Auspicious Occasions: Seasons, Cycles, and Celebrations
Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Deep in Midwinter
Most people think of there being four seasons, each one beginning with a solstice or an equinox -- one of the four cosmic corner stone power points of the year. This is only partially true. There are, in addition, four celestially energetic pivotal periods of the year which occur at the exact halfway point of each season. These stations are called cross-quarter days and they bring to a total of eight the notable turnings of annual time. The halfway points serve as sort of semi-seasons, which, if we choose to observe them, help us to perceive and adjust to the changes around and within us.
The interesting thing about the cross-quarter days is that even though their existence is largely unknown, the holidays which have grown up around them are still actively celebrated in our mass culture, albeit without any conscious understanding of their original significance. February 2, May 1, August 2, and November 1 mark the halfway points of winter, spring, summer and fall, respectively. We know and love them as Ground Hog's Day, May Day, Lammas and All Saints' Day/Halloween. All, with the exception of Lammas -- known as Second Planting only in agricultural communities -- are still popular and vital festivals celebrated throughout the United States today. Rooted in ancient pagan and primal observances of cyclical change, these rites have survived through time and retain a strong, if subliminal, resonating relevance for us today.
February 2 marks the winter mid point. If the spring equinox signals the season of birth in nature, then the midwinter cross-quarter day can be likened to the quickening of life. That magic moment when an expectant mother experiences the child within her shift position for the very first time. Yikes! It's alive! Until this instant, her pregnancy was a purely abstract concept; academic, like spring seems when the days are dreary, short and cold. It isn't yet time for the birth, but it is a cheering comfort to know that there is growth and movement. That mother nature is progressing in her timely manner. And all mom has to do is wait. It isn't spring, yet, but it is coming.
Prophecy and purification are the recurrent mythic and symbolic themes of the midwinter festivals. The concept of prophecy is drawn from the foresight and faith that spring -- in all its verdant glory -- is on its predictable way, even though the hard white winter still surrounds us. Purification suggests our careful preparations for its coming. Clearing the way with the fiery brilliance of insight which comes from visiting the deep, dark internal winter of our souls and seeing therein our own part in the constant and continually changing cycles of life.
It is in midwinter when the land is gripped in death that Ceres, the old Goddess of Good Grain and All Fertility (who later became Demeter in Greek mythology) descends to the underworld in pursuit of Her lost dear daughter, Persephone. Disconsolate, Ceres explores the far reaches of the territories of Hades and Her own private hell; Her journey lit by a single candle. The impassioned determination of Her search and Her ultimate discovery sheds the first glimmer of light in the indelible dark of winter -- the creative spark of full consciousness. With the light from Her candle we can begin to see the spiritual direction of the new cycle.
In Greece there is an underground sanctuary dedicated to Hades, God of the Underworld, and Persephone, his stolen bride. For millennia, pilgrims have made their way to the Nekyomanteion of Ephra, a labyrinthine arrangement of spiral-shaped rooms and passageways carved into the belly of Mother Earth. Manteion means "a place in which one hears prophesy" and nekyo or necro refers to the dead. Petitioners descend deep into the divine womb by way of a serpentine tunnel leading to a cavernous dark chamber which sits above a crypt. There, encouraged by Ceres' resolve, in the unsteady light of just one torch, they consult the oracles of the dead for inspiration, for direction. "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness," their motto.
Midwinter was celebrated as Imbolc by the ancient Celts, and also as an early Gaelic fire festival. Both were held in honor of Bridget, a.k.a. Brigid, Bride, Brigetis, the Northern White Goddess, guardian of the home fire and hearth. Fire was the symbol of her white hot mystic magic. The intense heat of the flame, her fervent faith in the return of the light to the world. Today, the day belongs to her spiritual daughter, Saint Brigid, adored patron saint of Ireland.
The hagiographic accounts of St. Brigid are few and flimsy and quite transparent. She was allegedly Ireland's first convert to Christianity and the founder of that country's first convent in the fifth century. She continued to be honored just as the Goddess was before her, and the worship practices of her devotees did not change over the centuries. A holy fire, reminiscent of those kept constantly burning by the worshippers of her earlier goddess incarnation, was maintained at her shrine in Kildare until it was finally ordered doused by the Church in the thirteenth century. Until not so long ago, domestic fires were routinely extinguished on her day, February 1, and then rekindled and blessed in a preparatory act of purification.
In Rome, the midwinter day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of Mars. Februare, in Latin, means "to expiate, to purify." Here, too, fires were lit, and candles were blessed and burned in her honor. Women also continued to carry candles in street processions at this same time of year in memory of Ceres' candlelit search below ground. Determined to stem this irritating and irrepressible goddess worship, Pope Sergius claimed this pagan holiday for the church. Renamed Candlemas, February 2 was to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, forty days after She had given birth. The observance, however, remained the same -- the blessing and burning of candles for Our Lady of Light.
Two indigenous New World celebrations echo this practice. In Aztec Mexico, all fires were extinguished at the winter mid point. There followed five dark days during which there was a period of inactivity and sorrowing. Then the Aztec New Year was ushered in with the ritual relighting of the fires, feasting and festing. In the Iroquois six-day midwinter New Year ceremony, members of the False Face Society visit every home in the community. They put out the fire in each stove, stir up the ashes and then blow them onto the inhabitants as a curative rite. These purification ceremonies of renewed fire suggest a clearing of humanity's earthly orientation in order to be open to the growing divine light.
Midwinter is when the sun first reappears in Siberia after the months-long polar winter. At this most eagerly awaited, wondrous time, the Nganasan people celebrate the Clean Tent Ceremony, the premiere rite of their ritual calendar. A special "clean tent" is erected in the village and here the shaman sits for three to nine days while the children dance and play outside the tent. Encased in dark isolation, surrounded by the insular sound of her beating heart pulsing in prayer, s/he seeks the guiding light of the spirit and invokes the protection of the god/desses for all the people and the whole of nature for the year to come.
Li Ch'un, which means "Spring Begins," is celebrated in the more temperate climate of China during the first week of February as determined by a lunar calendar. At this time, the new almanacs for the year are issued. The people are then informed of the agricultural prospects predicted for the coming year through the means of effigies which are drawn through the streets. These spring oxen are dressed according to the weather forecasts listed in the almanac. If the head is yellow, they know that great heat is foretold for the coming summer; green tells of a lot of sickness in the spring; red denotes drought; black shows rain; and white means high winds and storms to come.
On this halfway marker of the winter, it is customary in many places to foretell future weather conditions. In Greece, people maintain that whatever the weather on Candlemas day, it will continue the same for the forty days to follow.
The Latin ditty predicts:
The Scottish say:
The Welsh tell:
In Warwickshire, they advise:
And in Cumbria, they warn:
The winter cross-quarter
day is also a time of weather prediction in Germany, where farmers claim
they "would rather see wife upon a bier, than that Candlemas Day
be sunny and clear." Midwinter is designated Badger Day in recognition
of the underground movement toward life which is manifest in this season.
When the first wave of German farmers emigrated to this country, they
brought Badger Day with them. Faced with a local lack of badgers, the
Pennsylvania settlers were forced to substitute the American ground hog
in its stead. And Ground Hog's Day has ever since continued to pique our
OK. Now pay attention. This is how it works: if the ground hog sees her shadow, it means that there are still six more weeks of winter. If she doesn't see her shadow, it means that spring is only six weeks away. Tricky, eh? There are always six more weeks of winter. Spring is always six weeks away. That is why we mark the day in the first place. To remind us that winter is half over. To access our situation. According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, by Ground Hog's Day you should still have half of your food store and half of your fuel if you are going to make it through the remainder of winter.
With the first sensing of the coming of spring at midwinter, we find ourselves antsy, anxious to emerge from our inward focus already. We strain toward the annual vernal miracle of rebirth and resurrection. We yearn for the light. But it isn't yet time for spring, and spring always starts on time. First we have to finish winter.
At midwinter, we still have six more weeks before we will emerge from the dark. It can't always be light, you know. If we always run in pursuit of the light, we miss half of each day, half of each year. Half of our feelings. Half of our lives. And, besides, there are some things that you can only learn in the dark. As Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace, "It is misery, not pleasure, which contains the secret of the divine wisdom."
We are like frightened little children who need a night light. We forget that the light is always there -- somewhere -- anyway. We just can't see it when it's dark. It's like the dark side of the moon which we perceive only as absence of light, failing to recognize the dark richness of its own ambiance, its own energy. Its own invaluable lessons. The dark offers us a chance for enlightenment, but our eyes fail us in the shadows. And so we panic, preferring anything to the pitch, the petrifying recesses, of the truth of our own souls.
This terror is the
turning point. The time for determination. It is at this critical moment
that we can consciously choose to dwell in the dark for a while longer
-- for as long as it takes -- despite our fear. We can decide to take
it on and take it in. To deal with it. To go where it takes us. To explore
the blind byways of our pain, inching along, feeling our way with our
tongues if we have to. To plumb our emotional depths and mine that precious
secret ore of our own heartfelt experience. To feel our heart, actually
break, explode apart, like a geode, revealing the glittering crystals
growing inside. To engage passionately in all that life has to offer.