Celebrating the Icy Mystery of Imbolc

Appeared on Viriditas, January 31, 2013

Imbolc is traditionally the celebration of the very first stirrings of life in the spring. In New England where I live, however, Imbolc is the season of ice. The fluffy December snowflakes have been shoveled into piles and compressed into a landscape of ice mountains and fields of solid, slippery whiteness. Ice dangles from the stark trees and clings to the sides of houses, stone walls, and lampposts. For many years I wished for an early spring and for the February ice to melt quickly, but now I think that an icy Imbolc has its own wisdom to ponder.

Like humans, with our body/mind/spirit, water has three natures as ice/water/steam. If we associate these components, and consider ice to be like our solid earthly bodies, water as our freely flowing minds, and steam to be our heavenly-bound spirits, the season of ice is that time when we are most concerned with our physical being. I find that to be true of Imbolc. In times gone by here in New England, winter was a time of a struggle for physical survival, when many people were most concerned about whether their food stores would hold out and the woodlots provide enough heat until the crops and warmth returned in the spring. At the same time, Imbolc in its traditional meaning is the time when Earth’s physical being is re-emerging in the form of baby animals and the first plant buds and we are reminded that even below the seemingly dead ground new life is growing.

Icy Imbolc has much to teach us about our bodies and the physical world. Ice is magic. Its beauty appears in the shimmer of color when light hits it at just the right angle, in its cathedral shapes, in the rhythmic waves it forms across fields. It seems to be sentient in the way crystals combine to build the complex, perfect, and exquisite patterns of snowflakes and rime on the windows. Like ice, our bodies are also outrageously beautiful, complex, perfect, and exquisite if we really look at them and appreciate all that must happen in order to give us each moment of life. Ice holds life in the form of water until it can be released in the spring to nourish the young plant and animal beings in suddenly flowing springs, rising water tables, and vernal pools. Our bodies, too, hold life within us until we are ready to bring it forth into the world as children, art, kind acts, and other forms of creation.

Finally, ice and Imbolc teach us the importance of being able to move among our three natures at will. Ice covers our world when it must in winter, thaws to water that offers new birth in the spring, then rises as evaporation, becoming clouds, all coming together in the water cycle that makes life on our planet possible. We, too, must be able to move among our body, mind, and spirit selves as we need to and developing each fully over our lives. Too often we have been taught that our bodies, minds, and spirits are separate and that one is more important than the others. Only when we are one inter-connected being, like our Earth’s water cycle, can we be all that we are meant to be.

As we prepare for Imbolc, perhaps we can take the time to create our own ice ritual. If you live someplace where February is icy, why don’t you go outside for a walk and notice all the ways ice manifests itself. You might sketch some drawings or bring a blank book and make notes for poems or inspirational thoughts. When you come home, think what the ice you have seen – and maybe touched, tasted, heard, and even smelled — teaches you. You might even create artwork about the ice and what it means to you for your altar to remind yourself of the mystery of ice when the warm days lead you away to the green and lush world of the spring. This Imbolc, instead of wishing for the disappearance of ice to hasten spring, enjoy it, learn from it, and honor it.

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