February 1st is the feast of Imbolg. Also known as Candlemas and St. Brigid’s Day, this festival celebrates the warming of the sun and the fertile earth that lies beneath the snow. The festival was original a pre-Christian Irish celebration of spring, which is where we get the name Imbolg (pron. IH-mulg). Imbolg translates to “in belly” and connects to the pregnant ewes who traditionally lamb at this time of year in Ireland. In Christian Ireland, this festival became associated with St. Brigid, the 5th century abbess of Kildare. While a real person herself, St. Brigid also took on many attributes of the Irish goddess Brighid, and some believe that the St. Brigid’s cross is an older, solar symbol of the goddess.
I make a point every year to trudge through the calf-deep snow into some local marsh to pick reeds for making Brigid’s crosses. The reeds in Ireland at this time are green and tender–it’s quite a different story here in the United States Midwest! The reeds are frozen into the bank, stiff from all the cold, and sometimes harboring sleeping maggots. Still, there is something magical about collecting plants that have been warmed by the Imbolg sun in a place that is neither firm land nor a babbling stream. It reminds me that we enter an in-between time as the world turns to February. It’s definitely not spring, but the edges of the winds whisper a promise that it will come soon. Something about the character of the reeds seems to carry on this promise of warmth and to tell of the slow waking of the earth which holds their stalks.
As I turn the freshly soaked reeds in my hand, bending one over the other to make my crosses, I reflect on what it is that warms me and that causes me to stir. The dark of winter is a time of introspection and deep work; it is a time of resting in the fertile soil beneath the hushed blanket of snow. This winter has been fruitful in its silence, and Imbolg reminds me that it will soon be time to stir from my hibernation. As the songbirds return, I know they will soon sing the first green shoots above the ground. What is my songbird? What sings me from my rest back into the waking world? The coven, my chaplaincy career, and my home are the answers that immediately come to mind. Each of these gives me warmth and song in my soul, in my belly, calling me to rouse and to be part of the active world again. Each of these is a blessing, and I weave these blessings into my Brigid’s cross, which I will hang over my door to bestow health, protection, and luck for the coming year.
I invite us all to pause for a moment this day to consider: What warms you? What sings your soul awake and puts warmth in your belly? How do you weave this into your spring, into your own spiritual Brigid’s cross that will bless you and keep you in the coming year? Let us celebrate all that inspires us, all that wakes us, all that warms us this Imbolg season.
Welcome to the warming sun!
Welcome to the turnings toward spring!
Welcome to the rich, fertile earth!
And welcome to all the blessings that they bring!