The Coming Day…Brigid and the Spring-Signs

pat on the south altar

As sure as clockwork, every 6 weeks, we Pagan folk have a holy day. We have one coming up this weekend, in fact. It is generally called Imbolc, an Irish-derived word that means “in the belly” because it is the time when the lambing begins and the ewes’ milk comes in. In very practical terms–and you know I love that practical magic–it meant that the weaker members of the tribe (the young and the old) could be strengthened by sharing that rich sheep milk and that the tribe itself had probably made it through the worst of the winter.

It is sometimes called “Oimelc” and that’s a Scots-Gaelic word that means the same thing. Imbolc is correctly pronounced “im-mulk”, with a silent “b”. Try saying im-mulk and oy-mulk fast a few times and you’ll see how similar they are in sound. For people who shared a linguistic commonality but had been apart geographically for many generations, they carried the same meaning.

Personally, I call it Bridnasadh, the great festival of Brid. I don’t know where I learned that and may, in fact, have dreamed it up (either literally or figuratively). I figure Lughnasadh is the festival of Lugh, so ipso facto–Bridnasadh. It is pronounced “breen-ah-suh” with the emphasis on the “breen”.

In Brigid’s town, Kildare, they have a huge festival called Le Feile Brid, and it focuses on St. Brigid. Here is the website for the remarkable group of people that keep that sacred flame alight I made my personal dedication to Brigid several years ago and did the middle part of the year-long study in Kildare and the second part of my dedication in the ruins of Brigid’s fire temple there.

Brigid traveled out of the Indus Valley in the so-called Indo-European migrations and left Her name in a lot of places along the way, most notable “Britain”, where She was and is called Brigantia. There is plenty of information on both Goddess Brigid and St. Brigid, so I’ll leave you to discover more of Her stories.

She is known as the midwife of the Holy Mother Mary, she founded a double monastery in Kildare (one side for women, the other for men). She was taken wholecloth from Goddess to Saint and all Her stories were mildly adapted. She is the Goddess of healing, poetry, smithcraft, weaving,
lambs and sheep, beer, divination, justice, whistling, water, fire,

She is a Sun Goddess–hence the Brigid’s Wheel or cross–and her name is said to mean “bright arrow”, which makes sense as a shaft of bright sunlight. She is the keeper of doorways, having in that way some kinship with Hekate. She looks forward and back and is then, also a keeper of the people’s history. You can read Her Irish lore in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (The Book of Irish Invasions).

But this holy day–which is sacred to Brigid–is really about the coming of spring. I think I hear all of you cheering.

Like many ancient peoples, the Irish divided their year into two season–Winter and Summer. We extrapolate from that when Spring and Autumn begin, so we celebrate this holy day as the first stirrings of spring. So your work this week will be to switch over your altar, learn something about Brigid that you didn’t know before and look for signs of spring.

And as a final note tonight: There are wonderful children’s activities at Imbolc. Brigid travels through the world “among Her people” and brings little gifts. She travels with her white cow and it is traditional to leave a little bowl of oats for the cow and a little drink for Brigid, who is also called the Bride. Because She gets weary in Her travels, it is also nice to make a bed for the Bride out of a shoebox and leave it near the hearth, if you have one. When my daughter was little, the bed was where we also left Her drink and where She left a little present for the good child of the house.

As women, it is the traditional time to give the house a new broom, to put a fresh Brigid’s Wheel over the door to protect the house from fire and the time when you leave a piece of fabric outside overnight to gather dew/mist/snow/sleet (sorry!). You’ll cut that up throughout the year as a healing compress for tired eyes and to tie as clouties for prayers.

And here’s the traditional greeting–Beannachtai na Feile Brid! (bah-nahk-tee nah fay-lah breed) Blessings of Brigid’s Fest!

Signs of a Mountain Spring

If you follow the same wonky ancient calendar I do (or try to follow), you know that Spring begins not at the Vernal Equinox but with the great festival of Imbolc. The Vernal Equinox is mid-spring, the way the Winter Solstice is Midwinter. Spring comes with the earliest possible signs of its arrival, as though our Ancestors excelled in wishful thinking.

In the southern highlands, we are often blessed with a period of mild weather at the end of January-beginning of February, which corresponds with Imbolc. When I was a youngster, folks would plant onions sets then and be eating onions not long after Easter. I have done the same thing for many years now and will lay in a pound or so of onion sets as soon as possible.

(I have a couple of small beds of onions that were planted with the winter-over veg and we’ve been eating those for a while now.)

The snowdrops are blooming, as they usually do, and the witch hazel is almost done with its December and January glory. These last days of rain have encouraged the daffodils and we have a few of those blooming now, with many more in their bud form, waiting for a spate of warm weather.

Imbolc was important to my western European Ancestors following the domestication of animals because it meant that the ewes began to lamb and there would be rich milk for the human elders and babies, too. It meant survival in a way it is difficult for us to understand today in the West.

I had a powerful Imbolc meditation last night. Against my own common sense and expereince, I drank coffee fairly late into the evening, so I didn’t sleep well. In addition, I am visiting very kind family members who have put me up for a couple of days. The room I’m in is drafty and cold at night, which isn’t usually a problem for me.

Last night, though, I was wakeful as well as cold. I tossed and rearranged blankets. I wrapped myself like a mummy. I covered my head so that all that was sticking out was my nose.

None of it really helped.

So I began to ponder the cold of a northern European winter as I waited for morning to arrive. I thought of extended families sleeping around smoored fires, wrapped in pelts and sleeping close together for extra warmth. I thought of fleas and unwashed bodies, of cooking smells and rancid fat.

I dreamed of a sunny, warm day…with chickweed to eat and some warm milk to drink. I tucked the blankets around my cold feet and thought of Brigid, and the bone-chilling wetness that can sometimes be Ireland in springtime (and summer, for that matter).

We are so controlled by weather and we hardly ever think of it that way–until the extremes of rain turn to flood, when tropical storms sweep up the Eastern seaboard to devastate New Jersey and New York, until four days of rain is topped with temperatures in the low 20s and the black roads are covered with invisible dangerous ice.

I made a note to myself, as I dropped off to sleep, to have more respect for this thing we call “weather.” And also for the Ancestors whose lives it often defined. Blessed be the resilience of experience and the foresight to plan ahead.

As best we can.

Religious Freedom Day

lutheridge conference
A Sufi, a Muslim and a Wiccan went into a Lutheran conference center

It does sound like a joke, doesn’t it? These are two people of whom I am very fond and we are all involved in interfaith work. That’s how we met each other and it’s the only time we really socialize.

Today was the commemoration of Religious Freedom Day and here’s a link to the President’s proclamation–

Most of us have no real idea of how important and unusual it is to live in a country that guarantees this particular freedom. Certainly, that freedom is imperfectly observed in this nation where the default setting for “religion” is “Protestant Christian” and sometimes stretches as far as “Abrahamic.” If you live in a place or work in a group with wider diversity than that, count yourself lucky and protect it as best you can.

When I first started doing interfaith work–decades ago–interfaith was generally liberal Protestant Christians, a few Catholics and maybe a Jew. We’ve moved well beyond that now but still have miles to go to gracefully and graciously incorporate the full and zany range of spiritual expression in this big country and to also recognize the rights of those who choose not to engage in a spiritual system at all.

After all these years, it’s still a work in progress.

There’s a Creek in Front of My House


Here in the southern highlands, we are being blessed with abundant rain. The blessing also takes the form of warmish temperatures that result in creeks and rivulets racing downhill to the old river instead of inches of snow to crash the power grid and make driving worse than it already is in this tourist town.

Blessed be!

It is telling that the road along the old river has a fair amount of standing water but the pond that usually forms under the railroad trestle and closes the road is still manageable. I drove it several times today and enjoyed the thrill of water splashing onto the windshield as though I was driving under a waterfall.

The daffodils have begun blooming–more than a month early. We generally have daffs for St. Dafydd’s Day on 1 March. Snowdrops and crocuses are also blooming but they are fickle beasts and seeing them in mid-January is not such a surprise.

I’ve returned, gladly!, to my daily spiritual practice. For nearly four weeks, I’ve shirked my duties in that department and was missing the comfort and the revelation of it.

Do you have a daily spiritual practice? Are you mostly faithful? Do you get results from your devotion?

The added benefit of lighting the candles and burning some incense is that the house smells very nice when I come back from my time in the world of the world. I unlock the front door and step in and there is a ghost of frankincense that greets me.

What’s that Smell? No! Not Time to Prep the Kitchen Garden!


I went out to the kitchen garden today to raise the hoops on the winter-over greens and water the beds. We are having warmish weather but very dry and there was some talk of rain today or tomorrow.

I got the hoops rolled back and picked corn mache, spinach, arugula and chard, pulled a half dozen onions and hauled the watering can to the rain barrel. A couple of cans later, the beds were well-watered and I tucked up the ends of the hoops.

Stopping to consider another row or two of spinach and to wonder if Southern States has onion sets in yet, I took a deep relaxing breath.

That was a mistake. The damp and warming soil was intoxicating. It triggered that primitive farmer instinct that lies dormant in the genetic structure of every mountain person I know.

It smelled like spring. My head all woozy, I contemplated the possibility of planting the upper bed of the Italian garden. Onions, carrots, kale.

Stop this madness! I spoke quite sternly to myself. Too early. Much too soon.

As I walked around to the front of the house, I noticed there were daffodils forming their fat buds and snowdrops getting ready to bloom for Imbolc. The forsythia is blooming, the quince has buds.

Too soon.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

bot gards jan 2013 (39)

We have a notion of what winter looks like–snow and ice and skies that pierce our eyeballs with their blue clarity. Certainly winter can look like that–and sometimes does here in the southern Highlands of Appalachia.

But more often it looks more like the photo above–deciduous trees as sleek and tall as runway models, their every limb perfect against the horizon. The leaf-fall from autumn has begun its mulching process and the creeks run clear and full–a sharp contrast to the dry days of late summer.

It is the perfect time for a brisk walk in nature and getting to know the whys and wherefores of your place in winter.

This photo was taken at the Botanical Gardens here in Asheville, a lovely old place which includes a log cabin and a spring house and the remains of the Civil Way Battle of Asheville. Earthworks only now–barely able to make out, even in the winter.

Being outside now also gives you the hopeful brightness of the bits of spring that are to come. You can learn what trees and other plants look like when they are leafless, which is a handy skill to have. You can enjoy the wyrdness of seed pods and watch birds that stay in the area no matter what.

I love to be outside on a cold, clear day–and I also like them sunny and windless. Even though we don’t have winters like the ones in my childhood, that winter wind has a way of getting through the thickest wool and finding that vulnerable place that chills my whole body.

I recommend learning the place that is your place in all of its seasons–both large and small. And start now–while the world is so very fine.