The period between the New Year’s celebration and the spring equinox has a few legal holidays but not much in the way of celebration of the sort that dispels the gloom of the overcast skies of dead of winter. This, plus the desire to remember my grandmother and her Irish ways are two of the reasons I like to celebrate the the ancient Gaelic holiday of Imbolc. Although my grandmother celebrated it as Candlemas, the customs came from the much older traditions. Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and there is evidence of it’s observance in much earlier times. It was and continues to be a time of purification. and a celebration of light. Imbolc was originally considered to be the beginning of spring and is connected with the lambing and calving season.
One tradition I follow is giving the house a thorough cleaning, especially the fireplace and hearth. With the house shut up for the winter, it can get a little stale with the heating system on all the time and no way to get fresh air from outside. An old tradition says as part of the preparation a birch branch should be used to symbolically sweep the floors and purify the house. As it happens, I saved the branches of a birch I was forced to cut down as it was growing too close to the foundation, so I will make a broom of them to give the rooms a ritual sweeping.
My cleaning for Imbolc is an annual ritual and takes most of the day before the actual holiday. I will light a large white jar candle and carry it from room to room as I clean. I start with the fireplace. I used to start with the kitchen stove but traditionally, the hearth is the center of the home and therefore the fireplace hearth supplanted the kitchen stove. I will clean out the hearth and in my newly cleaned fireplace lay the wreath of greens saved from Yule. Then I begin with a regular cleaning, from room to room, first the living room and dining room. There is little to do in the dining room since I don’t use it for dining, but as a place for the cat’s carriers, and the the recycling and firewood bins. The biggest job is re-doing the Ward case and the plants in it. I noticed how dirty the glass has become as the afternoon sun has shifted to shine through it.
Next comes the bedroom and the office. As I have been simplifying and clearing there is less to do in those rooms now. It is still too soon to switch from winter linens but the cats blankets and beds will get shaken out and sprinkled with catnip. The bathroom and the kitchen are always last since I have to use cleaners and mop rather than sweep the floors. I can close the bathroom doors but not the kitchen, so cleaning with cats in the house must be done with care. I don’t want them running across wet floors and then licking bleach water off their feet. That could cause a nasty case of diarrhea. I leave the jar candle on the stove after I finish to banish the smell of bleach and let the floor dry. I’m usually done by late afternoon, leaving time for a cup of tea and a meditation session.
A festive and appropriate Imbolc meal should have dairy foods or foods that suggest the sun. After a full day of cleaning, both regular and ritual, I know I will not want to do a lot of food prep and cooking. As in years past I will bring out the slow cooker, knowing a bowl of hot soup is easily the centerpiece of a good meal without the work of cooking. Deciding on a soup was easy this year. I had cooked all the Samhain pumpkins and had a several containers of pumpkin mash in the freezer, so pumpkin soup will be on the menu. This, with an accompaniment of bread and cheese will be a meal fit preparation for next day’s rituals.
Imbolc is an occasion for weather divination. The origin of same dated Ground Hog Day may lie in the older custom of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens. Then there is the legend of the Calleach, the mystical ancient Gaelic hag, which has it that if she wants to make the winter last longer, she will ensure the weather on Imbolc is sunny and clear so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, bad weather on Imbolc was a sign that winter was almost over. On the day itself I will naturally check the weather on rising, and then perhaps check in with Phil, the resident prognosticator of Punxatawny PA, the nemesis of Bill Murray in the namesake movie.
Imbolc is considered by many to be the time to bless seeds before they are started indoors in northern climates. After my soup I’ll bring out my big herb basket which I use over winter to store the packets of seeds I’ve saved from the prior harvest. This I’ll put on the sideboard between the dining and living rooms and surround with clusters of white tapers and tea lights for the blessing the next day.
On the next morning after checking in with the ground hog and completing the morning’s routine, I’ll light the candles on the sideboard and bless the seeds. I’ll leave them burning, shedding their magical light and summoning the sun to return, while I take some time to enjoy the candlelight and the peace of the day and the cat’s get a treat of stewed lamb.