February 2, Groundhog Day, presents a small, persistent cultural marker of a spiritual observance hundreds of years old. The Christian Candlemas is the day candles are blessed for use in the year ahead, in remembrance of the day the infant Jesus was said to have been presented at the Temple for the first time.
The Candlemas tradition also demands the removal of Christmas greens:
Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and mistletoe Down with the holly, ivy, all Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.
The ritual removal of Christmas greens and the blessing of candles also point us toward wisdom from pagan times. February 2 marks Midwinter, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It is sometimes called Brigid, after the Irish saint and pagan goddess, but it is also called “Imbolc,” which means “in the belly.” At this time of the year, we are “in the belly” of winter. For northern Europeans, being halfway through a winter meant that the hardest part was yet to come; food, candles, and heating wood might run short before spring made her appearance. But “in the belly” simultaneously carries a hopeful connotation. Just as ewes have new lambs gestating, so, too, is the coming spring gestating in the belly of winter. In old times and today, people gather around hearth fires and tables, sharing stored food, warmth, light, and stories to get through the remainder of a difficult season.
While most of us do not worry about physically enduring the final weeks of winter, there are those who do. For some, heating bills and grocery bills are difficult or impossible to manage. Some have no indoor place to call home. We do well to remember at this time that the donations of money, goods, and volunteer time that are so welcome in the holiday season might be doubly appreciated at Midwinter.
Even if we are warm and well-fed, we may still yearn emotionally and spiritually for longer days, warmer weather, returning light, and returning life. We may need a reminder that spring is gestating “in the belly” of the winter.
Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature is the sixth Source of our living Unitarian Universalist tradition. The rhythms of nature urge us to pause at Midwinter, to take down the decorations and turn our attention from the holidays that have passed toward the spring to come. Here is our chance to reflect and to share warmth, by pulling closer to hearth fires, lighting candles in gratitude for food and comfort, showing hospitality to those in need, and exchanging stories that touch the heart. Imbolc invites us to appreciate being “in the belly” of winter, to be fully present with winter’s dangers and its hopes.
Something in the human spirit will not let this seasonal marker go. An English proverb says,
If Candlemas be fair and bright Winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, Winter won't come again.
Not far off from Punxsutawney Phil!
In these days, gather with loved ones to share food, firelight, and stories. Explore blog posts on the power of sharing stories in this year’s Thirty Days of Love campaign from Standing on the Side of Love.
Explore neo-paganism using the workshop “Neo-paganism: The Sacredness of Creation,” in Building Bridges, the Tapestry of Faith world religions program for grades 8 and 9.