It is that time of year when it becomes really apparent that the days are getting longer, light is returning. Groundhog’s day may be a big deal in some places, but here we are pretty well guaranteed another 6 weeks of winter. Usually we see a “midwinter thaw” around this time of year. With climate change it seems that thaw is coming earlier. Much of our snow cover melted a few weeks ago with temps in the 40’s. Now it’s cold again.
I’ve written blogs in previous years about the light and about seasonal celebrations. I’ve written about our long winters and how easy it is to get cabin fever. What I haven’t written much about, at least not here, is hope.
This is a time of year when hope is in short supply. Historically, stores are starting to deplete and some household rationing sets in. In the natural world food is scarce. It is not uncommon to see herd die off in this late winter season, before the new shoots sprout. Likewise, in a harsh year predators will struggle to find enough calories to continue to hunt.
In the British Isles and in the Southern and Eastern United States this marks the time of year when there are signs that spring will come again. Siberian squill, crocus, magnolia – the early bloomers are sprouting. None of these first blossoms are food plants. They are precursors. Signs of hope.
In an interfaith analogy I liken our northern climate Imbolc to the story of the rainbow after the flood. There was no land in sight, but there is a promise of hope in the light. It is a time to prepare, a time to invite hope in. The cleaning that goes along with this time of year is a little like Field of Dreams. “If you clean it, spring will come.”
There is a metaphor that circulates in the Sufi and the Buddhist communities about hearts breaking open. The notion is that it takes experiencing true heartbreak to be open to compassion, to shared human experience. If you’ve never felt it, you are not fully human. Those breaks, those scars, become the windows in your heart and soul that allow the light of the sacred to shine through you. By allowing the pain, and not resisting, you also allow the opening.
The midwinter thaw is like that for me. The days are so dark and so cold and everything is frozen into ice. And then the ice breaks, and the light seeps in and the warmth can begin to reach the waters. It is a moment. The ice will come again, just like heartbreak will come again. But it is also an opening to hope, that after the ice there will also be spring.
It’s a good time to have that reminder of hope in the world.
Since I missed last week I thought I’d reprint an editorial I wrote. It’s currently published at The Pagan Newswire Collective
Most Pagans are aware that the eight sabbats of Wicca are an artificial construction. They combine festivals of hunter/gatherer peoples with festivals of agriculture and animal husbandry. When you add to that an international following and crazy modern scheduling you have a practice of worship that is truly Neo-Pagan.
Our quarter celebrations, the solstices and equinoxes, come to us from people’s who understood astronomy. These are real and measurable events in time and space. The tools and precision of measuring when these sabbats occur have changed over time. The events that they celebrate are fixed.
The cross quarters, however, are seasonal celebrations. They mark events of weather and harvest that happen when they happen in the local area. We know from the names we call them by: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasad, and Samhein that these are sabbats from more northern climates. These are celebrations of a people who were dependent on an unpredictable weather.
They may have marked migration cycles. They may have marked the end of a harvest season. They may have marked blooming plants. They may have marked fertility of farm animals. But these kind of events occur at different times in different places in different years.
Our calendars come to us from the Romans and the Roman Catholic Church. When these local festivals were assigned patron saints and attributed to saints days on the calendar they became more fixed in time. Of course the church calendar has changed once or twice over the last several thousand years and saints come and go.
We come around again to Candlemas, or Brigid’s Mass. This festival on our calendar at the beginning of February was not always marked by a specific date. Even in our modern age there are those who count the days between each of the quarter events and would mark the cross quarters at exactly the halfway point. They argue that this celebration should occur on February 1, or 2 or 3 or even January 31 depending on when the Solstice fell.
In our modern world we think of the coldest days as having been the hardest for our fore bearers. The return of the light and the warming of the climate is celebrated for a reprieve from hardship. The reality is that in colder climates this can be the hardest season. Nothing is growing yet and won’t be for at least a month. The animals are all thin from their own winter struggles and those that aren’t are pregnant. The stores are limited with no hope of renewal for the rest of the winter and there is no telling how long that will be.
Back in the days before electric lighting cows and chickens did not produce year round. In those earlier times there has been no milk or eggs since before the solstice. It turns out that egg and milk production is primarily based on how much light is available. Modern farming uses electricity to keep cows and hens producing year round. In those earlier times it was the lengthening of daylight that made all the difference.
So this cross-quarter may have originated as a simple family feast. The holiday fare of a cake, or a quiche when finally there is a cup of milk and an egg to be had. This is a sabbat of promise. Times may be lean. The weather may be cold. Food may be inconsistent and hard to come by. But there is a beginning of hope that as the days continue to lengthen there will be more.
As we celebrate our sabbat, as we honor Brigid or make up our new candles let’s consider our bounty. Let’s take a moment to think about those who struggle to find enough to get them through. Surely we can find a way to share with those who’s hens have yet to lay an egg and who’s cows are too old to produce another year of milk.
Imbolc, Bridget’s Day, Candlemas, or even Groundhog’s Day, whatever we may call it we are approaching the point in the year where the light shifts. Days have been getting increasingly longer since the Winter Solstice. By this point in the turning of the year it is noticeable that the sky is still light when we get home from the office. We appreciate that the sun is up before the bus arrives in the morning.
February is a difficult month for a lot of people. Eating locally becomes difficult especially in Northern climates. The stores do not seem as abundant and we know winter has a long way to go. Here in Minnesota we often experience the “winter thaw” at this time of year, making ice fishing a little treacherous. This year the weather has been so very wrong. It has been extremely pleasant, but entirely out of the ordinary. Our “thaw” may look a lot like the rest of the winter has been.
The seed catalogues start coming in the mail in droves. It’s helpful to be able to plan for spring while sitting through the doldrums of the cold season. Valentine’s Day is coming soon. That’s a little pick me up, or a little pity party depending on the circumstances. At any rate it’s likely to involve a renewal of bounteous chocolates. Since most of us don’t spend our days outdoors, and since most of us are dependent upon electric lighting, the shifting of the light doesn’t have the impact it would have in a hunter/gatherer culture. Our candle supply is sure to hold out, even if we don’t spend the month rendering fat to make new ones.
Spring cleaning happens in much of the world at this time of year. Even up here where it’s too cold to throw open the windows there is a sense of cabin fever. Something needs to freshen up the internal atmosphere. It is the time to clean the tools (remember that garden planning) and that goes for magical tools as well. Perhaps this shift in light is part of my motivation to deal with some “stuff”.
This shift also is a cue to start looking for signs of spring. A little south of us the end of the month will bring the first bulbs peaking out from under the snow. Up here that won’t happen for another 2 months, at least in a typical year. My daughter swears she saw a robin in the yard this last weekend. Ordinarily it’s not robins, but cardinals and chickadees that brighten our February days. Red and Black and White, the colors of the Goddess and the sign of her promise to return from the underworld and bring spring back from the land.
Light is returning