Working with the Wheel: Imbolc

Snowdrops in a graveyard in February

When I first began using the Wheel of the Year – both as part of the framing for my witchcraft and to better connect with the natural world – Imbolc was the spoke I struggled to connect with most. 

January and February have never been good months for me, often leaving me feeling, in the words of JRR Tolkien via Bilbo Baggins, “like butter spread over too much bread”. The celebrations and decorations of December are gone and even if we’re lucky enough to get sunshine in the few hours of daylight we see, it’s often freezing cold and most of the time it’s wet, gloomy, and oppressive. Even now when I think of these months my first thoughts are of grey skies, mud and miserableness. That’s not all they are, of course, and so I try use Imbolc as an antidote to my light-starved grumpiness given that it falls right in the middle of my seasonal malaise. 

The word Imbolc has been said to be taken from the old Irish term i mbolg, which translates roughly as “in the belly”, in reference to the swollen bellies of the pregnant sheep about to lamb at this time of year. Working from this I take Imbolc to be my jumping off point for the rest of the year. 

Whereas Samhain was my time to take stock and Midwinter was for making plans, Imbolc is about nurturing the first “shoots” of my plans, recognising what has been accomplished, however small, and making sure I’ve laid the groundwork for those shoots to keep growing so that I can fully realise them. It’s a promise to myself that, even at my lowest ebb, I’ve got my own back.  

Where ever I happen to be in the week leading up to 1st February I spend my walking time looking for the things that lift my spirits; the beginnings of the greening of the world and, if I’m lucky, the first snowdrops of the year. I remind myself of the fact that by Imbolc we have passed through the darkest ten weeks of the previous fifty two. I take heart in the knowledge that all those plans I made in the darkest part of the year are now beginning to take root. I re-read my favourite tales of the Cailleach, Brigid and the coming of spring* and, if I manage to get my hands on some rushes, I make a St Brigid’s Cross^.

My ideal Imbolc, if I am at home and have managed to organise myself so that I can take the day off, looks something like this:

I brighten my altar with (admittedly shop bought) daffodils. If I have made a St Brigid’s Cross that goes up too and I change the oracle cards I use for focus from those set out at Midwinter to those representing Imbolc.  Provided it isn’t flooded I head over to the local National Trust property with my morning coffee in a thermos and drink it walking amongst the snowdrops that always fill their woods. Lunch involves make a spicy carrot soup with chilli flakes and bouillion and whatever other veggies I need to use up and I spend the afternoon on whatever needs doing around the house. Once night has fallen there are fairy lights and candles and some time spent looking at my plans for the year to see how I’m doing with them, what needs to be pushed forward, what is working well, what needs adapting or changing or setting aside. It’s only a brief check in but it anchors me, reminds me that – despite what my brain often tries to tell me in the winter month – I have made progress on the things that matter. And then the rest of the evening, once a satisfying pile of cheese on toast has been eaten, is spent curled up under a pile of blankets reading, sipping rose tea and just enjoying some peace.    

This year, however, I am away from home, so my celebrations are a little limited. I’ll definitely be spending this evening the way I would have at home, although with just with one candle rather than many, but there was no soup making, I haven’t had a chance to buy daffodils and I had no rushes to make a St Brigid’s Cross. I did put my travelling altar up this morning, with the Imbolc oracle card I remembered to pack front and centre along with my St Brigid’s Cross broach, and I got out for a quick walk in the daylight but there was no snowdrop filled wood and definitely not a complete break from work. 

An oracle card (depicting a fair young woman in blue and green robes with a wren on one shoulder and a thrush the other and a circular triskelion in front of her chest) stands against a background of dark green clouds and golden constellations. On the left of the card is a small spell jar filled with salt and other items. On the right is a small chunk of preseli bluestone and in front of the card is a St Brigid's Cross broach made of bronze surrounded by three small chunks of purple lepidolite, yellow jasper, and moss agate.

Imbolc will never be my favourite spoke of the Wheel but with each passing year I more deeply appreciate being lifted out of the day to day and asked to focus on light, life, and what joy is yet to come.

May the first stirrings of Spring inspire us, spark our imaginations, and ignite our inner fire.
And may this fire energise and guide us as we walk out of the darkness and into the light of the yea

*If you’ve never heard any of the stories about the Cailleach this retelling on the FolkloreScotland website is a good one to start with: Angus and Bride

^This tutorial on how to make a St Brigid’s Cross is given by a lady who works at Limerick Library and, as well as giving instructions, she talks about the traditions and history associated with St Brigid:

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