[Starstuff, Contemplating] “Celebrating hidden life – Imbolc” by Heather and Jon Cleland-Host

This entry is a continuation in a series describing how Jon and I have created family traditions that blend the traditional holidays of our Ancestors and imbuing these holidays with additional meaning based on our naturalistic understanding of our Earth and its Seasons. Imbolc (Feb 1-2) is the first of the “Cross-Quarter” Holidays on our journey through the year.  The cross-quarters fall halfway between the Solstices and Equinoxes.  Just as the quarter holidays mark the peaks relating to the amount of day and night, the cross-quarters mark the extremes of temperature.  Imbolc (Groundhog’s Day) marks the halfway point through the season of winter.  Lunasa (First Harvest) marks the halfway point through the season of summer and is the time when it is the hottest.  Beltaine (May Day) and Samhain (Halloween) are halfway between the hottest and the coldest days of the year.  All of these mark the halfway point of their respective seasons, but at no time is this felt more strongly than Imbolc, deep in the middle of winter.  Imbolc falls on February 1-2 in the Northern Hemisphere, and August 1-2 in the Southern Hemisphere.  At this, the coldest time of the year, winter is felt deep in our bones.  The winter winds can be so cold they take the breath away, in ancient times, very often literally.  Even now, it is something of a relief to know that winter is half over.  More than that it is the turning point when we can begin to anticipate the spring.  It is almost here.  Only six weeks away.  The intensity of expectation is as powerful as the cold. Imbolc Symbolism As with any holiday, we strive to convey meaning and awe, while also including simple fun that keeps kids engaged.  Imbolc is a time for reflection and anticipation.  In addition to anticipating the end of winter, the emergence of plants germinating through the winter, and the birth of animals in the spring, it is doubly meaningful for those mapping the human lifetime, as it matches gestation, or the time before birth.  We have chosen to make this holiday the day that we celebrate the time immediately before a Great Event: the cosmic Dark Ages (right before the first stars), the final days of those first stars (right before many went Supernova), the so-called Primordial Soup (right before the first stirrings of life on Earth), and so on.  One of the most powerful Great Events for Jon is the rise of multi-cellular organisms that eventually made possible the increase in biodiversity during the Cambrian, after eons of only single celled organisms on Earth. This holiday also marks a time when people would begin to make predictions about how much longer it would feel like winter.  Huddled inside, people would look out into the cold and imagine the snow was beginning to melt just a little bit.  In some cultures, this was a time when they would observe their ewes growing large with their lambs.  They would look hopefully for plants beginning to poke their way into the open air from where they hid under the snow and soil.  One of these traditions included looking to the movements of hibernating mammals to predict the course of the rest of the winter.  Hence, the holiday of Groundhog’s Day. Traditions to Celebrate the Hidden Joys of Winter


All 9 candles burning

Betting on Winter’s End (AKA Divination): Probably the most memorable Imbolc for either of us was the year our second child, Adair, was born in 2004.  Some attribute the name of this holiday to the Gaelic for “in the belly,” which was very apropos that year, because we were expecting.  We often light candles in a circle for the eight holidays, and that year we decided to put them in the snow.  So, we carefully placed eight tea lights in each of the eight directions and a ninth in the center.  We decided to let our candles burn themselves out, and we declared dramatically that the last candle out would be our indicator of how the winter would go: southern candles would mean an early thaw and northern candles the opposite. I was still awake when the last two candles burning were north and northeast.  I woke Jon up, and together we watched the northeastern candle go out.  “North it is!” Jon went back to sleep (or at least had time to lose consciousness), but just as I lay down two things happened at once: the candle in the North went out, and I went into labor.  Three hours later we had our second son, whom we then named Adair Arktos with the middle name for the Great Bear of the North.  A family tradition of predicting winter’s course with candles was born.  For the record, our divination technique is at least as accurate if not more so than the famous groundhog.


Some candles from candle-making

Candle-making:  One of the seasonal traditions that is fun to do with kids (or adults) is candle-making.  The kids love making candles – seeing the wax melt, watching it harden, designing their candle and choosing the different colors of wax to use, etc.   Dixie cups make perfect votive sized candles.  Ice cubes, stones, or other things can be added to the candles as desired (ice cubes melt and drain out, leaving miniature caverns in the candles).  Snow-candles are a special Imbolc tradition, and not only are they fun, but they teach the idea of hidden energy beneath the snow at the same time.  To make a snow-candle, simple dig out a hollow in hard-packed snow in the desired shape.  Attach the wick, and fill with wax.  There are many other fun ways of making candles, giving lots of room for creativity. Snow cream: What would any tradition be without a special food?  Energy hidden in snow is also shown through the making of snow cream.  To make snow cream, we fill a large bowl with clean snow, then add a can of sweetened condensed milk (by drizzling) and a teaspoon of vanilla.  Mixing is difficult at first, but soon produces a smooth mixture that the kids can’t get enough of.

The Authors

Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation.  She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth.  She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host of Elemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party. In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

3 Comments on “[Starstuff, Contemplating] “Celebrating hidden life – Imbolc” by Heather and Jon Cleland-Host

  1. These are such neat ideas! As someone who is starting to figure out what directions they want to take their practice in, I am both delighted and inspired by this particular series. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: IMbolc.. the ‘cross quarter’ holiday | Catskill bob's Blogosphere

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