Across the world, for thousands of years, our ancestors celebrated the turn of the seasons through sacred rituals, feasts and plenty of magic. Marking the astrological alignments of the sun and moon, theses activities had one central purpose – to harmonize human activity with the great cycles and forces of nature, thereby ensuring fertility, abundance and good harvest.
Sounds pretty good to me. That’s why this year, once again, I’m going to gather with friends and neighbours to engage in a little sympathetic magic. We’ll celebrate one of the most beautiful and ancient of these “holy-days” – the Midwinter Festival of Lights. Known as Lupercalia to the Romans, Sul-Minerva to the ancient Brits, Imbolc or Brigid’s Day to the ancient Celts. This “cross quarter day” occurred halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox (somewhere between January 31st to February 4th).
Imbolc is believed to be derived from the old Irish word for milk “Oilmec” and it referred to the time when impregnated ewes began to lactate the “new milk” or “Oilmec”. This was when Brigid, the Celtic maiden goddess in the form of the sun, spread her green cloak across the land, releasing it from the icy grips of winter.
Fire was sacred to the goddess Brigid and so much of Imbolc was celebrated with bonfires in the fields, roaring hearths at home, and candles, lots and lots of candles. This was a ritual part of “welcoming the bride” of the new year. Homes were also cleansed and purified, the old hearth fire was put out and a new one laid, honey cakes were baked and special foods symbolizing the sun, were prepared.
Brigid crosses (symbolizing the sun and the wheel of life) were woven and hung over doors as protective talismans and Bridey Dolls were placed in a cradle on the hearth. Afterwards, the women and girls went out in search for the very first spring blossoms to adorn and decorate their homes.
Then dressed in white (to honour the bride) they gathered together at sundown to light sacred bonfires to purify the fields in preparation for the new year. These fires burned off the old year and invited in the fertilizing, life giving power of the new sun. Because Brigid was the goddess of smithcraft, poetry and inspiration, her fires symbolized inner sight and illumination, and many women practiced the arts of fire divination.
Returning home, hearths were lit, and lighted candles placed on home altars and in each window. Gifts of food were presented to the goddess before the traditional Imbolc feast was served (usually featuring dairy, butter and sheep’s cheese, braided quick breads, sweet seed cakes, and honey mead). See more on sacred foods here.
It’s pretty clear that ancient peoples believed their rituals of cleaning, cooking, crafting, and fire-lighting were integral to the well-being of their community – and to nature herself. We’ve come to see such thinking as superstitious. After all baking ceremonial bread or lighting a sacred candle, isn’t going to causally affect the coming harvest. But still, something about these ancient customs speak to me.
The “holy days” that once marked the astrological alignments signalling the birth and death of the seasons may be forgotten, but I believe they remind us of what was once a simple vital truth for our ancestors, one no less true today. That finding a way to harmonize our lives with the great cycles of nature that govern all life on this planet – is the only way to thrive.
Perhaps my impulse to celebrate the waning of winter, the first stirrings of green, the warmth of lengthening days is a genetic memory. Worn deep into my psyche by generations of foremothers is the faith that our intentions matter. That by ceremonially cleansing our homes, preparing special foods, and lighting oodles of candles, we can create an energy of blessing for ourselves, each other and our communities.
I don’t know exactly why I believe it, but I do. And I know last year, when we lit the candles on our midwinter altar, there was a sense of reconnecting with something sacred, and many of our eyes filled with tears.
And so on this upcoming midwinter festival of lights, inspired by the old traditions, we will gather once again to burn off the old year in a ceremonial bonfire and welcome the “bride” of the new year with an altar of burning candles. Then after toasting the goddess of spring, we’ll feast on traditional Imbolc foods of spiced wine, sheep cheese, braided breads, and honey cake. And then I hope we’ll go home, like last year, fuller, light-hearted and happy – and feeling (mysteriously) as if we’ve accomplished something important.
p.s. If you’re looking for a little inspiration for your own magical celebration click here.