While Yule is officially the point when winter starts easing up, in the reality of how seasons work (as sort of self-perpetuating engines, really), the coldest and harshest parts of the season are usually after it, even with the gradually lengthening daylight hours. And at the beginning of February, the Wheel brings us around to Imbolc, where the first signs of winter letting up happen: sheep start birthing. In the traditional farming communities that defined this Wheel, February is the starving month, the coldest part of the year, the worst weather, and the lowest point in the food reserves. There’ll be very little game, even less forage, and the chance of something fresh and leafy is almost nil. People would be living on almost nothing, growing thin with the cold, and the sudden reappearance of milk, full of fat and sugar and nutrients, as well as the soon-to-be lamb feasts, must have seemed like a miracle.
Now, such a godsend has been almost entirely eaten up by a combination of the nearness of uber-commercialized Valentine’s Day and the fact that grocery stores carry the same things all the time, year-round, and there’s no reason to look forward to the return of food like that. Modern life has eased most of the restrictions put on people’s lives, but it’s also taken away the other part of the winter, which is a slowing down, physically and mentally. Because traditionally, Imbolc is also the festival of storytelling and crafting– when the world was locked in snow, when TV was still centuries away, a body had to keep itself occupied somehow, right? Now that we don’t need to slow down in winter, we forget that we should, and things like oral traditions of storytelling, warming soup recipes, easy home crafts, and basic family togetherness go right out the window, with ramifications all down the social pecking order: people and communities just aren’t as close or as supportive as they were, and it’s because of the loss of holidays like Imbolc, when we’d all be starving together and we’d all need the uplift of a decent pat of butter, a glass of warm milk, a good story and some nutrients after the longest, coldest part of the year.
So what do we do about it? We in the modern world who don’t have to slow down, don’t have to starve, don’t have to change anything at all, just because it’s 20 degrees and snowing? We should remember. Complete industrialization is fairly new, so something resembling the old life was probably common for most of our grandparents or great grandparents. We should accept that they have a viewpoint we don’t have– and we should ask them about it. We should fast for a day, or a few days, and see what it’s like to starve. We should eat only what’s available right then, what’s traditional for the time-frame, and see how hard it used to be to get a decent meal. We should revive our favorite old stories and try our hands and making something we might need in the new year that’s only just starting.Imbolc is a cross-quarter, not one of the really big holidays, and it’s easy to forget or to let blend into Valentines or the dullness of the post-Year-End rush, but it’s a good one, and it’s easier to be no-nonsense about it than some of the others.