earth, is stirring from her rest following the birth of the God. We see this manifesting as the frozen ground begins to thaw, crocuses and daffodils poke through the surface, and the first birds pass through on their return migration from the southern climates. This is the time when the three-fold aspect of the Goddess shifts from Crone back into Maiden, as the air takes on a hint of youthful energy in the anticipation of warmer days just around the corner. Our ancestors paid close attention to these early signs of spring. In fact, in the earliest days, the actual date of festival would have been determined by them—for example, once the blackthorns came into bloom.
The cross-quarter day was a time for weather divination in many cultures. In Celtic lore, the length of the winter was determined by the divine hag Cailleach, who would come out to gather the last of her firewood. If she wanted to make the winter last awhile longer, she would make bright, sunny weather on Imbolc—this way she would enjoy a long day of gathering plenty of wood. If she slept through the day, the weather would be gloomy and cold, and the people would know that winter was nearly over.
A Scottish tradition held that Brighid’s serpent emerged from under the Earth on Imbolc to test the weather. If it remained above ground, the winter would end soon, but if it returned to its home, another month or more of cold weather was in store. Germanic tribes followed a similar custom with bears and badgers, which in later centuries was adapted to the groundhog and his shadow on Groundhog’s Day in the U.S.
Imbolc also marks the beginning of the agricultural season, as the soil is being readied for the first planting and herd animals prepare to give birth. Farmers make needed repairs to their equipment before the season starts in earnest, and rituals for blessing tools and seeds are held at this time—a tradition going back for centuries, if not longer. In every aspect of life—for humans, animals and plants—it’s time to start moving around again after the long winter’s rest.
The name “Imbolc” itself comes from the ancient Irish and has been translated as “in the belly,” referring to the pregnancy of ewes. A related name for the holiday is “Oimelc,” meaning “ewe’s milk,” though this name seems more in use by modern Pagans than it was by the ancient Celts. These milk-producing livestock were crucial for survival for rural people in pre-modern times, especially at this point in the winter, when food stores might be running low or completely empty. So the onset of lambing season was definitely an occasion for celebration!
Purification is another central focus at Imbolc, stemming from the oldest days when dwellings had to be shut tight against the cold for months and bathing was a very infrequent activity. At the first sign of thaw, it was time to throw open the doors, cleanse the house of the stuffy, stale air, and jump into the nearest body of water (once the ice had thawed, of course!). Sunlight was also a purifying force—a manifestation of the Element of Fire—and was taken advantage of as much as possible for renewing the body and the spirit.