The Meaning of Imbolc
Ever heard of the holiday “Imbolc”? Probably definitely not. For starters, it’s really boring. It’s almost certainly ill-timed, and it’s arguably unnecessary. Seriously, I think the even pagans, who ostensibly observe it, are bored to tears by it. Everybody knows about the “quarter days” of the solar calendar—the beginnings of winter and summer at the solstices and the beginnings of spring and fall at the equinoxes—but most people ignore or forget the fact that there are four other holidays that lie exactly between the quarter days. Imbolc is one of them. These are the cross-quarter days, and most of them are boring to some degree.
It’s sort of my job to mark the ancient sacred holidays which in turn mark the sacred cosmic cycle of the solar calendar—and even I just skipped right over it. Yeah, it happened already, three weeks ago now. I mean, seriously, the thing happens on either January 31 or February 1, depending upon your preference. Look, I love holidays and I’m always out there saying as a society are in dire need of some meaningful shared celebrations, but it’s tough to make the argument that we’re going to celebrate in some fashion for three weeks for the winter holy days, all the way up to January 6th, and then celebrate something else right away, before we’ve even gotten back into the groove of regular living.
It doesn’t help that it was invented by the Gaelic people to celebrate the beginning of spring. Maybe you’re reading this from someplace without seasons, but if you’re anywhere near me, you’ll look out your window and it really doesn’t look like spring out there. It looks like the middle of winter. They had a god who was basically named Bridget and they would make a little Bridget doll carried from house to house, where people would make little homes for Bridget the god-doll in order to receive her blessings. I love weird rituals, man, but is that really worth replicating?
No, it looks like the middle of winter out there because it is the middle of winter. Or, at least, it was when Imbolc came and went three weeks ago. Just about exactly halfway between the solstice and the equinox. Clearly, even now, there’s a lot of snow and wintery stuff going on out there…but, all disparaging jokes aside, there are some pretty telling signs that spring is around the corner, aren’t there? Even if we don’t feel them, they’re there. It’s a tiny, tiny bit light outside when I leave work at 5. That hasn’t been true in what seems like forever. Sometimes I even wake up to a little bit of light out the window. That didn’t used to be true, either—not even three weeks ago, in fact. I hate to break it to you, but (I kid, nobody’s really going to be disappointed) Daylight Savings Time starts in like two weeks. Seriously. Get ready, because here it comes.
Maybe I’m being really flippant in today’s special Unity Tuesday post, but that’s actually the basic but serious point I think is asking to be made here. I can’t justify the effort required to actually celebrate this mid-winter holiday, but if we seek to take advantage of the year’s cycles—the assumption is that we do—there is a key element we would do well to consider in passing mid-winter.
Get ready, because here it comes.
Winter is a time when all of nature, including ourselves, requires rest. It is a time when activity slows down, when energy, internal and external, is subdued. It is time to recharge for the great life of the year that will soon burst forth from the ground—but not yet. There’s still snow on the ground. The trees are still bare and listless, the birds sparse and mostly crows (who are still pretty great), the mammals hardly anywhere to be seen. We’ve still got a long time before it’s time for any seeds to be planted.
Perhaps you are familiar with the notion, introduced by the third hexagram of the I Ching, that there exists apparent chaos at the beginning of things, but even within that chaos, the order that lies in the future is already there, laying implicit and hidden but visible to those who look with the right eyes and enough sincerity. There’s nothing strange or mystical about that, either, because the implicit order in large part has been foundationally laid down by you yourself, even if you weren’t aware of it. Your thoughts about the year 2013, your prejudices from 2012, your opinion of the present and the near future, these are all just some of the elements that will be revealed as key themes and major manifestations over the course of the life cycle of the year.
When the spring comes, your spirit will leap forth like the grass and the weeds from the ground and the animals and the flowers on the flower trees. Within a month, it’s going to be just about time to start planting things, both in the dirt and in a metaphorical sense. These seeds and seedlings are the plants and ideas you’re going to spend the light months of the year cultivating, the fruits of which you’ll start harvesting in summer and finish in the great harvesting season of the fall.
So what about right now, then? Well, now, let’s be honest. You’ve probably gotten almost enough rest, right? You probably (hopefully) gained joy from the celebrations surrounding the solstice, and you’ve probably (hopefully) spent a goodly amount of time increasing your girth and sitting on your ass without much ambition. If you’re anything like me, you’re glad for it, but you’re already pretty sick of it, and feel in poor form. You’re ready for the spring to come.
But are you?
Have you given much thought to what kind of seeds you want to plant? Make any decisions? If you have any ideas for what this year ought to be, do you have any plans for specific tasks or activities in which you intend to engage in the service of those ideas—or, dare I say it, goals? You see, here’s the thing. Just like the seeds or seedlings you might literally plant in an actual garden (with dirt and everything), you’re going to want to be making these moves pretty much as soon as you’re sure there won’t be any more frost. That’s a little ways past even the equinox, sure, but let’s consider some of the advantages of having the blueprints drawn up even in advance of the official coming of spring.
First of all, we just may be ready for a little more celebrating come March Madness/St. Patrick’s Day/March 18th/St. Joseph’s Day/Equinox Day. Even if it’s hard to imagine in your stuffy winter soul right now, surely that little list arouses the possibility in your mind. Let it flourish! The coming of spring is the resurrection of life and the mercy of the heavens and the beginning of what I believe is indisputably the best part of the year in a temperate climate region. It is to be a joyous time, perhaps not bacchanalian, but certainly not ponderous. It’s not time to withdraw into your hole or your self and meditate on the state of things. No, it’s the time to come out of your hole! The time when you are in your hole is right now! Right now, when we are still stuck inside even though we’re pretty much done with it, when we’re probably going to have to deal with at least a couple more weeks of this (hey, let me be nonsensically optimistic, I’m a New Englander), what better time than now to make the final preparations of winter to be fully ready, maybe even early, for the coming of spring?
If you really want to try and take advantage of the natural annual cycle, just use the next couple of weeks to potentially do the following:
- Think of the activities in which you may want to engage or the tasks required to make progress towards any goal you may have set. If it’s a creative project you have in mind, you may want to get started at least in the most preliminary stages right now. Be like the Gaelics and let this be your beginning of spring a few weeks early. In fact, any ideas you may have, whether your goal be creative or practical or vague and ill-defined, that can be initiated in some minor way immediately, should be initiated. Start slow—if you start now, you have that luxury. But if these are things that require a later date, set one for April or May and know that you need to hit that benchmark or you’ll miss the planting season.
- Think about what organizational system you might need to establish and start implementing it, or what habits you need to cultivate and start cultivating them. When the Equinox arrives, you’re going to want to be able to kick back, kick open, have a few laughs for a few days, and then sit down behind the wheel of the spaceship knowing you’ve set it all up and it’s ready for launch. By the time planting season comes, you may well know each seed and all its nuances and guess at what kind of planting and cultivation it’s going to need.
- Get your final rest. You don’t think you do, but you still probably need a little bit of laziness and a little bit of introverted hibernation. Don’t deny yourself this. Even as you start to think about ramping things up, make sure you store up all the energy you can. There may well be no more time to lay around before you even know it.
So happy Imbolc, I guess! Blessings be upon you and all of your sheep and cattle. Salaam.