The Housecleaning Holiday

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!

A Torrent of Holidays

February usual begins quietly with Groundhog Day on the 2n,, pauses for Superbowl Sunday,  then cruises on through  Valentine’s Day on the 14th, Presidents’ Day on the third Monday, and Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which fall sometimes in February and sometimes in early March depending on the phases of the moon.  This year we experienced  a confluence of holidays, each calling for a different emotional attitude, as there were four holidays in a row on the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th.  Unlike the Christmas holidays, each called for a different kind of emotional response.  Valentine’s Day is lighthearted and sentimental, hearts and chocolates and flowers and cards.   Presidents’ Day invites us to be patriotic, closing the banks and the Post Office and in many places, the schools.  There is also the invitation to shop at the Presidents’ Day sales, spending some of that green stuff with presidential pictures on the front.   Mardi Gras is the final celebratory fling (the carnival, literally meaning farewell to meat) before Ash Wednesday calls observant Christians to the austere penitential six weeks of Lent.( Even those of us whose faith traditions didn’t make a big deal out of Lent felt compelled growing up to join our  more high church comrades in giving something up for Lent. Nothing like a holiday the celebrates self-denial.) By Thursday al of us will be in for a good rest with no significant holidays till Saint Patrick’s Day a month later. Whew!

All of these holidays have an interpersonal aspect in their observances that don’t work well with a pandemic, even one that is starting to recede.  Valentine’s Day is for hugs and kisses and exchanging cards—maybe not in a pandemic.  Presidents’ Day means the kids are out of school and some of the parents off work, which might mean some playtime or family time or a weekend adventure somewhere.  Not during a pandemic.  Mardi Gras is observed in various ways ranging from church pancake suppoers to a party or a trip to New Orleans—not during a pandemic.  Even the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is hard for churches to manage during a pandemic.  At least the pandemic can’t mess with Lent, since this season of austerity  has come during a time when we are already being asked to practice self-denial—what’s another six weeks of it?

All of these holidays have a common element, however, and that element is hope.  Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman fertility holiday. The name of the month, February, refers to the fever of love. The earth is preparing to be bloom again and humans are willing to go along with it by celebrating romantic love, even if it is only by watching Bridgerton on Netflix. Renewal of plant and animal life as we all start to emerge from winter’s hibernation is a source of hope.  As the weather warms, even those of us practicing social distancing can do more of it outdoors and see other humans as more than a head in a rectangle on Zoom.

With the inauguration of a new president and political tempers cooling after the post-election drama, there is also a renewal of hope that perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace, a good thought for Presidents’ Day. I just heard the statistic that politically speaking, 25% of Americans are Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 50% are Independents.  There actually is a majority—it’s the No Party Party!  Perhaps efforts to woo those independents will pull both parties back toward the center.

Finally, Mardi Gras is about letting go, turning one’s back on self-indulgence after one last fling and instead make an effort at cultivating the spirit. (In medieval times, it was also a way to stretch the food supply in the final months before spring crops began to come in.) It is long enough to change, short enough to see the light of Easter at the end of the Lenten tunnel, with the hope that by Ester, the holiday of renewal and rebirth, we will be reborn as better, wiser, more patient and less greedy and gluttonous than we were six weeks ago.  That’s a tall order, but we have to start somewhere.

So as we zip through these back to back holidays, let us celebrate hope.  Especially the hope that we have actually learned something from the pandemic and will remember it next year when these last gasp of winter/start of sprig holidays come round again.