On Monday, January 27 I flew back from a series of intensive classes at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. It was bittersweet for a number of reasons. First and foremost, this was the last trip to Berkeley that I would take before graduation with my M.Div. in May. Second, I was leaving California. I mean, it may be winter there too, but the weather is still milder than in Maryland. Even in the pouring rain of northern California, the presence of palm trees seems to warm the heart.
Born in the waning days of summer, I have never liked the cold. It’s not that I don’t appreciate winter. As a gardener and a geologist, I understand the necessity of this time in the ever turning cycles of the seasons. At certain latitudes, the earth may seem dead, but in reality it is only resting. Just a few feet down in the rich and dark soil, life is teaming. Roots and seeds are soaking up moisture and nutrients from decaying matter in preparation for their germination and flowering in the spring.
Nevertheless, the longer nights of winter have always made me feel a little melancholy. Perhaps, I suffer from seasonal affective disorder to some extent because I find my spirits tend to lift as the days get noticeably longer come February. In past years, I have practiced marking the sunrise and sunsets from the Winter Solstice until the Vernal Equinox in an effort to cheer myself up.
Some friends I had in my mid-twenties would host a “Mid-Winter Blahs” party usually in early February. The price of admission was an unusual dish that would be judged. But the competition wasn’t the central event. The real “meat” of the party was the ambience and camaraderie. The hosts would have a fire burning in their fireplace which was situated in the middle of the living room of their 1960’s style home. They would keep it burning all night. There would be singing and jamming, and many of the guests would stay overnight, turning the gathering into a slumber party.
In retrospect, I realize now that this Mid-Winter Blahs party was a lot like the celebration of Imbolc, the ancient Celtic Festival of the Maiden. Today, Imbolc is known as the Feast of Saint Brigid in Ireland, but in the pre-Christian era, it was a day to honor Brigid, the goddess of poetry, smithcraft, and healing.
Like many ancient pagan holy days of indigenous Europeans, Imbolc was celebrated with fire. Candles would be lit and after they were swept and cleaned, hearths were laid with fresh wood for fires that would burn through the night.
For the ancient Celts at least, this season was considered a time of recovery and purification when the Mother Earth rested after giving birth to the Sun. Along the same lines, Catholics calls this day Candlemas or Feast of the Purification of the Virgin because the Hebrew Scriptures prescribe that a woman wait forty days after the birth of a son before she may enter the temple and be purified, and February 2 is forty days after Christmas. Additionally, the feast day of St. Blaise, patron saint of wool combers and throat disease, is February 3. As a Catholic child, I remember having my throat blessed on Candlemas by the priest who placed two crossed candles against my neck.
Spiritually, Imbolc is a time to consider intentions and the means to achieve goals, to clarify one’s aims, and to rededicate one’s self for the coming year. Now is the time to begin spring cleaning, to let go of both physical and mental clutter, and to prepare for the season of growth. In this sense, Imbolc may be seen as a spiritual alternative to the secular celebration of New Year’s Eve. But instead of an old bearded man and a baby, an old woman, representing the outgoing year, transforms into a young maiden, who represents regeneration, growth, fertility, and the light of spring.
With each passing year, Imbolc is becoming a more significant holiday for me. As I look over my garden at this time of year, I notice the heads of daffodil leaves emerging from the ground and the buds of my Camelia bush beginning to quicken in the late afternoon sun, which is setting now well after 5 pm. That gives me hope and a spring to my step, even if the temperatures are still freezing. It helps me to get over my “mid-winter blahs” and get motivated for the coming year. One could say this holiday lights a fire under my butt, so to speak, but on a more spiritual note, Imbolc reminds me of my own resilience as well as that of the Earth and, more critically, of the divine spark that exists in all of us. Celebrating Imbolc, I feel like the poet and philosopher Albert Camus who wrote, “in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
This week, may you be reminded of the divine spark of light—an invincible summer—within you. May you blessed with an abundance of joy and light and love and growth in the coming year.
As it is below, may it be above.
Karyn Marsh is a third year seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry. Prior to entering seminary, she was an environmental attorney and consulting geologist. She currently makes her home in Baltimore with UUCC member, Barry Marsh, and sits on the board of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.