I think a big part of what kept me from really connecting with a lot of Wiccan-based Paganism when I was younger was that, at the time, the available source material was pretty prescriptive. Sabbats were on specific days, with specific traditions attached, and there was an onus the follower to do things “right.”
Having lived in a pretty big range of climates, I can say that that’s had an impact, too. It’s hard to feel in the harvest or growing seasons when they just don’t line up with the harvest and growing seasons where these traditions were based. If the wheel of the year is supposed to reconnect humanity to nature and its cycles, a strict interpretation is the opposite of helpful. When I lived in California, for example, it felt like observing the traditional sacred days was sometimes counterproductive — spring didn’t look like it did in Europe, or even in the Eastern US. Neither did winter. It made things feel rote, which robbed them of meaning.
That’s why I’m a big proponent of celebrating the High Days when and how it makes sense to do so. If your growing zone means that you’re not going to see the first signs of spring until March, or won’t ever experience cold and snowfall, then so be it.
All of this is to say that the vast majority of my High Day traditions are pragmatic (perhaps to a fault).
Imbolc passed recently, amid surgeries (one for me, one for the Certified Lap Loaf. We’re both doing well!), falling down the stairs (just me. That part of me is not doing well.), and probably other stuff that I’m forgetting because of the first two things. A lot of ADF members celebrate the High Days on the nearest weekend, which is nice. Less pressure that way when your most-of-you isn’t working correctly.
To me, Imbolc is refreshment. It’s deep cleaning, washing my front door, doing repairs, and making food. (This year, it’s also starting plans for home improvements that we won’t be able to do until later spring and early summer, like replacing the roof.) It’s also almost never actually on the first of February.
I don’t set up an Imbolc altar. I follow the same basic ritual structure that I do for any other day. For me, the main difference is the feeling of lightness and renewal that I carry through doing things like scrubbing grout, cleaning out garden beds, de-scaling the dishwasher, and chucking Affresh tablets down the garbage disposal.
When you’re re-learning lost, buried, or reinvented cultural traditions, it’s easy to get caught up in the need for accuracy and correctness. It’s also easy to forget why the High Days existed in the first place — to mark significant occasions throughout the year, largely based on what people who grew crops and raised animals considered significant.
When you get too invested in following the letter of a tradition, you can lose the spirit of it.
From my house to yours, here’s a small thing that I like to do each spring. It works equally well whenever you need to feel that sense of newness and freshness that only spring can bring.
Imbolc Home Cleansing
You’ll want to have:
- A white candle. (The golden beige of natural beeswax is fine, too.)
- Dried vervain.
- A bowl.
First, steep the vervain in some hot water, as if you were going to make a tea. (I like to put vervain and water in a clear jar, then stick it in the sun for a while to infuse. If it’s cloudy where you are, a kettle of boiling water is fine.)
Once the infusion cools, strain out the leaves and pour the resulting liquid into the bowl.
Next, light the candle. Declare, either out loud or to yourself, that this flame represents the return of the sun — whether that’s the literal return of longer daylight hours, or a metaphorical return of warmth and light is up to you.
Carry the bowl and candle to each room of your home, moving in a clockwise direction. Set the candle down in a safe spot and use your fingers to flick the vervain infusion around the perimeter of the room (be sure to get the corners). If you have prayers or chants that feel appropriate here, use them. I usually fall into a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue about the objective of the working. It’s less important that your words sound nice than it is that they mean something to you and help you focus on what you’re doing.
When you’re through cleansing your entire home, offer the rest of the vervain infusion to your yard, garden, or nearest patch of green stuff. If your candle is small, you can let it burn completely and dispose of the remnants. If it’s a big one, snuff it and re-use it for a cleansing or purification ritual another day.