Welcome to the only holiday that is celebrated by cleaning house! Imbolc or Oimelc, February 1st or 2nd, means ewe’s milk and refers to lambing season, a first harbinger of spring. It is one of the lesser-known cross-quarter holidays on the Wheel of the Year. In addition to Groundhog Day or Candlemas, it survived as the feast of the purification of the virgin (Mary) after the birth of her son 40 days earlier and also as a day sacred to St. Bridget or Brigid. Bridget is actually the great Goddess in her maiden phase, converted to a Christian saint. The corn maiden from the previous harvest is brought out in her honor as a virgin once again, ready to encounter her beloved in the mating rituals of spring.
The purification part of this holiday was known in pre-feminist times as spring house cleaning. In ancient time among the Irish Celts, Imbolc cleaning consisted of removing the Yule greenery from the home and burning it, cleaning up fields and home, and relighting the hearth fire as well as burning old Bridget wheels and making new ones Most of us have already taken down the tree and put away the decorations from Christmas by February 1st, but if you haven’t, you can use Imbolc as the excuse for delaying it till now. After Imbolc, you are at risk of being a lazy pagan if you don’t deal with the winter holiday residue.
Imbolc is an indoor time. It’s cold and still pretty dark, but it is the waxing period of light and warmth following the winter solstice. It represents a final stage of wintry inwardness before the crocuses and daffodils invite us to look outward again. Housebound, we have to find our spiritual practice within that space. It is the late stage of the hibernating season as we prepare for the cycle of life to begin again.
Spiritual practice has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent decades. A spiritual practice is anything that is centering, mindful, focusing, and connects you to the sacred in a very inclusive sense. Practicing patience with difficult people is a spiritual practice. Listening attentively is a spiritual practice. Eating mindfully is a spiritual practice. Meditation and prayer are traditional spiritual practices in many religious traditions. But there is also a form of spiritual practice that invests the ordinary activities of daily life with significance in the way carry them out.
The essence of spring housecleaning as spiritual practice blends several Christian and Buddhist ideas. One is humility; no task is too menial that we are above it, as in Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The second is mindfulness, to be engaged in the moment, to calm the monkey mind, to focus all our attention on the window being washed or the floor being swept. The third is letting go of attachment to possessions as an encumbrance on our spiritual life, passing them on to another use or another user. The spiritual practice of spring housecleaning can incorporate all three.
Housecleaning means two different things. One is the emphasis on clean, as in wash windows, polish furniture, remove cobwebs, paint, scrub floors, clean woodwork, dust the books. That’s both the humble and the mindful part. In the words of one contemporary Buddhist writer, “after enlightenment, the laundry.” The other kind of housecleaning is to declutter, simplify, recycle, let go of possessions no longer needed, like the greens from Yul in the Celtic tradition. That’s the letting go part.
For many years my Lenten practice, for the forty days that begin sometime after Imbolc and stretch to the floating holiday of Easter, has been to wash a window every day. Then I moved to a smaller house, which taxed my ingenuity to find forty windows. I included car windows, TV and computer screens, mirrors. Friends helpfully offered their windows, but I did not wish to discourage their own spiritual practice. There is something very satisfying, very symbolic in letting the light of the returning spring shine through a clean window, but it means more when it’s my window.
A friend described a similar cleaning ritual, only she does it all on New Year’s Day. She takes each of her many books down one at a time off the shelf, dusts it (and the shelf), and decides whether it stays or goes. If books are a rich and meaningful part of your life, revisiting these old friends and deciding what role they still may play in your life and which ones should be shared with others is definitely a spiritual practice. This particular ritual embodies both humility (dusting). mindfulness (concentrated attention on the books and the memories and teachings they hold), and letting go (books to be passed on).
So, as the daffodils and crocuses pop their leaves through the ground, as the groundhog in Punxatawny ponders his forecast, we can prepare to emerge from the hibernating season by renewing the spaces we inhabit. Like the bluebirds, whose house I have to clean very soon because they refuse to return to a used next, let us be about the humble tasks of maintaining our habitats. Spring housecleaning only comes once a year!