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By Barry Chametzky
(Written for Ecclasia)

I’d like to talk about one of the Greater Sabbats by way of the origins of Groundhog Day and spring-cleaning. First though, a few facts. This is the time of year when we are at the “center point of the dark half of the year.” This is the time of year when we celebrate the midwinter and the beginning of the return of the sun4. From now until March 21st, in our hemisphere, the days begin to get longer.

During this time of year, we celebrate Groundhog Day. This American ritual, indeed related to the Sabbat in this paper, can be traced back to Europe and Scotland where an old couplet goes: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, There’ll be two winters in the year.” Also, during this time, as lore has it, the goddess’ snake emerges, just as the groundhog would, “from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather.” Clearly, there are parallels.

I’ve just mentioned one name of this Sabbat: Candlemas. We know the Sabbat better as Imbolc though it is known by many different names: Bridget’s Day, Candlelaria (Mexican), the Snowdrop Festival, the Festival of Lights, Brigantia (Caledonni), Lady Day, festival of lactating sheep, etc.

Though this is the time of year when the weather is cold and dreary and when the snow on the ground hides the Earth’s rebirth, there are some “sturdy signs of new life” beginning to appear: “[h]erd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders.” In fact, the name of this Sabbat is derived from the word meaning “ewe’s milk.”

From a god and goddess perspective, this is the time that we are welcoming back the increasing strength of the sun and the promised return of the Green Man, the life force of spring. To symbolize this returning of the sun, every candle or lamp in the house is lit. There are also lit bonfires which serve three purposes: to help the God find his way back into the light, to light the way of the Lady, Brigid [pronounced BRA-git], back up from the underworld and to help burn the old Yule leftovers.

Since Imbolc is a new beginning, this is the time to do spring-cleaning, to say “out with the old and in with the new.” To reinforce the spring-cleaning tradition even more, a besom is placed by the front door to symbolize the act of sweeping out the old and welcoming the new – hence the origin of our spring-cleaning.

This is the time of year when things begin anew; it is a time of growth and looking ahead. This is when Brigid, as a maiden, is reunited with her God thanks to the light of the fire. This is a time of fertility, represented indirectly the warmth of the fires, of purification, and of realizing the potential in life.


(1) http://www.wicca.com/celtic/akasha/imbolclore
(2) http://www.celticspirit.org/imbolc
(3) http://www3.kumc.edu/diversity/ethnic_relig/imbolc
(4) http://www.partytown.com/menus/imbolc
(5) http://www.c4.net/allrichstudios/Imbolc
(6) and Beginning class notes

SIDE NOTE: Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough. In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up.

In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey, the "water of life" is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.

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This page last updated on December 27, 2003