In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow…
February is upon us. It is a time to celebrate that we have arrived at the halfway point between the Winter Solstice of late December and the Vernal Equinox that marks the astronomical beginning of Spring. By this time of the year, even the trees seem to be longing for their leaves but we in Maine know we have a way to go before we’ll be shedding our winter fleeces and wool sweaters. On one hand, we can take comfort that the days in the Northern Hemisphere are now noticeably longer and the additional daylight provides a decidedly mood-elevating effect. On the other hand, a deep, impatient ache for flower blossoms and warmer weather has definitely set in! The snow has taken on a grimy appearance and the landscape looks depleted and gray. Thank heavens for the chickadees gleefully calling their cheerful “dee-dees!” Their musical whistles are a soothing balm for any winter-weary heart. It is easy to see why our ancestors needed to celebrate the beginning of winter loosening its grip on the land. The many different ways our predecessors celebrated this time all honor themes of hope, renewal and rebirth–energies our souls desire most as we wait for the return of the growing season.
Celtic pagan traditions honor February 2nd as Imbolc. Falling at the exact point between winter and spring, the name Imbolc means “in the belly” or “in the Mother.” It is the time when the Earth Mother is pregnant with the coming Spring. We can almost feel the palpable stirrings of the seeds under the dark blanket of soil. As the frost retreats and the cold yields to the Sun’s warmth, the Earth’s growing season will begin anew. The Earth Goddess is no longer the Winter Goddess/Crone but transforming once again into her fertile aspect. The promises made by last summer’s seeds will be kept in the arrival of new leaves and flowers. Our world will grow lush with fresh foliage. In warmer regions where the grasses are already green, the prelude to lambing season is underway. Indeed, an alternate name for this season – Oimelc – means “milk of ewes” as the ewes are heavy with lambs nearly ready to be born.
At this time, black bear cubs, are being born, too. They have arrived into the world while their mother has been drowsing in her den. Now weighing only about ten ounces, their mother’s milk will nurture them to over two pounds by the time of the Spring Equinox. The sow bear supports her cubs with rich milk and body warmth while she is still hibernating. Since the Fall, she hasn’t eaten, drunk or eliminated waste from her body. By any standards, this marvelous feat is nothing short of miraculous! The ability to bring forth life after what, by human standards, could be compared to a death-like state, has associated the bears with the powers of the Earth Goddess. This comparison certainly makes a lot of sense. After a hard winter, the soil looks completely incapable of bringing forth new life. Yet contrary to appearances, every Spring the blessed, green shoots poke through the barren soil to stretch their way to the light. Like the Earth herself, the bear’s ability to disappear into the ground and then reemerge at the end of winter with new life scampering at her feet, suggests a kind of magical death and resurrection.
In keeping with this idea, contemporary Druids think of this time of the year as one of spiritual rebirth. As winter wanes, we can honor that we have “survived the worst.” Even though we may still have terrible storms here in the North, we know that our mettle has been already tested and we will survive to see crocus blooms gracing the garden. It is a time to look back over the struggles and trials of the past year, take stock of ourselves and bring our attention to those things inside of us that we wish to change or encourage. It is an opportunity to honor the fires of Life’s forge that temper us and make us stronger. It is also a time to renew our efforts toward manifesting our spiritual goals and nurturing the fires of our soul’s purpose.
Literal fires have their place at this time of the year, too. Ancient Irish celebrations of the Goddess Brigit or Brigid were celebrated with fire. As a solar deity, Brigit/Brigid was considered a goddess of fire, light and creativity. She was honored as the protective matron of metalsmithing, poetry and healing – especially the kinds of healing provided by herbalists and midwives. Traditionally, the Goddess Brigit/Brigid was celebrated through the ritual kindling of a sacred fire all across the Celtic world. These fires symbolized her role as guardian of the fires of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. The Christianized celebration of the renamed Saint Brigit also honors the fire but in a different and more tame way. The Goddess’ traditional celebration became the Christian day of, Candlemas, the time when all the candles that would be used during the liturgical year would be blessed.
American traditions of this season are usually confined to the celebration of Groundhog Day, which is a day to predict the coming weather. This tradition began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries. Folklore tells us that if the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be “six more weeks” of bad weather but this tradition has its origins in ancient European weather lore, wherein a badger or sacred bear is the prognosticator. An old British rhyme tells us that “If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” Of course, a bright day means you and the groundhog will see your shadows! This weather lore may stem from the even earlier Gaelic folklore around Imbolc. The Gaelic people believed that Imbolc was also the day that the Cailleach or Winter/Crone Goddess gathered her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she makes sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. If however, the day is grey with rain or snow, it means the Cailleach is asleep! The belief is that since she isn’t interested in gathering firewood, the winter must be nearly over.
In the ancient city of Rome, they celebrated Lupercalia from February 13 through February 15. In keeping with this time being a prelude to Spring, this archaic rite was connected to fertility. In Roman mythology, Lupercus is the god of shepherds who is identified with the Roman god Faunus, who is the equivalent of the Greek people’s goat-legged god, Pan. The festival, celebrated on the anniversary of the founding of his temple, was called the Lupercalia. After a huge sacrificial fire and feast, the priests cut thongs from the skins of the sacrificed goats, which were called februa. (This word is another name for this festival and the root of our word “February.”) The Lupercalian priests then dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats – in an imitation of Lupercus – and ran round the city using the skin thongs to strike people. Girls and young women would line up to receive lashes from these fuzzy whips as this ceremonial gesture was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.
Another special day in February has to do with a metaphoric fire. It honors the flames of ardor when are hearts are full of love! On Valentine’s Day we celebrate how the fires of love stir us and the warmth of romance overwhelms our senses. Given this date’s close timing to the livestock and land’s fertility, it makes sense to honor both romantic love and lovemaking during this midpoint of winter! Love brings warmth to the heart and the promise of lovemaking brings heat to the entire body. Certainly, throughout Nature the “fires” of fertility and of continuance, are in the air. The birds and animals are getting ready to bring a new generation into the world even as the internal clocks of the trees and plants have started the return of the green.
Over the long winter, the trees have lain quietly dormant. As the days are now becoming longer and rain more frequently replaces snow, conditions support the trees to initiate their own renewal. Roots awaken first and begin to move water and nutrients from the soil into the rest of the tree. As the water rises, it mixes with the simple sugars that the tree stored during the last growing season. The resulting brew is the tree’s sap. Through that amazing green molecule, chlorophyll, a plant is able to capture the power of sunlight. It then synthesizes sugar from water and carbon dioxide in the process known as photosynthesis. Plants and trees are literally able to create their own food from sunlight, water and air! Sugary sap is transported around the tree by vascular tissues that function like our veins and arteries. Just like a phlebotomist might draw a vial of our blood, we can tap a tree to draw off some of its sap. Maples and birches have particularly sweet sap that can be boiled down to make a delicious syrup and this marvel is the year’s first sweetness, as fruit trees will not offer their bounty for many months.
When the sap begins to run again, it sets the stage for the time when the spirit know as the Green Man and his court will make their reappearance. Like the “resurrected” bear, the Green Man disappears in the Fall and doesn’t emerge until the warmth and light begin to return. Once the first shoots appear, we know that very soon tree branches will be heavy with leaves and the air will be hazy with pollen. Flowers with fragrant perfumes will tempt insects swarming around our heads and the returning birds will replenish themselves after their perilously long migrations. Little mice, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits will scurry under the trees’ spreading canopies while deer will browse along the edges of vernal pools for tender plants. As the warm days progress, peepers will crawl up from their muddy slumber to take their places along side wood frogs and tree frogs for Spring’s signature evening serenade.
Before long, the park will fill with people again, too. Grinning dogs with lolling tongues will be racing after tennis balls and splashing through mud puddles. Moms will jog along the paths pushing strollers and school children will be looking longingly out their classroom windows. Their imaginations will bloom with daydreams of baseball and tossing frisbees under blue skies. As the season unfolds we’ll become intoxicated once again with the beauty, the freshness of the air and the promises each new day delivers.
We are so antsy for spring to arrive, our hearts are practically thrumming with anticipation! However, for now we’ll have cultivate a bit more patience. While we wait, we’ll have to be content with honoring the blessings of the returning Sun, the trials which have strengthened our resolve, the returning warmth of the land, the promise of nature’s of fertility and the magical heat of love. With bonfires and candles or hearts and flowers – we’ll encourage each other to remember that we’re half way to springtime! Happy February!
© 2012 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. In joint practice with Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages, her web site is http://www.spiritpassages.com.