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WitchVox Community Essay Series for February 2002
Imbolc: A Mother's Holiday
by Erin McKenzie
A common translation of the word Imbolc (also spelled Imbolg or Oimelc) is 'in the belly.' That's why this holiday has such special meaning for me: two years ago at Imbolc, I was barely four months pregnant with my first child, and was beginning to feel my baby moving and kicking. Few people knew about my pregnancy, as I hadn't begun to show yet, and the baby's movements were too subtle for even my husband to feel. Everything was 'in the belly' (mine) and hidden away, like plants in February.
It was an unforgettable experience; I was fascinated by the changes taking place in my body and by the little person growing inside me. I read books about fetal and newborn development over and over again, and shared my discoveries with anyone within shouting distance. 'Guess what? The baby's only an inch long, but already has fingernails!' or 'The baby's developing eyelids this week!' or 'This baby's whole body could fit in the palm or my hand, but I can already feel him kicking!' It was amazing, and I love to celebrate the sense of wonder I experienced that incredible year.
Another turn of the Wheel, and I had a six-month-old son and was experiencing motherhood in all its joys (and annoyances). At some point in between the feeding, changing diapers, and bundling up in snowsuits, I wrote the following in my Book of Shadows:
'At this point in the Wheel, the year is like many things. It's like Demeter, overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter. She wonders if she will ever see Persephone again, and we wonder if spring will ever come. Everything is grey. It's not just the middle of winter, it's the dead of winter.
'It's also like the Goddess recovering from the birth of the God at Yule. She's tired, sore, not really feeling like herself, and she can't get anything done. The God is a tiny baby, full of potential but unable to do anything for himself.
'The year is also like a pregnant woman in her first trimester (like me, a year ago). To the eye, she looks the same as ever, unchanged, like the snow blanketing the ground. But deep inside her, she feels the stirrings of life for the first time. She may not even notice, or be sure that's really what it is, but sure enough, life is moving and growing.'
Now the Wheel has turned again. It has been two years since I experienced 'in the belly, ' and since then, I have come to know the other common translation of Imbolc: 'ewe's milk.' While I'm not a sheep, I am a mammal, and my milk feeds my son and helps him grow. However, I'm not too sure yet about this aspect of Imbolc. Of course, I understand the literal translation: it's in late winter and early spring when lambs are born, and their mothers start producing milk. But does it have any meaning for a human mother who began lactating in the middle of the summer, or for other people who haven't had this experience at all?
I think it might. It has been said that for a newborn, his mother's arms are like a continuation of the womb. He is snuggled up in a warm spot where he can hear her heartbeat and her voice. He is comforted there, fed there, and more often than not, falls asleep there. It's kind of where we would like to be in February: all cozy and warm, with something good to drink and someone we love to snuggle. (Valentine's Day in February -- coincidence?)
Milk even has a large role in our adult lives. There's chocolate milk (hot or cold), milk and honey, strawberries in milk, milk baths, Lacteeze for the lactose intolerant, rice milk for those who avoid dairy, all because it seems to comfort us. The experts tell us we must drink milk to stay healthy, and there's even 'the milk of human kindness.' Milk, human or not, seems to have strong comfort associations, so I think it's an appropriate symbol at Imbolc, when everything is grey and slushy, winter seems neverending, everyone seems to be talking about SAD and depression, and you just wish you could be a little kid again and have Mom put her arms around you and make it all better.
So for me, Imbolc is mainly about mothering, and I like it much better than that Hallmark holiday in May. However, there is another side of Imbolc that is also important to me, although for a different reason.
A common alternate name for Imbolc is Brigid (or Brigid's Day), in homage to the goddess of poetry, smithcraft, and healing, so many rituals for this holiday focus on inspiration, creativity, and growth. These themes are what I remember from my introduction to Paganism five years ago -- an Imbolc ritual hosted by the Pagan group at my university. There was chanting, dramatic robes, candlelight, raising of energy, and all sorts of nifty things I'd never seen before. We were given small white candles, which we anointed with peppermint oil and charged with positive energy, then took home and lit to burn all the negativity out of our lives. We were also given parsley plants, to remind us of the new growth that would soon burst forth outdoors. Unfortunately, my parsley was not long for this world, although the candle seemed to work pretty well. The smell of peppermint wafting through my dorm room is a wonderful memory. Some of my Christian friends thought it was pretty silly to be celebrating spring when there was still three feet of snow on the ground, but for me, the symbolism of hidden things deep beneath the snow waiting to sprout and grow resonated at a deep level (even though I had no idea who Brigid was or even how to spell her name).
The central themes are of hidden growth and life waiting to burst forth, regardless of how you choose to celebrate Imbolc. For me, nothing captures those notions better than remembering the year I spent becoming a mother.
Bio: I'm a solitary eclectic sort of Pagan (and so is my husband, which I guess makes us not so solitary) and we are raising our son to share our earth-centred spirituality, but not to exclude our parents' Christian beliefs. I am an engineer by training and a teacher by calling, and hope to get some sleep Real Soon Now.
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