February 1st/2nd marks the pagan fire festival of Imbolc, a day that marks the coming of spring and honours the peace and quiet of winter. It’s a holiday celebrating rebirth, spring, inspiration, and purification. Rituals to the goddess Brighid, a irish goddess of fire and hearth who presided over poetry and music, healing and magic are prevalent at pagan Imbolc rituals. Because of its proximity to the Christian Candlemas it’s often celebrated with lots of candles, and candle magick, visions of spring, and asking Brighid to bless new projects. Brighid was also one of the original Triple goddesses, with two sisters with the same name bringing up either end. (actually, the triple goddess appears A LOT in irish and celtic mythology! More so than in other places, I think.)
But what if you don’t believe in Brighid? Or want to honour the triple goddess paradigm?
The face of witchcraft is changing, and many people are realizing they can celebrate without gods, and creating new ways of celebrating magic and the seasons with their fellow witches and pagans. One of the things that hasn’t changed much in the 20 years I’ve been practicing is Sabbat celebrations. Despite may of the celebrations I’ve been to in the last few years hosting a range of theistic and atheistic people of all backgrounds, the rituals themselves still seem to focus on the deities and tend to be just a hair too religious for many people.
As I mentioned in what is no doubt my popular podcast episode to date “Godless Heathens!“, if you realize that you like your witchcraft the way you like your public schools – secular – your path will take a little more soul-searching. You have to decide what it is you believe in, and how to interpret and use the information that IS out there. The following guide is what works for me and allows me to celebrate the changing seasons, and energy of the planet along with my pagan friends.
First Things First, The Name
Imbolc, or Imbolg, or Oimelc is irish gaelic and translates basically to “ewe’s milk” with new lambs being a symbol of the season. It has literally nothing to do with religion at all! This makes the name more than appropriate for a secular celebration. Another name you might have heard for Imbolc is Candlemas, which many pagans believe is in reference to candle magic being popular this time of year. What many don’t realize is that Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus, is a Christian holiday commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. For this reason I just don’t agree with using the name, mostly because it already means something special to a lot of people.
Personally, my new name for Imbolc is Mid-Winter. Though this has commonly been associated with Yule or the Winter Solstice, I find it bizarre to refer to the literal beginning of winter as Midwinter, meanwhile Imbolc really is the middle! For me, this also makes it clear that although spring is on the way, winter is still here and it worth celebrating. Quit getting ahead of yourself! Don’t like it? Got other ideas? I’d love to hear them!
Themes For Your Mid-Winter Celebration
Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn, but I’ve never hated the beginning of the year. I always feel renewed and rejuvenated. I don’t particularly like winter, but once the new year starts I get really into starting it off with a bang! (likewise I often “burn out” pretty substantially at the end of the year…) This is the perfect energy for a mid-Winter celebration. Think of themes like INSPIRATION, CREATIVITY, PASSION, FIRE, REBIRTH.
Fire, in general, has a strong place in this festival. Not only is it a symbol of the season – using fire to keep warm and bring light during the dark of winter – but fire is purifying and cleansing. Fire bring destruction, but it also bring new growth and winter is exactly the same. Purification rituals are perfect for Mid-Winter.
Though you could say Candles are the same as fire, when it comes to this festival I respectfully disagree. Candles and candle magick are extra popular and potent this time of year.
Weather divination! If you live in North America, you’re no doubt familiar with the Groundhog day tradition, that originated in the Pennsylvania Dutch community, though predicting the coming of the seasons based on the weather of Imbolc or Candlemas day goes back to europe, where those settlers came from. Incorporate weather magick or divination into your Mid-Winter ritual or celebration for a decidedly american touch.
Did you know that Valentine’s Day has pagan origins? Ancient romans celebrated Lupercalia around the middle of February that featured fertility rites and a week-long party (read as:sex fest) that may or may not have included the ancient roman equivalent of car keys in the fishbowl. Mid-Winter and the entire month of february, are an awesome time for love and wedding magick. Especially attracting new love. Who’s to say your Mid-Winter can’t be red and pink and white and full of cheesy heart-shaped garbage? No one, that’s who. (I’m sorry. I really love Valentine’s day.) If you need more reasons why love is a good theme for Mid-Winter, consult this list of deities regularly associated with Imbolc from About.com. Though you’re not incorporating these specific entities into your celebration, the energy of them or their stories is already there.
Mid-Winter is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and it makes it a perfect time for health and healing magick. Rituals and prayers asking for healing of yourself or others is perfect around this time. Aquarius is also the house of friendships, so spending time with friends or helping in the healing of friends is a great theme for a Mid-Winter party.
Finally, magick that honours winter and incorporates snow is great now. Of course, if you live in an area that never gets snow (or doesn’t get snow around this time) don’t feel pressured to incorporate snow or any kind of classical winter symbols into your holiday.What is the natural environment like where you live? What marks your seasons? It will no doubt be different for everyone.
Of course, how you choose to celebrate will dictate how much of a theme you actually need – and these are only suggestions! Think of the kind of magick you choose to do, or the type of energy you want to raise, or the feelings you want you or your guests to feel from this occasion.
Symbols and Decor for Mid-Winter
Despite historically being a fire festival, Imbolc falls smack dab in the middle of the month belonging to Aquarius, the zodiac’s most infuriating air sign. (Seriously, how is it not a water sign?!) Use some of the symbols associated with the sign as decor. Feature Aquarius’s Tarot Card – The Star – in various forms on your altar. Decorate with cauldrons and bowls of water, or healing waters. Though yellow is rarely included in traditional Imbolc celebrations, I find its association with Aquarius, Air, and the sun to be ideal. I also find it to be a better solar colour than red.
Spring flower bulbs, especially ones that haven’t bloomed yet are a perfect addition to your Mid-Winter altar or celebration. My personal favourites are snowdrops and crocuses, which grow in my neighbourhood around this time. Then again, not every one of you will be living in climate like mine! Go outside and gather some common symbols of this time of year for your area. You could also include bright, fresh green colours in your decor to call to mind the first buds of spring.
The colour white is popular for this time of year because of its association with snow, so break out the fake snow and paper snowflakes from your solstice decor box! You could even celebrate by collecting Mid-Winter snow, letting it melt and infusing the water with magical energy. Use the water as a decoration, or a part of your ritual!
Wolves and lambs – no kidding. I live in the city, so I don’t see a great deal of either of these animals, but if you live near the forest or mountains where wolves dwell, or on a farm where lambs are born, these are common signs of the season! Now that we’re right in the middle of winter, many wolves are having to travel closer to civilization for warmth and food, and are becoming more noticeable. Maybe you actually see wolves where you are, or maybe you can just hear them more clearly singing in the moonlight. Either way, they make a fantastic addition to the holiday. This is also the time of year when lamb’s begin to come into the world, looking cute as a button and bring hope for a brand new world. Either incorporate some cute, wooly little accents, or maybe include “ewe’s milk” cheese into your spread!
The phoenix, dragons, and other manner of mystical firebird. These mythical creatures perfectly embody the bold and passionate, inspirational and reflective nature of Mid-Winter and it’s duel fire and air qualities. Especially if your focus this season is on rebirth or purification, including this mythical imagery can help enhance your holiday.
In addition to other symbols of love, and marriage (which are different for everybody!) the besom is a common fixture on Imbolc altars, and I find it perfectly appropriate for Mid-Winter as well. Besoms are used for clearing out the old to make way for the new, cleansing your home, and is associated with weddings! Jumping the broom is a pre-christian wedding tradition that clears the new lovers of their past and allows them to move forward into a new life! It’s a great symbols not just of new love, but of embarking on a brand new path, and a safe and happy home.
Be creative! What colours or symbols are important to you this time of year? What kind of ritual or magick would you like the focus on this Sabbat? Use that as your inspiration.
Sketchy Herbs & Magic Rocks for Mid-Winter
Snowdrops and Crocuses – Both flowers are given the honour of being the first flowers that pop up through the snow when spring is on its way. (again, in europe and north america) This has made both flowers a symbol of hope and tranquility. Snowdrops have gotten very little press over the centuries, but many botanists of old agree that Snowdrops worked as an emmenagogue – which are herbs that help to bring on menstruation or terminate a pregnancy – and as such can function as a symbol of making your own choices in life and moving forward. Crocuses are a common ingredient in love potions and spells, and so the combination of the two create a powerful message for those looking to heal from love, or attract something brand new.
Hyacinth – This is another herb that’s common in love magick, though this flower is the patron magickal herb for gay men! The best way to use it is to incorporate it into a mojo bag or use in candle magick when trying to attract a special person. Keeping a blooming hyacinth plant in your bedroom is supposed to help promote restful sleep, protect against nightmares, and ease the pain of depression and grief. This is perfect for those who struggle to find things they love about winter only being half over.
Sandalwood – Really, is there ever a wrong time for sandalwood? Sandalwood is wonderfully fragrant, and really multi-purpose when it comes to magick. White sandalwood, f you can find it, would be a little more appropriate for the season, then again red sandalwood is better for love magick! Either way, burning sandalwood on your Mid-Winter altar can help clear out negativity and spirits, grant wishes, attract love, or increase psychic intuition!
Dragon’s blood – This isn’t an herb, but a resin formed from the sap of a tree. DRagon’s blood is an incredibly popular incense in magick, as it tends to amplify magical energy. Dragon’s blood is great for calling on the energy of the dragon – that air/fire energy – and giving you the strength to make it the rest of the way through winter. It’s also great in spells to attract love or lust! Dragon’s blood ink is regularly used for magickal writing, and as Imbolc has traditionally been a holiday of poetry and creativity so combine the two!
Myrrh – this is another resin, and one that’s not regularly associated with Imbolc. Myrrh is often mixed with Frankincense, and always comes out around Christmas thanks to its appearance at the birth of Jesus. Because so few people burn myrrh on its own, few people realize how sweet-smelling and uplifting it is! Myrrh has always been associated with good spirits, and healing. The smoke is used to purify and consecrate items and space, and the aroma is said to life people’s spirits. This is another one that could potentially help with seasonal Affective Disorder or general winter blahs. In legend, Myrrh is associated with the Phoenix, as it’s created after the phoenix is reborn from the ashes. In some legends, the egg the phoenix is born from is made from solid myrrh. Add myrrh to your altar, sachets, or incenses for rebirth or the birth of new projects and things.
Willow – Willow has long been associated with magick, healing, and the full moon. As one of the 9 sacred celtic woods, it’s often burned in magickal and pagan bonfires on the sabbats. This year (2018) we’re lucky to also have a full moon right around Mid-Winter and so willow is a perfect ally to bring a little full moon magick to your holiday. Watch this quick video where I talk about the magickal uses of Willow on youtube.
Bloodstone – This deep green stone is recognizable by splatter or flecks of deep red and brown, looking a little like blood dripped on moss. Before it was called bloodstone it was Heliotrope – the sun stone. It was called this because it seemed to attract the rays of the sun, and when they fell on it they appeared a brilliant red. This stone is excellent for healing and health and has often been used to encourage healthy blood. It’s association with blood also makes it good for healing emotional or spiritual wounds caused by family difficulties. It’s good for inspiration, and creativity! Not only does it help stir ideas, but it helps with the forethought to actually carry them out. Bloodstone is also fantastic for weather-related magick and often helps tap into that specific energy – ie strengthening your connection with the wind, or storm clouds. Because bloodstone is a birthstone later in the spring, it’s also an excellent stone to use in magick calling forward the spring!
Garnet – This is one of the birthstones for Aquarians and is already aligned with this season’s energy! Yay! This stone is also incredibly power and can amplify the energy of other stones or any magick. In terms of emotional energy, garnet is one that works to resolve severe pain and trauma in your heart. Garnet strengthens the will to live, helps ease the feelings of depression, and helps to heal sexual-based issues. It’s a stone of passion and action and is often used to help light a fire under a person to help them manifest their goals and ideas. It’s also a powerful love talisman and help attract deep love, and deepen the connection and commitment between lovers.
Amethyst – Everyone loves amethyst! Amethyst is used for everything from physical healing, a sleep aid, and stress reduction, to opening the third eye and astral travel. When it comes to Mid-Winter, amethyst helps to ease the stress and depression many feel in the darkness of winter. Those of you with SAD will feel the most benefits if you carry around am amethyst in your pocket and put a nice big chunk on your night table. Amethyst’s calming vibration also serves another purpose – a clear mind. This is a great stone for some gentle help focusing on your goals and manifesting your new year’s resolutions or any new projects you choose to undertake. It works great with the third eye chakra, so basically anything mental or intellectual can be improved with amethyst.
Black Onyx – This is one I often overlook, unfortunately, but black onyx is actually perfect for Mid-Winter. Not only is it a beautiful symbol of the darkness and calm of winter, but it’s an encouraging and empowering stone that just helps you get shit done. It helps encourage self-discipline and also happiness with your choices. Not bad!
Snow Quartz – This is a new crystal for me! It was featured in the Witch n’ Bitch in December along with Bloodstone. It’s actually the crystal of the Wolf and Snow moons of January and february. Snow Quartz has much of the same energy of the regular clear quartz, but feels a little bit more deliberate and slowed down. If you live or work in a frantic environment, snow quartz can be used to cool energies and slow everything down. It has a very deep and long lasting energy, and is excellent for facilitating meditation. Give it as a gift to someone to help rebuild bridges or mend fences, or if there is an especially tense or explosive situation going on at home, place the snow quartz in a bowl of snow and allow it to melt in the area of your home that deals with that energy and either dump the water outside or use it as a room spray/floor wash.
Some other suggestions for stones to incorporate are sunny or bright yellow happy stones like sunstone or citrine; cool white stones like selenite, calcite, or opalite for that snowy vibe; and bright love stones like rose quartz and pink tourmaline. If you want to include more fire in your magick, incorporate fire herbs and plants like clove or ginger. How you choose to celebrate might ask for something different!
Mid-Winter Ritual and Activity Ideas
Snow Magick – there’s so much you can do with snow in a magickal context. You can gather it around particular moon phases and add an extra layer to full moon water. You can melt it as part of a Mid-Winter ritual to bring forth spring. You can put it in a healing bath with herbs and crystals for the season. Use the snow for sympathetic magick by making poppets. Use snow water for scrying and doing some special MW divination! Draw sigils or spells into the snow so that the energy is released as the snow melts and spring comes. Snow water is good for healing, clarity, and reflection. Use snow quartz along with snow to make excellent crystal elixirs, or to soothe tensions and cold hearts.
Build Animal Shelters and Protect your Pets – Help out those lonely and hungry wolves, or maybe just their urban counterparts. Spend Imbolc or Mid-Winter volunteering at a local animal shelter, or build small shelters you can keep on your own property. This is also a popular time to do some magick with pets, especially dogs, and to give them protective collars and amulets of their own. This time of year is difficult for most animals who have to live through the snow, so focus on and celebrate them now! If you’re looking for a good spell for a charmed familiar collar, I recommend the one in Ellen Dugan’s The Enchanted Cat. I think crafts and activities like making bird feeders out of pine cones, and leaving snacks out for animals deliberately are truly magickal and have wonderful intentions.
Making Candles and Candle Magick – Imbolc being a fire festival and Candlemas being a day to light candles and say prayers merged within witchcraft and made Mid-Winter the holiday of candle magick! This is an amazing time for good old-fashioned candle carving and dressing for spells. If you work as a group, have everyone carve a wish or sigil for the coming season into a large white candle and dress it together with oils of the season. You can also make your own candles! A traditional Imbolc activity is to use all of the bits of magical candles you’ve burned throughout the year to make a new candle that renews that energy. I don’t save wax, but if you do, try to only use the wax from spells that you want to be ongoing and that are working towards long-term results. If you’re not a wax saver, why not try your hand at making brand new candles? If you’re looking for good info on Candle Magick, I can’t recommend Coventry Magic by Jacki Smith enough. You can also focus the fire energy on larger bonfires. Instead of making candles, maybe make fire starters with the pinecones you find in your area! These would also be a fantastic party favour for sabbat attendees or coven member. (Instructions)
Planting Seeds and New Growth – Since you’re welcoming the coming of spring, having bulbs and spring flowers around during ritual or magick puts you in the right frame of mind and brings in nothing but positive energy. If you’re working on new goals or projects and starting at Mid-Winter, gather a bulb or some spring seeds, some earth, a pot, and some biodegradable paper. You can write your goals on the paper, or maybe create a sigil, and bury it in the pot with your bulb. Infuse your energy into it and use that positive energy to nurture your little flower. As it grows, so does the energy available to you for assistance. When spring comes and it’s safe, transfer your plant outside and let your intention reach a large audience, so to speak. If you’re really crafty, you could also make spell paper with seeds right in it! Use this paper to write your spells or sigils on. This year (2018) we have a very wild SUPER FULL BLUE BLOOD MOON at the very end of January, which is excellent for making outlandish wishes. Work this into your Mid-Winter celebrations this year and make it the year you go for that job you never thought you could get, or you move to your dream location, or you fall madly in love! Plant big seeds this year!
Spring Cleansing – Spring might be on its way, but we’re only half way through winter and that means we’re all still stuck inside. Cleansing your home of energy, failures, and negativity left over from the previous year is a way to be out with the old and in with the new. If you gathered snow water, use it in floor or window washes or room sprays. Make an incense blend with some of the herbs above and some white sage to help clear your home and yourself. If you’re practicing with a group, either light a nice bonfire or cauldron and use the flame to clear yourself of old patterns or problems. write them on paper and toss them into the fire, again making space for brand new things. The most complete and endlessly positive guide for House Cleansing I’ve found is Magical Housekeeping by Tess Whitehurst.
Love Magick – If you’re already familiar with and comfortable with Love Magick, now is a wonderful time to ignite sparks of new love, or to heal from past love so you feel better able to move on. Traditionally, it was also a time for fun little love divinations about who you’ll marry and when. Things like apple love divinations, mirror scrying, and other activities that made girls in petticoats giggle are a fun activity to lighten up the winter blahs. If, like me, you’ve never been one to try love magick and might have some suspicions about it, listen to Lilith Dorsey totally change your mind on the Podcast! Love magick doesn’t have to be scary, doesn’t have to be intense, and doesn’t have to bend anyone’s free will! If Lilith, in her infinite coolness, doesn’t convince you that Love Magic is rad, I don’t know what will.
Check out my review of her book Love Magic here
Check out Valentine’s Day Magick for Fat Feminist Witches!
Play Outside In the Snow – No kidding. Play outside, throw a snowball, go tobogganing, gather pine cones and look for spring flowers and spring animals. Enjoy both the quiet of the winter night and the cool briskness of the day light. Magick doesn’t always have to be deliberate. It can be something you just feel.
Of course, again, these are just ideas! What kind of magick do you want to focus on this season? What represents that?
These guidelines aren’t just for solo practitioners – if you’re planning a group ritual maybe think about other ways to incorporate the energy of your version of the divine into ritual that’s not quite so overtly religious. I feel like the energy and spirit of Brighid is still present in many of the things mentioned.
I also want to say not to limit yourself to the exact date – these are themes and principles you can apply to your magick all throughout the season. Maybe focus on candle magick or love magick more for the next 6 weeks. Use the energy that’s already out there swirling around thanks to the seasons and the other witches around you.
No matter how you choose to celebrate, I hope you have a blessed Mid-Winter, Imbolc, Candlemas, or even just groundhog day.
Looking for general tips and resources on Pagan Potlucks and Sabbat Celebrations?
Check out the Imbolc Link Roundup – a collection of links to blog posts, articles, books, podcasts, and videos about Imbolc! Will be re-updated every year.
4 thoughts on “A Secular Witch’s Guide to the Sabbats: Imbolc or Mid-Winter”
Thank you for an option that isn’t “BRIGHID BRIGHID BRIGHID!!!!!!” I’ve been researching all week, and it’s been pretty much left me feeling like the Jan Brady to Brighid’s Marsha
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RIGHT?! I mean, as goddesses go she was pretty rad but you’d think it was her birthday lol
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