Last night the Green Man walked through my door. For a split second, I thought him an intruder. Then I saw that his limbs were branches, he was covered head to toe with leaves, and he lumbered more than walked. But of course, Imbolc celebrations begin this evening, and what I sensed were the earliest ticklings of spring.
Imbolc is a word believed to be derived from the Old Irish i mbolg which translates as 'In the belly', referring to the pregnancy of Ewes - an event which coincided with the onset of spring. Initially celebrated on Februrary 1st, the festival of Brigit represented the point in the Celtic year that divided winter in half; where the crone aspect of the cold months recedes heralding the return of the young spring maiden. The festival of Imbolc celebrates the increasing strength of the new God, still within his child form, and a return of the maiden aspect of the Goddess in the form of Brigit. These traditions and associations of fertility and the connection to spring were further transliterated into the Christian celebration known as 'Easter'.
Brigit has long been associated with February and the return of Spring, going back further than the history of Christianity. In later years, Christianity converted this popular pagan holiday into Candlemas, retaining many of the ancient traditions and timeframe. Brigit became known as St. Brigid, a celebrated saint second only to St. Patrick in popularity.
Imbolc is a festival of waxing light - a time when the earth begins to see more sun - and purification. Brigid, being one of the most powerful feminine archetypes in Celtic history, was seen as a maiden goddess,rescued from the Cailleach (Hag) of winter by her lover Angus. This mythos of metaphor alludes to the first hints of spring and the new quickening of life after the long sleep of winter.
It isn't just Candlemas that preserves the light of this ancient rite. Nor, is it confined to the reinventing of yet another pagan goddess as a Catholic Saint. (Note that the Cross of St. Brigid is a kind of squared spiral, symbol of the creatrix, and alluding to the sacred geometry of the golden mean spiral from which organic matter springs.) The secular Groundhog Day has its roots in the same tradition, and is, not coincidentally, on February 2nd.
In its earliest incarnation, Groundhog Day was Imbolc, a pagan celebration associated with fertility and weather divination. The word, Imbolc is Gaelic, the language of the Celts. There is a strong association between Imbolc and Brigid, a Celtic fertility goddess. When the pagan holidays were transformed into Catholic equivalents, two new holidays emerged from Imbolc. One, Saint Brigid's Day (a.k.a. Saint Bridget's Day), was celebrated on February 1. Saint Brigid's Day honored an Irish saint, named after the Celtic goddess, who was a contemporary of Saint Patrick's.
The second holiday deriving from Imbolc was Candlemas Day and was celebrated on February 2 (Groundhog Day). Candlemas was the feast of Mary's purification and was marked by a candle procession. The ties between purification rituals and the month of February also hark back to the pagan era. Indeed, our very word, "February," which derives from Latin, unmistakably designates the month as a time for purification (februa means "expiatory offerings"). The Lupercalia, a pagan Roman purification ritual, took place in February.
But how did a groundhog become the symbol for a holiday that was marked by a candle procession? Well, the Romans, for instance, had celebrated a rough equivalent to our Groundhog Day in early February -- only a hedgehog was in charge of the weather divination, not a groundhog. And such beliefs survived the Christianization of Europe (going "underground," if you will), attaching themselves to Candlemas Day as folklore. European settlers in North America kept the pagan tradition alive, but substituted the native groundhog for the European hedgehog. Clearly, Imbolc and the older traditions have won out: today in North America, almost everyone in the general public has heard of "Groundhog Day," while mention of "Candlemas Day" would generally draw expressions of puzzlement!
To celebrate Imbolc, a feast is in order; preferably by the light of white candles. We are tending the eternal flame and celebrating the increasing light. Sounds lovely and I'm sure I'll enjoy it very much... just as soon as I finish shoveling the snow off the drive.