A Time for Hope
Season-based holidays are a huge part of what gets me through the dark and dreary winter. I enjoy these celebrations all throughout the year, but there’s something special about the ones that come after the December holidays and the new year. During a time when there aren’t any traditional American celebrations to partake in and we are all exhausted and emotionally drained, these holidays feel distinctly special.
The seasonal holiday of midwinter takes place precisely halfway between winter solstice (the darkest part of the year) and spring equinox, and is known in Europe as Imbolc. This comes from a Neolithic Irish language and means “in the belly” which refers to the time of year when ewes become pregnant, a promise of spring. For this reason, the ancient Celts would create an altar for the goddess Brigid and leave items like milk, cheese, white flowers, and candles for her. Brigid is the goddess of spring, fertility, and new life as well as craftsmanship, poetry, and midwifery. In addition to building her an altar, the ancient Celts would celebrate by crafting a Brigid’s cross or a Brigid doll to ward off malicious spirits, burn a bonfire, and enjoy a feast together.
Brigid Poster by Veronica Ferreira (click this link to check out her gorgeous illustrations!)
As with many ancient pagan celebrations, this one was eventually adapted by the Catholic church as Candlemas. The goddess Brigid became St. Brigid, and on this day, Catholics gather at mass with white candles to commemorate the presentation of baby Jesus at the temple, as well as the purification of Mary.
Saint Bride by John Duncan, 1913 (https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/artists/john-duncan)
The ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc, the Catholic celebration of Candlemas also known as St. Brigid’s Day, and Dia de la Candelaria in Mexico, are among the most well-known midwinter celebrations, but there are many more from other cultures as well.
In Japan, the Shinto celebration of Setsubun takes place on February 3rd. This is seen as a time to banish negative spirits and evil, as well as invite good luck and health throughout the upcoming year. During this holiday, an event called mame-maki or “bean scattering” takes place. It is a ritual that is said to drive out evil spirits lingering around.
An article from the Boston Public Library explains the ritual well: “For mame-maki, soybeans are roasted and placed in a wooden sake box. Then, one family member dresses up as the Oni (demon) with a paper mask. The Oni represents bad luck. The Oni will be chased out of the house by the rest of the family throwing beans at the Oni while chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Demons get out! Good fortune come in!) before they slam the door shut.
Beans for Tossing During Setsubun Exorcism Ceremony by Kubo Shunman, 1810s (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/54994)
Traditionally, the bean-throwing was done by a male of the household from the coming zodiac year. So, in 2019, if there was a man born in the Year of the Pig, he should be involved in the bean-throwing, for extra good luck. Nowadays, in a traditional family, the father takes on Oni duties while the children gleefully throw beans at him (or are scared by the Oni disguise). There are also versions of this event that take place in community centers and shrines in the nearby area.”
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year is a fifteen day celebration that includes windows and doors being decorated with red paper cuttings, shopping in open-air markets, a good spring cleaning of the home, and a huge feast. On the fifteenth day of the festival, it is customary for children to carry lanterns around the neighborhood after dark to mark the end of the celebration.
All of these celebrations are vastly different, but they have a couple of throughlines. Each one incorporates spending time together, lots of food, warmth, and hope: all things that bring happiness during a rather bleak time of the year. Here are some simple ways you can celebrate midwinter:
Have a Candlelight-Only Evening
Constant exposure to blue light and other artificial light can be draining. Take advantage of this midwinter celebration by turning off the lights in your home, and enjoy a candlelit evening. Read a book, cook a simple dinner, have a relaxing bath, or just sit and chat with a house mate. This is an excellent way to honor the ancient fire festival roots of midwinter.
Plan a Garden
As soon as the sun starts setting before 5:30pm, I have already started planning out my garden, ordering new seeds or sorting through old ones, and assigning myself and Damien all kinds of garden-related projects. This part of the year where there is not much going on, the weather can be brutal, and you’re just waiting for spring is the perfect time to dream of all the new life a garden brings in the form of fresh veggies and springtime herbs and flowers.
Have a Bonfire
– or just a small, modest fire. This is a great way to bring friends and family together around a single heat source, and gets you a bit of fresh air, brisk as it may be. You could also utilize your home fireplace or wood-burning stove if you have one, or light a bunch of candles to bring in the warm, cozy vibes.
If you’ve got the time and energy, midwinter is a great time to sweep away the dust of winter, and open space for the coming spring. If it’s frigid and unpleasant outside, a deep cleaning of your space can keep you busy and feel super refreshing!
Drink Moon Milk
Considering midwinter’s association with fertility, a warm dairy (or plant-based alternative) drink is a wonderful way to celebrate. Moon milk has roots in Ayurveda and is really very simple to make. By combining warm milk (or a plant-based milk) with honey, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, or turmeric, and calming herbs like lavender or chamomile, you can craft a tasty evening treat.
Have a Winter’s Feast
Foods rich with dairy, meats, bread, and root vegetables would have been customary for the celebration of Imbolc. Plan a small meal to commemorate this tradition and enjoy it with friends and family. Menus may include roasted root vegetables, potato or root vegetable soups and stews, fresh bread with butter, and desserts that incorporate blackberries (blackberries are symbolic of protection) such as blackberry crumble or blackberry cheesecake.
How are you celebrating midwinter? I would love to hear from you and share our traditions!
Until next time,
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