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Groundhog's Day is American for Imbolc

Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
Posted: January 29th. 2012
Times Viewed: 3,188

One of my favorite pod-casters once mentioned that one of the holidays in the Wheel of the Year that she just can’t seem to “get” is Imbolc. She doesn’t raise sheep, so the milk-giving aspect is beyond her and where she lives, it’s still the middle of cold-as-Hel winter in early February. Having a hard time connecting to a holiday makes it very hard to want to celebrate it. If you don’t feel it, you’re just going through the motions because “to be a good Pagan, you’re supposed to.” (Don’t feel you have to, celebrate what speaks to you and if that means omitting “official” holidays, then so be it.) Largely, Imbolc isn’t one of my favorite holidays either; I suppose having just come off of the big secular holiday season, Imbolc gets kind of pushed off on the back burner for me as I try to get back to the normal cycle of it all. I will note that as I got further into this essay, the more I began to have trouble with it because while I think the mythology you’ll read further on is fun, Imbolc is less of a big deal to me than say Samhain (though I have an even harder time connecting to Ostara and Mabon, but we’ll talk about those as we get to them) .

Imbolc is one of the Celtic holidays and is listed among the four Greater Sabbats. It celebrates the increasing daylight and the earliest stirrings of spring (or rather, the hope that you might not die of malnutrition before new growth begins, thus the emphasis on ewes’ milk during this holiday) . Traditionally, the holiday also honors Brigid, goddess of the hearth fire, smith craft and poetic inspiration. Many make a Bride’s Bed (Bride is another linguistic form of Brigid) and a corn dolly Bride (Brigid) to lay in it.

Why do I connect Imbolc to Groundhog’s Day? A few reasons, the first is the date. Imbolc is now traditionally celebrated on February 1st. Groundhog’s Day is February 2nd. The second is that both are looking to the first signs of spring with hope that winter is soon to end. The last has to do with comparative mythology, which I’ll get to below.

So, I’m in Pennsylvania, and therefore I am in the same state as the most famous non-human weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil. As the name Groundhog’s Day would suggest, Phil is a groundhog. If Phil sees his shadow on the morning of February 2nd, then we have six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t see his shadow, then we get to have an early spring. This never made a lick of sense to me. If the day is sunny enough for him to see his shadow, then surely that means the sun is “winning” and spring is on its way, right? I spent many years rolling my eyes at this practice, until I came upon a Scottish myth regarding the Cailleach.

The Cailleach is seen as the force that creates winter weather. She is a Hag goddess whose veneration is more widespread than many other Celtic deities you could name. The ancient Celts were tribal in their structure and many gods were worshipped solely by individual tribes (a good example is the war goddess Andraste, who was the specific war goddess of the Iceni –Boudicca gave many offerings to Her during her uprising -- but the war goddess among more famous Irish tribes was the Morrigan, who is much more well-known in this modern age) . The Cailleach was known in Scotland and Ireland, and may have been known in other places.

Sometimes, the Cailleach is thought to have kidnapped the maiden of summer, Grainne, and is keeping her hostage through the cold months. For the Celts, there were only two seasons, winter and summer. The Cailleach rules from Samhain through Imbolc and Grainne rules from Imbolc through Samhain. This really sounds like a female version of the Holly and Oak kings myth that has been embraced by many Wiccans as part of their ritual mythology.

However, whether or not the version you read includes Grainne, the Cailleach is the Hag of winter and is holding the land in her icy grip (like a female Jack Frost) . The weather specifically on Imbolc is very important for divining how long the Cailleach’s grip will remain. If the weather is fair and sunny, then winter will continue to be long and harsh; if the day is grey, blustery and/or stormy one can expect a more expedient departure of the cold weather.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The question is why? All the logic in your brain screams that it should be the other way. Well, in the Scottish myth, if the day of Imbolc is fair and sunny, the Cailleach has “turned off” winter for the day so she can go out and collect more firewood for the long, dark time ahead. If the day is grey and cold, then she has decided to stay by her warm fire and will run out of firewood sooner so she will have to let spring come.

The lore of why winter is longer if Phil sees his shadow doesn’t get explained. Looking at the myth of the Cailleach gives insight we might not otherwise have.

I’ve been known to move Imbolc between the first and second depending on my schedule and mood. If possible, I’d have gathered snow that fell on Yule to melt in a dish with a red candle on Imbolc (no such luck this year) . One of my old college friends used to skip class every holiday except Imbolc. He was a history major and felt it honored Brigid (a goddess of bards) to be in class that day. Bardic poetry not only chronicled myth, but the history of the people.
Lora O’Brien in Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch suggests using the energy of this holiday to spring clean and cleanse the bad energy from the house so that the spring starts off fresh and new. I can understand the sentiment, but it doesn’t feel like spring to me yet. The hope of spring is there, but the signs are usually a ways off (the first robin to return, the buds of new leaves appearing on the trees) . In fact, February in my region tends to be the most active for winter weather. If I’m considering trying an apartment garden, Imbolc is usually when I try to plan what I might be able to grow that year (don’t get your hopes up, my apartment gardens have all been failures, I always hope the “this year will be different” but my brown thumb always wins) . That’s about as hopeful as I get for spring at Imbolc.

I hope everyone has a cozy Imbolc and that the fires of inspiration will light the way into a bright year for all of us.

The Guises of the Morrigan by David Rankine and Sorita D'Este

Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch by Lora O'Brien

The Magical Household by Scott Cunningham and David Harrington

Dancing with the Sun by Yasmine Galenorn


BellaDonna Saberhagen

Location: Sunbury, Pennsylvania


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