New Year in Scotland, known as Hogmanay, arguably from Old French, Norse, and/or Goidelic, is a very big deal. Several nights of partying, fireworks, the singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” of course, and on New Year’s Eve itself, “first-footing,” when folks traditionally go visiting after midnight, hoping to be the “first foot” in the door of the new year. They bring good luck — along with some whiskey — and a hunk of coal, offered with the cry, “Lang may yer lum reek!” (Long may your chimney smoke!) Visits carry on through the early morning hours, culminating in breakfast and followed undoubtedly by a hangover. Jan. 2 is a holiday here as well.
Whatever the cost, Hogmanay celebrations, originally at the winter solstice, have helped keep communities alight with cheer through the midwinter dark. It seems that when the warmth and light of the sun are diminished it is up to us to kindle human warmth and human light.
One of the Hogmanay rituals here in Edinburgh is a flaming torchlight procession, a mile and a half through the medieval city center, attended by thousands of flame-bearing people — an astonishing river of fire. It seems mad enough to be impossible or illegal, yet it happens, led by a raucous band of Vikings and ending with a Viking ship set on fire on top of Calton Hill. We modern celebrants dance half-remembered or reinvented forms of our ancestors’ intimacy with Earth and Fire and the seasonal round.
The four yearly markers of the extremes and the midpoints of our solar cycle — winter and summer solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes — are familiar. They have been celebrated the world over for millennia and are built into neolithic stone circles like Stonehenge, Callanish, and New Grange. Less well known, except by modern Druids and pagans, are the four seasonal festivals of the ancient Celtic calendar, which fall between solstices and equinoxes. We might think of these as festivals of the Earth goddess in her varied guises. Their rituals and symbolism are rich with natural, agricultural, and soul meaning.
Beltane, on the first of May, honors the youthful goddess wearing the blossoms of spring and ushering in the summertime. Lammas (or Lughnasadh in Gaelic) at the start of August celebrates her in her full-blown fertility at the first harvest. Samhain (pronounced “SOW-in”) corresponds to our Halloween or Day of the Dead, with goddess-as-crone initiating the winter season.
And then there is Imbolc, on February first, which we are approaching now, when all the sparkle and communion of the holidays are behind us. We know that daylight is increasing but there is no felt sense of it yet. Here the sun rises at about 9 a.m. By 3 p.m., its light is fading and will be gone before 4. It is a very short day, and the arc of the sun is very low. It’s bleak. The goddess hides within the body of Earth, and we feel abandoned.
A sense of lifelessness may take hold as we view the landscape’s palette reduced to browns and grays. We might feel our own inner palette sadly limited as well. We fear our own emptiness — we have nothing to show for ourselves. Some of us wish we were the sort of creature that could hibernate, and some of us attempt it.
But another name for Imbolc is the Quickening. It is the mysterious dark time of gestation, of dreaming. Nothing is flowering yet, but there is growth and movement beneath the surface of things. It is the time for trusting the goddess in her hiddenness, for trusting that in the Earth — and also in our own souls — she is preparing new life.
Imbolc asks us to sink into that darkness and desolation and listen deeply for the sound of green things unfurling within us, like the snowdrop, like the crocus. They will show themselves any day now.
Carey Morning is an American living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is a psychotherapist, writer, and painter.