As a Celtic/Romance novelist I’m familiar with the ancient Celtic festival that is almost upon us. February first is the Celtic festival of Imbolc, usually pronounced with the b silent. This holiday celebrates the end of the cold, barren winter and the beginning of vibrant, fertile spring. Flowers and plants sprout form seeds within the soil, the earth’s womb. Imbolc celebrates not only the earth as a mother but all mothers, human and animals and their off spring. The fertility of the earth and women was essential to the survival of the tribes. The modern holidays closest to the traditions of Imbolc are Candlemass and Ground Hog day. Lighting white candles is a big part of Imbolc and Candlemass. Also earth divination to determine how long winter would last was a big part of the Imbolc festival. The ancient Celts watched for a snake or a hedgehog to come out of its hole to determine if they would have a mild winter.
Here is an Imbolc excerpt from my Celtic/Romance, Druid Bride, set in first century AD Scotland:
Other than the times Brude led surprise attacks, the stark, icy winter days blended together—one seeming much like the rest, with everyone lodged in their wheelhouses and huddled around blazing hearth fires. But as creamy-yellow primroses blossomed, and the bellies of ewes grew fat and heavy with the promise of fluffy lambs, thoughts of spring arrived with the feast of Imbolc.
Tanwen noticed subtle changes in her body as well. In the two moons since her woman’s cycle had come, her breasts had grown fuller. After retching the little food she’d eaten that morning, she stopped by the well, drew up a bucket to cleanse her face and hands, and then headed into the woods to prepare for this special Imbolc—the first one she’d celebrate as a mother-to- be rather than as a maiden.
Garbed in her voluminous and gold-speckled white cloak, Tanwen stood in the sacred grove as Ciniatha, parading a mother ewe, and Huctia, cradling its newborn lamb, led in the women of the tribe, who each held a white burning candle. They gathered in a circle around Tanwen.
“Let us honor the mysteries of motherhood.” Tanwen held out a cup. “We drink the milk of the first ewe to give birth after winter.” Tanwen gently milked the mother sheep and passed the cup around so everyone had a sip. “We drink the magical milk of motherhood, which the goddess gives us. Blessings on new life.”
“Blessings on new life,” the women repeated back.
The ewe’s milk provided the main staple of the Imbolc feast, a celebration for women only. Women held the highest level of magic: birthing, creating new life. Only women held the gift of fertility and creation, one of the many reasons why women were sacred.
After the cup was handed back to her, Tanwen held it with one hand as she rubbed her belly with the other and gazed down at the slight bulge in her tummy, thinking, A mother? Me? A baby? My baby?
“Druidess, what is it?” Ciniatha asked with a worried look on her face. “Does your stomach pain you?”
“No, Ciniatha, the standing stone blessed me with fertility.” Tanwen smiled at her mother-by-marriage. Her tone rose with excitement as she said, “I have not spoken of it to Brude yet, but I am with child.” She clutched the cup to her chest.
Ciniatha walked forward and drew Tanwen into her arms. “Blessings upon you.”
Held in her mother-in-law’s embrace, Tanwen balanced the cup against her chest to keep from spilling the remainder as the circle of women cooed with good wishes.
“My thanks,” Tanwen said.” Blessings to the goddess and to mother earth, whose fertility feeds us all.” She poured the rest of the offering of milk onto the ground, drenching a patch of the fertile earth, feeding it as it nourished them.
One of the women handed her a burning beeswax candle, and holding it to the towering pile of logs and branches, Tanwen ignited the bonfire into a roaring blaze. The heat of the flames warmed the chill from her bones on the cold night. The women gathered closer to the crackling fire for warmth. As the flames flickered, the women leapt like the sparks. They shot up into the air like the flickering embers as they danced for the goddess.
Her hot skin was slick with sweat from the heat of the red amber fire as she twirled and leapt. She thought of the babe who would soon be kicking inside her. Her head and her arms, legs, and whole body moved freely and fervently around the blaze with the other women of the tribe.
Deep into the night, the women departed the grove. Bubbling forth with energy from the celebration, Tanwen briskly walked to the wheelhouse she and Brude now shared. Her home. Finding him asleep, she slid into bed beside him and covered his lips with hers. With the unquenchable hunger she had for him, Tanwen moved her mouth over his in a demanding kiss.
Some simple ways to honor the earth by celebrating this time of year is to plant a seed in a pot or take a walk and look for signs of spring. You can also incorporate symbols of spring into your family meal on February first, seeds, like poppy, sesame or sunflower, and fresh raw greens, also dairy products, like milk, yogurt and cheese.