Imbolc and the Picture of Jesus


If it weren’t for Punxatawny Phil, and Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, this obscure holiday would probably be ignored even more than it already is.  How does one celebrate Groundhog Day?  To figure it out, we have to go back to its Celtic roots as one of the eight holidays on the wheel of the year—two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter holidays. The cross-quarter holidays are midway between solstices and equinoxes, so February 1st (or sometimes 2nd) is Imbolc, the first cross-quarter holiday of the calendar year. Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk.  This is a time of lambing, and a celebration of new birth in anticipation of spring.  In some places,  January Jessamine and forsythia are blooming, and the crocuses and daffodils are poking their way through the soil. In case you are curious, the May 1st holiday, Beltane, is a fertility festival; the August 1st holiday, Lammas, is a first harvest festival, and Samhain has been rebaptized into Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve to be followed by the Christian observation of November 1st as All Saints’ Day.

So how did our Celtic ancestors celebrate this holiday? They cleaned house!  The greens (now brown) they brought in their homes for the winter solstice were thrown out, the fireplace where the Yule log burned at solstice was wept out, and all was made new again. In other words, spring housecleaning was a form of spiritual practice.

I am intrigued at the sanctification of housecleaning.  We think of cleansing our souls, and our bodies, but why not our homes? Shedding the detritus of the past, scrubbing the windows and floors, recycling our no-longer used possessions for others to use, all relieve our dwelling of the weight of the past as we look to the future.

When I was young I read all my mother’s books (and everything else, even cereal boxes). That heritage was full of pious 19th century tales of brave little girls defying their fathers’ orders to paly piano for visitors on the sabbath, or other forbidden acts. But one pious tale stayed with me, because it rang true.  The church lady came to visit a widow and her invalid daughter and brought a picture of Jesus for the child’s room. When the church lady left, the mother went to hang it up and discovered the walls were dirty. So she cleaned the walls, only to  notice how dirty the curtains were…and the windows. and the floor…and on and on until the whole house was clean.

My friends all enjoyed this little moral tale as a metaphor.  You start cleaning, or anything, and one thing lead to another, so the half hour you intended to spend on this project wound up taking the whole day. I can say to a friend, I started to clean out the pantry and it turned into a picture of Jesus, and they totally understand.  But there is another message here, too, about the integrated whole that is our life, our community, our living space.  The butterfly flapping his wings in China that causes storms in Idaho. We humans break down the cleaning process into segments ,but they are all intimately interconnected.  If I need to relocated old books and files in my office to the laundry room or the bedroom, I have to prepare that space.  When I find a left-behind Christmas ornament I start to think about where best to store seldom used items, and a new plan forms.

Housecleaning doesn’t just require energy, commitment, and elbow grease. It also calls for us to rethink the habits that undergird our dwelling place, to be imaginative and creative in organizing and brightening our habitat. So just as the groundhog peeps out of his underground domicile to look around, perhaps it’s time for you to do the opposite.  Spend this last stretch of indoor living, long nights, short days, and no yard work to prepare your dwelling place and yourself to burst forth into the larger world knowing that you have a better place to come home to.




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