On Imbolc and the Quickening of the Year

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It is 1st February 2024, which means that today is Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere.  Incidentally, the Celts counted each day starting from sunset so Imbolc really started yesterday evening, on 31st January.

In the old pagan calendar, this day is regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born, daffodils, etc, start to appear, and the days get noticeably longer.  It is also sometimes called, rather beautifully, The Quickening of the Year.  It’s a time for rebirth and renewal after the darkness of winter.

In the Northern hemisphere, in astronomical terms, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each. If you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are the cross-quarter days, of which Imbolc is one. They are:

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added in italics are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan and, in parenthesis the (English) Christian terms, for the cross-quarter daysThese timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween but hopefully you get the point that although the Pagan festivals have been appropriated by the Christian church, they have much older origins. In Ireland Imbolc is usually often referred to a Lá Fhéile Bríde,  St Brigid’s Day, after St Brigid of Kildare, whose Feast Day is 1st February, another appropriation of a much older festival.

Until last year only three of the four cross-quarter days were associated with public holidays in Ireland; there wasn’t a holiday for Imbolc. In 2022 however, the Government decided to create a new Bank Holiday that corrected this anomaly by introducing a new St Brigid’s Day holiday on the first Monday on or after 1st February, which also happens to be the first national holiday in Ireland to be named after a woman. The first such holiday was Monday, 6th February 2023 and the second is on Monday 5th February 2024, by which time I will hopefully be in a place where Northern hemisphere considerations do not apply.

P.S. On a personal note, today is also the 6th anniversary of the very first lecture I gave in Maynooth, on Computational Physics on 1st February 2018…

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