The Celtic year was divided into eight segments of equal length. The winter solstice (shortest day of the year) and summer solstice (longest day) divided the year into two halves. The spring and autumnal equinoxes (days of equal length day and night) then divided it into four quarters. These quarters were then bisected by the major sabbats or festival days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
We are now approaching the fire festival of Imbolc traditionally celebrated on February 2nd or the full moon nearest to it. Imbolc in gaellic means 'in the belly' and some have said this is because we are approaching lambing time, whilst others take a more spiritual perspective and say it means 'in the belly of the goddess' or the Earth Mother and refers to the growing new year that was conceived last November at Samhain or the growing light that started to make a return from midwinter day.
Corn Maidens or Dollies were fashioned from corn or wheat and were then dressed up and placed in a cradle or 'Bride's Bed'. These were then kept all year as a symbol of abundance and fertility. The homefire was extinguished for the first time all winter and the ashes raked smooth before going to bed. In the morning the ashes were examined for marks of Bride's passing through the house as a blessing and then the fire was rekindled as a sign of a new start or rebirth.
In northern New England, from where I write this, it seems inconceivable that new growth or even the beginnings of Spring could be marked by this festival as we still huddle up against sub-zero temperatures and the skiing season still has a long way to run. However, in Celtic Britain where I was raised and have spent most of my life, February is an exciting month for gardeners as this is when the first seeds of broad beans and garlic cloves can be planted out into the earth. It is also when snowdrops and crocuses thrust up through the earth and come into flower, the first signs of new growth in the new year.
So it is appropriate to celebrate by lighting a fire or a candle and having a celebratory meal to give thanks for the blessings of the dark winter now passing and to welcome the return of the light and new life. We can also do the same for our inner life giving thanks for the time of reflection and self-nurturing during the hibernation period and starting to sow the seeds of our wishes and dreams that we will nurture in the coming months and welcome into our lives later in the year.