Imbolc, arriving on Feb. 1, came from the Gaelic word, ‘oimelc’ which translates to ‘ewes milk’. It’s the time when the lambs are born, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The birth of lambs is the sign that the earth will soon be fertile once more. In ritual we pour milk into the earth to nurture her and thank her for her bounty.
Brighid, the Celtic goddess of fire, is associated with this festival of light. Some scholars believe her name originated from ‘Brihati’, a Sanskrit word meaning epithet of the divine. In one account it was her snake appearing from underground to assess the weather that led to the current Groundhog Day that happens on Feb. 2.
With the church came Candlemas. "The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth, she would be ‘Saint’ Brigit, patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. They ‘explained’ this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was ‘really’ an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she performed there ‘misled’ the common people into believing that she was a Goddess. For some reason, the Irish swallowed this."
In olden days this important festival was marked by sacred fires—a time for inner reflection giving us a chance to set intentions for the ‘return of the light’. In those terms it can be thought of as a spiritual celebration of the secular new year.
To those outside the church who are not into pagan, Wiccan or Celtic beliefs, it seems to be mostly about whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow. Will we have six more weeks of winter or not? I had one of these guys as a pet when I was young and I hold a special fondness for them. Mine was young, caught by my parents when they were riding, and brought home in a gunny sack. He slept under the covers down by my feet at night--probably felt like his burrow. We released him back into the wild and I always wondered if he re-acclimated to the woods. I hope so.
I find it fitting that nowadays the groundhog is a symbol of new life and the coming of spring. After all he lives in darkness all winter, only emerging when the light returns. If we can keep in mind all the hibernating creatures who return in the spring, the birds migrating back to where they nested last year, the crocus that comes up through snow and the sweet-smelling narcissus, the first sign of spring, we renew our connection and place on the wheel of life.