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Imbolc: Pregnant with Our Lives

I have a friend who says that February is the longest month of the year. Even though this seems nonsensical, I know what she means. It's still deep winter, but the holidays are over, the Yule lights have been put away — and there's nothing much to distract from the bare, white winter landscape except for the frigid deep freeze. The cold keeps us inside more than usual, so many of us get cabin fever, that restless, bored, listless, frustrating desire for something you can't find unless you flee Wisconsin for the southlands.

February is the fallow time of year, with bleak landscapes that can either be beautiful in their stark simplicity or deadly boring because of their lack of color and activity. No iridescent hummingbirds hover at our back window these days as they did in summer, and the chickadees, nuthatches, juncos and downy woodpeckers who keep me entertained when they come to our feeder are black-and-white just like the season. The occasional cardinal is the exception that proves the rule. As a result of this lack of warmth and color, it can be a long and difficult time until spring.

This is the season of Brigid or Imbolc, the traditional pre-Christian holiday for this time of year (February 1st or 2nd), a holiday which has come down to us as Groundhog's Day, when Jimmy (or Punxatawny Pete) sees his shadow in the sunlight. Winter is half over (by the calendar at least) — but it is usually the coldest time of the year. Nature seems to be resting and preparing for the new life of spring. Covered with a blanket of snow, seeds that fell in the autumn are protected until spring when they begin to grow. All plant life seems to sleep in the death-like grip of winter, but the days are longer now, and the increasing sun promises the renewal of spring. Just like Jimmy, we emerge a little from our hibernation to look for the light.

In our agrarian past, when holidays were determined by the seasons and their weather, Imbolc or Brigid was the end of the Yule season, since Yule was celebrated for the six weeks of deep winter.

In our agrarian past, when holidays were determined by the seasons and their weather, Imbolc or Brigid was the end of the Yule season, since Yule was celebrated for the six weeks of deep winter. With increasing industrialization and increasing demands for productivity even during the winter months, the Yule holiday shrank in length — first to two weeks ending on 12th Night, then to one week ending on New Year's Day, and finally to a long weekend or even occasionally one day. Originally one of the purposes of Imbolc was to banish winter, easier to do in Northern Europe where winter is usually shorter and less severe than here in Wisconsin. This was done by burning Yule greens or a figure representing Winter, sometimes made of straw, sometimes resembling a snowman. The fire gave its sympathetic magic to strengthen the young sun and help to awaken the dormant life of the earth. The fires of Imbolc also symbolized the heat of the new growing season and the goddess's sexuality, which created the fertility of the land in the first place. When the church took over this holiday, it became Candlemas, and the priests lit candles to represent those fires. (I've often wondered what those celibate men thought they were doing?!)

© Thalia Took

As a celebration whose purpose it is to awaken new life out of the darkness and cold of winter, Imbolc has an interesting definition. It means "in the belly," referring to the gestation of nature and life in the belly of the Mother Goddess. Just like a pregnancy, all of nature at this time of year is pure potential, waiting to be fulfilled. At this time of year, something in us begins to quicken as our spirits long for the promise of rebirth, for spring, hopefully soon to come.

One of the goddesses celebrated at this season was the pan-Celtic Brigid, whose name means "the high one," indicating her sovereign and celestial nature. Brigid was a sun goddess found wherever there were Celts: Bride in Scotland, Briid in the Hebrides, Brigantia in Britain, Bridget in Ireland, and Brigindo in Southern France. She was the goddess of the holy well and sacred flame. So it is no surprise that over 3,000 Irish wells, ponds, and lakes are sacred to her. Under Catholicism, Bridget became a saint, but the nuns at her convent in County Kildare (which I visited when I was in Ireland several years ago) had some strangely pagan ways. They kept her sacred flame burning from the time of the abbey's founding in the 5th century until the fire was doused by the Archbishop of Dublin 600 years later. And in the last decade, they have rekindled her flame and burn it year-round.

© Thalia Took

Bridget (in pre-Celtic Ireland and Scotland) was part of a dual sun goddess. Her other half was the Hag or Cailleach (pronounced coy-luck), whose name means "the dark of the sun" or "the little sun" of winter. Bridget herself ruled the waxing sun of spring and summer. February 2nd was the time when this goddess renewed herself, going into a cave as the Cailleach and emerging again as the young Bridget, bringing life back to the worn and wintry world. This transformation is still symbolized (or was until recently) by Scottish and Irish farmers who made corn dollies out of the last sheaf of grain harvested in the fall. In early February these corn dollies were dressed up to renew their beauty, just as Bridget renewed her beauty by emerging from the cave of darkness, promising spring in her wake.

I'm a spring sort of person myself. I love the beginnings of new life all around me, the hustle and bustle of animals and birds who have just come back from hibernation or migration. Sometimes the waiting necessitated by winter can be hard for me. And like many North Americans, I grew up knowing that "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." If I am unproductive, then a part of me fears that I am lazy, indolent, slothful, just loafing around. I also find that the "rest before new growth" phase is not my psychological long suit. After I've planted a seed, I want it to come up, dammit! I often forget that just like the seasons, I need a period of germination before I can begin to see the new growth of a project, a seemingly fallow time before things really get underway.

I had an experience of this kind a number of years ago when I was first writing these seasonal reflections. I felt uncreative, a feeling that I particularly dislike, because it leaves me restless, frustrated, listless, all those adjectives that describe cabin fever. Instead of enjoying or at least riding out this fallow time, I simmered and bristled and agitated against it. I fumed against myself and against everything that seemed to be holding me back, including my then 14-year-old daughter. Like me, she spent her afternoon procrastinating. From 3:45 until 9:45 p.m., she hung out with six different friends. That would have been fine, except she had a paper due the next day. And she expected me to type it when she finished writing it! You can imagine the row! I realized later that my frustrations exacerbated the situation. Her unproductiveness mirrored my own lack of results and aggravated a difficult time in both of our lives.

Here in North America, we live in an impatient culture, a culture with a heavy dose of the Protestant work ethic. And like many other North Americans, I often expect myself to be productive instantly and on-time. Instead of railing, it would have been better to recognize my situation (and perhaps my daughter's situation) as the moment of germination, the time presided over by the Hag, by Brigid as the Cailleach, when life has not yet shown itself, but something is beginning to stir.

When I recognize her presence, Brigid can inspire me to honor the peace of germination and not always demand the bustle of new beginnings. Brigid can remind me that dark, fallow times — even those of chaos and frustration — are a part of the life cycle, just as breathing in is necessary before breathing out. Brigid can help me find the secret power of my song in its silence, the quiet pause that is needed to renew the vigor of existence. Brigid can prompt me to remember that I am pregnant with my life, which has a timetable of its own. Brigid can teach me that withdrawing my energy is not necessarily defeat, but a gathering of my resources for another try.

For you see, I did figure out how to write my reflections, otherwise you wouldn't be reading these words today. In fact, the day after my run-in with my recalcitrant teenage daughter, I had a wonderful burst of creative ideas about the book I was writing and another workshop I was planning at the time. This creativity probably wouldn't have been possible without the germination of the day before. What I learned from this experience is that if I can honor my fallow times and live them out in peace and patience, my life will be less stressful and more enjoyable. For as Brigid shows us with her myth, occasionally we have to withdraw into a dark cave and center ourselves in order to be refreshed and to create our world anew.

Graphics Credits

  • germination © 2006 Feral. All rights reserved.
  • Bride, Cailleach © Thalia Took. All rights reserved.
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