Theoretically, Imbolc is at the beginning of February. It’s one of the ‘Celtic’ festivals, also called fire festivals, and cross quarter festivals. Along with Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain, these are festivals of the agricultural year. In England, Imbolc is the time of snowdrops and traditionally the first lambs would appear. If you don’t happen to live in a region with similar seasonal cycles, this festival may not work in the same way.
It’s easy to assume that for a UK druid, Imbolc happens by calendar date and you just get on with it. That’s fine if you’re a living room druid whose relationship with nature is all about what nature is supposed to be doing right now. Nature has cycles beyond the seasons, that bring us ice ages, mini ice ages, hot years, long winters, short winters. Even in the UK, the first signs of spring cannot be relied upon to have shown up for Imbolc.
When I started running rituals, I ran headlong into the question of what are we celebrating? Are we honouring those calendar dates, or are we working with the seasonal changes they are representative of? As a group we contemplated the natural triggers, and where possible responded to those, and not the dates. Of course that’s harder to do. Our pagan ancestors probably had more room to flex and less need to have predictable weekends laid out in advance for ease.
In the last few days, there’s been a change here. Daffodils are sending up leaves, and the snowdrops are out. The birds are singing with more enthusiasm, and I think the songs have changed. In the winter the occasional calls of territory and affirmation are different in tone from what I hear as the pair bonding, nest site hunting and hopefulness of early spring. For Tom this has all been very strange as he comes from a part of the world that will remain resolutely wintery until March at the earliest, and very likely later. Today we’ve had a sharp frost and the boat glitters with ice crystals. The canal is misty and very cold. Yesterday felt like time to celebrate the first signs of spring, today less so. Early next week perhaps?
The timing of rituals is one of those things that creates tension between Celtic revivalism and responding to the land. I’m not a revivalist. You have to ask if it’s the date that matters to you and what that may have represented to our Celtic ancestors, or whether it’s a seasonal event, and if it is, what represents that event? Even in a place as small as the UK there are a lot of regional variations and the precise signs of spring vary. For me this year, the departure of the bewick swans will be a big part of that, but different places have different visitors and migrants.
I know of druids all around the world, whose seasons and experiences are inevitably very different. To me it seems a better expression of druidry to respond to the land. When we carry the practices of one land into another, and do not listen to the new space, we easily become dogmatic. We risk becoming separated from what’s around us. If nature is the core of our spirituality, then what nature is doing surely has to come before how exactly we think our ancestors responded. This begs a question about what druidry is, and how we can possibly hold relationships with the original druids if we’re not doing what they did. And again, I think this depends on what we understand as being important. Is it the names, dates and UK based associations that make for a druid festival? Or is it the process of recognising what is essential in the seasons, of relating deeply to the turning of the year and the ways in which it impacts on us? Is the Celtic calendar something to follow, or a model for helping us create our own responses? If the ancestral Celts had found themselves in South America, Australia or Alaska, what would they have done?
There will never be any certain and clear cut answers, all is speculative. I think it is vitally important to speculate, to engage imaginatively and philosophically with these questions. Whatever we choose, we should do it mindfully and for our own, considered reasons, not just because someone else has trumpeted it. If it feels right, I tend to assume that it probably is right.