Halfway between the Winter Equinox and the Spring Equinox is the cross-quarter day which the Celts called Imbolc (eem’ ul). We call it Groundhog’s Day, February 2. Though the names are different they come from the same Celtic tradition.
Imbolc marks the day when daylight makes significant progress against the night.
Wikipedia tells us:
The holiday was, and for many still is, a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods (butter, milk, and bannocks, for example), divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permits. Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather prognostication, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is perhaps a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:
Thig an nathair as an toll Là donn Brìde, Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd Air leac an làir.
“The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”
Imbolc is the day the Cailleach — the hag of Gaelic tradition — gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.
Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
Coming at lambing time, around 31 January, Imbolc (or Oimelc) celebrated the beginning of the end of winter. New lambs were born, and a dish made from their docked tails was eaten. Women met to celebrate the return of the maiden aspect of the Goddess.
Women would also make a crib with a mattress of corn and hay. They called it Bride’s Bed and into it they tucked under a blanket a straw doll representing Bride, and beside her a wooden club. The crib was laid near the door surrounded by glowing candles. Food and drink were laid on the table and a decorated chair set by the hearth. Then just before they went to bed, the women of the house would call out three times: ‘Bride is come, Bride is welcome!’ Or they would go to the door and cry out into the night for Bride to enter their house.
Next morning everyone would search the ashes of the hearth, hoping to find an impression of Bride’s club. If they did it was the sign that they would have prosperity and a good crop in the coming year. The weather that day was also watched closely because, as the old saying has it:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas day be shower and rain, Winter is gone and will not come again.
Celtic astrology combined a lunar and solar tradition. The fire festivals, of which Imbolc was the second of the Celtic year, celebrated the cycle of fertility and the joining of the male and female principle. Samhain was the seeding time, and considered the first day of the new year, while Imbolc celebrated the maturation of the eternal feminine principle to a maid of marriageable age. Imbolc anticipates the spring, when young maids heralded their future role as wives. At Beltane, the next cross-quarter day between the spring Equinox and the Summer Equinox, Bridget and her lover, the Sun god born at the Winter Solstice, joins on Beltane in the sacred marriage.
The solar tradition, with months of roughly thirty days and corresponding the entrance of the sun in certain constellations seems to have been the province of day to day affairs. It was said “that every educated Irishman knew the names of the signs of the zodiac in order, and the correct day and month when the sun entered the signs.”
The lunar tradition, similar to the Vedic tradition of 27 lunar mansions was the province of the Druid priests, whose job was to “tame” or reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar calendar.
The combination of the Solistices and the Cross-quarter days as a set of ritual festivals is very reminiscent of the Vedic concept of “Yokes in the Wheel of Time”. Since these days always marks a festival in honor of some point in the cycle of fertility they seem to this astrologer to be mediators of the male and female principle, the mundane and the spiritual, perhaps even in a sense the solar and lunar calendars.
From what symbols and processes the Druids extracted their predictions from their “Science of the Stars” we are still largely ignorant. There is no evidence that they practiced astrology on the personal level that Western and Vedic do. Until we find out more, we are left with the tantalizing clues left in the rituals of the seasons, which for the case of Imbolc has morphed in the American tradition of Groundhog’s Day.
Imbolc image published courtesy of Magickal Graphics.