Imbolc (or Imbolg, or Ewemeolc) is the Neo-Pagan festival that occurs on the February 1 cross-quarter day – halfway between Yule and the Spring Equinox.
Typically this is a celebration of the returning of light and life to the world, as it marks the first signs of spring and the time when the ewes begin to lactate in preparation for giving birth to lambs. This is also the time when many secular traditions start to look toward the end of Winter – things like Groundhog’s Day, where a groundhog is supposed to predict how much longer it will be winter based on whether or not he sees his shadow. This is very similar to a story about the Cailleach, who supposedly will make the weather on February 1 very bright and sunny if she intends to gather a lot more firewood to last through a much longer winter. This tradition, though it seems odd (as we usually associate the sun with warmth), actually matches the weather in winter, where clouds will hold more warmth near the ground, and bring rain and help thaw the ground, where the sunnier days are often much colder.
Frequently these celebrations are also focused on Brigit (or Briganti) and the celebrations of hearth and home; in the Celtic tradition, February 1 is Brigid’s Day. Many pagans make Brigit’s Crosses and bless and light candles – a tradition that was incorporated into the Christian celebration at this time of year as well.
In the Norse culture, this time is typically associated with the Charming of the Plough – blessings called down upon farm instruments and seeds and honoring the (still-frozen) fields. The Charming of the Plough is a time of preparation, to start the first seeds indoors in preparation for the coming spring. While it’s certainly not warming up in the Norse countries, the light is slowly getting longer and so there is more daylight to begin to prepare for the coming agricultural season. Offerings may be made to Nerthus, as the Earth Mother begins to show life again, or to Freyr, for bringing fertility (Our Own Druidry 66). It is also sometimes called Ewemeolc, which means “ewe’s milk” and (like Imbolc) marks the beginning of sheep’s lactation. I will also be honoring Frigga, as the Queen of the Hearth and weaving/spinning (which seems appropriate on such a sheepy holiday).
Even though I live in a climate that is not remotely like the Norse, I honor this season in almost the same way. I didn’t plant a winter garden this year, so to celebrate Ewemeolc’s first stirrings of spring, I will be getting my garden ready for the spring planting, turning in compost and mulch and calling down blessings on my tools. On a year that I had a winter garden, I’d be harvesting the last of the winter crops and getting ready for spring. I will also include a blessing for the seeds that are already being started elsewhere, since for most of my plants I use seedlings instead of starting them by hand. I’ll also be blessing my spinning wheel and wool and lighting candles on my hearth.